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One of my favourite parts of attending a film festival is getting to see the more obscure offerings and taking risks on things I might not otherwise see. This year’s Inverness Film Festival saw special screenings of work by two female art film makers: Margaret Tait and Margaret Salman. Other than their shared forenames and being heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism their work has very little in common, but it was interesting to see an overview of both their work and to get a wider context for the changing nature of art film making in Scotland over time.

Blue Black Permanent

I’m not sure quite what I was expecting from Margaret Tait’s only feature film, but this wasn’t it. This was something very different and very special. It’s a dreamy film, about loss and art and grief, an art film in all the best ways. Time and sorrow flows through the film and it’s narrative like waves, ebbing and flowing with Barbara’s remembered grief. Gerda and Barbara’s narrations provide just enough narrative structure to hold the film together, to hold your hand through the dreamlike visuals.

It’s got that peculiar bittersweet and lovely quality of a particular type of Scottish film made in the 1980s and early 90s – for some reason I keep thinking of the opening scenes of Comfort and Joy (Forsyth, 1984) – combined with unashamed art film sensitivities and visuals. Something strange and wonderful.

It also left me with a strange feeling of resentment, that when I was in my early twenties making short films, I never knew she existed. I spent a great deal of time tracking down to watch and reading about the films of John Grierson and the rest of the documentary movement, looking for something and never quite finding it. I suspect it was Margaret Tait I was looking for all along.

Margaret Tait: Film Poems

I wasn’t originally intending to attend this screening, but having been so moved by the previous evening’s screening of her only feature film I squeezed it into my schedule. I’m glad I did though, because they were, almost an object lesson on how to make short art films. I’ve sat through some truly terrible art films in my time and I now see what many of them were striving for and failing to achieve. Film poems is a particularly fitting description for what these are, there’s both a sparseness and a focus on details that feels very poetic. (I’ve been wrestling with Sorley MacLean’s Eimhir recently so it felt oddly fitting to find it referenced here, but it was the little urban details of Edwin Morgan’s poetry that I was reminded of watching these.) There’s an elegiac quality to these films, a deep sense of place and the inevitable, unstoppable passage of time.

I had, in fact, seen one of them before – Portrait of Ga – as part of a screening of shorts by Scottish female film-makers at the festival a couple of years ago. Which is clearly what prompted something in my brain to chime when I saw her name in the programme. I didn’t like all of the films, but the ones that worked – I particularly enjoyed Colour Poems of 1974 – are perfect little capsules of moments in time and the feelings and emotions that go with them.

Cladach and Others

I should say first of all that I did actually like Cladach. It worked effectively as a portrait of Ullapool placing it within its historical, geographical, environmental and cultural context, with a remarkable deftness in the showing not telling department. There was just enough narrative through the ‘found’ sound components to hold the film together and carry the viewer along with it.

However, I struggled somewhat, to greater and lesser extents with the other films in the collection. The films all seemed to start with a clever, or aesthetically pleasing idea and then drag it out that bit too far. Stretching the concept beyond the comfortable endurance of the viewer – presumably intentionally – such that I could feel myself riding the emotional wave from bafflement to enjoyment to impatience into relief at the end. Even Cladach suffers from this a little, as the underwater segment – featuring my new friend the hydrophone – was gorgeous and almost ethereal, but just went on too long. The tonal shift from the rest of the film was too abrupt to sustain itself.

I wanted to like these films more than I did, but it felt like the films were almost actively working against that.

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