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There were so many documentaries on at the Film Festival this year and I was pleased to note that they were scheduled in such a way that if everything had gone to plan, I could have seen almost all of them. Unfortunately, world events beyond my control meant that I was unable to do my usual full on festival experience and instead had a rather more limited schedule – with the days when the majority of the documentaries were on being almost entirely out of bounds to me. Yet the documentaries that I did see, were lovely and well worth tracking down.

The Last Autumn

My first documentary of the festival, and an unexpected extra film that I squeezed in at the last moment before work on Saturday. It was an extremely autumnal day that matched the mood of this film really well.

The film follows the day to day life of a farming couple on an island at the very north of Iceland, throughout the final Autumn of the keeping sheep. As in many similar communities across Northern Europe the sheep traditionally spend the summer grazing on the hills above the community and are brought down in the Autumn to overwinter in the valley. (One of the last places where they still do this in Ireland has turned this event into something of a festival that acts as a tourist attraction, in order to keep it viable.) As less and less young people from the community go into farming themselves, or are able to come home specifically to help with it, more and more farmers are giving up their sheep as they get too old to tackle the hill. The trick, according to the film, is to give up before you can no longer get up the hill to help. I described this film to a colleague and she said, with a wry smile, that we’d made that film ourselves, in a dozen different ways, in three minute chunks, over the years. It’s true, it’s a familiar refrain here in the Highlands, of young people who go away and don’t return, or if they do return only for the holidays. 

The film has no narration, and very little dialogue, so most of the commentary on events comes from radio programmes playing on the radio from what I presume to be the Icelandic equivalent of Radio 4. There’s much talk on the radio about language, about the steady creep of English into everyday life, especially among young people. That too is an all too familiar refrain here, and for me a far greater worry than the potential end of hill sheep farming – agricultural has changed many times before and will doubtless change many more times in the future. If the way of life is inevitably changing is it possible to unshackle the language from the lifestyle? Can the language survive without it? If the language is to survive it must somehow remain the language of both those who leave and those who stay. And if that is a struggle in Iceland, where the language in question is the majority language rather than a minority language, how much harder is for those of us fighting for minority languages? The film and it’s protagonist remains stubbornly hopeful, despite everything else. 

I was reminded strangely of Sleep Furiously – while it’s a very different film from that one, the was something of the tone and the atmosphere that put me inescapably in mind of it. This film felt like an elegy, marking the passing of a way of life, not just for the sheep farmer whose last autumn in the job we’re following, but for the wider community. The film feels at peace with that change, there’s no resentment or anger in this film, just a sense of inevitability, that the world is changing and that that’s okay. Which could be a really depressing outcome, but feels strangely reassuring. 

It was also showing with a Scottish short film, Confluence, about a luthier – that’s someone who makes and repairs violins and fiddles to you and me – Charlie Webster, in Abriachan, above Loch Ness. It’s a film about someone who’s found a new way to make a life and a living for himself in a remote area and that despite the impact of the pandemic, is full of hope. It’s a gentle meditative piece with lovely music that made the perfect accompaniment to the documentary. 

Becoming Cousteau

Unlike many of the audience for this film, I didn’t grow up with the films of Jacques Cousteau, my view of the underwater world was shaped the BBC’s Natural History department, and largely – though not exclusively – narrated by David Attenborough. It’s not that I didn’t know about Jacques Cousteau and his films, but I always knew them second hand, at a distance. Through references in children’s nature programmes, but mostly I think through the filter of Luc Besson’s Atlantis (1991) – which I definitely need to rewatch now, in light of seeing this film. A friend who also saw this film at the festival, enthused to me about having loved Costeau’s films as a child, about how they had shaped her view of the natural world and particularly the underwater parts of it. It very much felt that this film had been made from that perspective, or at least from a place of real affection. That’s not to say that it’s a film which shies away from it’s protagonist’s very real flaws and mis-steps. It just presents them in a very non-judgemental way – probably inevitably given the heavy involvement of the Cousteau Foundation in the film – dealing with them as matter of fact parts of who he was and what he did, without implying that they should undermine his legacy. Which is honestly quite refreshing in these days of extremes in interpretation, many documentaries of this ilk would either completely ignore those flaws, or make them the whole focus of the film. 

In truth, I had no idea how truly groundbreaking those early films were, that time and again they’d had to invent solutions to problems because they were pushing up against the limits of what was previously possible, breaking barriers and records at every turn. How much both marine biology and underwater filming truly owes to Cousteau and his colleagues. That in it’s own way is one of the film’s great strengths, for all it’s a biography of one man, it puts him in context, giving credit to his colleagues and companions without which he couldn’t have achieved so much of what he did. 

This documentary felt both timely and deeply frustrating, with COP 26 taking place down the road in Glasgow, knowing that he spent the last twenty odd years of his life campaigning for environmental protection.