Afternoons in Iran @Invfilmfest


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I noted in my review of the Film Festival Preview, that I was most excited for the ‘Afternoons in Iran’ thread at the festival. Annoyingly, I wasn’t able to manage the whole season of them, but the ones I saw, did not disappoint. I’m particularly hoping that today’s film The Wasteland comes back again at some point in the future.

Hit the Road

Our first Iranian offering is a road trip across Iran, with a family stuck inside an increasingly claustrophobic borrowed SUV not helped by their number including a small child who is necessarily oblivious to the very serious errand they’ve set out on, and the sickly family dog in the back. The family patriarch having his leg in a cast so being unable to drive – and therefore unrepentantly backseat driving – doesn’t help much either. It’s not entirely clear why they’ve had to set out on this road trip, other than that the oldest child needs to be smuggled out of the country – though quite why is kept, perhaps deliberately unclear. Big brother is largely stoic and tense except when the tension occasionally gets to him and mostly takes the form of him resentfully exclaiming that he’s not a child – which of course are the moments when he seems most like one. He keeps trying to convince the rest of the family to turn back, to let him go to meet his fate alone, which he considers safer for both them and him. Perhaps he also feels like he cannot help but fall into this child role on this family road trip, that it would be easier for him to be brave and face the dangers to come, if he were alone.

I saw another review describe the smugglers in their sheepskin balaclavas as comical, but honestly I found them pretty creepy emerging from the mist – if they’d been in the hills of the Lake District instead of Iran, I’d have fully thought we’d side steeped into some strange folk horror film.

This film contained was one of many excellent child actor performances at this year’s festival. Little brother is a vivacious unsurpressable bundle of joy, a much needed antidote to the tension between the rest of the characters on the road trip, but also a complete liability on the very serious errand that the rest of them have embarked upon. There are some deeply surreal moments in the film – including some references to 2001: A Space Odyssey some of which are sublime and some of which are downright bizarre. However little brother provides a handy excuse for these, as it feels as though at those points in the film we – and perhaps, reluctantly, the rest of the characters too – are being pulled into his point of view and being forced to see the world through his eyes, with all it’s strangeness, passions, joys and confusion.

The Iran of this film is also a very different Iran from the one I’ve previously seen on film. The Iran of other films has been a very urban Iran, mostly Tehran but sometimes other cities or large towns. Films were the claustrophobic presence of others – others who you couldn’t be certain if you could trust – close by was part of the atmosphere. This is a film about wide open space, highways through small towns, and villages hidden in the hills, where the absence of other people is the real threat. Our protagonists are in themselves very urban – even the shininess of their borrowed SUV seems to mark them out as outsiders and make them look suspicious.

There is No Evil

This is a film about what it means to live in a country with the death penalty with compulsory military service and where ‘criminal’ can mean anything the powers that be deem it to be. The film is told in four episodes, each one a different perspective on what it means to execute someone

The first episode is a real study on the concept of the mundanity of evil. (The opening in particular really plays with your expectations, and the mundane anonymity of the underground car park, of the urban space that could be anywhere really emphasises the whole ‘this could happen anywhere with a few wrong turns’ element.) Following this man as he brings home his extra ration of rice, collects his wife and daughter from school, his salary from the bank, bickers with his wife in the car, does grocery shopping for the family and his mother in law – the tender care for his mother in law as he takes her blood pressure and helps her back to her seat – eats pizza in a chain restaurant that could be anywhere in the world. The mundanity of his night shift as we struggles with the early hour, makes his coffee and presses the buttons that control the machines that do his job, and then the grim revelation of what that actually is all the worse knowing that this is just a normal day at the office for him.

The second episode involves half a dozen men sharing a bunk room, at first it seems as though they are prisoners, condemned men, and in a way they are. They are all on military service but the duty that they have been assigned, and which they are taking seemingly arbitrarily assigned turns, is to be the one who pulls the stool away at executions. (For which they are rewarded with three days of leave.) All the men are archetypes in their way and the arguments between them run the philosophical gamut of those around the death penalty, military service, the nature of crime and punishment, how the personal and the law collide, free will and personal responsibility. (Added to the mix and the tension is the part where one of the men had previously refused to do it and has been punished with the doubling of his service, something that has visibly traumatised him.) What will he do when the call comes in the morning? Ah, well, that would be telling.

The third episode revolves around a soldier on leave – significantly three days leave – visiting his girlfriend intending to celebrate her birthday, and ask her to marry him, only to find the family preparing a funeral for a family friend and neighbour. The friend, a beloved and respected part of the community, was a political activist who had been been in hiding from the government for many years, and until his death the family had hidden his existence from the solider. (Whether because they didn’t trust him or because they wanted to protect him from having to make a difficult moral choice is left ambiguous.) This one also features a very different Iran, a lush rural landscape, of forests in which someone could disappear and hide from the state for a long time. This, of course is an episode about consequences, where the soldier has to face that the people he has ‘pulled the stool away’ in return for extra leave, were all real people with real families who miss them and are devastated by their loss. And also for his girlfriend who cannot help but count all the times he’d had three days leave with her and what that might mean for who he truly is as a person.

The final episode is about the long term impacts of these actions, and relies for our sympathy for our protagonist on what we have learned about the system. (He could conceivably be the same man as in the second film, twenty years later.) Unlike the young woman he is trying to make his peace with, the audience knows why he has no drivers license and cannot leave the country, why he lives in the middle of nowhere, practicing as a doctor only to villager who don’t have the luxury of caring that he has no clinic only that his treatments work, and must rely on his pharmacist wife for medicine for his illness. How circumscribed not having completed his military service has made the rest of his life and all the things that he has sacrificed to make a decision that even in the face of her wrath and condemnation, he cannot wish to take back.

Common Sound – The Scottish Ensemble @EdenCourt


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A couple of weeks ago, on short notice – and if my decision to go to the concert was not quite spur of the moment then the day off that facilitated it certainly was – I discovered that the Scottish Ensemble were playing in Inverness and decided to go. Held on the actual stage of Eden Court’s Empire Theatre – with the safety curtain firmly down, the ensemble gathered at the front of the stage while the audience sat further back in the depths of the stage, on the kind of staging that you might normally expect a choir or orchestra to use, in a strange almost reversal of roles. The show is a collaboration with Radio 6Music’s Nemone Metaxas, and used both music and compelling spoken mediations on psychotherapy, music theory and the lived experiences of both audience members and musicians to explore what live performance in front of an audience means to both the performers and the audience.

It was a particularly intimate experience as a concert. There can’t have been more than sixty people in the audience with the ensemble barely further than social distancing rules require away from the front row. I wasn’t in the front row – and I think that I agree with the usher who suggested that it might be a little overwhelming to sit there – but even from a couple of rows back I could see clearly the expressions on the players faces, concentration and intensity certainly, but also the changing emotions provoked by the ideas and responses shared by Nemone between performances. (The heady mix of pride, embarrassment and delight flickering across a young violinist’s face sticks with me in particular.) I was both surprised by the location and also unsurprised, knowing their penchant for playing concerts in less usual venues – the first time I saw them perform it was a free concert in Leakey’s Bookshop with the players scattered around the shop’s balcony.

The last time I saw the Scottish Ensemble live, they were doing a programme of Baroque music, which at the time I’d just rekindled my interest in – always having been fond of it as a hold over from it being my favourite style to work in when we had to do composition exercises in Standard Grade music at school – thanks to The Early Music Show. It seemed fitting then to find – amid a programme of largely modern classical music – to find a piece by François Couperin nestled in amongst them, a composer whose work I only recognise from being a regular listener to that radio show.

A particular pleasure for me was hearing them play Caroline Shaw’s Plan and Elevation, even if I did spend most of the duration of the performance trying to place what that wonderful piece that they were doing such a lovely version of was exactly. (I know this piece, I love this piece, what on earth is it?) In my defence I’d only ever heard it played by a string quartet – the Attacca Quartet, who commissioned it, if I remember correctly – and it’s a very different experience performed by a full string ensemble, it’s a very powerful piece in it’s original form, but in this variation it was almost overwhelming in a good way. It was definitely something special to see that piece performed live to be able to see the skill involved in rendering that music in reality. Even the pieces that weren’t quite my thing, were a fascinating watch, precisely because you could see close up, the effort and innovation required to make those pieces work for strings.

It feels remiss of me not to note, that for readers who would still be uncomfortable attending indoor concerts – even small ones such as this – or who live too far from an urban centre to be able to go and see them in person, the Scottish Ensemble do still have some online performances available on their website. In particular I’d recommend their collaboration with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland, of Philip Glass’ Symphony No.3: Travelling Dreams. A really lovely virtual train journey through a fantasy landscape, it’s only sixteen minutes long – comprising in truth just the third and fourth movements of the symphony – but well worth digging out the good headphones to get all those lovely nuances and richness of sound that both they and Glass do so well.

Take One Action Returns! #TOAFF21


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To my delight, the Take One Action film festival arrives in Inverness and breaks with tradition by not taking place on a weekend that I’m working. Actually it also breaks with tradition by arriving in Inverness at the tail end of October rather than in the latter part of November. I presume this was so that it could be part of Eden Court’s wider ‘Climate of Hope’ season but could equally have been with the aim to catch the audience when they were thinking about environmental issues in the run up to COP26 and were not yet jaded by all the coverage and compromises. Whatever the reason, it meant that I could actually have seen all five films if I wanted. (I only didn’t go to see The New Corporation because – as it’s subtitle an unfortunately necessary sequel implies – it’s really dispiriting to go see a sequel to a documentary you saw twenty years before and know that so little has in fact changed I saw it in a freezing cold and mostly empty screening in the MacRobert Centre when I was a student. Though I imagine its even more depressing to need to make said film.) It was a bit of a treat to be able to be picky and prioritise films based on preference – I usually pick the environmentally themed films, but they were all on that theme this year – rather than when I wasn’t working.

Living Proof

This was an interesting film, that made excellent use of it’s archive source material from the National Library of Scotland. It uses the archive – mostly public information and marketing films with some news reports and community donated footage – to tell the story of the economic and industrial development of Scotland and the Highlands in particular since the Second World War.
The part that fascinated me the most is that the vast majority of the footage is from films that were made with some sort of agenda, whether establishment or corporate, to change minds or otherwise sell some sort of idea – the anti nuclear campaigners are the most explicit in trying to influence their audience, but some of the others are about as subtle as a brick in their own efforts to get their message across. It was definitely interesting to see how large the dreaded issue of ‘development’ has loomed across this whole period, both in the Highlands and across the wider Scottish landscape.

The film came with an introduction from director Emily Munro so I know there was a lot of other subtler stuff going on in the film that I don’t feel really came through on screen. However, it was in it’s own way an inditement of just how male dominated Scottish public life was during the twentieth century – grey men in grey suits indeed.

Living Proof (Trailer) | TOAFF21 from Take One Action Film Festivals on Vimeo.

The Ants and the Grasshopper

In some ways this film reminds me quite a bit of Thankyou for the Rain, which I saw as part of Take One Action back in 2017. About a Kenyan farmer turned climate activist and his work changing life in his community and taking his story and experience to the Paris 2015 Climate Change Conference.

Something that I liked better about this film was that Anita and Esther felt more embedded in their communities than the other film’s protagonist Kisulu. While he felt more like a lone force of nature changing his community around him, they felt more woven into a wider community of people striving to change their own locality for the better, and the wider world in turn. In many ways Esther is a similar kind of force of nature person, but we mostly follow Anita’s perspective and we see Esther’s impact filtered through her perspective and through the impact that Anita knows Esther had on her own life and work.

There’s no cathartic moment of achieving major change in this film. There are small victories certainly but mainly it is a film about the slow steady work of changing hearts and minds. The drip, drip, drip of a thousand small conversations with neighbours and colleagues, day in day out, to slowly change attitudes and build communities for change. It’s there that Anita’s greatest victories are achieved and in a way that’s the real message of the film, I think. That the rest is up to us, the audience to take up the work and do the slow grinding work of changing hearts and minds one conversation at a time.

The Ants and the Grasshopper (Trailer) | TOAFF21 from Take One Action Film Festivals on Vimeo.

The Last Forest

First up, this film came with an accompanying short film that’s worth noting. Sky Aelans is a film from the Solomon Islands that seems to have been made largely to celebrate the Solomon Islands government acknowledging the sovereignty of the indigenous peoples who live in their rainforests stewardship over their own land and putting appropriate environmental protections into place. It was nice to have, for once, a good news story about rainforest protection. To see joy and triumph on their faces, rather than anger or stoicism in the face of great injustice.

The Last Forest itself follows the intertwining story of Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa – who co-wrote the film – and his campaigning work to protect their forest and the every day struggles and conflicts of other Yanomami people. The film mixes an observational style that feels almost documentary-like with what are clearly staged dream sequences that illustrate both the creation story of the Yanomami people and the major role that the spirit world still has on their day to day lives. The film mixes both elements together with ease – at one point a young woman waits patiently for spiritual guidance while Davi discusses the incursions of prospectors into land further up the river with other community leaders over a ham radio. Mostly though it is an ode to community, to their achievements large and small and what they might yet do together. At it’s heart it is a film that deals with what all minority communities deal with in the face of an increasingly global world, what to take from the new world and what to keep from the old one, and whether a compromise is even possible.

The Last Forest (Trailer) | TOAFF21 from Take One Action Film Festivals on Vimeo.

Nablopomo again


It’s Nablopomo time again, and this year I really feel like I need it. I’ve written substantially less this year than last year, and writing has definitely been haunted by the sense that if I wasn’t going to write as much or as often then any post needed to be ‘worth it’, more substantial with something important to say. Last year all art or words created in the face of a global pandemic felt important and worthwhile – a light in the darkness – this year that feeling was absent and I really missed it.

Despite having low expectations for last year’s challenge, I ended up making a decent showing with nine film blog posts and three food blog posts which feels a bit like a metaphor for last year’s writing in general – not as much as I’d have liked but pleasingly more than I feared. Honestly the return to ‘normal’ has been harder on my writing output than expected. We’re well into the second half of the second year of the pandemic and being caught between pandemic fatigue and having much less free time as life returned to ‘normal’ writing about art or films has been harder than it’s been in a long time. I’ve found myself really enjoying art that acknowledged the strange changed world that we’re living in now – art that even if it didn’t directly engage with the pandemic, was visibly changed or adapted to accommodate social distancing or other safety measures. External validation that we’ve all been changed by it.

So the plan for this year’s Nablopomo is to write about all the things that bring me joy – or that cause other strong emotions – especially the ones that I’d feel a little guilty about devoting a whole blog post to outside of this month. We all need a bit more joy and a bit less guilt in these troubled times.

(A note for new readers, the forgetful, or the merely curious NaBloPoMo is a sibling challenge to Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) where bloggers post every day for the month of November, instead of writing a novel.)

IFF21 @EdenCourt – Film Festival Preview


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It’s that time of year again, the Inverness Film Festival is returning. Not quite the way it was in the before times but certainly closer to that then it was last year. As part of the returning normality the Film Festival Preview screening happened again, though it was not the packed affair that it normally is – busy certainly, but not the kind of affair that I can only get into because I only want one ticket. As always it was a selection of trailers for films showing at the festival themed by the threads of the film festival with introductions by the film festival programmer Paul MacDonald. As much as I am a sucker for a good trailer, I’m really there to hear the programmer’s thoughts and reasonings for the choices. I sincerely doubt that I’m the only audience member who takes an enthusiastic Paul reaction as a more reliable review that any gushing blurb in the programme – or in Sight and Sound for that matter – or number of film festival prizes.

This year’s recommendations come more with the carrot of ‘this has a great performance by that actor’, or this is the new film by the director of this previous IFF favourite film. Which I appreciate, I’d likely never have booked to see Petite Maman if I hadn’t been informed that it was the new film by the director of Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Sciamma, 2019) which in turn I likely wouldn’t have picked without Paul’s recommendation that it was one of best film’s he’d seen that year – it was definitely the best film I saw that year.

Normally many of the films would come with recommendations from other – larger, more prestigious – film festivals but while all of the European ‘big three’ ran in more or less truncated forms this year, and awarded prizes, there is no real sense of films coming with an accumulating buzz. (This year’s IFF features this year’s Palme D’Or winner along with two films that won the Golden Bear at Berlin over the pandemic but There is No Evil (Rasoulof, 2020) is showing as part of a wider season of Iranian cinema that I’m personally pretty excited about rather than as a garlanded star.) With that in mind, this year’s festival is much more about previews and first chances to see than it is a chance to see the cream of that year’s festivals. It’s worth noting that a surprising number of films didn’t actually have trailers yet – that’s how new they were – and some of those that did came with the caveat that they were ‘works in progress’, the final trailers that accompany those film’s general releases may well be very different. A reminder, if we needed it, that it’s been a funny old year and a half for the film industry.

(Oddly enough, the biggest absence from the usual schedule for me, is that the Bo’ness silent film festival hasn’t run these last couple of years – well a much reduced online version did run – so there’s no newly restored/re-scored silent film for us to enjoy at IFF this year.)

As always, I’m more excited by the films showing in the documentary and new world cinema strands then any award winners. The whole point of seeing films at a film festival for me – and handily also for many of the friends I tend to see films with at the festival – is to see films I otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to see. As fun as it was to have seen Oscar winner Nomadland (Zhao, 2020) before it won the Oscar I generally don’t expect to have an opinion about any awards category except Documentary. (Crossing my fingers that Courage is one that comes back.) This year looks to be a vintage year for documentaries at the film festival, though frustratingly some of the best coincide with the times I absolutely can’t be at the cinema. Nonetheless there’s some great stuff that I can go to see – and I’m definitely much more excited to be seeing Becoming Cousteau (Garbus, 2021) after having seen the trailer.

However far from normal this year’s festival will still be, I can feel myself getting excited already, and that was worth the price of admission to the preview screening all by itself.

Nature Recording


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One of the interesting side-effects of the various lockdowns is how much more sound recording I’ve done over the last year. Initially it was driven by an urge to capture the changed soundscape of life but it turned out that the sound of the world around me hadn’t changed as dramatically as it did in other places. If anything, I think the soundscape of Inverness was more changed by the second lockdown than the first. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was the higher transmission rate in the Highlands this time around making people more cautious and rule-abiding. When there isn’t a lot else to do other than take long walks, having the aim of sound recording was at first a solid excuse to get out of the house for some fresh air, and later much needed motivation to get out of the house when the lockdown slump set in. Over time it just became a habit, carrying my recorder everywhere, whipping it out to capture a specific sound or interesting combination of sounds, rather than only taking it on specific sound recording trips.

There are lots of things that I always think I would do if I only had the time that this last year has shown me that actually I wouldn’t do – it turns out that film is primarily a collective experience for me, whether in the cinema or a friend’s sofa and if I really want to read a book I’ll carve out the time, if I don’t I won’t – and also that there are definitely things that I will do given enough time and that I should make space for more generally. Since I moved to Inverness I’ve made more of an effort to take specific sound recording trips and in doing so I’ve accidentally associated the activity with holidays and day trips – I have folders of sounds from Budapest, Riga, Helsinki and the Western Isles. Over the last year, I’ve got to know a different side of the city, the sounds of it’s different areas. It shouldn’t be surprising, given that I’ve explored a lot of cities I’ve visited on holiday via this method, but it was a surprise to me how much I enjoyed making this new map of the city. I don’t think I’ve spent this much time outdoors since I was a kid, or at least since I lived in Bournemouth, where the sea called us down to the beach regardless of weather or season.

One of the main factors in my choice of replacement recorder – and also why I stuck for so long with my previous recorder despite it’s age – was the size. My old recorder came with a handy case that could be looped onto a belt, was just large enough to contain it’s cable and mic while being small enough to fit easily in a coat pocket. Having a recorder small enough to tuck into a coat pocket or the side pocket of a travel bag made it’s regular use exponentially more likely. As a wise sound recordist once told me when I was a student, the best sound recorder for making any kind of field recordings, is the one you have on you at the time. (For related reasons I did experiment for a while with Audioboo(m) on my phone for spur of the moment recordings of interesting sounds, but I abandoned that as if you lost network connectivity it didn’t/wouldn’t save the recording locally and instead it disappeared into the ether. It’s a shame the company ended up going in a different direction entirely, because it had a lot of potential it never lived up to in favour of becoming just another podcast hosting/distribution service.) My current recorder’s main foible is that it’s case is only big enough for it on it’s own. It doesn’t even fit the fluffy wind-shield – for that matter it doesn’t even fit the smaller foam pop shield – let alone the tiny tripod or the cable, which kind of defeats the point of the case and it’s belt loop. It does however mean it can live in my bag without me worrying about it getting fluff or crumbs anywhere it shouldn’t. It is, however, highly portable easily fitting into a coat pocket and that means it regularly gets grabbed at the last moment and taken along on trips for other purposes.

Until this year with very few exceptions – crows, seagulls, pigeons and woodpeckers mostly, with some honourable mentions for distinctive birds like corncrakes, oyster catchers and kittiwakes – I couldn’t positively identify a wild bird I recorded unless I literally saw it making the sound. I’m still a long way from being an expert – I’ve taken to photographing the birds I record so I can double check – but I can at least pick out individual birds from a wider soundscape so that I can label recordings more helpfully than ‘birdsong’. (The RSPB’s bird identification database is hugely helpful on this front, at least if the bird was singing, it’s not quite as useful if the bird was just sitting chirping on a gutter or branch.) I’ve gotten to know the different sounds of morning birds as the seasons change. I may never grow to love the sound of gulls at 5am, but oyster catchers parading along the roof line are a morning joy, and the crows, blackbirds and jackdaws have become friendly companions to my early morning commutes. I’ve learned to not mix up female blackbirds and starlings – though the lbbs (little brown birds) that plague all beginner birders remain a source of bafflement to me both visually and aurally.

A few years ago I wrote about exploring the local nature reserve and at the time I noted that it was Autumn and that didn’t seem to be the ideal time to go exploring there. That’s been the real theme of my recordings this last year, getting to know the sound of places through different seasons. I now have a year of changing recordings of the places close by that I like to walk and to record. I can compare my pre-lockdown autumnal recordings of the canal, with the spring recordings I made for my soundscape early in lockdown, with last winter’s crunching through the ice and snow, to more recent summery adventures when things had begun to open up again. I sort my sound recordings by date and by location, but I’ve done so much recording over the last year that this is a less helpful distinction than it used to be – however there’s a definite pleasure to searching for recordings tagged ‘nairn’ and getting results back that span several years and as many different seasons. It’s a different kind of familiarity, to know a place through its sounds, through the way they change with the season – a different but no less important sense of place.

I remember, a few years ago, setting myself the new year’s resolution of going out and getting some field recordings once a month – just an afternoon, not even a full day – in an attempt to get myself back into the habit of it. I was chuffed back then that I managed a handful of occasions. Throughout the pandemic I’d be hard pushed to think of a month when I haven’t gone sound recording. Even when I wasn’t actively going sound recording, I’ve picked up the habit of carrying my recorder in my bag, almost everywhere, so that if I hear an interesting sound in the wild – a juvenile robin singing it’s heart out on the way to the shops, the weird Doppler effect the traffic lights across from my regular coffee place make, some inexplicable church bells I heard drifting along the river from an apparently closed up church – I can stop and capture it.

Iorram (Boat Song)


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There’s always something about people from outside making films or art about the islands that makes me feel a little on edge before engaging with it. The phrase ‘the first Gaelic x’ – in this case feature length cinematic documentary – is almost always one to be eyed with caution. It’s either lovely or painful to watch with very little middle ground, though there’s definitely a your mileage may vary element. There’s often an unfortunate tendency to romanticise island life, to create a picturesque and elegiac vision of a ‘lost’ way of life. This film is not that. (An Iorram is a boat song, more precisely, a rowing song, to keep the rowers in time. A work song, so more practical than romantic, but no less lovely for it.) If anything this a film which uses the past – recordings made across the mid twentieth century by field workers from the School of Scottish Studies – to contextualise the present. There’s a particularly lovely sequence, where the archive recordings talk about how they used to build lobster pots on Mingulay, contrasted with some young fishermen sitting together in a shed hand repairing their modern lobster pots – the technology has changed but it remains part of the same continuity. There’s also a horribly sad sequence of oral histories of the clearances – greed, exploitation, sectarian violence and dehumanisation – over pictures of abandoned crofts. I could certainly have done with some more contemporary fishermen telling their own stories in Gaelic, but I appreciate that the point of the film was to tell a story solely with the audio archive and modern imagery and consider that both to be a worthy aim and a well realised one. The film avoids the temptation of trying and failing to be all things to all people and there is in fact a nice little aside in the film where two modern fishermen are talking to each other over the radio in Gaelic to remind the audience that this is still a living language for those working in fishing both at sea and on land.

The film is beautifully shot, just gorgeous camera work. I haven’t previously encountered director/cinematographer Alastair Cole’s work and I was a little surprised to find out that he’s originally from New Zealand rather than from the islands. There’s a care and attention to detail in the camera work that speaks of long familiarity and affection. It was shot over three years, which explains it somewhat, but I see that the director has made films about minority languages in several other cultural contexts so it’s equally likely to be skill and experience in not exoticising or patronising his subjects and maintaining a light touch. (I know from experience that it’s easy to make the islands beautiful in Summer but it’s a much more impressive to capture that beauty in mid-Winter and mist. The colours are rich and vibrant, when it is all too easy to make them washed out and grey.) I was reminded a little of Polaris another documentary film – though a short one – about the Scottish fishing industry, though that one was about the east coast industry and the migrant workers that now come halfway around the world to work in it. (A shared thread between both films, some of the oral histories were recollections of former herring girls and their experiences of freedom and struggles with culture and language differences in the different fishing ports of the east coast including the Broch – A’ Bhruaich being the Gaelic for Fraserburgh where Polaris is set.) I’ve seen quite a few observational style documentaries over the last few years and this is definitely one of the better examples, the oral histories and images have clearly been carefully curated to create a narrative through line while allowing the film to seem to unfold entirely naturally.

I need to take a moment here to express the my appreciation for Aidan O’ Rourke’s excellent scoring work here. It feels organic, stitching together traditional pieces with new compositions, never overwhelming the archive recordings – seeming to weave itself into them in places – nor getting lost under the actuality of the contemporary scenes, helping to tie past and present together into a coherent whole. In one interview I read with the director, he expressed the hope that they’d be able to screen the film with a live band performing the score and I hope that eventually comes to pass. One of the last concerts I saw before the first lockdown back in March 2020 was a screening of From Scotland with Love with King Creosote – and friends – performing the score live and I think this film would really benefit from that kind of experience.

View from the window of a boat down a narrow natural channel.

View from the boat – a still from Iorram.

Sheffield Doc Fest @EdenCourt


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If the arts end up keeping anything positive from these pandemic times, I hope it’s the hybrid model of festivals and exhibitions where they have site specific and online lives. Over the last year and a bit I’ve attended a bunch of festivals – both film and music – online that I would realistically have never been able to attend in person for geographical or time reasons.

Sheffield Doc Fest, is a fortnight long documentary film festival that I’ve been planning to attend in person for at least the last decade and that I finally managed to do in an asynchronous, semi-virtual fashion this year. I’m pleased to see that they’re also following what I think of as the Africa in Motion model, where the films tour the country as well, I think I liked their version better with the remote screenings being the same night as the festival screenings – instead of weeks or months later – so that even if you couldn’t, or didn’t want to be, physically in Sheffield, you could be in a screening with lots of other people. I find the pre-recorded zoom Q&As that are in vogue at the moment even more awkward than their in-person versions but I think they do help the audience feel part of something bigger.

Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)

This was the first and certainly the best attended of the Sheffield Docs being screened, and it was definitely my favourite. It tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, that took place across six weeks during the summer of 1969 in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), both the festival and the film about it celebrate Black history, culture and fashion, and capture a powerful and transformative moment in history. It also feels very much a film of this moment, telling a story, a history, that has been hidden, that doubtless many would prefer to remain so, despite, or perhaps because of it’s joy and positivity.

Many of the interviews are with ordinary folks from Harlem who attended as teenagers, and there’s some particularly poignant commentary from them about the importance of cultural history being recorded and taking it’s place in the historical record. (One man talking about watching footage of a concert he attended as a small boy, said something along the line of: its real, I knew it was real I was there, but now I know it’s really real, I can prove it.)

One of the film’s great strengths is the quality of the concert footage. It was recorded with the intent to sell the footage to TV Stations, the director of the original footage talks about pitching it as ‘Black Woodstock’ to executives, hoping they’d be hungry for something both similar enough and different enough to that cultural phenomenon. His baffled frustration forty years on that they weren’t comes through clearly. Whatever their professed reasons for turning it down, it wasn’t the footage quality – doubtless it’s been restored in the process of digitisation but both visuals and especially audio are too good for the originals to have been anything but top quality professional work – rubbish in, rubbish out after all – and it holds up well.

It’s both a great concert film, and an important and accessible film about the a side of the sixties in the US that we don’t hear enough about in the cultural and historical memory of that time.

Lift Like a Girl

This is a strange film. It’s an observational documentary – which does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment – and there are no real ‘to camera’ interviews. Not only is it a film without a narration, but a film that feels like it has no authorial voice. Officially, the protagonist is a young weightlifter called Zebiba following her from ages 14 to 18 as she strives to become a champion weight lifter. She struggles and strives, argues with her coach and watches everything with large cautious eyes. There’s clearly a lot going on behind those eyes, but we never really get any insight into what’s going on behind those eyes, or even really get to know her as a person. It’s obvious that her struggles are less physical than they are psychological, arguably she’s motivated more by the making her coach and the younger weightlifters proud of her than by the prospect of winning itself, let alone medals or prizes.

She does however make the perfect foil to her coach Captain Ramadan, a legend in his sport who trained the first Egyptian woman to medal at the Olympics in weightlifting. He spends the film trying to parle that fame and reputation into resources and success for the girls of a poor neighbourhood of Alexandria. He’s abrasive and aggressive, but also charming and committed and despite how much time he seems to spend shouting at them, it’s clear that the girls he trains think the world of him. He gives what is the closest the film gets to actual interviews, but more in the form of pontificating speeches that are given as much for the girls or their parents as they are for the camera. It seems very much that the relationship of trust is between himself and the director and everyone else trusts and/or tolerates the film-makers because he does. He’s the man with the plan and he dominates every scene he’s in – even in his rare moments of silence he’s compelling, drawing the eye irresistibly. The film feels as though it’s constantly fighting not to be about him rather than about Zebiba.

The Story of Looking

The last of the three documentaries I saw was Mark Cousins latest film, The Story of Looking, which is an oddly elegiac film, full of nostalgia, grief and hope. It’s a film about the power and the pain of looking, of what visual culture means to us collectively as a culture and to him individually as a film-maker and a person. It uses as it’s central conceit, the idea of turning Cousins’ darkened bedroom as a camera obscura, projecting an imagined journey around Edinburgh and the wider world onto the screen in front of the audience and plays with the idea of imagination and objective reality accordingly. (The film is definitely at it’s strongest when we’re watching the shadows on the wall, rather than sitting in the objective reality that is inside the camera obscura with the director.) It’s a strange film, but also compelling and lovely. I saw it in an almost empty cinema – there were two other viewers, all of us there by ourselves on a Saturday night, sitting in opposite corners of the screen – it was definitely a film to be seen alone in the dark, but it deserved more of us.

It’s partly based on his book of the same name and partly on the experience of having a cataract removed from his own eye. (Fair warning for eye harm.) The film features some fairly shocking imagery, but always in a measured and conscious fashion, it’s presented as imagery that pushes boundaries as part of a discussion about why it pushes boundaries and how it impacts the viewer. (Strangely the hardest part to watch, for me, was the small Syrian refugee Adam cry and not receive comfort – it felt the most voyeuristic somehow in a way that surgery or corpses or naked bodies did not.) We even see parts of Cousins’ eye surgery which oddly enough I found morbidly fascinating and somehow captivating, there was no revulsion like that provoked by that clip of Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel/Dali, 1929) – perhaps it’s intent that makes the difference, surgery has intent to heal, whereas the other is an attack however fake the eye might be, the intent of the imagery is to cause a visceral negative reaction. I’ve seen that clip a dozen times since I saw it the first time in film class nearly twenty years ago and every time I recoil from it, however braced for it I thought I was.

This film is only confrontational up to a point, as we face along side Cousins’ the reality of what sight loss might mean to someone like him, whose whole understanding of the world is visual. (As a very short-sighted person who spends a lot of time behind a camera, it certainly made me feel a lot of complicated emotions along the way.) Mostly it’s a love letter to visual culture and to vision itself.

Meet, Make, Collaborate @InvMAG



I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to me that the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery would be open again – it re-opened with Level 3 so is comfortably in the swing of things now we’re in Level 2 – but it wasn’t until I saw them tweet apologetically that they weren’t accepting bookings from Moray and Glasgow postcodes that it dawned on me that I could in fact go and spend my afternoon looking at new art. I went with no expectations, having intentionally not looked up what exhibition they had on before going, to avoid either building up hope and being disappointed, or putting myself off. There was an art exhibition on, that I could go to in person, that alone was worth it. I would be pleased to see even mediocre art at this point. Handily I need not have worried, it was definitely not an afternoon of mediocre art.

Meet, Make, Collaborate is the touring exhibition that resulted from Applied Arts Scotland’s international exchange programme, and involves collaborations between artists from Canada, Mexico, Scotland and Thailand. The first part of the exchange took place pre-COVID so the artists were able to meet and collaborate in person, and continued in the virtual space throughout the intervening plague year.

First up, I should say that all the pieces were gorgeous, skilfully made objects, I’ve picked my favourites to talk about, but only really because otherwise this review would be 3000 words long. There wasn’t a rubbish piece amongst them, even the pieces that didn’t speak to me personally were skilfully executed and dealt with interesting ideas.

In the ante-room to the main Art Gallery space there’s a silent short film playing that would be easy to walk past, but it is definitely worth waiting for it to start again and watching it through. In passing it all seems a bit abstract, but when viewed from the start it provides a charming insight into the collaborative process of the artists that, for me, added much needed context and set me up to be look positively on the works in the main exhibition.


Mengnan Qu and Susan O’Brien’s collaboration ‘New Silk Road Medal’ is a series of small but perfectly formed pieces that are lovely in and of themselves even before you know about the layers of symbolism that have been worked into them. Much like the Silk Road from which the piece takes it’s name, the medals represent the clash and melding of very different cultures and art practices and the sharing of technology/techniques. Collaboration and exchange, but hopefully with less cultural imperialism in either direction.


My favourite piece was another Canadian/Scottish collaboration, this time between Carol Sinclair (left wing) and Rebecca Hannon (right wing), called Birds of Passage. With each feather being made of different materials from or representing the artists respective locations, chosen and processed with sustainability in mind. (It probably helps that I was primed to like this one by the introductory film, having seen the artists’ delight in each other’s creations as they held up ‘feathers’ to show each other on a video call.) It feels like a joyful collaboration, as though the artists had found a shared vision and had a great deal of fun realising it together, even if they couldn’t be in the same place.


As a sound person I was delighted by the renderings of recordings of Zapotec – an indigenous language from Oaxaca, Mexico – into woven banners. At a casual glance they look like traditional craft work, every day and over looked, but when you read the plaque and look again much more embedded information and meaning is revealed. The transformation of the analogue elements of a child’s voice, bird songs or the sounds of the weaving machines themselves into digital recordings back into the ‘analogue’ art of weaving – especially given the important role of weaving patterns in the evolution of computer programming – really made the piece stand out for me. I was reminded of the sonographs that were included in the Natural Selection exhibition from 2019. Or perhaps those little visualisation screens that graphic equalisers had in the 90s. Like so many pieces in the exhibition, the close you looked, the more layers of meaning were revealed.

Cocooned from the Elements

Cocooned from the Elements is a collaboration between Lynne Hocking-Mennie (from North East Scotland) and Prach Niyomkar (from North East Thailand), due to their in person collaboration period coinciding with Storm Ciara their work is heavy influenced by ideas of sustainability – the dyes were created from indigo and storm-scavenged lichen – and the impact of climate change. The use of a parasol and an umbrella as the base for each of their pieces makes an effective analogue for the predicted move to the extremes of weather – the very hot and the very wet. While the idea of a cocoon as a place of both safety and transformation is both hopeful and ominous.

Meet Make Collaborate is running at the Inverness Museum and Art Gallery until the 19th of June.

Second Contact


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I’ve talked before about how much I love hydrophones, the why’s and wherefores of their continued fascination for me, and the ways in which every time I encounter them I lose time researching them and debating the feasibility of getting my own. However, I’ve been spending a fair amount of time lately making contact mic recordings, and realised that I pretty much never write about contact mics which I’ve loved for far longer.

I first encountered contact microphones as a student. At the time contact mics were pretty expensive to buy – certainly out of a student’s price-range – but our course technician came across instructions to make your own and passed them on to us with the warning to be careful what you attached them to as he’d accidentally eavesdropped on adjacent offices trying to record some gurgling radiators. A course mate and I spent a delightful afternoon building some together and attaching them to things gleefully, and though they long since burned out, I still have one in my cable drawer for sentimental value.

Many moons later, though still quite a while ago, I ended up chatting about contact microphones with the then-artist-in-residence at the hospital radio station I volunteered with. We had a good chat about building our own contact mics and the way the components burned out after so long, and then he pointed out that you can now get them pretty reasonably online so you don’t need to build them yourself anymore if you don’t want to. The idea lodged itself in my brain and a few years ago I did in fact get myself a cheap little contact mic to see how it turned out. I was never particularly impressed by it, I figured either it didn’t work properly or it really needed a pre-amp, but it never did work well with my old – and much beloved – sound recorder.

However, back in the Summer of last year, I finally got round to treating myself to a new sound recorder – a Zoom H2n, I prefer the H5n but the H2n wins on portability, it literally fits in my pocket – and when I was listening to Deep Blue Notes and falling down the hydrophone rabbit hole I told myself sternly that I wasn’t allowed to buy one until I’d got my contact microphone situation sorted. I hadn’t tried it out with the new recorder, as I’d previously had enough to experiment with trying out it’s different built-in microphone configurations – it has X/Y, Mid-Side, 2 channel surround and 4 channel surround options, after years of using an X/Y set up for recording atmos on location it remains my go-to but I’m trying to be more adventurous and make better use of the surround options. In the course of my most recent hydrophone researching I’d been looking at the compatibility requirements for them and it noted that they needed ‘plug-in-power’ – which if it’s a new one on you as it was to me, is similar to phantom power, just a considerably lower voltage – and when it turned out that my new recorder did in fact have that, it occurred that that might be what my contact microphone needed. Indeed that made all the difference and while I suspect it would benefit from a preamp, I was able to once again enjoy the delightful world of secret sounds that a contact microphone reveals and make some delightful new recordings. I’ve spent the last couple of months delightedly attaching my contact microphone to everything I could imagine.

In practical terms the best element of contact microphones is the way they allow me to capture a sound in isolation. The sound of a clock ticking without the sound of the room around it, the otherwise nearly inaudible sounds of a sound desk’s faders in motion or the sound of a swing bridge clanking and rumbling as traffic trundles across it. (As you’ll hear from the recording embedded above, it does collect a certain amount of ambient noise but that is pushed into the background, allowing me to collect a particular sound without it being overwhelmed by it’s surroundings. Allowing the sound to shine, without having to remove the item from it’s context in order to record it – something that really isn’t possible when it comes to the clanking bridge, you need traffic for it to make the sound, but normally you wouldn’t be able to hear it over the traffic.) But there are also the secret joys of the contact microphone, the gorgeous, resonate bell tones of a fire extinguisher – CO2 is far superior to foam in this matter – the differing sounds of the bannisters in my office, that I have no practical use for but were a joy to capture and left me feeling as though I knew a secret about the building I’ve worked in for large chunks of the last seven years.