Last week, amidst a news agenda full of grim and saddening stories, a moment of lightness and joy reached me. Eden Court was re-opening. It might sound trite but it’s nonetheless true, having an excellent wee – actually fairly big as these things go – arts centre practically on my doorstop has been high on my list of reasons to counter the puzzled questions as to what possessed me to move to the Highlands and more than that, to have stayed.
So obviously the first thing I did when I read the official re-opening announcement, was book myself in for a pre-work morning documentary screening and lunch afterwards. I was amused to discover that pretty much the entire audience of the screening I was in remained in their seats throughout the credits, until the lights came up fully, as though we were collectively soaking up the previously under-appreciated joy of seeing a film, in the cinema, with an audience.
In a moment as delightful symmetry I discovered that not only was the first film I saw in Eden Court since it re-opened a documentary, but the last film I saw there before it closed was also a documentary. They were also both films made last year that have proved to very much of this year’s moment.
The last film that I saw before Eden Court closed for the duration, was a Sudanese documentary called Talking About Trees. It’s a film about loving film, more about loving cinema, of sharing the collective magic of a film screening. In the documentary four aging cineastes run a small film club, screening classic films for small passionate audiences, so far so average film club story. The difference is that Sudan has no mainstream cinema-going culture to contrast it against. After a coup some thirty years before, almost all the cinemas closed and the film industry collapsed, for nearly two generations, the cinema going that we take for granted – or did take for granted – has been non-existent. The film follows these four as they set out a deceptively simple task, to hold a proper cinema night in an actual cinema. The face all kinds of challenges, from the dilapidated nature of the abandoned cinema they’ve got permission to use, getting the correct permits to put on the screening in the first place – not an easy task between government corruption, religious inspired censorship, and sheer grinding administrative indifference – to the purely logistical difficulty of getting a profession cinema screen and projector delivered to Sudan. Each individual challenge enough to put most people off, but not these four, these are men accustomed to disappointment, and not accustomed to giving into it. All this is interspersed with their day to day lives, running the film club, making their own films – one of the four holds the honour of both having had films screened at international film festivals, and having had most of his films banned by various Sudanese governments over the years – and reminiscing about their memories of the past and dreams of the future for their country. And do they succeed, you may ask? Well that would be telling.
The first film I saw after the cinema re-opened, the morning it re-opened in fact, was White Riot, a film about the Rock Against Racism movement and a film as in your face as Talking About Trees is meditative and contemplative. Though I suppose in it’s own way it’s quite an elegiac film. It’s a film about a particular time and place, about young people coming together because of a shared love of music and hatred of racism. The decision to make the most of the copious archive material by using the visual language of the zines around which the movement came together, is a great one, and really well executed. It really gives a sense of how raw and confronting those original materials were while incorporating lots more archive material than you otherwise could have fit into the film, in a way that keeps it vibrant and interesting instead of dusty and dull. The subject wasn’t exactly new to me, having been a teenage alternative music fan in the early 00s, and part of the induction into being a ‘proper’ punk fan was learning about the politics and Rock Against Racism – or Love Music Hate Racism as they became – was an important part of that. However, it was really good to see a thoughtful, well-made film that both treated it’s subject seriously and as something worth remembering. (The film has also got some cracking tunes, and gave me a bunch of new old punk and ska bands to check out.) The film is partly an arty little documentary about music subcultures in the late 70s, and partly it’s a damning indictment of the evils of the abuse of power, media propaganda and systemic racism. It also draws a whole bunch of unspoken parallels with today’s issues around racial justice and immigration, it doesn’t hit you over the head with them, just lays out the facts and leaves the viewer to draw their own conclusions. This is definitely a film that says: sure things used to be much worse and these folks helped make it better, but there’s still a lot of work to do. But I imagine that message felt a lot subtler and less urgent when the film was made last year than it does in this present moment.