Iorram (Boat Song)

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.

The Sound of Learning

This year I’ve been spending a lot of time working on my language skills. I’ve been learning Gaelic off and on for most of the last decade and at the start of the year, that this would be the year that I upgrade my language speaking status from the plateau of Intermediate learner to the slopes of advanced learner. I would develop an accent in Gaelic.

One of the less talked about difficulties of language learning, particularly when it comes to a minority language is the difficult hinterland of being an intermediate learner. There are – relatively speaking – tonnes of resources for beginner learners and increasing amounts of content and literature suitable for the fluent or native speaker of the language. But for the intermediate learner, there are few resources and even less classes, most of which are aimed at younger learners. As it is, I mostly read poetry and comic books in Gaelic. (One day I’m going to track down whoever it was that had the genius idea of translating Tintin and Asterix the Gaul into Gaelic, and buy them a pint.)

As part of my efforts to increase my fluency I’ve been slowly working my way through the backlog of Beag air Bheag, which is a programme expressly aimed at Gaelic learners. There was talk for a while about refocusing the programme on beginner Gaelic learners, because it was felt that the programme was getting too advanced. To my great relief they seem to have tackled this problem by dedicating a section of the programme to beginner learners. The programme as it is – both as a radio show and as a podcast – is one of the few resources that feels aimed at those of us caught in the middle so it would be a great loss.

Speaking of its podcast incarnation, during the season break in the show last year they produced a special mini series revising the Grammar points of the previous series. Oisean a’ Ghràmair is my favourite part of the show, so to have a mini-series dedicated to collecting it together is perfect for me. The series in general, uses examples from Radio nan Gaidheal programs, so unlike the stilted fake conversations of so many language learning courses, instead we have extracts of documentaries, news reports and interviews with poets, musicians, politicians or just people who’ve lived interesting lives. The extracts features colloquialisms, jokes and regional dialect variations, the natural use of the language, full of the nuance and detail that the learner can easily miss or misinterpret. To have those explained – along with their grammatical consistencies and inconsistencies is incredibly helpful. There’s something reassuring having these things treated as an aspect of grammar, as much a key to comprehension as recognising that a particular verb is irregular in certain tenses. There’s something delightful to listening back to the extract with your extra knowledge, and understanding all the things you’d have missed before.

Otherwise, I’ve been indulging my love of languages and linguistics more generally with a couple of excellent podcast series.

I’ve been listening to The World in Words for a while now, having come across it at the height of the Standing Rock protects, via an article about the protest that referenced their episode about the Lakota language outreach work that was going on alongside the protests. (The Standing Rock Sioux’s Other Fight.) The series is a companion piece to PRI’s The World focusing in on language issues, sometimes spun off from issues and stories covered on the parent program others by tangents their reporters have stumbled across while reporting other stories entirely. It mainly focuses on minority languages and diaspora languages, the cultural and political impacts by and on languages and the hows and whys of who speaks which language and where. It’s a really interesting series if you’ve ever wondered about how and why language – particularly minority language – is political.

The episodes are quite short and as such are more short introductions to the issues raised than in depth analysis but the show notes are often extensive and helpful if something piques your interest and leaves you wanting more.

Lingthusiasm is a more recent discovery, and very much more of a podcast about linguistics than about languages. It’s about the mechanics of language, how and why they are constructed and work. It’s actually really useful – in an abstract way – for someone like me who loves learning languages but struggles with a lot of grammar constructions because they don’t actually know what the equivalents are in English. I’m going to learn a lot of useful things as the series progresses.

It’s presented by two linguists, one Canadian – Gretchen McCulloch – and the other Australian – Lauren Gawne – and it’s of the genre of podcasts where you’re essentially listening in on the conversation between two very smart people geeking out about something they both love and are very knowledgeable about. It’s unashamedly geeky and enthusiastic about its topic, but really quite accessible for enthusiastic amateurs or non-specialist listeners.

It’s a lovely, intriguing little podcast and while the production values are a little…amateurish…to start with, it’s worth bearing with them. (For a while the next reward level on their Patreon was ‘lets buy Gretchen a decent mic’ and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being delighted when they made it.) This particular audiophile finds the content well worth the occasional wincing.

I suppose the best review I could give it is this: when I first started listening there were 9 episodes available and I listened to them all – including a 3 and a bit hour special episode – over the course of one weekend.

Documentaries So Far

I started writing this at the halfway point of the year, but then life got in the way in good and exciting ways so this post got put in hold. However, then as now, I was doing well on the documentary-watching front. I said at the start of the year that I wanted to watch at least one feature-length documentary a month this year and so far, I have indeed watched one a month.

As always there’s been a certain amount of hold over from previous years as I track down films that came out a while back but that I either missed the one screening round my way or where it has just taken that long for it to make it to my neck of the woods. In my 2013 review I talked about The Act of Killing being much touted but never actually seeing screenings advertised – though I couldn’t remember its title at the time. (It turns out to be about an anti-Communist purge in Indonesia but the events are no less horrific if less widespread than the Khmer Rouge) Turns out that one reason I’d never seen screenings advertised was that it didn’t make it to my local arts cinema until April this year. It was a strangely compelling, somewhat disturbing little documentary and made the oddest contrast with A Story of Children and Film (lovely, lovely film, made me want to watch all the films featured – though a sad lack of mention for Beasts of the Southern Wild and Quvenzhané Wallis’ frankly mesmerising performance in it) that I watched two days later.

My first documentary of the year was watched almost immediately after I wrote my review of the previous year’s documentary offerings. I was all fired up and motivated and, while flicking through the iPlayer looking for something else entirely I stumbled across Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair. I’d missed it in the cinema when it came out, but I’d really wanted to see it then so I watched it there and then before I could forget it was on again and it was definitely worth seeking out. How gripping can a documentary about hair be you wonder? Very. Especially when you discover the complex issues around culture, politics and economics that interweave around the issue of African-American hair. Also it’ll be a long while before I can hear the phrase ‘hair relaxer’ without flinching a little.

The most recent documentary that I saw this year was The Bridge Rising/An Drochaid I think, largely because I went to the premiere of it during Celtic Connections. It’s a film about the campaign to remove the tolls from the Skye Bridge – a summary that either tells you everything you need to know about the film or leaves you utterly in the dark. So, essentially, the bridge connecting the Isle of Skye to the mainland was one of the earliest Public/Private Funded ventures in Scotland and as such was massively controversial (such projects, especially in regard to hospitals and prisons remain highly controversial) in its own right. On top of this, the tolls were high and in a place where petrol/diesel is notoriously expensive anyway so a protest movement began – marches, petitions, refusal to pay tolls, legal campaigns, questions in parliament, and the lot. Anyway, the tolls were eventually removed at some considerable cost both financial and personal, and it was really fascinating to see it all gathered together because I was quite young when all this started and we only really got snippets a significant turning points. It’s also an interesting demonstration of how important Gaelic media is in the Highlands and Island, because the vast majority of news footage they have is from Telefios (Gaelic news programme in the 80s and 90s) and lots of the interviews with campaigners are in Gaelic. So I’d recommend it even if you know nothing about the Skye Bridge, purely if you’re interested in grass roots protest movements or minority-language/indigenous media.

I intended to see more documentaries at the Glasgow Film Festival, but most of them were either really popular and sold out, or their alternative screenings started when I was either at work or finished at a time that would see me missing the last train home. I did manage to schedule a documentary double-bill to see The Last Impressario and On The Edge of the World. The first of this double-bill I saw without trouble (well, there was some unnecessary running about to get my tickets in time but never mind) a strange and intriguing little documentary about an equally strange and intriguing man. Michael White was a producer and social butterfly extraordinaire for the best part of 60 years (he’s still alive, just reluctantly retired), putting on a kinds of interesting and controversial plays (including the original run of The Rocky Horror Picture Show) and introducing all sorts of the artists – including Yoko Ono and Pina Bausch – to British audiences. Despite his social butterfly/party animal status, he’s very shy and seems to have spent a great deal of time hiding behind his camera, which has made for some fantastic photos with which to illustrate the stories in the film and fill in the gaps where his memories are now failing him. The second of my double-bill was denied me, as the screening was cancelled – not because the film hadn’t arrived in time but in a new issue with digital projection, the films arrive at cinemas time-locked, so they can’t test the films until the day they’re being shown and thus if they find they either can’t unlock them or there’s otherwise an issue in formatting or ratio or even just that the file is corrupted, its too late to get a replacement or reach most of the people who’ve pre-booked their tickets. So I saw the Japanese remake of Unforgiven instead, which was good but not a documentary in any way shape or form.

More recently, I indulged my DVD buying habit, by getting a double-bill of documentaries from 2010 Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Senna which were both excellent for very different reasons. Oddly enough, Cave of Forgotten Dreams is the only Werner Herzog film that I’ve ever seen and based on it I feel I should watch everything he’s ever made, because its essentially a record of the archaeological excavation of a cave in France which holds the oldest cave paintings – the earliest known human art by quite a considerable stretch of time – in the world. It’s somewhere between a museum’s audio-visual display and a mediation on the history of art and what it means to be human. It is fascinating and compelling and if you’re remotely interested in history or art then I highly recommend it. Senna is good for completely different reasons. Whereas CoFD peaked into a world of people whose names we’ll never know and whose lives beyond the art they left behind are a mystery to us, Senna is about someone whose life was lived largely in the public eye, whose words and actions we have detailed documentary proof of and can analyse in great detail, yet still remains an enigma. You know how the story ends from the very start, yet still, somehow, when it does your heart still breaks a little.

Revolution No 7

Well it’s the New Year, and all the blogs I follow are full of people either making resolutions for the year ahead or swearing off resolutions for good. Personally I like making resolutions, I love a good to-do list, for the accountability it brings and also the perspective on how priorities have changed in the previous 12 months. It’s easy to get bogged down in the everyday minutia and forget what we’ve achieved.

I like this time of year for that reason, taking stock, celebrating what we’ve done well and resolving to do better at other things. Now is the time to get back on the horse with things that make our lives better and ditch the things that don’t work for us. (Now is the time to acknowledge you’re not going to finish Wuthering Heights however many times you try to read it, and hand it in to a charity shop rather than glowering at it guiltily every time you spot it on the shelf. Or maybe that’s just me…) Another year another revolution of the planet, time to dust ourselves off and start again.

Last year I actually did a lot of sound work, but I rarely wrote about it, I’d just got out of the habit of it. So this year’s resolution is to write a post every month on here about what sound projects I’m working on at the moment – big or little – the problems I’m encountering and the cool new things I’ve learned. And about sound things that are inspiring me or that I’m just enjoying. Yesterday for example I inhaled the entirety of Radio 4’s adaptation of Neverwhere and I’m dying to talk about how excellent Dirk Maggs sound design was, I need to make a post rather than just flailing about it briefly on twitter. I like twitter, it does provide a useful medium to get excited about sound stuff when I don’t have time to write a sensible/full length post, and I used to use it as a bookmark system for short films and sound projects that I wanted to write about but didn’t have time right now to do so, I should get back to that. And so we revolve again.

I did actually have a good reason for writing less last year. For the last few years I’ve been learning Gaelic, but in the last 18 months I’ve kicked up a gear by taking a Certificate of Higher Education in Gaelic through the UHI. It’s been challenging, and time consuming, but increasingly I understand more and more, so I think, worth it. However, it’s meant that any spare moment has been spent squeezing in extra vocabulary practice and grammar revision rather than writing here. Maybe I should combine the two and write about Sound Design in Gaelic? Now that would be truly specialised vocabulary… But, the course ends in April so hopefully normal service will resume then.

9. Mesnak/Turtle

There was a strand at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival called The Edge of the World, which consisted of highlights from the ImagineNATIVE Festival in Canada with a sprinkling of Gaelic short films thrown in. This particular film was accompanied by a short called Glen Tolsta (about an isolated and now abandoned community on Lewis). It was particularly nice because both the directors were in the audience so they spoke a bit about their respective films at the start. As is the way of these things Ishbel Murray spoke in Gaelic first before continuing in English, so when it came to Yves Sioui Desard’s turn he spoke, briefly in Innu before continuing in English, which is the first time I’ve heard that in real life.

The film itself is essentially a retelling of Hamlet within a Native community in Quebec (on an interesting cultural/linguistic note, I realised while watching it that I’ve seen more films in Inuit languages that I have in Quebeçois) only with less violence, more drugs and the incest isn’t so much implied as explicit (a woman sitting next to me with two early/pre teen kids got up and left during the drug-taking scene – it was rated 15 for reason…) However it is a really interesting adaptation, sticking close to the original at some points and playing fast and loose at others. For a start Osalie (our stand-in for Ophelia) gets a great deal more to do and a bit more agency. Despite sharing her Shakespearean counterpart’s fate – that doesn’t actually serve as a motivator for Dave/Hamlets’ actions (other events to do with her do, but kind of understandably) at the end so her decision seems more about her than as a plot motivator. It abandons bits of the original that it doesn’t need and drafts in elements such as drug abuse and alcoholism, assimilation versus cultural resistance that make it feel more real and less allegorical.

There’s a lot of highly symbolic stuff with a turtle – who is, I supposed, our stand in for the ghost of Hamlet’s father (his spirit animal was a turtle) – who manages to imbue considerable personality despite being a turtle. There’s less of a focus on the revenge tragedy of the original. As someone says early on to the protagonist Dave, there is more to Hamlet than just revenge – there is grief and redemption and Dave certainly gets more of both of those than his Shakespearean counterpart.

The film is beautifully shot in quite gorgeous black and white. The various locations managing to be both mundane and stunning – the reservation isn’t all one thing it is portrayed like any other rural community with posh bits, normal bits and downright scabby bits.

Ten for 2010: Sunrise Not Secular

Next up in the 10 for 2010 series we have the excellent Sunrise not Secular, admittedly not the catchiest of band names, but I like to think it probably sounds better in Gaelic. Either way they are very much in the tradition of celtic rock bands of the eighties and nineties, all sweeping choruses, driving drums and distinctive guitar riffs. In fact Fon Sgiath from 2009’s An Dealbh Mhòr (The Big Picture) EP has an opening riff that wears its Big Country influences on its sleeve, and I suppose if I had to sum the band up to someone in five words they would be: ‘Think Big Country in Gaelic’. Which admittedly wouldn’t be entirely accurate as they do sing in English too, dividing both their EPs between Gaelic and English language tunes, but all their best tunes are in Gaelic so it sort of works.

Sunrise not Secular hail from Stornoway on Lewis and after touring around Europe last year, played their last gig at the Barra Festival and broke up in June of 2010. I was a bit disappointed when I made my list for this project to discover that only one band who sing in Gaelic had made the list, but I wrote about Na Gathan and Niteworks earlier in the year when I was talking about the Rapal new Gaelic song competition. Given that SNS were my favourite of the bands I discovered through the Rapal competition and they only got a passing mention from me back then, they deserve their wee moment in the sun now.

Farewell boys, you were pretty much gone by the time you ear wormed your way into my affections but you left behind some mighty good tunes for us to remember you by.

Vodpod videos no longer available.