How Reality Trumps Fiction in Scottish Film
15th April 2017
Earlier this month we published a piece highly critical of the Scottish film industry. In contrast Sonja Henrici from the Scottish Documentary Institute outlines the thriving documentary film scene.
When I’m travelling and I find myself chatting to strangers or taxi drivers, I inevitably end up telling them I produce documentaries. And more often than not people think I mean programmes about wildlife or Panorama-style exposes.
But unbeknownst to many, even in the film industry, documentaries can be a whole lot more than this. And the deeper you delve the more you realise that almost anything goes and that the artform globally-speaking is a sophisticated one. Think of trying to condense 400 hours of footage to 90 mins. Think of the elements of archive, stills, animation, recreation, diaries, voice over, interviews. The toolbox is as large and infinite as the filmmaker’s imagination. And on the whole it represents a welcoming community, with a 20% larger percentage of female directors than in fiction.
While it’s fashionable to lament the shortage of this, and the difficulty of that, I wanted to take the opportunity to shout a bit louder about the Scottish filmmakers who have been out there making docs, taking them across the world and contributing to the diversity of Scotland’s national film culture.
Most of us don’t need a big studio. Or too much money. We just don’t like it when you say ‘When you are making a real film?’ Docs are as real – and unreal – as they get. Real because the characters and the stories they tell are real. The success of a documentary will often hinge on a character or a situation, that the filmmaker might never have imagined before the project began. Unreal, because the filmmaker brings their own voice and perspective to shape a new narrative, often in collaboration with the subject. Think Grey Gardens, the Albert and David Maysles classic, that premiered at Cannes in 1976 and tells the story of a mother and a daughter living in a derelict mansion in East Hampton. The film is as real and surreal as the lives of the women it depicts, but it is also a highly original work of art. And that’s not just down to the edit; documentary filmmakers find themselves in a living conversation with their real worlds and real characters, influencing, and reflecting that reality, and walking an ethical tightrope in the process. Far from passive observation, this artform is often as edgy, soul searching and maverick as it gets in the world of cinema. And that’s what puts documentary filmmakers’ backs up when the artform is viewed as a poor relation. In reality it should be viewed as the ‘grandmother of cinema,’ and lauded, respected and cherished accordingly.
Scotland after all, is the home of documentary. John, Ruby and Marion Grierson were all 0pioneers, and their early films were rooted in a feminist, socialist agenda. But the form is so much more than that; it entertains, it talks to our culture, and its filmmakers often go and innovate about reaching an audience.
So here, from top of my head, and in no particular order, are some of the Scottish documentaries and ‘hybrids’ that are currently circulating the globe – and there is a whole lot more being made:
I Am Belfast by Mark Cousins: prolific as ever, he has made a plethora of highly acclaimed essay films over the last few years, hitting major festivals, and picking up distribution deals.
Where You’re Meant to Be by Paul Fegan (pictured above) won the hearts of many critics and audiences across UK, including Picturehouse Cinemas, and finally ending up on BBC earlier this year – after winning a Grierson Best Newcomer and the Silver Hugo for Best Documentary in Chicago.
16 Years Till Summer by BAFTA Star of Tomorrow, Lou McLoughlan sold out its cinema screenings across Scotland and has screened in countless festivals. A co-production with Iceland.
Nae Pasaran – by Felipe Bustos Sierra, an award-winning short which turned into a feature, currently in post production. Felipe ran the biggest ever crowdfunding campaign for film in Scotland – talk about being entrepreneurial. It’s now the first bona fide Chilean co-production for the BBC.
The Closer We Get, by Karen Guthrie won six international awards including Best Documentary at Hot Docs, the leading North American doc festival in Toronto, followed by festivals in 16 countries and a substantial outreach programme.
Colours of the Alphabet by Alastair Cole explores the importance of mother tongue education by following the kids in a primary school in Zambia. It’s being translated into at least 20 African languages prior to its 49 country pan-African release through Afridocs later this year.
Seven Songs for a Long Life by Amy Hardie screened in hospices up and down the UK, premiered at SxSW in 2016, and was bought by PBS in USA. It’s being evaluated for making long lasting impact on our attitudes to dying.
The Islands and the Whales was the first ambisonic (3D sound) documentary ever. It just launched across 40 cinemas in Denmark and continues its award-winning festivals run. Director Mike Day received the largest ever grant for a documentary from San Francisco Film Society.
You’ve Been Trumped Too – the follow up to Anthony Baxter’s acclaimed You’ve Been Trumped – was released on Facebook prior to the US Elections, reaching audiences of 1.2 million Americans. The film was also released theatrically in more than a dozen British cities.
Hamish by Robbie Fraser, about Hamish Henderson, the Scottish folk revivalist touched many hearts at its launch at Glasgow Film Festival and went on to screen well across Scotland.
An Accidental Anarchist by Hopscotch Films just world-premiered in competition at the prolific CPH Dox Festival in Copenhagen. It’s the story of ex-diplomat Carne Ross trying to find an answer to Capitalism.
Lost in France – a co-production with Ireland by Edge City Films was picked up by Curzon/Artificial Eye and launched in conjunction with Glasgow Film Festival UK wide.
The End of The Game by David Graham Scott – just launched at Glasgow Film Festival this year and is seeking distribution and sales.
Donkeyote – a German-Scottish-Spanish co-production, launched in the Big Screen competition at Rotterdam, won the Audience Award at Malaga, and is clocking up numerous festivals in all corners of the world, as well as Dutch cinema distribution.
Aquarela – a Scottish-German-Danish-US co-production by Aconite Productions is probably the most ambitious Scottish documentary yet – with Russian maestro director Victor Kossakovsky tackling the theme of Water. (forthcoming)
Leslie Hills of Skyline Productions has just premiered the new Andy Goldsworthy film in San Francisco: Leaning into the Wind, another collaboration with German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer – a Rivers and Tides follow up.
Documentary filmmakers regularly gather during DocKlub in Edinburgh for feedback screenings and to support each other. And there’s talk of one opening in Glasgow soon.
Scottish Documentary Institute’s Bridging the Gap short film series is entering its 15th edition in 2017-18. Its filmmakers have picked up over 100 awards in this time. SDI also gathers international filmmakers and decision makers every year in June for the Edinburgh Pitch.
One of the most important things in a healthy film culture is about having a community where people talk to each other and support each other’s successes. Filmmaking is always a fight for resources – there’s never enough money, and nothing ever happens when it’s supposed to.
We’re lucky to be part of a thriving, determined community and can’t wait what the next five years will bring. I just know that it’s not going to be lacking ambitions. Scottish documentary filmmakers think internationally, and they do believe in themselves!