Folk Film Gathering


Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors

Folk Film Gathering 2015; 1st – 7th May; Edinburgh Filmhouse previewed by Jamie Chambers

Hamish Henderson had a fine phrase; ‘it was in you that it a’ began’.

Taken from his introduction to Ted Cowan’s The People’s Past, the words seem to cut right to the heart of Hamish’s sense of revisionism: of a concerted project to revise history and conceptions of Scottish culture to place ‘the people’ or ‘the folk’ (which is to say working class and subaltern communities) centre-stage and centre-frame. Which is exactly what Hamish did, symbolically, at the 1951 People’s Festival ceilidh in Edinburgh, where Scottish travelers and workers sang ‘for the first time on any stage, as opposed to the reeling road, or the booths of Porter Fair’.

Hamish is one of the key influences – an adopted ‘patron saint’ – of the Folk Film Gathering; the world’s first folk film festival curated by Transgressive North (the Scottish arts collective I work with) at Edinburgh Filmhouse this year, as part of Edinburgh TradFest. The Gathering is geared to explore the possibility of a folk cinema through a series of 7 screenings of films from Scotland, England, Italy, Russia and Senegal that each engage with folk and working class culture at different points in space and time. Hamish’s Gramscian insistence upon the political and aesthetic importance of folk culture underscores each film: a sense that working class / subaltern / popular / ‘low-brow’ culture can and should be held up as having every bit the value of its high-culture counterparts.

A similar sense of revisionism seems, gloriously, to have awoken more recently as a popular political movement in Scotland. There is a sense that mainstream politics has for too long tended to ‘frame-out’ or ‘cast-as-onlookers’ large swathes of the population, who have consistently found themselves stuck as extras on the fringes of the centralising narratives of ‘middle Britain’ and the elite. Focal oppositions to austerity, to Trident, and moves toward land reform seem, hopefully, to be part of a wider revisionist campaign finding articulation in frontline Scottish politics to address the concerns and livelihoods of communities whose voices and concerns have for too long gone unheard.

2015 is also the second year of TradFest, Edinburgh’s dynamic celebration of folk culture as living tradition. TradFest’s ongoing energy and success seems to demonstrate that, whilst always awake in Scotland, interest in folk and working class culture seems to be increasingly at the forefront of Scottish cultural activity. Perhaps you could even speculate that such cultural vitality has something do so with the renewed priority placed upon an ‘all of us first’ politics, and a renewed sense of political possibility in Scotland; a moment in popular consciousness which articulates a renewed emphasis upon people, in a resolutely plural sense.

Kaos - Taviani Brothers

Kaos – Taviani Brothers

Many of the films we are screening at the Folk Film Gathering this year have roots both directly and indirectly in moments of pronounced political possibility; historical junctures where class discourses have found powerful articulation. Made in 1989 Tim Neat’s Play Me Something has roots in the Scottish folk revival (in its casting of Hamish Henderson, Margaret Bennett, and Charlie Barron) and the Italian socialist movement (in its depiction of an Italian communist party festival, and the iconic image of Antonio Gramsci). Elsewhere, the Taviani’s brothers Kaos, has a complex relationship with post-war Italian neorealism, and poetic expressions of Italian socialism. Elsewhere still, Safi Faye’s Letter to My Village (the first feature film by a Sub-Saharan African woman to gain international distribution) retains an incisive critique upon imperialist authority, 15 years after Senegalese independence.

Each of our films sets aside ‘heroic’ central protagonists and the privilege of solo voices for a choral, community perspective. Across the screenings, there is, to borrow again that happy phrase from Common Weal, a sense of ‘all of us first’. Or, as Gilberto Perez said of Battleship Potemkin, ‘a different sense of unity in the spectator, a sense not of individuality but of class consciousness, of collective solidarity, a kind of unity at odds with the individualism of bourgeois ideology’.



Screening at the Gathering this year is the community portrait of 60s working-class Clapham in Ken Loach’s Up the Junction, a film which shows as much interest in the opinions of cab drivers and pub regulars as it does in those of its central characters. And then there’s Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, a film more interested in the workers in the fields, the drinkers in the taverns and the buyers at the market, than the pair of star-crossed lovers that supposedly drive its narrative. Shadows is a film where the ‘protagonists’ are backgrounded and the onlookers are foregrounded; a film where the extras become the stars. Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari is a quixotic, frequently hilarious love letter from two male filmmakers to the many different women of a community. And then there’s the Amber Collective’s profound, masterful Dream On, which undermines aspects of the male gaze to adopt a feminist perspective on working class community life, and the struggles of four women on a pub darts team in North Shields. Dream On completely breaks the mould of what British social realism should do, and could do; it’s the greatest British film you haven’t seen yet. Do check it out, along with our Q & A with key members of the Amber Collective on Sunday 2nd May.

So – what is folk cinema?

In the chats I’ve had so far about the Folk Film Gathering, the most frequent question is whether I believe there is, concretely, such a thing as a folk cinema; whether the films we are showing represent THE folk cinema, the beginnings of a canon, an imaginary museum of ‘classics’. That’s a question that makes me deeply uneasy. If the word ‘folk’ carries with it any stable association, it’s that of many hands and many voices. It is emphatically not my place (nor that of any one person) to tell you what folk cinema is, was or should be. Rather, we hope our inaugural programme presents one possible suggestion of what we personally think it could be. We hope the event will get you thinking, and asking questions; how can cinema engage with folk culture, with working-class and subaltern experience? Is ‘folk’ even the right word; a helpful word? How can working class communities, grass-roots movements, popular cultures and indigenous people’s movements speak to each other through cinema? Should international, inter-cultural dialogues be encouraged? Or like Jorge Sanjines, should we be looking to shut them down to prioritise a resolutely local focus in the face of totalizing neoliberalism? We don’t have the answers to any of these questions, but we’re hoping the films we’re showing and the connections between them will get you thinking about these questions too.

Another recurrent association with the word ‘folk’ is that of roots: tradition, heritage, and the past. There’s an associated danger here that our Folk Film Gathering and its discussion about folk cinema become an all-too-familiar space for cosmopolitan nostalgia, for elegies for ‘disappearing cultures’; a museum of mythicized and romanticized pasts. So – despite the fact that many of our films are historical (which is to say a lot of them are a few decades old!) – we are committed to a sense of presentism, of speaking to the present moment. To that end, each of our screenings is preceeded by a short by a Scottish director made within the last 5 years – each of which engages with an aspect of folk or working class culture in Scotland. We have Adam Stafford and Alan Bissett’s The Shutdown, a poetic testimony about Bissett’s dads work at the Grangemouth power plant. We have my own film When the Song Dies about Scottish song traditions and community memory, featuring the late, great Sheila Stewart. And, perhaps most exciting of all, we have the world premiere of Copycat, the directoral debut of Prestonpans schoolchildren Sumaiya Alim, Wiktoria Karbowniczek and Megan Thomson, an autobiographical account of the girl’s real life tensions at school, where everyone plays themselves.

2015 is the first year of the Folk Film Gathering and we hope it will be the first of many. Next year we hope to make these questions (and the conversations they generate) more creative. We hope to run a short film competition to encourage people to go out make these questions productive. And we plan to take the conversation into Edinburgh schools to encourage schoolchildren to make their own films exploring ideas of folk, heritage, ‘people’s culture’ and complex relationships between community and place.

There is in Scotland in particular a need for a cinema that engages with locality and specificity. In the early 80s Colin McArthur called for a revisionist approach to the way Scotland was portrayed on the big screen. Along with John Caughie, John Hill, Murray Grigor and Cairns Craig, McArthur’s Scotch Reels project called for a cinema of dialectical realism; of films that rooted themselves in place and the immediate, timely concerns of specific communities to produce finger-on-the-pulse representations, or ‘diagnostic understandings’ as Raymond Williams might have said. Arguably that call has, so far, gone unanswered. Where are the Amber Collectives in Scotland? The Ousmane Sembenes? Where is our Jorge Sanjines? This is not a problem we can solve with the Folk Film Gathering, but once again we are hoping to restart, or re-energize the discussion.

One final question – should a folk cinema be an ‘art’ cinema at all?

A friend of mine who knew Hamish Henderson told me once that Hamish would never have put anything on a stage that wasn’t the equal of any art in Europe. For me that’s both an exciting and a problematic thought. Problematic because there is a closed door there, a privileging of some voices over others, a sense of selection. (Certainly, in cinema, it’s a tragedy that the voices that tend to be most clearly and persistently heard are those can afford to speak). But on the other hand, there is an important sense there that, aesthetically speaking, folk culture (which is to say popular, people-based, many-hands-and many-voices, working class and subaltern culture) can be, should be the equal of any culture, anywhere. Folk culture is not cheap, it is not low-brow, it is not less complex, less accomplished, or less powerful. For my money, the power and emotion that Sheila Stewart put into a performance of Queen Amang the Heather are the equal of any trained singer, singing the studied work of any Great Composer, anywhere in the world.

Similarly, the Amber Collective (see Dream On above) have always been very aware of the importance of craft in their cinema. Undoubtedly aware of the loaded political address of their films, they never wanted their work to be dismissed on the basis that it couldn’t stand alongside any other film on a craft basis. Reminiscent of Hamish’s twin emphasis on the political and aesthetical import of folk culture, Amber’s is a holistic cinema; as aesthetically brilliant as it is political and socially engaged.

There remains, however, an argument that the priority our programme places on art cinema masks a certain elitism. Whilst the directors we are showcasing this year are often mavericks with complex, uneasy relationships with institutions (or in Amber’s case, almost none at all), they still all had the means to make a film: a complex and expensive undertaking requiring considerable resources. Perhaps folk cinema today is what people are filming on their smartphones, or on snapchat? Perhaps a festival of folk cinema would be better curated on YouTube? Very possibly. That returns me to the question of what is folk cinema. To repeat what I’ve said above, for me at least, there are many possible folk cinemas, and the programme we are presenting this at the inaugural Folk Film Gathering is just one of them.

Like Hamish, I want the possibility of folk cinema embodied in our programme – a utopian, imaginary canon of cinema that voices the concerns and lives of working class and subaltern communities round the world – to be able to hold its own. Like Amber, I don’t want this particular instantiation of folk cinema and the concerns it voices to be dismissed as being in any way ‘cheap’, ‘low-brow’ or ‘less-accomplished’. For my money these films – about working class and subaltern communities past and present in Scotland, Tyneside, Italy, Russia – stand alongside any film, anywhere in the world.

Yes, there is a certain sense of utopia here. But as Frederic Jameson and James Clifford understood, utopian discourse is sometimes a necessary corrective in outplaying historical determinism: the same sense of fatalistic inevitability that arguably has kept the two-party political model in business for so long in Scotland and the rest of the UK. As Clifford says (bastardizing Gramsci) sometimes – beyond the pessimism of the intellect and the optimism of the will – we also need an optimism of the intellect.

So please come and join us at the Folk Film Gathering this year! What might folk cinema be? What could it be? Come along and join the conversation – we want to hear your voice!


More at Folk Film Gathering, and Filmhouse.

Comments (7)

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  1. Donald Blair says:

    Wow! What an article and what a concept! Kenneth White has been demanding cultural renewal for such a long time now but I’ve had some difficulty in imagining what it might look like. Your article gives me some hope of something more than utopia though I’ve always liked that utopian impulse in Jameson, he is much criticised for failing to find practical solutions to his problematising of history. Maybe what you say about folk film when combined with likes of what Christopher Hird is doing with documentary – especially his present efforts to
    put The Spirit Level
    Into filmic form – maybe film is the thing. Wish I could be there – enjoyed your film about Sheila Stewart (Last of the Line or something like that? Unfortunately got to work. Deagh dhurachdan, Donald

  2. barakabe says:

    I would certainly love to go to this great event- I’m filming on Arran over the next week or so- but will try & get there. We have our own folk film hero’s in Bill Douglas, with his great trilogy ( arguably the greatest achievement in British film history) & Margaret Tait- I would even argue the early work of Bill Forsyth is ‘folk’ film. What you describe is certainly similar to the Slow Cinema Movement that emphasizes a slowing down of time, of ‘presentness’ & ‘placeness’ to the expressivity of its style. The likes of Lav Diaz ( one of contemporary cinema’s true rare geniuses) who is in many ways reinventing how we think of cinema: he is a rebel filmmaker who presents the ordinary life of Filipino’s as an act of resistance against the homogenizing effect of globalization- film as a political act. Marginalization is the common denominator for the likes of filmmakers such as Diaz, Britain’s Ben Rivers, the Romanian New Wave, Bela Tarr, Tsai Ming-Liang, Pedro Costa among many others- few of them given any media exposure by the mainstream press & all working on the margins of films dynamic possibilities.By the way Paradjanov’s films are truly extraordinary- as is Tarkovsky’s Mirror ( which surely qualifies as ‘folk’?)- Shadows of our Forgotten Ancestors is as close as art gets to a pure transcendental experience. I hope the festival keeps expanding- it sounds both wonderful & intriguing- & like I say, I hope I make it.

  3. biblioteque says:

    Will most definitely take on what I can of the festival…

    …as a student at the School of Scottish Studies in the late nineties, there as a mature student having been seduced away from an anthropology degree to one in Scottish Ethnology, I had many awkward conversations with worthies who I felt had, in some ways at least, misunderstood the democratising intellect of Henderson et al. I was a fierce proponent of an urban and contemporary ethnology which took account of ‘folk’ as a fluid dynamic, not the ossifying tendency towards archiving I was seeing around me. Whilst studies were vigorously pursued and post graduate research funds allocated accordingly, ensuring folk traditions of the Gaelic speaking highlands were not lost to posterity, the march of industry and technology moved with such inexorable force that ‘folkways’ of urban and contemporary communities had been born, flourished and died out before the aforementioned studies had even been completed!

    I argued then, as I have since and do still in my academic research, that the immediacy of contemporary medium reflects the nature of the folk idioms. Where are the studies of contemporary Scots text speak? They’d make an interesting read but the idiom and technology has changed so much, so quickly, they probably won’t be pursued and it is to the ethnologists and the social historians shame if they truly wish to reflect the nature of ‘folk’! Thankfully, film is one of the mediums which has and does retain this immediacy and festivals like ‘the Gathering’ are the best ways we have of completing the circle, raising confidence in the legitimacy of folkways. They should, and I guess will if this piece and the organisers have anything to do with it, be an essential voice in the reframing of the current and ongoing conversation between the Scots people, themselves, their communities and those who represent their democratic interests.

    See you at ‘the Gathering’!

    1. biblioteque says:

      Was supposed to read ‘take in what I can’ not ‘take on’, a bit more of a combative opening than I’d intended!

      1. Jamie Chambers says:

        Hi there!
        Sorry for such a slow response, but just to say a belated thanks for your thoughtful comment – which, like all the other great comments on the article, gave me a lot to think about. I’d be very interested to read some of your research – could you point me in the right direction?
        I’m at [email protected]

  4. Donald Blair says:

    Really enjoyed the article. Kenneth White has been arguing about the need for cultural renewal for a long time but I had some difficulty imagining what it might look like. Maybe the Folk Film Gathering is just the thing. Maybe combined with what the likes of Christoper Hird is doing in the documentary world especially given his present intention to turn The Spirit Level into film form, there is the potential for film to perform a different function and move away from popular entertainment – maybe the spirit of Walter Benjamin could walk the earth again. I liked the reference to Fredric Jameson and his utopian impulse but, again, as with White, it is sometimes difficult to see where Jameson’s problematising of the historical leads us to in terms of actual change. If the film about Sheila Stewart was called “The End of the Line”, I remember it, especially the bit about the bet made by some local boys about going out with her – great wee film and a fine companion piece to the documentary made on Mull about Martyn Bennett with Sheila and Michael Marra. I’ll always remember a documentary about Dick Gaughan a long time ago – he was being interviewed by Billy Kay and he said that he felt a bit of a fraud going round the country as a professional musician – especially in the south of Ireland – to the place where the actual folk tradition came from – he felt he was the one who was learning rather than the other way round. Wish I could be there to see the films but unfortunately got to work. Next year! Deagh Dhuachdan, Donald

    Date: Mon, 27 Apr 2015 17:17:43 +0000 To: [email protected]

  5. Ray Burnett says:

    This sounds great, Jamie, as do the ideas behind it. A personal touch of serendipity about it all. I was particularly pleased that you presented the project as being in the spirit of Hamish’s ‘It was in you that it a’ began’ essay. As it happens, a contribution I have in Paddy Bort’s forthcoming latest edited collection of writings on Hamish is built around that very essay and the ‘Viva la’ song on which it is based. For my own part, I have always felt that, along with Hamish’s longer representation of his ‘The Ballad, the Folk and the Oral Tradition’ essay in the same Ted Cowan collection, these are two of the most insightful and rewarding of Hamish’s prose writings in terms of his deployment of a Gramscian approach to Scottish politics and culture.

    Your ‘Gathering’ sounds like a further imaginative development of precisely what we need in this area – with a programme that incorporates the Taviani’s Kaos and Ken Loach’s up the Junction how could it be otherwise – especially with your imaginative involvement of young pupils from the ‘Pans and your notion of presentism.

    If you thought you heard a rumble of thunder across the Forth earlier, it wasn’t. Just the distant sound of my frustrations when I opened my emails earlier, saw the dates, and realised it was too late to make arrangements to get down to join the conversation.

    After I took it all in I realised it has echoes of something similar we tried to do a few years ago with a Small Islands Film Festival in the island communities of Eriskay, Islay and Benbecula a few years ago – which also featured a screening of Tim Neat’s ‘Play Me Something’ along with films from island communities in Korea, Nunavut, Ireland, the South Atlantic, the Pacific, etc and young island Gaelic film-makers from the Film G project. In this context the questions you raise as to ‘folk cinema’ and ‘art cinema’ and as to imputed quality and accomplishment are well made. Connections can be made, worthwhile engagement is possible, even with very small communities and the most ‘peripheral’ of locations.

    I hope folk area able to catch up with your screenings in between their canvassing, etc in the run up to a rather important and not unrelated electoral event. Hopefully I will get some positive and informed feedback when down for the Edinburgh RIC ‘Radical History and Culture’ Conference two weeks later. Pity they don’t coincide.

    Good luck with your inauguration. I look forward to developments.

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