Folk Film Gathering
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.
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!