In the rush hour bustle outside Sainsbury’s on Tottenham Court Road, I chance on two guys sharing a single sleeping bag and sheltering from the drizzle. Unprompted, I offer them some money. On hearing my accent one of them throws a thumb at his friend. ‘He was born in Motherwell, y’know.’ We exchange a few words before I walk the hundred or so yards back to the BFI, Stephen Street where “Voyageuse” is already halfway through its first-ever screening.
The last time I was in London was in May 2016 to shoot a sequence that in the script seemed almost impossible to illustrate – that is, until I had an inspired idea. It wasn’t without its risks given the level of security in the city but fortunately I’m adept at run-and-gun when the occasion demands it, even when confronted by the Metropolitan Police. Twice in two days I was approached by officers who if anything seemed perplexed by a middle-aged woman wielding a camera kit and tripod in the middle of Whitehall. Anyone who has been behind a camera will recognise the trance-like zone that shooting requires, usually to the exclusion of all else. Deep in my task, I even managed to be fussy over prime lenses, swapping my 24mm for a 16mm.
To enter the BFI eight months on with a finished film carries a certain weight of achievement. Earlier I had watched the first three minutes to check the projection and sound, assured my DCP was in good hands. Derek the projectionist, I was informed by John, the venue’s Events Manager, has been here for 30 years. On cue Derek popped his head round the door. “Five-and-a-half all right for you?” he asked, referring to the audio level. Seven is the standard for Hollywood blockbusters playing the multiplexes but not in this space. There’s a certain delicacy to gauging sound in a theatre: the size of the room, the floor and wall coverings, even the seating fabric. “It will be,” I replied, knowing the audience would absorb the excess. In tacit agreement Derek nodded before returning to the booth.
Later, as I counted down the remaining minutes until the film ended I noticed the bar had filled with – mainly – 30-something males. They were gathered, I was told, for the regular monthly meeting of the London Black List – a networking group for screenwriters based on a similar event in Los Angeles. Watching, I wondered how many would ever see their work on screen. I allowed myself a rare moment of gratification. My attention then turned to a BFI free sheet promoting their current crop of films. Featured were movies by two directors, Peter Mackie Burns – “Daphne” (2017) and Hope Dickson Leach – “The Levelling” (2016). It struck me that these talents, both based in Scotland, made their debut features in England with English lead producers. Could this confirm my belief about the parlous state of Scottish film? It’s hard to say.
At that moment the doors swung open, signalling the end of the film. My husband, Owen, who had sat in the screening assured me it had been well-received. Then, one by one, my guests approached to tell me how amazing it was and how moved they felt. I estimated that I knew roughly half the people who attended, the rest being strangers, the plus ones and twos invited by my friends as well as one or two industry people. I felt relieved – earlier that morning I had received an email from Siân Phillips to wish me luck – a two-day gig at the BBC meant she couldn’t attend but was keen to know the outcome.
Possibly it’s my West Coast working-class upbringing but I’m wary of compliments. Still, I was deeply touched by the response, especially from those whom I’d never met before, people who made the effort to see my film and left rewarded. Chatting in the bar afterwards it struck me that this may be the only time “Voyageuse” is screened before an audience. Certainly over the coming months I’ll make efforts to secure a festival selection but I’m under no illusion. Given its unusual provenance, “Voyageuse” may never be seen because no other company or agency has a stake in it.
But how to raise awareness? My film’s unlikely to gain much visibility through word-of-mouth alone and short of hiring a PR company there’s every chance it will remain obscure. In the fast-changing cinematic landscape, industry wisdom preaches the use of social media as an essential tool so by way of an experiment on International Women’s Day I posted a tweet inviting WFTV, Bird’s Eye Film Festival and Underwire Film Festival – three prominent UK groups who exist to promote female filmmakers – to celebrate my achievement as the only woman to have made a narrative feature in Scotland in the past year. Not a big ask, one might think – after all, how many women in the UK have made a feature film recently?
That I got no reply speaks to the gap between the perception and reality of what it means to be a female filmmaker. Or any filmmaker for that matter. On my Twitter timeline are hundreds if not thousands of groups claiming to champion women in film but whenever I read about gender imbalance and the bias – conscious or not – that persists in the industry I feel trapped in an echo chamber filled with the reverberating air of good intentions that amount to little beyond a few hashtags. Of course it ill behoves me to criticise but I’m finding it increasingly hard to summon the positivity and grace needed to engage. How I wish it were different.
For the next phase of “Voyageuse” – to try to reach an audience – I’ve updated the landing page of this blog. Here I’ve included some of the comments received from those who watched it on March 1. These are not the words of film critics or reviewers – fact is there’s little point inviting official reviews of a film not on release. Rather, they reflect the honest reaction of the audience, many of whom wrote to say how affecting they found it and how it had stayed with them for days afterwards.
These emails and tweets I read aloud to Siân when, two days later, we meet for lunch at her home in the East End. “I really can’t wait to see it,” she said, with genuine warmth and enthusiasm. We discuss her upcoming role in a Spanish film and possible dates for another screening in late April or early May. Later we take a walk in the vicinity. Round the corner from Arnold Circus we enter the beautiful but dilapidated St Leonard’s or Shoreditch Church where Siân leads me upstairs to show me the memorial to the Elizabethan actors who once performed close to the site. On our way out I spot a group of men, an old fashioned drinking school, sitting in the church grounds. I think of the two young guys I met outside Sainsbury’s and wonder if they managed to change the Scottish fiver I gave them.
The above image is a frame grab from my London shoot in May 2016.