In 2003, when asked by the writer Bernard McLafferty for advice as he embarked on his first short film, (“Bye-Child,” nominated for a BAFTA) I replied that the director’s job was to make decisions no matter how trivial, otherwise someone else would soon make them for you. Perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong places but advice on directing is in short supply. Where some directors focus on the actors’ performance, others concentrate on aesthetics – the look and tone of a film. Where some are technically literate, others rely on the wisdom of the crew. No two ever take the same approach.
If there’s been any plusses to making this film entirely on my own it’s having the ability and freedom to make changes. On a conventional film this means a complex backtracking because the smallest edit impacts on the whole, obliging me to return to a post-production house. At least by shooting on HD I don’t need to worry about a neg cut. Mostly the changes were made after testing it on the big screen, first at the Glasgow Film Theatre and more recently at my local Cineworld where I decided several audio cues were too prominent and that generally the storytelling would benefit from replacing one or two specific shots.
The task complete, the film’s first screening is imminent. For a long time I’ve wrestled with the decision of where to host a private showing because over the past two years “Voyageuse” has attracted a small band of supporters asking when it will screen locally. My reply – that a rep cinema needs to be willing to show it – is met with incomprehension even by those in a position to influence such a decision. It’s moot, of course, because until I exhaust the festival route all bets are off, as is VOD.
In weighing the decision of where to show my film it occurs to me that I’m the only person – and certainly the only woman – to have made an indigenous narrative feature in Scotland in the last couple of years, if not longer. It’s quite a damning thought which, if it were theatre, say, would be declared a national scandal. Modest as it is, the existence of my film should be a cause for celebration but it raises a fundamental question: why is Scotland so uniquely ill-equipped when it comes to making and promoting its own films? For decades I’ve struggled for an answer only to conclude – to quote Diogenes – ‘I’m practising disappointment.’
The lost cause that is Scottish film was confirmed to me last week, when I attended a civic reception hosted by the Glasgow Film Festival to celebrate Canadian filmmakers. Here I was introduced to the American producer and doyenne of indie cinema, Christine Vachon in town to deliver a Masterclass. During our conversation, as she talked of the advantages of the European film subsidy, I informed her that my fourth feature film was unencumbered by public money, citing the New Yorker’s film critic, Richard Brody’s view on independent filmmaking not as a matter of financing but of urgency and its experiential value to the maker. By which point I noted Christine’s eyes glaze over.
With a surfeit of time to reflect I’ve had to confront profound truths about my own identity and about why with “Voyageuse” I chose to portray an older, educated, middle-class Englishwoman whose background could not be more different from my own. My decision involved a measure of calculation: to make a film not readily identifiable as Scottish in order to improve its chances of finding an audience in the wider world. This is informed by a simple fact: given that no Scottish director can progress or sustain a career in their own country, the choice they face is to either quit, die or leave.
The departure list is long: John Grierson, Alexander Mackendrick, Norman McLaren, Donald Cammell, Bill Douglas, Bill Forsyth, Michael Caton-Jones, Gillies MacKinnon, Kevin Macdonald, Paul McGuigan, Saul Metzstein, Lynne Ramsay, David Mackenzie to name a few.
Perhaps I’m suffering from post-production blues but never have I felt so pessimistic nor detached from my native land. Making a film – any film – is nigh on impossible when the current tactic (as opposed to strategy) of the Scottish Government, its arm’s-length agencies, national broadcasters – is to ignore indigenous filmmakers while extending largesse and exposure to large-scale film and TV productions who parachute in, lured by the landscape, subsidies and tax breaks and cheap labour. Likewise cinemas – both multiplex and arthouse – don’t give local films a fair shake (see my last post) and apart from a few academics, cultural commentators either don’t care or don’t exist.
The picture is further blurred by the ongoing sideshow of the lack of a film studio, an issue irrelevant to homegrown producers when even the most modest budget takes years to raise, making a studio unaffordable given the cost of hire, and of construction, standing, lighting and striking sets. Speaking as an ex-production designer, I should know.
At another level, my deepening malaise with Scottish film isn’t only about money or facilities, it’s about the mindset that keeps the nation tethered and cringing. The stagnant, rock-bottom level of production speaks to a lack of ambition: professionally, technically and creatively. In Scottish film the narrative hasn’t evolved much since George Orwell’s description of class stereotypes in his essay, “Boys’ Weeklies” (1940) where “the working classes only enter into the Gem and Magnet as comics or semi-villains.” Missing from that list is the caricature of the wily local underdog who outwits the authoritarian incomer, as seen in “The Maggie” (1954) and “Local Hero” (1983). If the middle classes exist in Scotland you wouldn’t know it by going to the pictures.
Rather than present characters as complex individuals forced to the limits of their usual behaviours in pursuit of a goal, Scottish film – be it indigenous or made by Hollywood – tends to portray people through exterior, symptomatic signifiers that ad nauseum present Scots on screen as drunkards, junkies, victims, violent, sick, poor and ill-educated because it’s easier to elicit pity or raise a cheap laugh than it is to interrogate – and understand – the lives of normal folk in less-than-normal circumstances.
By contrast, quietly undramatic (and middle-class) English films such as “45 Years” (2015) or the upcoming “On Chesil Beach” (2017) could never be produced in Scotland. Among other, complex factors, a dearth of an establishment willing to endorse, finance and promote Scottish film condemns its makers to produce fewer films than any other Western nation. In a pre-Brexit, pre-Indyref2 scenario this dire state of affairs speaks to an overweening lack of confidence that augurs ill for the culture-at-large.
I should worry. Over the coming months I’ll know whether “Voyageuse” can find an audience. If it succeeds then perhaps my faith in filmmaking can be restored. If not, then it’s no great loss to cinema – or in my case, the taxpayer. At least my hands are clean. In the end I’ve decided to screen privately, of course – at the BFI, Stephen Street, London at 6.00pm on March 1, by which time I’ll have a better idea about its prospects – and my own.
The above image is a frame grab from the film, shot by me in 2014.