Vortex ---

In Scotland last week a red weather alert was issued, accompanied by warnings of the risk of death caused by unnecessary travel. Here, during one of the worst snowstorms in living memory, I paced outside the Glasgow Film Theatre, counting down the minutes as ‘Voyageuse’ played for the first time before a public audience. There was no red carpet, no poster on display at the entrance, only a vortex of sleet chasing round my head in an otherwise empty street; as film premieres go it was about as low-key as it gets.

At that surreal moment I recalled an equally freezing day in January 2013 when I travelled to Tinto Hill, forty miles south-east of the city, to shoot a sequence for my film, ‘The Devil’s Plantation’ in a race to complete it in time for that year’s Glasgow Film Festival. Classed as a ‘Graham,’ a height of between 2000 and 2499 feet, Tinto Hill isn’t much of a mountain but then I’m not much of a climber, especially when weighed down by my camera kit and tripod.

Scaling a slope made treacherous by ice sheets, I met a fellow walker who advised me that with the wind chill, the temperature at the summit that day was -15 degrees. Undeterred I pressed on, pausing now and then to take shots of the bleak monochrome prospect spread before me. I thought of my sister whom I had visited in hospital the previous day, which happened to be my birthday and which we celebrated with coffee and cake. She was being discharged, she said, and would text me the following day.

On my descent from Tinto – more rapid than the climb – I took refuge in my car, grateful for the hot flask and sandwiches I packed earlier. Basking in the pride of my own tenacity, suddenly I was struck by the unbidden, dreadful thought of how my sister, diagnosed with cancer, might never again go hill-walking, or dance, or do any of the things one takes for granted.

Flash-forward. Entering the GFT, I passed through the empty lobby and down a corridor leading to the screen. Pausing at the doors, from the soundtrack I could tell how long the film had yet to run so I made for the sanctuary of the projection booth. From what I could tell the audience was rapt. A good sign? The projectionist thought so, remarking on how well-attended the screening was considering the extreme weather.

What I didn’t tell my companion was how earlier that day their Guest Services had – inexplicably – refused to provide transport for me to attend my Q&A – a mere three miles from the venue. Petty as it seemed, my grievance wasn’t one of starry petulance. Rather, it saddened me to think the festival didn’t place much value on my welfare, let alone my presence. With all public transport cancelled and with taxis missing in action, against the advice of the authorities I decided to drive, determined not to let the audience down, knowing the effort each of them had made to attend.

Flashback. On the evening of January 16th 2013, having thawed out after a day’s Graham-bagging, at the press launch for that year’s GFF I listened intently as the festival’s annual crop of films was announced. My own film, omitted from the list, prompted a shoutout, a small act of defiance on my part that no doubt irked the organisers but won me a round of applause. Mulling on this on the way home, I mused on the numerous counts – age, gender, class, birthplace, lack of status – on which my film’s non-mention was based. Then I received a four-word text: ‘It’s not good news.’

For the next two hours, my sister described to me how a series of tests revealed that her cancer, apparently arrested months before, had metastasised. ‘How long?’ I ventured. ‘Three months,’ came the blunt reply. She added how she had bought new shoes and wondered whether or not she should ask for a refund. Three months and one day later, in the company of her family, she died. In that time the GFF screening of ‘The Devil’s Plantation’ had come and gone, just another piece of ephemera that floated into public consciousness and out the other side into obscurity.

If there’s any lesson I can draw it’s this: to do whatever is within one’s gift. If I’m able climb a hill, I will climb it today, not tomorrow. If I’m aggrieved at perceived slights, I try to dispel them quickly. By recreating Erica’s state of mind, I came to understand the importance of how one looks at things and, unlike her, not to become hostage to one’s fears but always, as I wrote in the script, to take pleasure in the smallest things. When I began this blog in October 2014, I struggled to find both Erica’s – and my own – motivation. To make a film, not for gain but for its own sake seems an impossible, even pointless task but it was a task within my gift. Since then I’ve come to realise how making it became a kind of therapy and a repository for my grief.

No sooner had I completed ‘Voyageuse’ than I fretted about finding an audience. Over the past year it seemed no one, apart from a precious few, would ever see the film because with no institutional or industry backing it lacked the hype that attracts publicity or festival selection. The invitation to screen at the GFF offered a welcome focus to an online launch that, judging by the uptake, reassures me. The many positive – unprompted – comments the film has received have lifted my spirits just as the audience who made the effort to attend the screenings has restored my faith.

With a cinema release for any independent film increasingly elusive, on social media it’s interesting for me to interact directly with individual viewers. In its first week ‘Voyageuse’ has attracted a respectable number of views by a wide range of people. I’m struck too by the frequency of the words used to describe it: beautiful, moving, wonderful, compelling – confirming to me that the film plays and that the only thing preventing it from reaching a wider audience is visibility. To everyone who has shared the link, watched the film or commented, I’m sincerely grateful.

Back at the GFT, as the (very short) end credits rolled, I entered the cinema to enthusiastic applause and took my seat beside Allan Hunter, co-Artistic Director of the GFF and the person responsible for inviting the film. For the next twenty minutes or so we spoke about the journey of its making, the highs and lows, and, of course, about Erica. Q&As can often be a strange, even strained experience, both for the filmmaker and the audience but in the room that night I felt an intimacy and a warmth I’ve rarely experienced.

And then I remembered Erica. What would she make of this film, I wonder? Knowing her, I’m certain she’d find fault but, being Erica, would never say it to my face. That said, I hope she might have approved.

The above image is a still from the film, taken by Gwynne Thomas, Erica’s husband during his time as a member of the British Polar Expedition to Antarctica in 1958 where he studied the Aurora Australis.


Comments ---


Thank you for pointing me towards the Year Zero site. I’d heard the name Tartan Features, but wrongly assumed it was some attempt to revive Tartan Film. It’s an interesting site if you’re willing to overlook the unintentional reference to Pol Pot. They seem to favor Amazon Prime for world wide distribution as well. Of course, you really need Amazon Studios on board for the marketing and cinema release, but I can see that becoming more available in the future for the right projects. They flooded facebook and other sites with material for Lynne Ramsay’s excellent film and hopefully she’ll do good business on the streaming service now.

The way that I see world cinema going is that all film industries will have to cut waste. This could mean such things as, on-demand cinema (www.ourscreen.com ). This is not necessarily a bad thing when you consider that employing a bloated crew of hundreds does not appear to do anything for inefficient distribution strategies, or for the maintenance of high standards of writing or acting, which no amount of editing tutorials and SFX can repair. Most of the black-list (UK and USA) films never get made or disappear with a minimal release despite the fact that those are mainly populist concepts – I hope that the challenge of Netflix, Film4, Curzon and Amazon Studios will seriously shake things up.

I have had the chance to talk with some of the young film makers trained in the plethora of new courses that are now available in Glasgow and Edinburgh and I often secretly recall a quote from the film Whiplash: There are no two words in the English language more harmful than “good job”.

I’m not entirely sure what a state funded studio will do either unless it’s attached to a writing course and plans to build more. However, there are plenty of people with the confidence and rigour which you refer to, just not in the obvious places. The empty vessels make the most noise.

For instance, in Glasgow, I would be very interested to see you team up with Denise Mina. I can see an overlap in both of your work/politics and she already seems to be connected with the film industry, having already had several works optioned and one adapted.

Perhaps you two could could come up with a script for the story of how David Bowie actually never died, staged his own death and disappearance, then became a David Bowie tribute act called ‘The Black Star’, touring civic concert halls and miner’s welfares (http://www.whatsonlanarkshire.co.uk/event/039626-ultimate-bowie/ ). Just an idea.

Thank you for persisting with your craft, like your fellow former TV-ad director, Jonathan Glazer. It gives me hope that some people still have a quality filter.


Thanks again, Ross. I just sent you an email.


What a beautiful photograph of Antartica. I wonder what Mrs Thomas thought when she saw evidence of her husband’s adventures. Envy mixed with love perhaps. She was probably the more intellectual of the two, but that doesn’t fit the gender role narrative I suppose. A narrative that was ironically reinforced by the behaviorists like Skinner, over-interpreting the findings of ethologists it would seem. A critique of ethology seems quite appropriate in the age of internet memetics, a self-fulfilling behaviorism in action.

I watched Voyageuse a few days ago and then paused to try and take it in. I feel like you may have created a new art-form or at least genre with your last two films. I wish I could download ‘Solid Air’ on vimeo to see how the progression began.

At first, I kept on thinking of the concept, ‘The Medium is the message’ (Marshall McLuhan). I don’t really know how to describe what you’ve done, but I suppose it’s the logical conclusion of the evolution of the Kuleshov effect and experiments such as ‘La Jete’ by Chris Marker. Rather than tell a story about a character/mood by simply contrasting images, you seem to have disconnected the audio narration from the visual narrative, while subtley suggesting an interplay beyond the obvious, a search for her soul. In that sense, it sends the viewer on a treasure-hunt like the Devil’s Plantation and Mary Ross. It’s as if you’ve done what a great book illustrator would do, indirectly implying meaning in a text with succinct, well selected images. These illustrative images are like a collage of atmospheric, ominous, Lynchian fluid landscapes. And this can only strike the right tone because of the Verite-style fictional voice performance derived from (and expanding on?) a real memoir, made up of a disjointed set of letters. It’s as if your search to know her reflected her own search, to know herself. The film is like a remedy to all of those stale and often inaccurate biographies that tend to win awards and are then forgotten within a few years.

It’s as if you created human physicality in the mind of the viewer, without ever showing it – a ghost walks through a haunted landscape of the past like Dicken’s Christmas Carol. In the mind’s eye, it’s almost as if the viewer is directing the film with you, travelling through a psycho-geographical set, like an Adam Curtis documentary. The tone reminds me of the restrained haunted quality of Michael Haneke’s Amour. For some reason it also seemed to be pushing towards the sinister sense of mystery found in a well-developed ghost story (‘Zaveshanie’ – Rodrigo Gudino, or ‘Whistle and I’ll Come To You’ – Neil Cross/Andy de Emmony, the subtle use of place and objects). The symbols (like the lipstick) are brilliantly chosen, perhaps a disassociation from the role-play mask and confused feelings about the past. Then there’s a power in her lack of pretense.

Typical boring film-theory, as taught in various colleges, asserts that if you disconnect the images from the audio much at all, the brain cannot process it, but I think you’ve just proven there are ways of doing it, such that a narrative of sorts can still form coherently. Emotional interpolation. In fact, it may even improve the experience, adding an element of audience interaction beyond the typical plot guess-work, perhaps aiming for a genuinely new form, like Godfrey Reggio’s Qatsi films.

It’s a little bit frustrating that all of your reviews seem to focus solely on Mrs Thomas (giving away spoilers in the process) and your production struggles, rather than just reviewing the film – Jennie Kermode seems to have made a little more effort, writing for Eye For Film. I could see this as a critically acclaimed BBC2 presentation if it was promoted in the right way – in that sense it reminds me of ‘The Decent One’, directed by Vanessa Lapa. It’s interesting that another Scottish director, Lynne Ramsay has had some success recently using the Amazon platform – a cinema release, some marketing and festivals, good press then an Amazon Prime release. Perhaps that’s the way forward for you, rather than waiting for the CS to get it’s act together – it would be a shame not to see where you take your experimental form next, perhaps a book adaptation…


Thanks Ross, for your comment. At a time when I’ve almost given up hope for V. you’ve restored my faith.

I need to process what you’ve written – and it’s by far the most cogent critique of my film – so I’ll respond via email – feel free to contact me.

I’ll leave you with this link.


Well-meaning as it is, and I won’t presume your location is in Scotland but I believe the besetting problem of film writing here is a lack of confidence and a lack of intellectual rigour. What you’ve written about Voyaguese – and I’d say this even if it was someone else’s film – gives me hope.