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.