Many of Reverse Shot's staff writers and contributors come from and reside in locations all over the U.S. and beyond. Escape from New York is a column devoted to reminding us Manhattan-and-Brooklyn-centric moviegoers that we are not the world when it comes to cinephila.
by Julien Allen
“Dear to the seabird is her rocky ledge.
Dear to the Islesman is the World's Edge.” — Vagaland (Shetland poet)
Shetland is the eponymous island at the center of a modestly sized archipelago situated in the North Sea, 200 miles north of mainland Britain, on the same line of latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, and southern Siberia. It is spared the climactic extremities of those regions by the zephyrs of the Mexican Gulf Stream’s north Atlantic extension. The islands are accessible by twin propeller plane to and from mainland Scotland. If weather conditions (usually fog in summer, gales in winter) are too severe, the plane does not take off and travelers unwilling to brave a beastly 13-hour ferry trip just have to wait until the coast is clear. Truth be told, after three days on Shetland, I was half hoping our Saab 2000 Loganair 35-seater would be grounded, partly because the weather was horrendous (“this is nothing,” said the grinning check-in steward as the window panels of the airport lounge vacillated loudly in their casts) but mostly because even though their annual film festival was over, I didn't want to leave so soon. The natural beauty of the islands themselves is bewitching: similar in some respects to certain parts of the Scottish Highlands, but less imposing, treeless, and with a handsomely serene desolation. Michael Powell shot The Edge of the World here in 1937. Boasting the least polluted waters in the British Isles, Shetland’s main industry is fishing (it’s the second largest whitefish producer in the UK, while Shetland mussels are a costly delicacy in London restaurants). The total population of the Shetland Islands is 23,000 and there’s only one movie theater. But it’s a doozy.
“Mareel,” named for a rare, natural phosphorescent effect on seawater caused by bioluminescent bacteria making large areas of sea glow bright blue in the dark, is a purpose-built creative arts and entertainment venue in Lerwick (the largest town on Shetland, population: 7000). Its exterior architecture is stark, the cladding resembling Scottish slate, but the interior is all warm woods and soft clean lines, more Scandinavian, underlining the ancient Viking connections to Shetland dating from the eighth century (the isles were only annexed by Scotland in the 15th century). Mareel is the headquarters of the organization known as Shetland Arts and as well as programming films and staging theater and musical performances for Shetlanders all year round, it is also a center of archival preservation and education.
Anyone attending so confident and relaxed a venue for the first time would be surprised to learn of the gales of controversy that accompanied its construction (local opposition, escalating costs and delays). But its eventual success owes much to the relentless decade-long table-banging efforts of the—now retired, but still very active—head of arts development for Shetland Arts, Kathy Hubbard. Hubbard’s initial struggle was to convince islanders that not only could they afford an arts center of this kind, but also in terms of cultural confidence, population retention and attraction, and support for the creative industries on Shetland, they couldn’t afford not to have one. Her exertions, together with those of then Shetland Arts boss Gwilym Gibbons, have paid off spectacularly,
To understand the origins of the Screenplay film festival, the annual highlight of the Shetland arts calendar that Hubbard continues to run with eyebrow-raising drive and stamina, it’s useful to note that Shetland is historically (and understandably) an island of enthusiastic bookworms. Winters in Shetland are long and dark (night falls around 2 p.m. in midwinter), and literature has played a strong part in the survival tactics hardwired into every permanent islander’s DNA. In 2001 the Wordplay book festival was created by Hubbard and literature development officer Alex Cluness as a means of celebrating and furthering the islands’ love of the written word. One of its special guests in 2010 was the film critic Mark Kermode, who came along to discuss his autobiographical treatise on the life of a critic, It’s Only a Movie. So taken was Kermode with the energy and sparkle of Shetland Arts and the atmosphere of passion and creativity it had helped to foment on the island, he never looked back, helping to set up and co-curate the film festival with his wife, the academic Linda Ruth Williams.
Kermode has done more than anyone to democratize and normalize cinephilia in the UK, thanks to his nationally acclaimed BBC radio show which, in addition to featuring Kermode’s own reviews and crowd-pleasing verbal fusillades against lazy corporate trash, invites listeners to send in their own pocket reviews of films in the box office top ten, which are then read out on air. He has, since the beginning of his involvement with Screenplay, effectively become the British Roger Ebert (a post vacated in the late nineties—by the doyen of popular UK film criticism, Barry Norman—and not filled again until now). Thus, Cannes’s and Venice’s loss is Shetland’s gain, as his clout and commitment guarantees a conveyor belt of famous names and movie talent ready to attend year after year as VIP guests, giving delegates a subtle taste of international festival glamour. In the last few years alone, Shetland has welcomed Terence Davies (who even extended his stay on the island to work on postproduction for Sunset Song), Joanna Hogg (whose own Archipelago was shot on the island of Tresco, at the opposite end of Britain), Clio Barnard, Carol Morley, Ama Asante, and Brit actors Miranda Richardson, Lindsay Duncan, Jason Isaacs, Jim Broadbent, and this year, Bill Nighy and George Mackay (the young star of the recent gay protest comedy-drama, Pride).
The high percentage of female filmmakers on the roster is not unconnected to co-curator Williams’s passion project, Calling the Shots, which was launched at Screenplay four years ago. This consists partly of a wide-ranging research exercise investigating gender equality in the film industry by reference to cold, hard data. Williams has been pushing hard for this matter to be awarded greater prominence and has partnered informally with similar organizations such as Raising Films, whose co-founder, the British director Hope Dickson Leach, attended this year’s festival with her husband and two infant sons. Leach’s extraordinary debut feature The Levelling, showcased at TIFF in 2016 and released in the UK this year, was made a full ten years after she was awarded a place on Filmmaker magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film list. The difficulties Leach faced in the intervening period from the industry itself, particularly in relation to her status as a parent, led to her starting Raising Films which, like Calling the Shots is concerned with the gathering of data and the sharing of experience (of parents in the industry) to push for greater public awareness of these issues. Thus, Shetland’s Screenplay also finds itself at the vanguard of crucial concerns affecting British cinema.
The above descriptions may create a slightly dubious or even sinister picture of the cultural annexation of Mareel once a year by London celebrities, but the reality is almost precisely the opposite. Screenplay superficially resembles in its structure (four categories, a program of shorts, lectures, live performances, and workshops) a miniaturized version of a TIFF or a London Film Festival, but its purpose is completely different: it has no commercial component of any kind and is not looking for widespread media or industry attention per se. It is merely the dedicatory high point of what is already a vigorous and vibrant arts calendar, entirely built around the local community of the Shetland Islands. Nothing is demonstrably “sold” at Screenplay, there are no press screenings (the only written press coverage I found was in the Shetland Times) and it relies on a tireless curating effort, rather than groveling to production companies for a shot at one of this year’s hottest festival baubles.
Administered by a phalanx of willing volunteers, the program is largely a mixture of repertory, as well as recent Scandinavian, British, and Scottish cinema, together with special events and—in keeping with the proud remit of Mareel—a very prominent outreach and education section. In one week, a thousand children participated in this year’s festival (pro-rated against the total population, this number would surely stand comparison with any of Screenplay’s competitors, if it had any). Picking at random, over two days at Screenplay 2017 you could watch Terminator 2 in 3D, Chico Pereira’s light-hearted documentary Donkeyote, new Victorian gothic thriller The Limehouse Golem, a singalong screening of the Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith (with star George Mackay in attendance), Finnish comedy The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki, and a flotilla of Canadian shorts, with time on top to attend readings by two Shetland poets. If you stay for the evening, there is live music and Scottish country dancing in the bar with which the volunteers and the VIP guests join in with gusto.
The emphasis at Screenplay is really on doing what Shetland Arts does all year around—it pulls all elements of the island community together into as diverse an artistic program as possible. If not all the programming is about prestige or cutting-edge festival cinema, that’s because the avowed priorities of Hubbard, Kermode, and Williams are not headlines, but participation and diversity. Shetland’s Screenplay is a fascinating and inspiring miniature example of what public arts organizations can do to universalize dynamic and inquisitive cinema attendance. Something about the single-mindedness inherent to many Shetland islanders in the face of potential isolation explains how something so rich and distinctive can thrive so many thousands of miles from a bustling, metropolitan infrastructure. As a festival guest, one feels like a privileged outsider, blessed with a rare taste of something pure and unpolluted. And that’s before you look out of the window and remember you're at the edge of the World.