Archive Montage in ‘From Scotland with Love’, 28 September 2014

Last week, we went to see From Scotland with Love, followed by a Q&A with director Virginia Heath and musician King Creosote (i.e. Kenny Anderson) at the Broadway in Nottingham.

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The film was commissioned by Creative Scotland and the BBC as part of the celebrations surrounding the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and was also televised in June. Apart from the live Q&A (which always adds value to a repertory screening), we had several reasons for making time to see it:

  • I love archive film, he loves music; our interests happen to intersect at archival montages set to fey indie folk soundtracks. To be honest, we had intended to see Stuart Murdoch’s Belle & Sebastian inspired musical, but it’s not on in Nottingham.
  • I grew up in Edinburgh. I don’t claim to be Scottish (we moved to London when I was ten), but given the looming independence vote I approached this film with an appropriate mix of curiosity and nostalgia.
  • Well, my PhD touches on issues to do with moving image representations of regions…

The film is one of a swathe of publicly funded archive montage films that have been released in recent years, celebrating regional and/or national cultures in tandem with major cultural celebrations. Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City, released in 2008 to coincide with Liverpool’s tenure as European Capital of Culture, is one of the more prominent examples, though Heath cited Penny Woolcock’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond as an inspiration. Woolcock also collaborated with an indie music outfit – British Sea Power – when making her ode to the British coast, and the soundtracks lend both it and From Scotland with Love a meditative, melodic quality as well as coherency across the diverse range of images.

Heath used footage from amateur, commercial, public information and even fiction films – from archives and private collections – to create her documentary. She admitted that her preference was for film of all types and gauges, eschewing video and digital video formats. Restricting herself to film allowed Heath to focus on images primarily from the early and mid twentieth century, covering the march of modernity, the growth of consumer culture and tourism, industry, manufacturing and trade unionism, education and entertainment. Unlike Terence Davies, Heath’s curatorial hand is subtle, spotlighting the footage and King Creosote’s soundtrack rather than her own directorial authorship. Heath herself grew up in the Scottish diaspora in New Zealand, so maybe that is why her film has the aura of respect, delicacy and deference of a loving outsider. Or maybe I’m simply projecting my own outside, not-really-Scottish-at-all-anymore experience.

I find that with all of these archival montages, there is a tension between the specificity of life in a certain place and time and the universality of those experiences. Nearly all of these films cover similar material: the ‘old days’ of industry and local pastimes contrasted with the expansion of consumer goods and holidays. The more time I spend in regional archives, the more I come to realise that every seaside town had beauty contests in the Summer – even in the chilly towns of Scotland. I don’t deny the power of memory or the resonance of those images for the people from those places; as a person who lived a decade in Scotland’s capital, I can attest that London was an alien planet when I first arrived, so I think there is definitely something about a person’s immediate locality that shapes them and their perspective. However, everyone is shaped in a similar way – the scenery is different but the experience is the same. Like all pieces of Scottish patriotism (not least the Commonwealth Games themselves), From Scotland with Love has been received as inherently propagandist – a boon for the Yes campaign – but I’m not so sure; I think the film portrays a shared past that is not necessarily unique to the nation it emerged from.

Which brings me to the second tension that I find in these montage films – that between retrospection and introspection. The audience of From Scotland with Love are not all Scottish, and those who are certainly did not live through all the events that have been filmed for posterity. But From Scotland with Love does not comment on or explain these images of the past for the benefit of the uninitiated – they have been quite radically de-contextualised, muted, re-edited, served up with a fresh soundtrack that is – for all its folk inspirations and references – brand new. It is its own thing for the audience to experience and identify with anew. I sometimes wish that cultural institutions were brave enough to exhibit their archives on big screens to international audiences exactly as they are, rather than forever repackaging pretty fragments. The film looks back on the past but invites the audience to look forward.

In pointing out those tensions, however, I do not intend to criticise the finished feature, which is mesmerising and moving. The moments of Scottish specificity that punctuate the film are particularly arresting: the Irn Bru glowing in the saturated hues of reversal film, the children singing ‘Bluebells, Cockleshells’, the newly poignant images from the Glasgow School of Art. Even though none of the footage comes from the 1990s Scotland that I lived in, I could still identify with that place and see what has changed and what has stayed the same.

(The soundtrack is marvellous, by the way.)

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