This year, Havana Glasgow Film Festival is actually going to Havana, bringing Scottish films and DJs to the city in the spirit of cultural exchange. Here, Glasgow-based journalist Brian Beadie looks at the history of Scottish cinema through its best films, some of which you’ll know, some of which you might not, and some of which are screening in Havana.
A Portrait of Ga (Margaret Tait, 1952)
If Scottish film in the 50s was largely confined to documentaries – and industrial and travel docs at that – Margaret Tait set herself up on a fiercely independent path making personal, poetic films entirely outside the system, as something of a one woman cottage industry. A Portrait of Ga may be a mere five minutes long, but set out many of the abiding themes of her work; a fascination with the Orcadian landscape, a portrait of people and places of significance to Tait – in this case her mother, whose quirky character shines through whether eating boiled sweets or having a fag break – and an intuitive editing scheme structured according to an innate sense of colour.
Tait would be largely marginalised in her life, making one feature film, Blue Black Permanent in 1992. Amazingly, this was the first feature made by a Scottish female filmmaker – Cuba had achieved this nearly twenty years earlier with Sara Gómez’s De Cierta Manera. Now she can be regarded and better understood as the first of a rich line of artist filmmakers to have emerged from Scotland.
Bill Douglas Trilogy (Bill Douglas, 1972 – 78)
Bill Douglas’ series of three semiautobiographical mid length films built into a trilogy of overwhelming effect, and would prove a landmark in the representation of working class lives. Produced on a shoestring budget by the BFI, these monochrome films unerringly evoke the desolation of life in postwar Scotland, following a boy Jamie as he’s shunted from the care of grandparent to even less caring grandparent. The picture of deprivation printed is indelible; from such details as heating a cup of hot water to warm the granny’s hands, the film feels utterly convincing, if the tone is bleak. You feel at times that you’re watching a film set in the developing world rather than a 20th century European country. Yet, when Jamie is called up on National Service and sent to Egypt, he (and the film) come out of their shell, to find some tentative hope.
That Sinking Feeling (Bill Forsyth, 1979)
Incredibly, the first full length feature film to be entirely produced by Scotland, That Sinking Feeling may have been an ultra low budget (£5,000, as recorded in The Guinness Book of Records) 16mm film using the – unpaid – cast of a youth theatre, but the film’s heart and wit exceeded its budget, launching the career of Bill Forsyth. Set on the not-so-mean streets of Glasgow, the film follows the adventures of a hapless band of teenage would-be criminals whose masterplan is the heist of some virtually worthless sinks. As rough-edged as the film is, it would eventually win a US release, where the actors’ voices had to be redubbed to make them less Scottish, not the last film on this list to be awarded that dubious honour.
Gregory’s Girl (Bill Forsyth, 1980)
Bill Forsyth’s second film is probably the best loved film in Scottish cinema, and it’s easy to see why. Set in the unpromising setting of Cumbernauld, the film explores the amorous confusions of pawky teenager Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair), who finds himself attracted to the girl who replaced him as goalie for the school team (Dee Hepburn). Perhaps only a Scottish film could make this link between sex and football; it’s certainly the antithesis of leering teen sex comedies of the eighties. Its humane, spot on wit, brilliant dialogue and off the wall sight gags are performed to perfection by a cast from Scots pop star Claire Grogan as Gregory’s actual girl to legendary Glaswegian comic Chic Murray as a hilariously eccentric teacher.
Restless Natives (Michael Hoffman, 1986)
All countries have their popular native hits, films that are a big success at home and unknown anywhere else Restless Natives is a film virtually unknown outside of Scotland, but one that struck a nerve and became a cult film here in the 1980s. Set against the backdrop of unemployment that was endemic in the country, the film follows two teenagers Vince and Ronnie as they hatch up a plan to become modern highwaymen, robbing rich English and American tourists who have come to see such Scottish tourist landmarks as Glencoe. In their jokeshop costumes of the clown and the wolfman, they become notorious, and on the run from police and G-men (Ned Beatty). The film trades in the whimsical humour of Bill Forsyth, but is not quite as sharp. However, the gentle anti-establishment vibe and Big Country soundtrack struck a chord with audiences north of the border – it’s definitely a Scottish thing.
Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996)
Trainspotting would prove to be not just the most iconic Scottish film of the 90s, but one of the defining films of Britain in the decade. Irvine Walsh’s scabrously funny novel of Edinburgh junkies discovering the joys of rave culture had scandalised Scottish fiction; how could you match it on film? From the adrenaline-fuelled opening of Renton and Spud being chased down Princes Street to Lust For Life, while Ewan McGregor recites the now legendary ‘Choose life’ mantra -which would form the basis of one of the most effective marketing campaigns in cinema history – the film would rise to the occasion, making stars out of McGregor and Robert Carlyle. A killer soundtrack helped no end. Which would grace every student’s bedroom in the ‘90s, alongside the poster.
Orphans (Peter Mullan, 1998)
Trainspotting was such a massive success that interest turned northwards, although when Channel 4 financed Peter Mullan’s directorial debut, they didn’t get what they were expecting. One of Scotland’s finest actors, Mullan had made some fine shorts, but they weren’t exactly conventional. A blackly comic film about grief, Orphans follows three brothers and their sister in the aftermath of their mother’s death, leading up to the funeral. The siblings deal with this event in different ways, from the solace of religion to drink. Neither can be relied on; one gets stabbed after the pub, and the roof of the church gets blown off. With its wild tonal shifts and scabrous humour, Orphans may have caught audiences unawares, bur does any film catch better what it’s like to live – or die – in Glasgow?
Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)
Lynne Ramsay was another acclaimed short filmmaker, but one whose debut would launch one of the most acclaimed careers in Scottish – and British – cinema. Set in Glasgow during the ‘70s bins strikes, this lyrical, allusive film follows a young boy, James, consumed by guilt over his involvement in a friend’s death, as he retreats into a private world. Although dealing with poor characters on a council estate, Ramsay’s style – already in evidence here, went beyond social realism to grant her characters inner lives and to probe them. This was a film more in debt to Robert Bresson than Ken Loach – nowhere more so than in the deeply ambiguous ending where Jamie’s family achieve their dream of a new house in a New Town – or don’t, according to your interpretation.
Sweet Sixteen (Ken Loach, 2002)
Crusading director Ken Loach has been attacking injustice in British life for over 50 years, so it was only a matter of time before his attention would turn to Scotland. This may be partly because of his collaboration with Scottish screenwriter Paul Laverty, although, unfortunately, there is so much material for him to work with here. Sweet Sixteen (never has a title been more ironic) explored the effects of poverty and social exclusion through the story of a 15 year old boy Liam, irresistibly played by Martin Compston, who would go on to a successful acting career. His mission is to try and find the funds to buy his mum a caravan so that they can escape their bleak existence in Greenock when she gets out of jail. As this is an environment defined by drugs, that’s where Liam’s entrepreneurial spirit finds its focus, and its natural undoing.
All Divided Selves (Luke Fowler, 2011)
While Scots audiences and filmmakers often bemoan the lack of opportunity for and quality of Scottish films, Glasgow’s recently acquired status as a player on the contemporary art scene has led to it becoming a hotspot for artists’ films. Glaswegian filmmaker Luke Fowler is one of the finest; his complex, allusive takes on documentary often explore the work and legacy of failed Utopian thinkers and dreamers. R.D. Laing, the patron of antipsychiatry, is both a classic Fowler subject and Scottish culture hero; a sixties guru and counterculture legend who took on the psychiatric establishment in a blaze of publicity and LSD, and ended up drunken and discredited. All Divided Selves vividly explores his contested legacy through a brilliant mix of archive footage and 16mm material shot by Fowler that, in its slippery refusal to make conventional sense or state the obvious, forms a perfect tribute to the man and his work.
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer, 2014)
Under the Skin is like nothing else in Scottish film, a true UFO on the cinematic landscape. What other film has Scarlett Johanssen playing a space alien driving a white van around eating the unsuspecting men of Glasgow? For that reason alone, despite its flaws, the film would be hard not to love. An A-lister like hers’ presence in the city is alien enough, as in the daring street scenes shot with hidden cameras where she wanders down Sauchiehall Street seeking her prey. Adapted from Michel Faber’s novel, she may be part of the vanguard to save her alien world, but nothing is to be taken for granted in this supremely strange film. Johanssen is implacable as the woman who fell to earth, and Nic Roeg’s influence visible from the visual style to her exploration of the difficulties of how to pass for human.
Nae Paseran (Felipe Bustos Sierra, 2018)
Scotland has a long tradition of radical politics, one that is shared with many Latin American politics, not least Cuba. Nae Paseran is a documentary which tells the incredible story of how, in 1974, after the Chilean dictator Pinochet staged a military coup, some Scottish workers came to influence events on the other side of the world. From East Kilbride to be precise, where they worked on repairing Hawker Hunter airplane engines. An act they refused to carry out for Chilean planes for four years, and one which had a real effect in Chile, despite the junta’s protestations to the contrary. Director Felipe Bustos Sierra grew up in Belgium as his parents had fled the country, but had heard legendary stories. When the Chilean government would eventually recognise and celebrate these men’s daring, bestowing on them a civilian honour, he would be there to record this overwhelmingly moving gesture in his film.