Alex Colville is top knotch.
I wrote this piece about the visionary Scottish Filmmaker Bill Douglas a few years back. It had loads of daft wee mistakes so I did a rewrite.
Bill Douglas and a World of Black Ash
Jamie on his back in a coal wagon. He struggles himself up to a crouched position.
The village recedes.
Jamie spits at this place that has caused him so much pain.
The village disappears.
The wagons drift away all sound and sway towards the horizon.
The extract above is from the final sequence of Bill Douglas’ ‘My Childhood’ (1972). The filmed version of this passage was the first of Douglas’ work I was ever exposed to one dull afternoon flipping through the TV channels as a teenager. What I think struck me then was how it captured the paradox of childhood, how being a child is simultaneously whimsical and brutal. What strikes me now looking at the script is how closely the words match my memory of the scene. Since then I’ve tracked down all of Douglas’ available work and it is his influence that has spurred me on as a filmmaker more than any other; he was poetic, complex and singular.
Douglas’ best-known work is his ‘Trilogy’; three films that run from 40 minutes to an hour-long telling the story of Douglas’ own childhood. The films on the surface may appear to be standard kitchen-sink fare; black and white, focusing on working-class life and made with low, low budgets.
But these films are poems and when I say poems I don’t mean they are “poetic” or fanciful. Douglas’ work has a legitimate poetic structure, his images are simple but precise and his arrangement of these images, though initially puzzling, do tell a story. The most important poetic device Douglas relied upon were what he referred to as “echoes”; the repetition of (most often) visual compositions, dialogue or sounds in different parts of the narrative. My favourite example of this is in the ‘Trilogy’, in the first scene we see the main character (Jamie) listening to his teacher talk about the cosmos, we cut suddenly to an animation of stars rushing towards us. In itself this scene is simply about a child’s imagination. Later on we see Jamie again in the classroom, this time he’s wet himself, we cut away to miners (a very likely future for Jamie), their headlamps in pitch-black float towards us mimicking the stars rushing past us previously. It’s an almost Zen thought; the same image contains both freedom and drudgery. To describe these sequences does them no justice (perhaps even harms them) but since Douglas is often labeled as an instinctual director I think it’s important to highlight the hard work and deep thought that produced ideas like these. Douglas understood very clearly that every image contains an idea as well as an emotion, an idea that many filmmakers today cannot seem to reconcile.
Douglas’ unlike many filmmakers dealt brilliantly with the discord between reading a screenplay and watching a film (excepting perhaps Kubrick and his dialogue/action swapping technique). Modern screenplay formats come from a period when the film industry was becoming more and more restrictive and controlling of the filmmaker. In the early days of silent films they often had no script, for example Douglas Fairbanks Sr.’s script for the epic ‘Robin Hood’ (1922) was a few scribbles on a sheet of paper. When the talkies arrived screenplays were necessary as a document of dialogue but soon became a way to predict and quantify the cost of an unmade film. There have been many great screenwriters that worked within the confines of this standard format but their triumph was often strong words over a weak format. Douglas’ however created his own format. Douglas wrote with an emphasis on the feeling of a sequence, on the arrangement of images and the feelings those images should stir. He was known to start scripts entirely from scratch if he hit a snag, even well into the process if the scripts pace or rhythm began to falter. Douglas’ scripts are often comprised single sentences giving the appearance of a shot list, however unlike a shot list the language is very descriptive, almost literary and prizes the feeling of a shot over its contents, for example in the script for ‘My Ain Folk’ (1973).
Jamie burying the pearls in coal dust on the slag heap. Then he hurries away.
A world of black ash. And the pearls hidden forever.
What we see in the film is Jamie burying pearls in a mid-shot, then an extreme wide of him running away. This cut from mid to wide confuses the geography somewhat, we search for the spot Jamie was just a moment ago burying the pearls and we can’t find it. The pearls are lost to us in the blackness filling the screen, hidden forever.
Unfortunately the boldness that set Douglas apart also made securing funding especially difficult; if you can’t clearly monetise the script how can you be sure it’s worth the gamble? I mean, how on earth can we afford a whole world of black ash?
By Rory Alexander Stewart
Good Girl won the Skinny/Innis & Gunn Short Film Competition and Tully got a big fake cheque.
Stills from the of the National Theatre of Scotland’s “Dear Scotland” performances that I filmed & edited in May.
A few are already available to view on The Space right now.
Inuit children at boarding school. The sign on the wall behind them reads, “Please do not speak Eskimo.” (1914)
This reminds me of how whole sects of complex Inuktitut dialects were wiped out by Euro settlers. There were hundreds of different and diverse dialects in Canadian Inuktitut languages alone, and a chunk of that was wiped out during early 20th century. That language is already on the brink of collapse (only 35,000 or so now loosely speak it).
They also took away not just their language, but their surnames, and replaced them with ID-numbers. As if taking their children and capturing them into residential schools (where they were systematically gaslighted, sexually abused and experimented on the regular) wasn’t enough, an Inuit child’s name was legit changed to something like “Annie E7-121.”
Filmed more with Julie and Jenna (WYLD crew represent). Here’s Steven being a test dummy for a fake burn.
Filmed a bit of a thing with Julie today. Was decent.
I’m really proud of Julie Speers for winning a BAFTA New Talent award for her performance in my short “WYLD”.
Huge shout out to Jenna O’Neill who also gave an amazing (first time) performance in the film.
Big up Gary McCormack who also played in the film, he was a huge help and inspiration to both Julie and Jenna. His tiger chat is top-shelf too.
And obviously massive shine for the entire cast & crew who were A DREEEEEAAAAAM team.
I’m dead chuffed that Julie got nominated for a BAFTA New Talent award for her performance in WYLD.
Two portraits of Keri.