The small Scottish towns reinventing film festivals

Dunoon town centre. Picture: Johnston Press
Dunoon town centre. Picture: Johnston Press
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The Dunoon Film Festival is a welcome addition to a new breed of events focusing on what films mean for a community, writes Alistair Harkness

Film festivals have been changing over the last few years. While their apparent ubiquity in every city, town and village might once have threatened to diminish their value, the inventiveness with which many of these upstart events are being staged is having the opposite effect. The old Cannes and Venice-inspired model of red carpet premieres and exclusive screenings of tastemaker films has given way to quirkier, more esoteric and less industry-driven events.

In the UK, newer citywide festivals such as the hugely successful Glasgow Film Festival have been at the forefront of these changes, but it’s the rise of smaller, community-driven film festivals that has really started to change what we mean by the term film festival.

“I think the concepts of what festivals are have changed hugely,” says Allan Hunter, curator of this month’s inaugural Dunoon Film Festival and co-artistic director of the Glasgow Film Festival. “I used to meet people not that long ago who didn’t think film festivals were for them; they thought they wouldn’t be able to get in, that they were elitist. The idea that you need a lot of money, that you need something established, something for the industry – all those things are fluid now. Now you can almost do whatever you want, wherever you want … and tailor it to a community and the budget you have.”

The Dunoon Film Festival, which has been initiated by the Dunoon Burgh Hall Trust as part of its ongoing plan to restore the hall and turn it into a viable year-round arts venue to service the local community, is certainly indicative of a growing appetite for a more localised celebration of cinema.

In Scotland alone there’s the Cromarty Film Festival (where guest speakers such as Tony Benn are invited to introduce their favourite films), ScreenPlay in Shetland (co-curated by writer, critic and broadcaster Mark Kermode), the Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness, and the Southside Film Festival in Glasgow. Back in 2008 there was also Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins’ Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, which took place in Swinton’s hometown of Nairn and attracted worldwide attention with its ad hoc screening room, cake-baking entry fee and highly personalised selection of films (including two chosen by guest curator Joel Coen).

What differentiates these festivals? “It’s partly down to the films and it’s partly down to the atmosphere you create,” says Matt Lloyd, who managed Ballerina Ballroom and is the producer and co-curator of the Dunoon Film Festival. “And a vital part of it is not parachuting into a community and taking it over, but working with the local community and using buildings that they all have an affection for.

“It’s also about trying to create that pleasure that everyone has had at some point, usually when they’re very young, of going to the cinema and seeing something huge for the first time and being totally amazed by it. We’ve all gone through it, but we all lose sight of because we go to big shed-like multiplexes where the lights are snapped on and off and we’re bombarded with adverts.”

Another appeal of these types of film festivals, though, is the freedom to create a specific identity. Though there were discussions early on with regards to Dunoon about whether it would focus on a particular genre of filmmaking such as musicals or thrillers, for its first year it was decided to keep the programme quite diverse, but with a distinctively Scottish slant.

Thus, alongside screenings of old favourites, such as Local Hero and The Maggie, is a Scottish shorts programming featuring internationally acclaimed work such as the BAFTA-nominated Tumult and The Making of Longbird; an exhibition of press photography capturing megastars of yesteryear such as James Stewart, Frank Sinatra and James Mason out and about in Scotland; a mini Alan Sharp retrospective, and the first screening since its original broadcast in 1990 of John Byrne’s Your Cheatin’ Heart.

It’s the last of these that seems to have generated the most excitement. Playing throughout the weekend, Byrne’s acclaimed follow-up to Tutti Frutti has never been repeated or released on home video or DVD, so its inclusion in the programme represents a bit of a coup for the festival – not least because Byrne and star Eddi Reader will be on hand to introduce the first episode (and perhaps explain why it has been unavailable for so long).

The Scottish focus does, however, also give the festival a useful celebratory feel when it comes to our screen heritage. “That’s still something we might not do all that well,” says Hunter. “It’s that typical thing where you don’t honour your own that much.”

The Alan Sharp retrospective is a case in point. Raised in nearby Greenock, the late screenwriter became part of the Hollywood New Wave of the 1970s, scripting Easy Rider star Peter Fonda’s directorial debut, The Hired Hand, as well as the Vietnam allegory Ulzana’s Raid, and Bonnie & Clyde director Arthur Penn’s downbeat detective film Night Moves. He also worked with Sam Peckinpah on his final film, The Osterman Weekend, and wrote the screenplay for 1995’s Rob Roy. Yet he’s never been particularly fêted in his own right.

“When he died in February, I kind of assumed there would be some screenings of his films and people would take a bit more notice of that fact,” says Hunter, who has included Rob Roy, Ulzana’s Raid and Night Moves in the programme. “For somebody who grew up working the shipyards in Greenock and then went off to Hollywood he had an amazing career in terms of what he achieved and what he did. He’s the sort of person you think:,‘Shouldn’t Bafta Scotland have given him a lifetime achievement award?’ This was just our way of paying tribute.”

Sharp’s specific connection to the surrounding area underscores another potential benefit of the this festival and others like it: encouraging local talent. “It’s a great way to support local filmmakers, because there’s a lot of filmmaking going on in the surrounding areas,” says Lloyd of Dunoon. Indeed, a selection of locally made shorts will be screened alongside We Are Northern Lights, the shot-by-the-public portrait of Scotland that has been touring cinemas since February, and which features several contributions from people living in and around Dunoon.

“I think if you’re going to be embedded in the community, you need to show stuff that’s made locally,” adds Hunter, “but it’s also just way of encouraging anyone who has those aspirations. Over the course of a weekend you might meet a filmmaker or do a spot of filmmaking or see something that says: this is something I could do. It’s not an impossible dream for anybody.”

That participatory aspect extends to organising the festival too: on the Saturday evening of the weekend-long event a team of teenage film fans from Dunoon Grammar school will be putting on their own themed double-bill. “The kids wanted a 1980s theme,” says Hunter, “so we gave them a list of films that were available and to their credit they chose Teen Wolf and The Lost Boys rather than going for something obvious like Indiana Jones or Ghostbusters.”

“They’re doing their own marketing for it as well,” says Lloyd. “They’re making their own trailers, they’re selling the tickets, and we got them to book the films themselves and ring up the distributors and negotiate rates. And they got far better rates than I would have got, so that’s been really fantastic.”

In the end, this sense of creating a community through film seems to be why these types of festivals are growing in popularity. “It’s all about reclaiming the word ‘festival’ in a way,” suggests Lloyd. “A festival used to be about a community coming together for a short period to create, not quite a utopia, but a space where all different social strata could come together and forget their differences. By encouraging people to pitch in, everyone becomes more aware of one another and it becomes a communal event. Which is what cinema should be.”

• The Dunoon Film Festival runs from 14-16 June. www.dunoonfilmfestival.org

Highlights

WOUNDED KNEE: DRIFTERS

Scottish documentary filmmaker John Grierson was a pioneer of the form and this live event offers a rare opportunity to see his 1929 film Drifters with a live electro folk score composed by Wounded Knee.

PARIS-MANHATTAN

One of the non-Scottish new films screening, this French comedy wears its influences on its sleeve by following the romantic travails of a Woody Allen-obsessed pharmacist.

NIGHT MOVES

If you’re going to check out any of the Alan Sharp retrospective, check out this: it’s his best film, features a cracking performance from Gene Hackman and remains one of the most underrated films of the 1970s.

THE LOST ART OF THE FILM EXPLAINER

Another live event, this time focused on the theatre once deployed to enhance silent cinema.

YOUR CHEATIN’ HEART

Because it’s practically the only way to see it again.