Peter Ross at large: Swinton lifts the curtain on her cinema of dreams

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Never believe it when people tell you that children want to watch tat

TILDA Swinton may be a fashion icon and Oscar-winning actress but somehow it comes as no surprise to bump into her on a back street in Nairn looking for a suitable nook in which her spaniel pup can obey the call of nature. "Rosie, just do a pee," she begs. "Oh no, she's doing a jobbie now."

There's no time for that. Swinton is in a rush to get back to see the second short film in a double bill at the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, the film festival she has curated in her home town along with Mark Cousins, a former director of the Edinburgh Film Festival. The venue is a disused bingo hall on the High Street, not too far from the Highland Hospice, a charity shop that Swinton lists in the current issue of Vanity Fair as her favourite place in the world to buy vintage clothes. She's in the magazine as part of their Best Dressed Women lists, along with Carla Bruni and Michelle Obama. Today, Swinton, 47, is wearing a kilt and furry waistcoat; the little leather sporran round her neck has been borrowed from her god-daughter and she's using it to carry her mobile. Later on, this look will be complemented by a huge pair of Vivienne Westwood sunglasses. And a bridie.

The tabloid journalists hanging around grumble into their drinks that she's not looking glam enough for their pages, and they are also peeved that George Clooney, rumoured to be turning up, has failed to do so. The truth is that the Cinema of Dreams, which runs until Saturday, is not a red carpet kind of event. It's aesthetic, it's ramshackle and home-made. This extends to the entrance fee. Instead of paying money, you can bake some cakes, bring them along and get in for free. If you do pay cash, it's not dear. You could go and see every film in the programme for 42. The Sunday morning screening of the Miss Marple adventure Murder Most Foul will be free to anyone who turns up in pyjamas; wear a kilt and you can enter gratis to Boswell And Johnson's Tour Of The Western Isles, written and directed by Swinton's partner, John Byrne.

I follow Swinton into the cinema. The space has been transformed for the occasion, painted in red and blue and decorated with Chinese lanterns and Warholish silver balloons. There are 140 people in here, a full house including dozens of children, many of them reclining on deckchairs and beanbags. There was a big queue this morning, which is extraordinary when you think that what they are so eager to see are two short films for children from 1949 and 1966.

The first is in Danish and a young woman, Emily, shouts out the English translation as it plays. I sit beside Swinton and watch a charming film called Paddle To The Sea, about a little boy who carves a wooden toy and sets it loose on the waves. Rosie growls a little but no one seems to mind, and at the end everyone claps and cheers. There was an idea that people should rattle jam jars full of dried peas, but I can't hear this over the sound of someone waving wind chimes about.

"That was absolutely wonderful," says Daryl Joyce, a local woman who has brought along four-year-old Ciara and three-year-old Joel. "It's magical for children and exactly what we need. It drags Nairn out of the Dark Ages."

In the adjoining caf afterwards, Swinton and Cousins chomp tablet and explain that this event is the first initiative of their 8 Foundation. They are hoping to establish a cinema day for children, funded by the film industry, which would mean that anyone who applied over the internet would receive a great film on DVD when their child turned eight-and-a-half. It would be piloted in Nairn and a town in Iraq, then rolled out internationally.

I ask for their own childhood memories of cinema. Swinton remembers going to see newsreels in London – "Saying that makes me feel like bloody Captain Mainwaring" – but says she actually preferred the panto to the pictures, especially when Ronnie Corbett and Stanley Baxter were performing.

"The first film that had a real impact on me was The Exorcist," says Cousins. "I was 11 and my aunt got a bootleg copy. Because it was a very Catholic family, she said: 'We can only watch it if we put holy water on it first.' So she put it in the VHS player and then blessed it. I remember I was eating chips, and when I put white vinegar on, I felt as if I was blessing them."

Swinton chats to some people who have come from Papua New Guinea and Lithuania and then heads for the gents' toilet with a piece of white chalk. "I'm inviting graffiti," she explains before writing "The strangest things are true and the truest things are strange" on the wall. The poor chap in the cubicle looks a bit embarrassed when he comes out. A woman going into the ladies asks whether it is okay to write something rude. "Whatever you like," says Swinton. "One person's obscene is another person's Hallmark card, and vice versa."

By this time, the 1950 film All About Eve is due to start. David Bowie's 'Oh You Pretty Things' blasts out. When the chorus kicks in, a spotlight begins sweeping the room. Swinton and Cousins climb the stepladders at opposite sides of the screen and unfurl a huge flag on which John Byrne has painted 'The State Of Cinema' in gold. "Welcome to the Cinema of Dreams," Swinton says, "and what could be dreamier on a Saturday afternoon than All About Eve? This has been my daughter Honor's favourite film since she was six, and she can recite lines from it, so never believe it when people tell you that children want to watch tat. They don't. Children want Joseph Mankiewicz."

I speak to Swinton shortly afterwards, next to the box office. She seems giddy with success. When I tell her that locals have been saying they want something like this here permanently, her eyes gleam. "Actually, my great dream is to run a cinema," she says. "That would be absolutely wonderful."

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