A SURE sign of the arrival of autumn is the awards season cranking into gear – and BAFTA Scotland was quick off the mark last week with the launch of its own ceremony.
Although we’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to see the full list of nominations, the launch of the revived “audience award” was a timely new opportunity to assess the condition of the Scottish film industry. Leaving aside the understandable confusion over why Filth and Sunshine on Leith both have to wait to another year for the prospect of glory – they were not released or screened at a festival quickly enough, basically – it was striking that half of the films on the shortlist for the public vote were documentaries.
Alan de Pellette, BAFTA Scotland’s acting director, was refreshingly honest about how the eight-strong list was compiled – and the relatively small number of films being made north of the Border each year.
If you entered a film or documentary for best film in this year’s award, if it was accepted for consideration, and if you were happy to also be put forward for the audience award then you made the shortlist. It was as simple as that.
Admittedly, the makers of two other relatively high-profile features, Not Another Happy Ending and For Those in Peril, were not on the audience award list because of their planned commercial releases.
But if documentaries had been ruled out, the shortlist for the public vote would have looked a little threadbare, to say the least. It also means that documentaries stand a reasonable shout of winning best film despite – somewhat confusingly – documentary makers also having their own category to enter at the Scottish BAFTAs.
Is this necessarily a bad thing?
A key question is whether documentaries should be treated on an equal footing with traditional feature films – not just with awards schemes, but also when it comes to cinema programming.
I’d say there is now growing evidence to support the case for the defence, not just because of the quality of the film-making, but the way previously untold or neglected stories can be brought to life.
The most memorable films I saw at the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year were all documentaries. Both We Steal Secrets, the first of two films about Wikileaks this year, and The Battle of the Sexes, which relived Billie Jean King’s tussles with Bobby Riggs in the 1970s, had me gripped from start to finish.
Fire in the Night, the hugely acclaimed Piper Alpha documentary, was an emotional roller-coaster that not only wowed the critics in Edinburgh, but deservedly walked away with the overall audience award. The STV production is in the BAFTA Scotland running along with another well-received EIFF doc I Am Breathing, about the final months of a young man battling motor neurone disease, and two from this year’s Glasgow Film Festival – We Are Northern Lights, a crowd-sourced feature edited from 1,500 contributions, and The Happy Lands, about the impact of the 1926 miners’ strike on communities in Fife.
If I needed any further convincing about my new-found affection for documentaries, I found it at the CCA in Glasgow when BAFTA hosted a screening of a recently completed documentary about Alasdair Gray.
Kevin Cameron has spent well over a decade with Glasgow’s best-known artist – and has produced a remarkable profile of him at work on some of his best-known murals in the city, as well as tracing his hugely varied career from his days studying at art school.
Many of Gray’s supporters feel he was unfairly maligned after the publication of his “settlers and colonists” essay last December.
The film, A Life in Progress, should help to redress the balance if and when it is released, thanks to the insight it offers into Gray’s entertaining, complex and quirky characteristics, as well as the contributions from the likes of Ian Rankin and Liz Lochhead. It is no exaggeration to say it could completely redefine how Gray is perceived as he prepares to turn 80 next year.
Producers Hopscotch say the plan is to get it out in time to coincide with the launch of Kelvingrove’s big Alasdair Gray birthday retrospective in September. For my money, it would make the perfect companion piece.