Scots documentary short Lost Treasure unearthed for film festival

AN abandoned film about life in the Highlands thought lost has resurfaced after 60 years '“ fittingly, it's called Lost Treasure. Malcolm Jack hears about how a specially commissioned musical performance will accompany its resurrection

A still from Lost Treasure
A still from Lost Treasure

What’s striking is that not a lot has changed since then,” says singer Drew Wright of the social and political relevancy of a reel of film which has languished unseen in the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive for 60 years. “In terms of, for example, the pattern of land ownership in Scotland, not a lot has changed.”

The raw footage that comprises the unintentionally aptly titled Lost Treasure was shot around the Highlands by the Glasgow socialist filmmaking collective Dawn Cine Group in 1956, as the basis for a narrative feature knitting together evocative imagery – from mountainsides and crumbling crofts to a half-built Douneray nuclear power station – with folk song and personal testimony and a strong left-wing political message. Just as Dawn’s previous film, Let Glasgow Flourish, had successfully highlighted the overcrowded and unsanitary conditions of Glasgow’s inner city slums, Lost Treasure was supposed to draw attention to the crisis of depopulation in rural Scotland. But before it could be completed, Dawn ran out of funding, and the 40 minutes or so of material was shelved.

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A still from Lost Treasure

It might never have been seen again had Matt Lloyd, Director of the Glasgow Short Film Festival (GSFF), not dug up Lost Treasure. Moved by what he saw, and especially the detailed shooting script – “a remarkably ambitious and rich piece of writing,” Lloyd remarks – he has commissioned an innovative audio-visual performance inspired by and integrating elements of the original film. It had its world premiere at the opening of GSFF 2016, and now tours Scotland in the run-up to the Scottish parliamentary elections, at which some of the themes addressed by Lost Treasure are expected to be hot topics. It’s estimated half of all privately owned land in Scotland is still controlled by a tiny minority – just 432 people. The Scottish Government’s proposed Land Reform Bill seeks to radically redress that fact.

Lloyd handed the task of formulating a creative response to Lost Treasure to Finnish filmmaker Minttu Mäntynen and Drew Wright AKA Wounded Knee, a Scottish singer and experimental vocalist with an interest in archives, traditional song and found material (“and he likes mountains,” adds Lloyd). As a partner in the musical aspect of the performance, Wright in turn brought in Hamish Brown, one half of Edinburgh electronic duo Swimmer One.

It’s important not to think of what Mäntynen, Wright, and Brown have done as somehow “finishing” the original Lost Treasure, says Lloyd – an undertaking that he reckons would have been not only “ethically dubious” but moreover impossible because only around a third of the script was shot in the end. The three have instead steadily pieced together a kind of live collage using the archive footage as a visual primer and adding to that layers of additional material and meaning, be it original and traditional songs or readings from poems and texts.

“Some stuff is quite specific and some stuff is quite abstract,” explains Wright. “There’ll be times when we want the audience to appreciate the imagery, and perhaps the music provides the soundtrack to that, and there will be times when we want the music to come to the fore. We’ve done a bit of experimenting with repetition, looping and slowing down bits of the film.”

A still from Lost Treasure

The true test of the reworked Lost Treasure will come when it tours Scotland, from Helmsdale and Lochinver to Bo’ness and Hawick, visiting many areas where absentee landlords and forced evictions of tenant farmers are very live issues. Where possible they’ll stage Q&As, to engage with audiences about the topics raised. “I’m looking forward to meeting people and learning more from their perspective and hearing what their response to the film is,” says Wright.

Lloyd has meanwhile been endeavoring to track down people connected to the Dawn Cine Group. A BBC Reporting Scotland news item brought out several family members, including the wife of group leader Bill MacGregor, who was also the film’s lead actor, and the brother of lead actress Ann Wright Orr. “We didn’t even have names for either actor, so that was an exciting discovery,” says Lloyd.

What has already become very apparent is the grand ambition of the Dawn Cine Group to achieve much with scant resources. “ Lost Treasure involved scenes shot all over the Highlands, but these were amateur filmmakers who raised funds for a new camera by running jumble sales and lectures,” says Lloyd. “I’ve heard from two sons of one member of the group who remembered the shoot as their summer holiday.”

Lloyd believes the Dawn film-makers would still see a strong sociopolitical imperative for the project six decades on: “The script is very much of its time, and some of its images of positive progress, such as the half-built Dounreay, have a very different meaning today, but largely its narrative of rural depopulation and the negative impact on Scotland as a whole is still very relevant today.

“Obviously there have been significant victories since then – community buyouts, repopulated and rejuvenated islands, a resurgence of Gaelic – but there is a long way to go in terms of the sort of infrastructure and opportunities that can keep rural communities alive and thriving. One very positive thing that’s been retained following the referendum is a widespread appetite for land reform, for seeing bold changes pushed through. That’s very exciting, and in that context it doesn’t hurt to keep hearing this story again and again, to remind ourselves what’s at stake.”

• Lost Treasure is touring to cinemas across Scotland this month, see for details