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Shetland and Screenplay

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I'll be posting something later about how I got to Shetland and home again but I wanted to make a separate posting here about Shetland itself because these have been some truly magical days and as I took off from Sumburgh Airport today on the plane for Orkney I was really sorry to be saying goodbye.

The magic came in many ways. I guess it started with the ferry crossing where I saw (I think) a minke whale swim past the boat. I've never seen one before but there it was.

Then there was the first example of many as to why Shetlanders are such nice people. I was wondering around with my laptop looking for the alleged "free WiFi in the bar area". I saw a young man using his laptop so asked him if he was on the ship WiFi. He was. Good. So I wandered over to another table and tried to connect. I only got a poor signal and failed. As I wandered past him to try another table he asked how I'd got on. "No luck" I said "I'm going to try over there instead". And he then offered to let me use his laptop if I needed to checked my email. Nice.

Lerwick small boat harbour - from the ferry
Lerwick small boat harbour - from the ferry

There was the car hire company who, after a slightly grumpy start when I turned up at 8:40am without advance warning looking for a hire car, pulled their finger out to find out if their insurance company would let me have a car (because of my epilepsy). They did.

I then spend the next couple of days driving around the main island. I did more miles a day in those two days than I've done since my stroke. Why? I suspect because the roads were empty. No threat vectors. Easy driving.

And through gorgeous countryside and in (as everyone told me) unusually fine weather for Shetland I drove about. As I went along people waved to me, not just from other cars like on Islay but people working on their houses or in the fields.

There's road signs at various points warning of otters crossing and having never seen one before I saw two from the car, one as road kill sadly but the other shot across the road ahead of me: like a weasel but a lot bigger and a gorgeous golden brown pelt1.

At the extreme south near Sumburgh Head I saw a pod of porpoises, and somewhere in the north west I found a café overlooking a bay with sea stacks called The Drongs offshore. After having lunch there I sat outside in the sun and very light wind for ages just looking out to sea. It was glorious.

View from the café
View from the café

Back in Lerwick the film festival began. Mark Kermode was, unsurprisingly I guess, just like he appears on the radio and TV and his wife, Linda, is a lovely lady and, sad fan boy that I am, I did get to chat briefly to both of them at one point. But the real pleasure was getting to know the local people. In particular Cathy, who was the leading light behind the festival and her husband who is the (volunteer) projectionist. Cathy discovered fairly early on that I had come up from Cambridge especially for the festival. She was thrilled. This was the first year they'd had people from outside Shetland and she already knew of one other: a woman from Edinburgh. But now she had two of us. (This incidentally was how I got to meet Mark and Linda as Cathy insisted on introducing me to them in that role, Mark was most amused.)

Garrison Theatre where ScreenPlay takes place
Garrison Theatre where ScreenPlay takes place

Cathy's husband was great. Turned out he was a brummy but he'd lived in the west country for a while before moving to Lerwick. We had several long chats.

The rest of the team who were helping to manage the festival were great too. Mainly teenagers who were active in the film club and they all became increasingly friendly as they got to recognise me. Which was nice.

Meanwhile I made another new friend. I'd booked seat K16 for virtually every film but for three of them K16 was already taken so I picked K1 instead. I forgot about this and plonked myself down in K16 for a film and a woman turned up claiming I was in her seat. Which I was. But in the banter that resulted I suddenly realise that this was Cathy's other non-Shetlander. And so another friendship began as Susan and I wibbled on to each other between movies, and bickered over who really owned seat K16.

Talking of new friends there was the nice woman at the B&B with whom I shared a table the first day as the breakfast room was busy but on subsequent days we continued to do so anyway so we could chat. She was there for a knitting conference (along with 160 other people I think she said!). She was from Orkney and today we were on the same plane. When we landed at Kirkwall her mother had turned up to collect her and she offered me a lift into town which was very kind of her and saved me a taxi fare. She even offered to show me around Kirkwall but I decided a quite night in would suit me better.

And that's before I even start on the films. The programme for the festival was pretty varied and a lot of it was stuff I'd not have chosen to see beforehand. But a lot of the films were free and those that weren't were very cheap, and given that I'd come all this way I was determined to do as many as I could. So I ended up doing thirteen films (some "films" were a series of shorts collected together) over three days, including five on Sunday. There were a couple which I wasn't that wild about but most were excellent and a few were outstanding

Jason Isaacs introducing one of his movies
Jason Isaacs introducing one of his movies

The most powerful and thought provoking film was Scars which starred Jason Isaacs as an ex-criminal with an extremely violent past. Based on verbatim transcripts of real conversations with this person it was a disturbing watch. At one level you're thinking "this person is a scary bastard and should be locked up forever" but at another you feel genuinely sorry for him. He's now renounced violence and was clearly very conflicted about what he'd done.

The funniest was another film with Isaacs in, although only with a small role, called Skeletons. It's very strange, very quirky, but very funny. Made on a shoestring budget and deserves a much wider distribution. Look out for it.

The most beautiful film was The First Movie, a film about childhood, cinema and war. It was directed by Mark Cousins in Kurdistan on 2009 where he take his cameras to the children in a small Kurdish village, to show them films, to film them, and to get them to make their own films. It's beautifully shot.

But my favourite film of the festival was an unlikely one, and that only about fifteen other people turned up to watch it suggests this was a common view if you'd only read about it. It was called Sounds Like Teen Spirit and it was a documentary about the Junior Eurovision Song Contest. It's not a contest we enter any more, nor do Germany or France, but 17 countries do and we follow the fortunes of some of the teams. It's real tear jerking stuff and very fine. Really. I think you had to be there.

But this these are just a few of the films. I've not mentioned Stupid Dog, a classic funny short, or Undressing my Mother, a much more serious short, or Oil City Confidential or Requiem For Detroit just to name a few. Or the home made films of the Made in Shetland feature.

Seeing these films, in a cinema, with other people who wanted to watch them and not make mobile phones calls or chatter to their mates, and listening to and asking questions of the directors, the producers, the actors of these films, and discussing them with other viewers all came together to make a great viewing experience.

So after four days of this we went to the final festival party and I had a beer and then I said my goodbyes. Cathy got a huge hug and I wandered off into the night back to my B&B ready to for the flight down to Orkney today.

And even as I left Shetland the magic continued. I've not flown since before 9/11 so all this OTT security is new to me and I realised after I'd checked in my main rucksack as hold baggage that I'd left my plastic spork in my carry on knapsack. Would this be considered a weapon? So I wandered over to security to ask. The nice lady said it was borderline so she volunteered to find my rucksack and put the spork in, which she did. I don't think you'd get that at Heathrow!

Anyway I hope all these incoherent ramblings help explain why the last five days have been so magical for me. I'm now afraid of going back: I fear it would never be so good again.

P.S. lots more photos and video now online here.

  1. Incidentally this confirmed that the creature Beth and I had seen in Milton Country Park a couple of weeks earlier was indeed a mink - that was a similar size but its coat was grey.

Tags: films Written 06/09/10

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