Now we’re talking about film

Colin Hunter is appalled. He needn’t be. As has now been stated, the screening of Useless Dog at the Shetland Marts was not funded by the public. It was organised by volunteers and the Shetland Film Club, at no cost. The dog story was a quirky one that the media picked up on. I made a little film about it too. But, fair enough, if such frivolity is annoying then here’s the serious stuff behind it.

Interest in film and film making in Shetland goes back a long way and does not hark from “cloud cuckoo land”. But, it is beginning to get the recognition it deserves. Independently and on the back of the dogs story Screenplay was widely covered. There were articles by Screenplay curator and film critic Mark Kermode on the BBC and in The Observer and more across the UK and worldwide online.

Screenplay was not a “non-event”. It was a popular event, with audience numbers over 2,000. I was at most films and of course there were some repeat visitors, but in general the audiences changed and spanned generations. With a programme that ranged from Harry Potter to An American in Paris and from The Curse of Steptoe to Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, that’s hardly surprising.

The “arty-farty brigade” included local businesses, film-makers and young people, Shetlanders and non-Shetlanders all mixed up together. There is a big group of talented young people who make films for Screenplay each year. At the first Screenplay many were still at school, many are now training in film and related skills.

Screenplay has helped to develop this talent and some of their films have been seen worldwide online, thanks to the coverage the festival receives. Judging the point or value of Screenplay isn’t just about counting bums on seats.

Shetland has a long tradition of film making. Joanne Jamieson and I have been working to establish a Shetland Moving Image Archive. Last year we completed research to see whether this was needed. It is. There are literally boxes and boxes of cinefilm relating to Shetland in attics and cupboards across the islands made by enthusiastic film makers going back for generations.

A group (of volunteers) has now been set up to try and make the project a reality. These are not good times to be fund-raising but the group is trying to do so in order to preserve this material which due to its fragile nature may soon be lost, along with the stories behind it.

And, of course, there is the hugely important work of film maker Jenny Gilbertson who inspired Joanne’s and my interest in Shetland film from the past in the first place. Shetland has a history of film making, albeit not fully preserved or recorded. Now a sustainable industry based on that (and TV/broadcast/digital media) is a real possibility.

There are already such businesses in Shetland and others providing support services. They make films for the private and public sector and provide production co-ordination for visiting film crews. Last year that included the BBC and crews from several other countries. There have been documentaries about Thomas Fraser, Shetland music and food, Fiddlers’ Bid, a German film about the Coastguard, a Norwegian soap opera and Simon King’s series, to name but a few.

Shooting a film or documentary involves a lot of work and visiting crews employ local services and people when they come. There has also been community film projects organised by SIC adult learning and the Bridges project in recent years. And all sorts of homemade Shetland films can be found on YouTube.

As part of Screenplay there were sessions with Creative Scotland, the Scottish Documentary Institute and the development manager for Screen in the Highlands and Islands. They were here, at their own expense, to advise local film makers and to look at how to promote Shetland worldwide as a location for films. Shetland Arts and the SIC economic development unit are also working hard on this.

New technology and the technical and educational facilities that Mareel will offer (it’s not just a cinema) make this type of work increasingly viable. Screenplay further supports this, as will the growing number of creative industries courses at Shetland College. If local film makers grow our businesses we can employ people trained here, to work here.

So, a Shetland film festival is not a “non event” and the “arty-farty brigade” includes people of all ages working professionally and voluntarily with film. Some are interested in preserving Shetland’s film heritage, some in establishing a much needed industry for the 21st century and some are doing both.

I do freelance work for various organisations, including Shetland Arts. However, I am not an employee, nor am I directly involved in organising Screenplay. But, as someone working in film/digital media I think it important to explain what that involves and to try and show that is has potential.

The questions raised by doubters do need answers. It is not the questions that are a problem, but knee-jerk statements and inaccuracies are a bit frustrating. They have a habit of sinking in as the truth. But, I have to say Mr Hunter, fair play for getting people talking about film.

Karen Emslie


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