Before looking at the project itself, probably best to offer up some sort of context. 2012 was declared the Year of Creative Scotland, in which the entire year would be devoted to cultivating a wide variety of creative and cultural projects that could be used to showcase the multitude of works, talents and endeavours across the country, with £6.5 million of National Lottery funds being invested by Creative Scotland.
Of the many, many projects that were initiated by this funding, one was a film project proposed by filmmaker Nick Higgins. Here’s a video of the man himself explaining the idea behind the project:
If you can’t play that video for some reason, or just can’t be bothered watching it, I’ll summarise. The idea is this – A film about Scotland, made by those who live there. The people of Scotland were asked to grab a camera and head out and film what was important to them. Anyone could take part, and all they were asked to consider were three things:
1) What can you see?
2) What do you wish you had seen?
3) What would you like to see?
Pretty straight forward, I think. It’s simply asking the Scottish public what it is they see or feel when asked to capture something of the Scotland they know, and would like to share with others. Submissions were open from 20th March to 21st June 2012. Three months for the Scottish public to answer the call to tell everyone what it is to them to be Scottish.
Over 1500 submissions were sent in, resulting in around 300 hours of footage that would, over the course of the subsequent 5 months be whittled down to a film of around 95 minutes. If you’re at all interested, you can actually watch the individual submissions on the website (click here).
Now, I guess it should be said that this isn’t the first time a project of this ilk has been attempted. It’s not even the first time a Scottish filmmaker has done such a project. In 2011, Kevin Macdonald released his project Life in a Day, a film assembled from clips submitted to YouTube from around the world, all of which were shot on a single pre-determined day. A follow-up project was then undertaken, Britain in a Day, which took the same basic idea, only narrowed parameters by accepting only clips from Britain. That film was then premiered on BBC2 in 2012, just ten days before the final submission date for We are Northern Lights.
Each of those projects were very interesting and exciting, and I know several people who submitted footage for both (yes, I was amongst them). However, We are Northern Lights didn’t really have as narrow a parameter on the time frame for filming, which freed up the kind of stories that could be told over the course of the running time.
I actually wanted this to be the first film for this blog to look at, mainly because it would begin things by effectively looking at a self-portrait of the Scottish populace. Having been given the opportunity to stand in front of everyone and vocalise, or rather visualise, what it is they want everyone else to know about who they are, what would be said? What was important enough that it needed to be shown to the world? In 2012, the Year of Creative Scotland, what did the Scottish public want to show everyone about their country?
As much as I wanted to have We are Northern Lights be the first film I looked at here, I was, speaking honestly, not particularly enthused about seeing it in the first place, either. I often feel like films that come from Scotland are viewed in a different way than from somewhere that has a more firm footing in their filmic output, as if the films that we as a country produce are looked at as cute or quaint or as the awkward fumbling steps of a baby trying to stand up for the first time. I worry that we are not taken seriously by those who are more established in the game, and that anything that doesn’t make a serious effort in trying to grow beyond that only helps to perpetuate this idea.
And when I first watched the trailer for We are Northern Lights, it was exactly what I thought it would be like. Here was an opportunity for Scotland to look at itself and assess what it was and what it could be, and what we got was something that seemed to grab onto the stereotype, with talk of kilts and midges, lingering shots of countryside, and twee soothing folk music… and yes, people that really annoyed me from the moment they started speaking. I guess my fear was that We are Northern Lights would end up being evidence that Scotland was still not ready to sit at the table as a viable voice in world cinema.
Now, I’m being incredibly down on the film already, seemingly cutting it down for not exploding the preconceptions of Scottish culture before I had even seen it. And yeah, that’s pretty much the size of it. I wasn’t looking forward to seeing it… and then I saw it.
I’ve already mentioned what the primary question that sits at the heart of this film is: what is important to Scottish people about Scotland? The answer that we get from We are Northern Lights is… well, a lot. Given that the film does basically have 122 credited co-directors, the focus of the film is, as you would expect, very widespread. For many, the tranquillity of the countryside is important. For others, it’s the vibrancy of the cities. Some take great pride in its frank political engagement, whilst others take more joy in a humour that is wry and self-deprecating. Some love Scotland for the chance of shared experiences through things like music festivals or just watching a building get knocked down, whereas others prefer to relay more personal stories of what an individual can experience.
There is a lot of good to be seen on show in We are Northern Lights, and interesting things can be seen to feed into others. An older woman talking about the deep connection between Scots and their land, the hangover from the Highland Clearances and the uneasy feeling of subjugation does serve as a thematic backbone to the many, many, many lingering shots of landscapes and skylines, and those who have submitted their efforts to walk, hike and traverse the braes and bens and lochs. Then there are the points of a more forward-thinking nature, speaking of the country’s ethnic diversity, social reformation and political activism. These are most certainly things that the film and its contributors are keen to point at as things of which to be proud.
There are elements of We are Northern Lights that did less to win me over, though. As a whole, the film feels very much like something made by the tourist board, beckoning travellers from across the world to come and see the delights in store. Hell, you could take the trailer and play it almost exactly as that. Saying that, you can’t really make something designed to showcase what’s special about Scotland and be surprised when it looks like something that showcases what’s special about Scotland. It’s kind of the point.
Neither do I think it is particularly well done overall. Given that it is just a collection of short pieces, many of which hold pretty much no real interest (camera on dog collar as dog fetches stick), it’s kind of a slog to get through, with brief moments that nod in the direction of a point… but we’ll get to that. Whilst there are some people we return to at various points, there’s never any real indication that we will be back with them, so it’s difficult to really engage with anything other than the relatively fuzzy theoretical alibi that rests beneath it.
Then there are the less than subtle points where the film seems to be backing the movement for Scottish Independence. This is a very important issue in the very near future for the country, and so would be very much on the minds of many who chose to participate in the project. However, again comes the notion of what would have been preferable under the circumstances. Would it have been better to hold a more balanced view on the state of Scotland’s political future? Would it really have been possible for a film that exists to show what makes Scotland great to offer a counterpoint to the Independent stance and say we should remain a United Kingdom? I don’t think that it would have been. Even if it were, that’s not the thesis behind We are Northern Lights. Such a political discourse would require more time and serious engagement than would be available within the running time of a film that also features a giant snow penis.
Ultimately, We are Northern Lights is a propaganda film, and propaganda films are there to convince the audience of a particular viewpoint or influence their thinking to be more in line with what the film is, for lack of a better way of putting it, selling. And there are good things in We are Northern Lights. There is humour, there is warmth, there is tradition and culture, and a huge amount of gorgeous scenery and wildlife.
And yet, there is still a barrier stopping me from giving over to it completely. Perhaps it’s that I keep on trying to put it in some sort of global context. It’s difficult to picture a similar project coming out of France or Italy or India or America or Australia or England. What tends to be the case is that you will get films or TV series about how outsiders see these countries, or stories set within specific cities in those countries. Given that perspective, it makes it seem like Scotland made their own because no one else bothered or cared to, which gives rise to a feeling of someone crying out for attention and validation. And, to me, that's not a particularly Scottish trait.
Or perhaps it’s simply that I don’t appreciate what seems to be the end game for it all. Like I say, We are Northern Lights is a film with an agenda. On the surface, it’s absolutely something that Higgins and those more directly involved with the finished product would say is simply about finding what is good and positive about Scotland and holding it up for all to see. However, the somewhat hidden part (that’s not terribly well hidden) is the "next step" to it all, which is to ask what the Scottish people plan to do with all that goodness: use it or lose it? I don’t think it’s a particularly rousing call, and I find it a little unsettling that some people might.