Edinburgh Festival / Day 15: The Highland thing: 'A little part of Scotland that remains forever English' runs the jibe about Edinburgh. This is not true of this year's Film Festival, as Peter Guttridge discovered

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There are two problems of perception when selling Scottish films in Hollywood,' says Andrew Macdonald, producer of Shallow Grave, already a hit at Cannes and one of two full-length Scottish feature films to play to sell-out audiences at the Drambuie Edinburgh Film Festival. 'One is that many studio execs see Scotland in terms of Local Hero; one of the first films they saw, it remains a seminal movie for them. The other is the Glasgow Hard Man image. I detest the presentation of Glasgow as a hard place peopled by The Big Man kind of character.'

The Festival has screened a range of Scottish films, varying in length from the 'Tartan Shorts' series (up to 30 minutes), through Paul Murton's Blue Boy (64 mins) to Shallow Grave (90 mins), a fast- paced feature about three twentysomething flatmates trying to dispose of the dead body of a fourth and the suitcase full of money he left behind. Macdonald, a first- time producer, insists that while the story could have happened anywhere, it is a quintessentially Scottish film.

'John Hodge (the scripwriter) and I specifically located it in Scotland. When we started casting, we found that Scottish actors seemed able to handle the rhythms of the dialogue better. I'm from Scotland and it was crucial for me to make my first film in a place I know well.'

The 'Scottishness' of Scottish films is important to some directors, unimportant to others. John McGrath's early Seventies film about the Highland clearances, The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black Black Oil, remains an important milestone in the history of British film realism. And the story of a songwriter from Skye who became the 'Bard' of the Highland League protesting against the clearances is as Scottish as they come. Twenty years on, the Highlands are emotive as ever for Scottish film-makers. Angus Reid's Brotherly Love, a 51 minute road movie about the relationship between a drugged up musician and his brother, picks up a common theme in Scottish films - the restorative powers of the Highlands.

'This is the only truly independent Scottish film about Scottish people in the Festival,' says Reid, an established playwright and one of the first graduates of the recently established Scottish Film School. 'I started out with pounds 3,000 and made it for pounds 30,000. When I showed it to Channel 4 (which is screening it today at 11.50pm) the commissioning editor said, 'These characters are like aliens to me, I don't know them at all.' That's when I knew I'd got it right.'

On the other hand, Steve Simpson's Ties, a brutal feature-length film about a young man searching for his biological father, could have been filmed anywhere. He chose Aberdeen, his home town, because as producer, director and writer, knowing the locations intimately gave him one less headache. Simpson, who at 24 has already had a career as a trader on the international stock market and a spell working in Los Angeles for Roger Corman's Concorde Pictures, doesn't want to be seen as a Scottish director.

'Why shoot yourself in the foot before you even get started?' he says. 'I don't want a label. I've got half a dozen scripts I want to place now, which are set in all kinds of places. I'm based in Aberdeen for the moment while I try to market this film, but I expect I'll be back in Los Angeles in a couple of months.' Grampian Television provided technical facilities and other assistance to Simpson, who used Corman veterans to shoot the 80-minute film - budgeted at pounds 250,000 - in 22 days.

Shallow Grave benefited from money given by the Glasgow Film Fund, one of two organisations (the other is the Scottish Film Production Fund) headed by Eddie Dick. 'Bill Forsyth founded the Scottish Film Industry single- handed,' says Dick. 'But there have only ever been stop-go opportunities to work in Scotland since then. We're hoping to make it a sustainable operation with enough going on throughout the year. Shallow Grave is the first funding venture for the Glasgow Film Fund. We've set a challenging precedent because it has been so successful. We're hoping to be able to make more money available for films of all kinds. There will be obvious geographical considerations but they will not all necessarily be dressed in a kilt.'

The Edinburgh Festival as a whole is often criticised for its lack of Scottish content. The same charge can't be levelled against the Film Festival, which seems to be screening virtually all the Scottish films made last year. One Scottish film the Festival decided not to screen is a testament to the ingenuity of its makers. The Priest and the Pirate was made on an impossibly low budget by the Edinburgh- based Joel Venet's video workshop. It would seem to typify the kind of approach to film-making encouraged by the Festival's series of workshops titled 'Just Do It', but ironically there was no room for the film in the Festival. Undaunted, Venet and his colleagues persuaded the Festival to give them a screening room on a Sunday morning to show their film to a small - very small - audience. They called the screening 'Just Done It'.

(Photograph omitted)