Film: Small country, big ideas

Between the brash nihilism of `Trainspotting' and the epic sweep of `Braveheart', there's a quietly confident revolution going on in Scotland's film industry, as directors seek to find a new place for themselves outside of the Hollywood/London axis. By Liese Spencer
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Tommy takes his junkie mates to The Great Outdoors. Then, as they sit shivering and swigging vodka, he throws open his arms to the snow- capped mountains and the wide blue sky and asks Renton if it doesn't make him proud to be Scottish. "It's shite being Scottish," Renton replies. "We're the lowest of the low... some people hate the English. I don't, they're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers... ruled by effete arseholes."

The scene is from Trainspotting, a film that put modern Scotland on the map just as Braveheart's melee of myth and martyrdom offered a Hollywood history of a lusty nation state fighting back against its decadent southern oppressors. Whether it's Renton ranting against an ironic backdrop of Scottish Heritage scenery or Mel Gibson's troops tramping through that same heroic landscape before lifting their kilts to "moon" at the enemy, such images define Scotland against The Great Outside.

With the new Parliament such a siege mentality looks likely to shift, pushing Scottish cinema into a new era. So how will a Scotland free of Sassenachs imagine itself, and what kind of tartan reels can the rest of the world expect to see? At a recent conference in Glasgow, the panellist Elaine C Smith (better known as the long-suffering wife of TV's Rab C Nesbitt) argued that "we look at ourselves too much through the eyes of another country". But, for the Edinburgh-born writer/ director Anthony Neilson, devolution also means dismantling Scotland's own outdated self- image. "National pride can't be based on an image - being hard, and up for a drink; we've got to create a real identity and not be afraid of being seen as culturally aware, a modern country," he says.

In his forthcoming film, The Debt Collector, Neilson explores what he sees as two opposing sides of the Scottish psyche. The Edinburgh-set crime thriller stars Billy Connolly as a violent repo-man rehabilitated by a spell in prison. Ken Stott plays the policeman who put him inside, an avenging Calvinist cop determined not to let Connolly's celebrity sculptor escape his knife-wielding past. "I think there's always a complicity in a country that feels itself oppressed," says Neilson. "It's divided against itself on one level. In The Debt Collector there's a dialogue about that. Ultimately, these two allegorical figures end up fighting to the death, with Edinburgh Castle rock behind them."

Neilson's bleak "Scottish Western" suggests a nation confident enough to question rather than re-package its stereotypes. For John Archer, executive director of Scottish Screen, it's less a symptom of political devolution than part of the process that facilitated it. "The thing I like about the new Parliament is that it's rooted in reality; the cultural devolution that has already taken place forms the bedrock of the new political government," he says. Archer traces the roots of today's Scottish cinema "right back to the wry humour of Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl and Local Hero, which played off the Ealing tradition of Whisky Galore", through to Shallow Grave, "which seemed true to its yuppie New Town setting while offering an image of contemporary Scotland that got accepted worldwide."

Glasgow Film Fund's Lenny Crooks also welcomes the new Parliament, but strikes a more cautious note. "I think it will be a long time before we can even think in terms of Scotland having a discrete film policy. We're certainly not going to get any special tax breaks yet. Scotland is still considered a region, not a small country like Ireland, which means that we don't get European funding. At the moment there's still a glut of money down in London."

According to Archer, there are plans afoot to set up an organisation called Scottish Film Investments to lure more money north of the Border by "using public finance to underwrite private investments", but, until such dreams are realised, Scotland is stuck producing a handful of home- grown independents. "In terms of lottery money, we receive about pounds 3m," sighs Archer. "That's a decent development fund, not a production fund."

It took Braveheart for Scotland to get savvy about location shooting. When Mel Gibson decided to decamp to Ireland to shoot some scenes for his film, a review was ordered to find out how to attract international productions to Scotland. Archer says Scottish Screen will be consulting with members of the new Parliament to develop a Scottish Film Charter "which ensures Scotland is location-friendly". In the meantime, the country is basking in a fleet of high-profile productions.

A pounds 7m adaptation of Iain Banks's thriller Complicity, starring Johnny Lee Miller, has already begun shooting, while the American director Kathryn Bieglow is reported to be planning to turn Rosyth Dockyard on the Firth of Forth into a Russian submarine base for her Cold War thriller, K19: The Widow Maker. Glasgow will double as turn-of-the-century New York in The House of Mirth, an adaptation of Edith Wharton's novel, starring Gillian Anderson. As for Mull, the island is awash with excitement at the news that Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones will be wandering its shores shooting Entrapment.

"We're not singing and shouting about devolution and the new Scottish Film Production," says Crooks, "we're just quietly getting on and trying to build an infrastructure." Crooks's chill practicality is offset by warm winds of rumour that whisper of a renaissance, a new Golden Age ruled over by the exiled King Connery and supported by a new Sony studio in Edinburgh.

But Neilson, too, is sceptical: "I think there tends to be this perception in both Scotland and Britain that you're successful only when you've broken into the US market. That's also the case in terms of funding. People want to sell to the American market rather than backing products aimed at a domestic audience."

Neilson would like to see the future Scottish film industry based on the French model. "For many years French film was self-sufficient, content to make low-budget films for its own audiences. In Scotland, I think we should circumvent the whole British thing and go straight into Europe, be accepted in our own right."

One way in which Scotland is beginning to carve out an identity for itself in Europe is by subverting British "miserablism" with a more surreal sensibility. Spanning everything from Trainspotting, through Gillies McKinnon's Small Faces, to Peter Mullen's forthcoming directorial debut Orphans, such new Scottish fare dodges both the politicised realism of Loach's My Name is Joe and the lushly photographed romance of Rob Roy to offer what Archer tentatively describes in the Herald newspaper as "dirty magic realism".

It's a wide category applied across a mixed bunch of movies, but it is just that diversity of which Neilson approves. "We're just starting to build a film tradition. I want to feel that we have a breadth of material, not a narrow, prescriptive sense of what it means to be Scottish," he says. "I didn't really like Braveheart, but in a weird way The Debt Collector is a kind of a sequel. I wanted to do something contemporary but epic in feel. I wanted to ask why it is that we attach these big production values only to historical movies. My use of wide screen and melodramatic music is, in a sense, political. It's the idea that our stories can be as big as anyone else's."

Comments