Last Tuesday EIFF hosted an interesting lecture led by Scottish film scholar Colin McArthur; the talk was titled 'What Sort of (Scottish) Film Culture Do We Want?' and it was expected to build on what the Scotch Reels event had covered back in 1982. McArthur launched a bit of an attack on Tartanry, and used Murray Grigor's Scotch Myths to prove his point. Scottish cinema has undeniably made a lot of progress on the international stage in the last 30 years, but the question of representation remains: what sort of image do you want to project? How do we see ourselves?
It is an issue which Jamie Chamber's Blackbird bravely tackled. It is a film enamoured with Scottish history and a certain type of traditional culture; it is also a film that asks questions about the role of these traditions have to play in a contemporary setting.
Blackbird follows the tribulations of Ruadhan, a young man living in a nameless fishing village in the South West of Scotland. He lives on a decrepit boat moored on a hill and is bewitched by found objects belonging to a seemingly distant past and by folk songs sang by the village's elders. Obsessed with preserving a culture that is slipping away as older people die and youngsters flee to the cities, he soon finds himself at odds with his neighbours and friends. He is saddened by what he sees as the intentional erasing of the past (perhaps exemplified by the belongings of deceased songbird Isobel being thrown in a junk shop) and by the inevitable advent of the new (in the form of a bistro selling hummus and olives).
It is a negotiation between the past and the present, the local and the global that reminds us of Bill Forsyth's Local Hero, although Chambers' approach is definitely less whimsical. The Edinburgh-born director is clearly fascinated with traditional songs and with the village's culture; his camera lovingly lingers on symbolic items like seashells, and captures the sad beauty of something that is about to disappear.
Blackbird is not only pleasing on the eye, but also features some great performances from the supporting cast – chiefly from Norman Maclen, who plays the unsentimental and very witty Alec with tantalising enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, the film's merits are somewhat muted by a script that at times relies too much on moments of 'high drama'; Ruadhan's character becomes defined by constant bursts of anger (his stubbornness is maybe admirable, but blinkered, and his attitude is questionable at best) and loses the subtlety that might have helped the Blackbird live up to its initial promise.
Nevertheless, it is a film that should be praised for a memorable and vivacious portrayal of a village caught between fondness for a strong tradition and willingness to find a place in the modern world. It doesn't provide any easy answers (the resolution feels rushed and unbelievable), but it is a timely reminder that folk culture deserves to be safeguarded and carried into the future.