Cromarty, once a thriving county town, became a backwater when its eponymous county merged with Ross-shire at the end of the nineteenth century. Like the Sleeping Beauty it fell asleep, protected not by a hedge of thorns but by distance from Dingwall and Inverness.
Untouched by the withering hand of twentieth century ‘development’, it’s surprising it isn’t in constant use as a film location, but since 2007 it has been the location for the annual “’My Favourite Film’ Festival” (note the careful punctuation).
The formula’s simple – a handful of celebrity guests are invited to submit a list of their five favourite films to introduce, and if they’re film-makers themselves, their favourite of their own works. The films are screened all over the place – from the converted Stables at Cromarty House to the tiny Sutor Creek restaurant, from the Old Brewery to the village hall in nearby Resolis.
Traditionally, the first screening on Friday evening takes place outside on the gable wall of the house next to the general store or, as this year, on the curving wall of the Lighthouse (below).
This year for the first time the Screen Machine, the mobile cinema serving the Highlands and Islands, is parked by the harbour to provide comfortable seating and professional screenings of an esoteric selection of films ranging from Tony Benn’s Last Will and Testament to The Dark Knight Rises. It’s a match made in heaven as the only large space in Cromarty itself, the Victoria Hall, has proven to be less than ideal for film screenings due to poor acoustics.
Tickets for the special preview screening of Benn’s film, introduced by the man himself, but still in editing (it will be released in Spring 2013) sold out in minutes. The organisers had expected it to be popular but were overwhelmed, and delighted, by the response so producer Sanjay Kumar introduces another screening on Saturday morning upstairs at the Festival Hub in the Old Brewery.
On the strength of the trailer, as moving and inspiring a documentary as you’ll see all year, you’re advised to book now for the showing and talk during Celtic Connections.
Benn’s favourite film choice is Brassed Off, somewhat overshadowed in the popular imagination by The Full Monty but which packs the double whammy of one of the late Pete Postlethwaite’s finest performances and a soundtrack of brass band music (played by the Grimethorpe Colliery Band) guaranteed to melt all but the flintiest of hearts. Postlethwaite’s final shot, staring mutely into a future which holds nothing for him, is the very definition of bleak.
Some stay on in the Screen Machine to see The Woman in Black which features automata supplied by two of this year’s guests, Michael and Maria Start, who are based across the Moray Firth in Findhorn. The maracas monkey which heralds the appearance of the Woman in the film is on display the following day while its owners talk about their work as horologists and automata restorers in films, including the experience of working for Martin Scorcese on Hugo where initially all questions from and replies to the director were relayed through the head of the Props department – until common sense prevailed.
The Starts’ choice, earlier in the day, was Zeffirelli’s La Traviata, a sumptuous take on Verdi’s opera which casually throws the Bolshoi Ballet in as an amuse-guele and which much have had a vast budget for sets, costumes, props, singers and locations. In a tiny vignette, the camera shows one of Violetta’s guests stealthily pocketing a silver snuffbox from a table as she leaves the party.
During the workshop Start reaches into his pocket and produces a seemingly identical snuffbox; open, it reveals a tiny feathered songbird, flapping its wings and singing. The song, he explains, comes from a tiny swanee whistle and a bellow, powered by clockwork, the notes controlled by a studded disk.
Start began his working life as a fireman. It’s an unlikely career progression to repairing clocks and clockwork but he explains, “I was standing on a wall in a burning building. It started to collapse, so I had to jump, but it was further than I thought and I injured my back. I had to find a new profession that didn’t involve a lot of lifting so I signed up for a course in horology. And then I was hooked”.
The Starts began by hiring automata for Hugo but ended up as consultants, intimately involved in getting the tiniest details of Hugo Cabret’s workshop in the station correct. According to Michael Start: “Every drawer was filled with the right sort of stuff in case Scorsese and the actors decided to open one during a take. Even though it cost a lot of money – and in the end none of them was opened – in the strange mathematics of feature films it was cheaper than having to stop filming”.
Michael Start also tutored Jude Law and his screen son Asa Butterfield in the correct way to hold and use the tools of the horologist’s trade; audiences probably took it for granted that they looked comfortable using them but any awkwardness would have spoiled the suspension of disbelief that lies in the heart of movie-making.
An equally fascinating workshop features Carl Summersgill, armourer and weapons maker on a wide range of films and television series. Like the Starts, Summersgill found his way into his career by accident, making armour and weapons out of scraps as a hobby. One day, a props buyer saw his work and hired it – now he works on epics like Prince of Persia, Game of Thrones and Highland-based Eagle of the Ninth but his chosen Festival screening was a remake of the Harryhausen classic, Clash of the Titans.
Part of the enduring success of the Festival is the way workshops like these lift a corner of the curtain concealing the workings of the film world. Another reason to come is the informality – guests mingle with audiences in screenings and in the cafe at the Hub over a restoring bowl of soup and are usually happy to chat.
Something which guest after guest pays tribute to is the scenic charm of Cromarty itself. Lamp-posts straight out of Narnia cast their light on shops which could be the backdrop for a tale by Beatrix Potter. Little fishermen’s cottages sit cheek by jowl with dignified Georgian town houses. Every so often a glance down narrow lanes or angled vennels to the sea reveals oil rigs, towed in for repair across the narrow deepwater channel at Nigg and lit up with lights like strange angular maritime Christmas trees.
Another perennial audience favourite is the ‘couthy films’ strand, celebrating Scottish film-making of all kinds. The organisers originally envisaged attracting ‘an audience of old wifies’ and were astonished when it turned out to be a hit with people of all ages, especially fiilm students. One of the few films to score 100% on Rotten Tomatoes I Know Where I’m Going is on the bill this year though Annie Hall, the choice of comedienne Rhona Cameron, just won out for this reviewer.
The Co-Op, a festival sponsor, is celebrated in a series of films about the genesis of the co-operative movement drawn from the Scottish Screen Archive. A window into another century when horsedrawn drays delivered the milk, letters were written on typewriters, and housewives were advised on what to buy by soberly-suited men with cut-glass Morningside accents, these little gems, as usual, drew a fascinated crowd.
The Grand Finale is The Angel’s Share, largely filmed on location at Balblair Distillery, a long time supporter of the Festival and introduced by regular Ken Loach screenwriter, Paul Laverty. Though it is, as usual, in the larger surroundings of Resolis Hall, about five miles away, like the Tony Benn screening it sold out within minutes of the Box Office opening and the list for returns is a long one.
The evening starts with a curry, washed down with wine donated by the Co-Operative and Balblair have contributed several bottles of their 02 vintage. Laverty, at the end of his introduction to the film, invites the audience to raise their glasses to Jafar Panahi, an Iranian film-maker kept under house arrest by this government and banned from making films.
It’s as eclectic a cultural mash-up as anyone could wish for, a moment that sums up the genius of Cromarty.
Photos by Jennie Macfie