I’ve just about landed mentally as well as physically in Copenhagen after an Easter trip back across to Scotland, both to catch-up with friends and family in Glasgow and as a bit of a wilderness tourist. ‘Scotland the film’ set was as beautiful as ever and on a tour of the Highlands and Skye in a borrowed camper and in the company of a group of Danes, we experienced just about all that climate change could throw at us on a 3 day road-trip.
SCOTLAND THE FILM SET
Yet despite the extremes in the weather, we came across no decent surf worth getting a wetsuit on for. But then a swell of a different kind was waiting for us back in Glasgow. With the General election just about a month away, it felt a bit like a different kind of wave seems set to wipe-out the entire smug Scottish Labour political establishment, unless they start equating austerity not just with the poverty it’s created, but also with the anger and resentment felt by many Scots, who feel disenfranchised and culturally excluded. As the Adverts an English punk band once said during the Thatcher era it really was: No Time to be 21. Nor now it would seem is it – 35 years later – to be a struggling 56 year-old filmmaker come to think of it. So I do sense that over the next month it’s all going to get ugly and angry, and will bring out the worst nationalist sentiments in people on both side of the Scottish/English border. Back in Glasgow I could already sense that starting to happen and how this election is dividing friends and families along political fault-lines, and how party political loyalties – that many of us thought were a part of our DNA – just might be getting in the way of an alternative to what we’ve got at the moment.
Back over in the ‘land of milk and honey’ meanwhile it looks Spring has finally arrived, after a winter that was more like a pishwet-Glasgow one, than the kind of chilled Nordic affair we’ve become accustomed to in the past few years; While outside our window the surreal and sinister-looking swan pedellos have made their first appearance on the lake to scare and entertain children during the tourist season. And it’s here they’ll remain, generating kroner for a local cafe owner, along with their real counterparts until the Autumn comes, the tourists disappear and the Copenhageners just like the real swans out on the lake – with whom they share many behavioural characteristics believe me – retreat back into the Baltic gloom and a candle-lit/alcohol-fuelled hibernation that many folk here seem to positively look forward to as a source of creative inspiration.
As much as I have taken to Copenhagen as a place of exile and ‘soul-base’ while I get it back together again professionally after a shit 18 months with the support of my partner Marie, my extended trans-Nordic Sea family and the discovery of Stand-up Paddle boarding during my cancer recovery – rather than through any significant financial break-through as a film-maker – I don’t think it’ll ever become a home in the way that Glasgow a real city of migrants still is. For various reasons that go way beyond a language barrier – which is still a very significant door-opener here – I’m torn between the need to learn a new language and a more pragmatic world-view that’s nagging at me and asking: Just who the fuck wants to learn Danish anyhow…!? And besides isn’t Arabic or Kurdish more useful for what you do and where you want to go to!?
Another thing that I’ve also become acutely aware of here holed-up editing 2 projects and writing 2 new ones, is that the much fawned over ‘Nordic model’ that’s beloved of many Scottish intellectuals as a template for their own dream-nation – along with an obsession with Borgen and Nordic noir, which I just don’t get – while not having such a rigid class and privilege system as the one back over in Storbritannien, does have something similar in what the Danes call: Janteloven.
Which to put simply is all about ‘knowing your place’ and not ‘getting or rising above yersel’
And if it that sounds horribly familiar to anyone from Scotland who might have voted #YES last September, as much as it does to any kid who comes from a housing estate across the UK, who aspires to a life less ordinary than it sadly is.
Because even though the Danes don’t really do the class struggle in the way that we do back home (they prefer to upset their Parents instead) they can be terrible snobs and are easily seduced by royalty, social class and professional status. Which probably explains why letting a privileged Danish film-maker loose on a film about the Bullingdon club was such a bad call – unless it was a deliberate strategy – as happened with Lone Scherfig’s on The Riot club
So despite having the kind of film funding and quality of film criticism that’s unimaginable in a comparable small nation like Scotland – if not the whole UK – there really are very few artists, musicians, writers and film-makers here as far as I can tell who come from out of either a white working class background, or from the marginalized ethnic groups within Danish society (although Yahya Hassan – a rap-poet – straight out of Aarhus – is perhaps an exception to the rule here) By comparison a city like Glasgow with all its multiple-social problems and inequalities in wealth distribution, seems light years ahead when it comes to the kind of multiculturalism and social inclusion that we take for granted. As for that buzz-word beloved of Film Executives and Commissioners everywhere: Talent development – and just before some of you reach for a Kalashnikov – its limitations in Denmark are evident in the self-obsessive output of its privileged/spoilt mostly young film-makers, who don’t have much to say to the world really beyond: ‘Look at Me’
But then just over an hour-and-a-half away across the water, the Scottish film sector has recently produced and state-funded the vacuous Hyndland fluff: God help the Girl – which is hardly state of the nation/zeitgeist film-making about modern Glasgow, along with the camp theatrical whimsy: Sunshine over Leith – which has about as much credibility as a village-hall pantomime, when compared to Denmark’s efforts in dealing with issues relating to Afghanistan’s legacies, such as the Oscar-nominated: Armadillo As for the general current state of Scottish Documentary scene – the very place where you’d expect to find the true-grit of film-making – well it’s perhaps currently typified by: From Scotland with Love – which seems more like an extended nostalgia trip/visit Scotland corporate-video than it does a hard-hitting portrait of a quasi-third world, militarized and occupied country at the northern (light?) extreme of Western Europe.
Returning as I have to on a commuter-like routine to Scotland at the moment to see family, have more blood tests, meet my OncDoc up at the Beatson and persist in vain but increasingly futile attempts at generating cashflow (or co-production as some might call it) for a 50-something film-maker, without a Producer let alone an Agent, it’s usually not too long after meeting-up with friends that our discussions inevitably move on to the subjects of Scottish Film-making and Politics. The 2 of which – despite denials among an independent film and TV production sector here who seems permanently stuck in development hell and have probably never watched a Jean Luc Godard movie – are both inseparable. And while God Help the Girl, Sunshine over Leith and From Scotland with Love may all seem like minor irritants to any serious person – let alone film-maker with an IQ that’s bigger than a newt’s – and I’m not out to dis’ newt’s here – they are symptomatic of what’s going wrong in a small, unevenly developed nation seeking to make cinema that’s relevant to the 21st century. A nation or region – depending on how you hang when it comes down to the state of a United Kingdom/Storbritannien – whose mainstream media/arts funding is controlled by a risk-averse dinner/cultural and political party minority who’ve always looked in or out west across the Atlantic for their inspiration, rather than out at a bigger and potentially better world. And this is the same conservative (with a small as well as a big c in some cases) elite who think we – that is the folk that use to be called an audience – are just as obsessed as they are with a certain-type of Scottishness that’s rooted in Z-list celebrities, pop-nostalgia, lads fitbah radio shows, an almost pathological need to X-factor everything (including documentary pitching) and an aspirational life-style culture that’s beyond the reach of most ordinary and quite a few less-ordinary Scots. And behind their souless-trashy-life-style smoke-screen also lies an institutionalized obsession with control freakery that has pretty much undermined the independent film production sector here. And is also the reason why so many talented folk have ended up leaving a country they’d rather live in..
Bluevale Brutalist High-rise flats, Dennistoun, Glasgow. A landmark being demolished – unlike the social problems they’re infamous for.
But then the Ideological Austerity Project that’s at work behind all that I’m highlighting here, and which many of us who’ve been ill, poor or unemployed over the past few years have borne the brunt of – something which Naomi Kline refers to as a: Shock-Doctrine – is not just about using a failed neo-liberal economic model to justify selling-off the NHS and making the kind of welfare cuts that are sending working people to food-banks, but also about a top-down cultural-war. Alan Moore recently said that if you take away the humanities the only thing you’re left with is inhumanity. And here I don’t think he’s referring to the cuts in the budgets of a High-Art ‘Curling club’ who on the one hand lament the loss of state funding for Opera, Theatre and Dance, while use their other – as they have always done – to hold the doors firmly shut on anyone who isn’t like them. Now I know many of the privileged folk who I’m talking about here will – as they always have done – simply dismiss what I’m saying here as lefty-whinging by someone who has a chip-on-his-shoulder because he didn’t get commissioned, but the question to them all really is simple:
SINCE WHEN WAS CULTURAL DIVERSITY EXCLUSIVE RATHER THAN INCLUSIVE?
It’s now 4 weeks since I arrived back in Copenhagen and started writing this and having checked my overdraft, I’ve worked-out my flight back and an action-plan of sorts on how to fund my stay, without relying too heavily on our over-used credit-card. I’ve made appointments for blood tests, which I’m assured are just precautionary (been there before mind) I’ve booked a long over-due trip to see a dentist and have agreed to house-mind a feral ginger kitten in return for free lodging. And although it’s meant to be a working/business trip, I’ll make sure that there’s room in it for a surf – if there’s any real waves – and to go see post-punk legends/old geezers The Pop Group While in-between I’ll talk to the Taxman to justify my current status and try to attract interest into projects I’ve put blood, sweat and soul into over the past 2 years and in one particular case decades Minefield
But then after the events of the past few years, film-making really does seem like an easy option in life. It’s something you do when you wake-up in the morning and realize you’re still alive, and stop doing before you go to bed at night (although I do sometimes dream in film-shoots and edits sadly) It’s not a real profession – not like say being a Medic, Nurse, Teacher or Social Worker are real and proper professions that save the world and change lives. If anything it’s increasingly becoming a life-style choice for the rich and privileged with nothing else to do, and a bit of a public-school confidence trick – just like the contemporary Art scene. But then it – just like proper art – can still be something we can all engage with in our lives. And just about anyone can talk a good film, irrespective of whether they happen to call themselves: Producers, Commissioners, film-makers, actors, critics, writers, technicians or perhaps most importantly of all: an audience. And just like our inherent – rather than inherited – ability to tell stories, I really do think there’s a film in all of us somewhere. Only sadly a lot of very talented people don’t do ‘narrative strategies’ to tell stories, or the bull-shit side of the business and drama-queenery that goes along with the film-scene. Neither do they do the form filling come to think of it. So I already get the feeling getting a lift to go ride on a surf board next week is going to be a far harder objective…
Soul-night at the West of Scotland Cricket club, Partick, Glasgow
In just a few hours I’ll be flying back across the Sea again. And as ever I’m looking forward to going back again to go forward. But this time as I sit and edit this blog into something just about readable and that’s less offensive to Danes, I am thinking why am I still doing this? Why do I still bother? Why is life and what I do still all about taking risks and speculating to accumulate? About going back and forward and spending so much time in the air? About trying to explain all these things to the Taxman and even family members who can’t understand that as a freelance film-maker or artist you probably work harder than they will ever do – only you don’t always get paid…
But then sometimes your head tells you one thing and your heart something else.
Which is exactly how I feel now as I sit write, order a pizza and think about next week, about film-making, politics and putting an X in a box.
As an exile/non-native Scot, I’ve lived in Glasgow in-between war-zones for more than 30 years. Since the Thatcher era in fact, which I still look back on with anger, bitterness, tears, a lot of sadness and a sense of loss because of the Falklands War and Miners strike. As a result of all that and because of what I’ve seen and experienced as a film-maker around the planet since then, I stand firmly against all forms of nationalism and xenophobia. And I don’t really have any time for royalty either. Instead what I do embrace is not just internationalism but the kind of more abstract ideas that believe in a better world without borders (which I guess in the end really makes me more a reluctant hippy than an anarchist) And whether it happens to come from the bulldog-breed back in the home counties, or from trendy-Caledonians who are up themselves back in Scotland, I despise even the jokey-casual racism and nationalist sentiment that is crawling out of the swamps north and south of the border.
Having been brought up on an austere little-Ingerlander council housing estate where everyone ‘knew their place’ and racism, bigotry and prejudice always ended in violence for a reason – among the left and right alike – I understand how important it is to take sides and to stand-up for the things you believe in. Physically – if need be – at times. So I guess had I still been living and voting back in little Ingerland at the moment, then there’s no doubt I’d have done what I’ve always done since I first got the vote – mostly because there really wasn’t any alternative – and voted Labour. But now for the first time in Glasgow I’ll be switching to the SNP on Thursday 7th May. Because even if I do have very little time for the sentiments behind much of the Scottish Nationalism they’re allied with – I’m still wary of the Barbour jackets that are lurking behind the scenes – and while I generally don’t really trust any politician, nor their celebrity endorsers come to think of it, I can see there is perhaps an alternative being offered to the kind of austerity, inequality and lack of opportunity that’s blighted my own and many other people’s lives in the past. And that perhaps there is now – even if it is just a glimmer – the chance of living in a better and more equal nation in which people don’t need to just accept the law of Jante/Jantelovan, but instead have the room and opportunity to dream at the top of their voices. And who knows they might also even get to make a few films with something to say in the process….