What do fish farms, renegade environmentalists, Native American Indians, cartoon ladybirds and a choir of sea-shanty-singing Cornish fishermen have in common?
The answer is they all feature in films being shown as part of this year’s Hebrides International Film Festival (HIFF), taking place in venues across the Outer Hebrides from September 12 to 14.
A total of 74 film screenings will take place in venues from the Butt to Barra, featuring a large variety of genres, as is the case every year at HIFF. There are 12 venues altogether, with each one making its own choices about which films to show from the 2019 HIFF programme.
In most cases, the films being shown in the rural venues were selected by the local volunteers who will be running the event in their community, with guidance from the festival’s creative director and programmer Muriel Ann Macleod.
All films in the programme are the best of current world cinema – to be included in HIFF, a film must have been made within the last three years – and many works being shown at this year’s festival are being screened exclusively at HIFF and for the first time in the UK.
Muriel Ann gave her recommendations for some of the must-see films, and explained how she goes about building the programme for the film festival.
“I searched the world for films that were award-winning and high quality. I have a bias for Scandinavia and the North American indigenous people for example – especially films that explore their language and its preservation.”
“There’s a big selection this year. You can’t see them all, that’s for sure. You’ve got to be selective. This year’s theme is “islands, environments and remote communities”, with a particular focus in 2019 on sustainable fishing.”
In line with this, Muriel Ann has selected a number of films about the industry and its impacts. One of the highest profile films this year is Patagonia’s Artifishal, by director Josh Murphy, which is opening the festival in An Lanntair on the Thursday night and is also showing in Shawbost, Carinish and Castlebay. Murphy’s documentary is about the impact of fish farming and hatcheries on wild salmon and the environment that supports them.
It is being preceded in An Lanntair by a talk on wild salmon by writer Michael Wigan.
Muriel Ann said: “This is a big issue for us because of the employment factor. People are employed to run these fish farms but there are big environmental implications.”
Another big film with a fishing narrative is Of Fish and Foe, on in An Lanntair and Talla Na Mara. It tells the story of the Pullars, a traditional salmon fishing family whose methods include the shooting of seals. This brings them into conflict with environmental activist groups Sea Shepherd and Hunt Saboteurs.
The documentary puts modern environmentalism under the microscope, challenging viewer preconceptions about whose side they might be on.
Other documentaries include Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (An Lanntair and Carinish), an exploration through stunning imagery of the way humans are shaping our planet, and Free Solo (Bernera Community Centre and Talla Na Mara) – “this year’s climbing film” – about the 3000ft ascension of El Capitan without ropes.”
Soldiers Without Guns, The Reluctant Radical and A Modern Shepherdess are also among the documentaries. Soldiers Without Guns (An Lanntair Pocket Cinema and Castlebay Hall) tells the story of the New Zealand army who, when they intervened in a coup on a Pacific island, took their guitars instead of weapons.
The Reluctant Radical (An Lanntair Pocket Cinema and Taigh Dhonnachaidh) features activist Ken Ward, whose stance over climate change puts him in the direct path of the fossil fuel industry. A Modern Shepherdess (An Lanntair Pocket Cinema, Taigh Dhonnachaidh, Shawbost and Talla Na Mara) is about a French single mother who quits Parisian life to run a farm and is described as inviting the viewers to question how much their lives are in keeping with who they really are.
“It’s really lovely,” said Muriel Ann, adding: “I think I’ve catered for a lot of tastes.”
As well as documentaries, the programme also features drama, children’s cinema and shorts. A big element of the programme is political and environmental but there is also comedy and popular film, and film from hot countries as well as cold ones.”
In the drama section, Muriel Ann identified Manta Ray and Bait, both only showing in An Lanntair, as two of her own favourites. Muriel Ann said: “An Lanntair has a fairly big chunk of the programme and it has some big dramas. Films like Manta Ray, Bait and The Mustang are only available in An Lanntair because it’s early in the festival booking and we can only get them in one format. Same for Tito and The Birds and A Miniscule Adventure, from the children’s programme.”
Manta Ray follows the story of a fisherman and an injured stranger whom he nurses back to health. It is set off the coast of Thailand and is one of Muriel Ann’s favourites.
The programme describes it as a “striking meditation on identity” and “a film of exquisite beauty that finds moments of transcendence in the context of immense brutality”. Muriel Ann said: “It’s a very visceral film. It’s beautifully filmed and it’s a very interesting story.”
She described Bait – along with another of this year’s choices, The River – as “experimental”. Shot in black and white and made locally in Cornwall, it follows the story of a cove of fisherman who finds himself without a boat, after his brother repurposed their father’s vessel as a tourist tripper for the London rich. He also finds himself displaced from his family home and seeks to restore their culture and traditional practices to the way they were.
“We understand these issues,” said Muriel Ann. “We know about these issues about people taking over the fishermen’s cottages and not understanding the local culture. It’s about trying to keep a culture alive.”
Two other dramas in this year’s selection — Happy as Lazzaro (An Lanntair, Shawbost and Castlebay) and Neither Wolf Nor Dog (An Lanntair, Bernera, Scalpay and Carinish) — highlight “what the festival is all about”, according to Muriel Ann, because they help us to “reflect on our culture by seeing what other people in remote cultures do”.
Referring to Neither Wolf Nor Dog, an American Indian film starring a 95-year-old Indian elder, she said: “It’s a kind of road movie, a coming of understanding. It’s a reflective film. You’re looking at this incredible world where people lived for centuries where they’re no longer allowed to live freely. It might seem like nothing to do with us but when people are struggling to keep their language and culture alive, maybe it does have something to do with us.”
On the light side, Fisherman’s Friends is one of the most ‘popular’ films in this year’s programme, and is about 10 fishermen from Cornwall who make the top 10 with their album of sea shanties. A cynical London music executive is pranked into signing them but, as he’s drawn deeper into their way of life, he begins to question his own integrity and values.
A “feel good movie”, Fisherman’s Friends is showing in Taigh Dhonnachaidh, Bernera, Talla Na Mara, Stoneybridge and Castlebay.
There are six films for children this year and 16 shorts, including Greta and The Snowman, which profiles teen activist Greta Thunberg, and Solas, the piece by Fiona J Mackenzie documenting the life and work of Gaelic folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw. Both these shorts are showing in many of the rural venues and Greta and The Snowman is in An Lanntair, too.
Each short gets paired with a feature-length film, such as Robert Redford’s The Mustang and short Inhale, which are showing in An Lanntair on the Saturday night.
Inhale is about a man trying to come to terms with the death of his wife and daughter, through his horses and his desire “to move in harmony with his pain”.
Recognising the difficult subject matter, Muriel Ann said: “It’s part of life. We have to be prepared to talk about these issues.” She added that it was important to offer such films as part of a selection “in a film festival situation”. Festival Producer Ruaraidh Urpeth is a fan of Inhale, describing it as “beautiful” and “a complete cinematic achievement”.
Inhale, directed by Sean Mullan, is just 15 minutes long. But, as Muriel Ann said: “Sometimes a short can be sufficient in a particular subject. That’s why I’ve got short films in the programme and they’ve all got a specific purpose. I think it’s a form that we don’t respect enough in this country. We see it as a tester or a route to make a feature from and not as art in and of themselves.”
For more information on the festival visit: www.hebfilmfestival.org/hiff-2019
Tickets for the rural venues can be bought through the website by following the links to the Eventbrite marketplace but tickets for the An Lanntair films must be bought through the art centre’s own website at: www.lanntair.com.
Follow the Hebrides International Film Festival on social media – on Facebook at @HebFilmFestival and Twitter at @HebIntFilmFest – for regular updates.