Ruth Mills performing in Jennifer West's installation at Tramway, September 2016

Wish you were here

I spent the summer chasing cinema. By ferry, train, bus, car, or bike I’ve travelled to places I had never been before, to catch brief spells of light on temporary screens. I started typing this on a boat heading for Zeebrugge, shortly before entering the on-board cinema to watch a Hollywood blockbuster I had missed. I come back to the text almost two months later, after fifteen minutes of wonder in an installation by American artist Jennifer West. In the vast warehouse space of the old tram depot, in complete darkness, Ruth Mills performed the serpentine dance, illuminated by handheld torches shining through strips of celluloid. The familiar rows of sprocket holes and the soft colours of tinted film moved and merged on the walls, as the audience wandered around, shining their torches closer or further away, playing with a magically simple form of projection. A beam of light and shadow, a wall, darkness, and someone watching: I’ve seen this alchemy over and over, and it is never the same twice.

The Screen Machine at Kyleakin

The Screen Machine at Kyleakin

The warm glow of the cinema at the Burnlaw Centre

The warm glow of the cinema at the Burnlaw Centre

At the beginning of the summer, I followed the Screen Machine to Skye and Raasay, where the familiar space of a cinema on wheels offered the comforts that the Scottish weather denies to campers. After a couple of days away from the city, the Icelandic moors with their hardy sheep in Rams fused in my memory with their Highland equals. In rural Northumberland I watched Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, its affectionate humanism made vastly more resonant by the communal meals we shared between its three parts, the togetherness of collective spectatorship nurtured by the warmth of hospitality from our hosts at the Burnlaw Centre. In the last part of Gomes’s extraordinary trilogy, there is a long documentary segment about rugged Lisbon men who breed and train chaffinches for singing tournaments. As the film taught us how to identify the parts of a bird’s song, we realised the chaffinches we heard were also outside the window. Thanks to that random juxtaposition, I now know what a chaffinch sounds like; I apprehend a little bit more of the world. A similar modest discovery took place in an old United Presbyterian Church off the Gallowgate, where a short film about doo fleein’ finally explained to me what those structures I had always seen by the canal were, and illuminated a new corner of my life in the city.

Screens and drums at Hidden Door festival, Edinburgh, June 2016

Screens and drums at Hidden Door festival, Edinburgh, June 2016

Wee Green Cinema, Pollokshields Playhouse, July 2016

Wee Green Cinema, Pollokshields Playhouse, July 2016

Cinema this summer engaged my body as well as my attention. In a small, pitch-black room in an electrical warehouse in Edinburgh, I made the palms of my hands tender through drumming, using my skin on skin to learn, to listen to the stories of Afro-Colombian struggles for freedom, told through beat and song in Diana Kuellar’s video installation Benkos. I cycled the two beautiful miles from Gorebridge to Temple Village Hall, where the pleasure of uncomplicated, friendly cinemagoing was augmented by homemade lemon drizzle cake. I also cycled to the temporarily reclaimed space of the Pollokshields Playhouse, in the Southside of Glasgow, and then cycled some more to resistance and solidarity, and a glimmer of hope that we will still have cinema after the coming catastrophe. Hope was also there in the relaxed intimacy of a yurt full of children and child-like adults, talking back to the films and to each other’s explanations of them, during CineMor77’s appearance at Doune the Rabbit Hole.

Temple, Midlothian

Temple, Midlothian

Mairi (1912) gets the live treatment at Cinemor77's yurt, August 2016

Mairi (1912) gets the live treatment at Cinemor77’s yurt, August 2016

This summer I had the amazing privilege to go chasing a will o’ the wisp as it flickered here and there, with little more justification than my curiosity. I was able and allowed to do this, and I hope this will only make me more awake to all the barriers that I didn’t even see, that I glibly skipped over, or that others held open for me – not to trick me into misplaced guilt, but to spur me to share this luck. Read this, if you will, as my excuse for telling you about the nice things I’ve seen, the kindness that survives, the simple joys that could be ours.

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