Cel­e­brat­ing a pi­o­neer of film

Scot­land’s first fe­male di­rec­tor of a fea­ture film is largely un­known in her home coun­try, but a ret­ro­spec­tive of her work to mark 100 years since her birth is set to raise her pro­file.

The Herald - - NEWS - STEVEN TAY­LOR re­ports

SHE has been hailed as a vi­sion­ary and pi­o­neer of women’s film­mak­ing, though few peo­ple will have heard of her in her na­tive Scot­land.

But now the life and ca­reer of Scot­land’s first fe­male film di­rec­tor is be­ing cel­e­brated with a ma­jor ret­ro­spec­tive of her work, be­ing or­gan­ised by the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute to mark the cen­te­nary of her birth next month.

Or­ca­dian Mar­garet Tait was a dis­tin­guished poet, writer and film­maker, who made his­tory as the first fe­male Scots di­rec­tor of a fea­ture-length film.

“Tait’s unique mix of im­age, sound, rhythm and po­etry re­minds us of what cinema is and can be,” ex­plained a Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute spokes­woman.

De­scribed by the ac­claimed Scots play­wright Ali Smith as “a unique and un­der­rated film­maker”, Tait was born in Kirk­wall on Novem­ber 11, 1918 and later moved to Ed­in­burgh to study medicine, serv­ing with the Royal Army Med­i­cal Corps in In­dia and the Far East dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

Af­ter the war she moved to Rome to study film at the pres­ti­gious Cen­tro Sper­i­men­tale di Cine­matografia, and made her first short film, One Is One, in Italy in 1951.

In 1954 she re­turned to Scot­land, set­tling in Ed­in­burgh and found­ing An­cona Films, named af­ter the street where she lived in Rome, even­tu­ally mak­ing more than 30 short films rang­ing in length from three min­utes to more than an hour, most of which ex­am­ined ev­ery­day life in the city.

She also pub­lished sev­eral books of po­etry.

“The kind of cinema I care about is at the level of po­etry,” she ex­plained. “In fact, it has been, in a way, my life’s work mak­ing film po­ems.”

Among her best known works are Hugh Mac­di­armid: A Por­trait, a doc­u­men­tary about Scot­land’s most fa­mous 20th cen­tury poet, and Where I Am Is Here, both shot in Ed­in­burgh in 1964.

Of the lat­ter, Tait said: “Start­ing with a six-line script that just noted down a kind of event to oc­cur, and re­cur, my aim was to con­struct a film with its own logic, its own cor­re­spon­dences within it­self, its own echoes and rhymes and com­par­isons, all through close ex­plo­ration of the ev­ery­day, the com­mon­place, in the city, Ed­in­burgh.”

Her work was noted for its im­pres­sion­is­tic style and unique use of mu­sic. “Although I don’t un­der­stand mu­si­cal struc­ture – I can’t re­ally fol­low the struc­ture of a piece of mu­sic when I’m lis­ten­ing to it – I think that film struc­ture is more like mu­si­cal struc­ture than any­thing else,” she once said.

But her films were per­ceived as hav­ing lit­tle com­mer­cial ap­peal and she strug­gled to at­tract the in­ter­est of film dis­trib­u­tors.

“As it turned out, of course, dis­trib­u­tors then were not in­ter­ested in in­de­pen­dently pro­duced short films.

“There was, in fact, not re­ally a mar­ket at all,” she ad­mit­ted.

Con­se­quently, Tait had to fi­nance al­most all her films her­self and, although she gained some favourable crit­i­cal at­ten­tion dur­ing her life­time, her films were not widely seen by the pub­lic. In 1973 she re­turned to her beloved Orkneys and worked as a locum to fund her short films, most of which fo­cused on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Or­ca­di­ans and the land and sea.

Fi­nally in 1992, at the age of 74, she se­cured a bud­get to make her one and only fea­ture-length film, the first to ever be di­rected by a Scot­tish fe­male di­rec­tor.

Blue Black Per­ma­nent, which she had orig­i­nally con­ceived in the 1940s, starred Celia Im­rie and ex­plored the lives of three gen­er­a­tions of women from an Or­ca­dian fam­ily.

Tait con­tin­ued work­ing al­most un­til her death at the age of 80 in 1999, her last project be­ing the short film Gar­den

Pieces.

“I ac­tu­ally picked up a cam­era in the last few days to work on some­thing in the old style, mean­ing 16mm, self-pro­duced and self ev­ery­thing else,” she said shortly be­fore her death.

Although re­garded as some­thing of a for­got­ten fig­ure in Scot­land, in re­cent years her role as a pi­o­neer of Scot­tish film­mak­ing has be­gun to be more widely recog­nised, and in 2010 the Glas­gow Film Fes­ti­val founded the Mar­garet Tait Award “to sup­port ex­per­i­men­tal and in­no­va­tive artists work­ing with film and the mov­ing im­age in Scot­land”.

Rhythm and Po­etry – The Films of Mar­garet Tait runs at se­lected in­de­pen­dent cinemas around the coun­try from Oc­to­ber 29 un­til 30 Novem­ber.

The high­light of the sea­son will be a spe­cial screen­ing of a dig­i­tally re­mas­tered print of Blue Black Per­ma­nent at the Na­tional Film Theatre in Lon­don and the

Pic­ture: Moviestore Col­lec­tion Ltd

„ Blue Black Per­ma­nent sees an Or­ca­dian woman re­call mem­o­ries of her mother, played by Gerda Steven­son, above.

Tait pic­ture: BFI

„ Mar­garet Tait had to fi­nance al­most all of her own films, but se­cured a bud­get to make Blue Black Per­ma­nent, which starred Celia Im­rie, above right.

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