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