HI-ARTS - Putting Skye on the Movie Map

20th May 2007

ALLAN HUNTER caught up with the Gaelic film Seachd at the Cannes Film Festival

IT IS NOW possible to spend every single day of the year at a different film festival somewhere on the planet. It is a prospect that even the most enthusiastic journalist might dread.

The competition is fierce but Cannes remains the grande dame of such gatherings. It is the most important event of its kind in the world and any filmmaking nation that wants to be taken seriously has to be seen to be there.

The 60th Cannes festival has witnessed triumphs for the stark Rumanian abortion drama ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days’, the French language adaptation of Jean-Dominque Bauby’s life-affirming memoir ‘The Diving Bell And The Butterfly’, the Coen brothers’ meaty version of the Cormac McCarthy Tex-Mex novel ‘No Country For Old Men’, featuring Scotland’s Kelly Macdonald in its ensemble cast, and Austrian drama ‘Import/Export’.

British hopes of success were dashed almost as soon as the programme was announced in April. Not a single British film is in competition for the Festival’s main prize, the coveted Palme D’Or. Stephen Frears, director of ‘The Queen’, may be the President of a prestigious international jury, but he is unlikely to be troubled by any conflicts of interest.

It has not been all bad news for British cinema, though, and one Scottish film has managed to restore a little national pride. Filmed on Skye during May and June of 2006, ‘Seachd – The Inaccessible Pinnacle’ had its world premiere at the Celtic Film Festival on the island in March.

It’s first international market screenings were at Cannes this week, where Skye-based producer Chris Young revealed that the film has now been acquired by British distributor Soda Pictures, and will open in British cinemas this autumn after a possible screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival.

Britain is so dominated by Hollywood blockbusters that any British film struggles to be taken seriously as a big screen attraction. The achievement of the low-budget ‘Seachd’ is all the more remarkable because it will be the first ever Gaelic-language production to have achieved a British cinema release.

Supported by the Gaelic Media Service, the film was inspired by Young’s previous collaboration with director Simon Miller on the short film ‘Foighidinn (The Crimson Snowdrop)’. It is an involving human drama that also pays tribute to the strong storytelling traditions that have long been part of Gaelic culture.

Padruig Morrison stars as Aonghas, a nine year-old boy sent to live with his grandparents after the death of his parents in a climbing tragedy. His grandfather, expertly played by Aonghas Padraig Cambuel, attempts to beguile the lad with tall tales and magical stories.

The film unfolds in flashback as the older Aonghas rushes to visit his dying grandfather in hospital. The grandfather’s stories punctuate the narrative, providing moments of humour and wisdom as we are regaled with tales of magicians, feuds, shipwrecked gold from a Spanish Armada and a man who may have opened the world’s first chip shop.

‘Seachd’ is an ambitious film but there is little doubt that the star attraction is the rugged, natural beauty of Skye. The camerawork really does the island proud, capturing its many faces and different moods, from ominous skylines to blinding sunlight, lapping waves on deserted shores and the imposing majesty of the Cuillin Hills that play such a vital part in the story.

It is a journalistic cliché to suggest that a location can also function as an extra character in a film, but that is very much the case in the way that ‘Seachd’ uses Skye. The film already seems destined to travel the world with invitations arriving from a number of other European festivals.

It was almost all good news for Chris Young and Young Films at Cannes. The producer has been developing a script by writer John Milarky entitled ‘The Strangest Thing’. It is set in Scotland on Christmas Eve 1890, and follows events as a steam train plunges from a crippled bridge.

The souls of those killed ascend to heaven but one remains. An angel is sent to recover it but in encountering the kindness of strangers begins to wonder what it might be like to be human.

It is a project with the flavour of a Powell and Pressburger film like ‘A Matter Of Life And Death’ (1946), and more than a hint of the Frank Capra Yuletide classic ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ (1946) starring James Stewart.

Young has discovered this week that ‘The Strangest Thing’ has won the Hartley Merrill International Screenwriting Prize, which carries a $5,000 cash prize and the chance for Young and Milarky to head for Los Angeles and embark on the next step of bringing the project to the screen and finding the ideal director to make their vision a reality.

Young admits that ‘The Strangest Thing’ has become something of a pet project, and that his wish list of directors would include someone with the talent of a Tim Burton or a Martin Scorsese.

It is also his dream to see ‘The Strangest Thing’ made on Skye. His other plans include the intention to reunite with director Simon Miller for another project, also on Skye. It appears that ‘Seachd’ may be the start of something big for filmmaking on the island. Cannes might have to get used to the sound of the Scots on the Croisette.

© Allan Hunter, 2007