Written and directed by Scottish writer, photographer and filmmaker Kenneth Macpherson, the silent movie Borderline was pioneering for its time. In 1930, more than 80 years ago, Macpherson made a film that crossed boundaries which many found unspeakable, let alone acceptable to be recorded onto 35mm film. Talking Heads reporter Anne Austin gives her interpretation of the film, focusing on the challenges and rewards that come with deciphering its cinematic language.
As a first time silent moviegoer, I was intrigued and a little cynical to see if I could detect what this so-called ground breaking cinematography set out to achieve. However, I was already intrigued – and surprised – that a Scottish man at this time had been involved in writing and directing a film about an interracial extra-marital affair, lesbian lust, murder and injustice. I was sold! Off I popped to the Centre for Contemporary Arts to discover more.
The main setting for the film is a small boarding house on the Swiss border, home to the society of the 1930s’ less accepted individuals. But before we see this, the opening scene of a train hurtling through wild weeds may suggest panic, unstoppable carnage or perhaps a long journey. As I said, I am new to this type of cinema, so please bear with me.
The boarding house inhabitants include the joyously drunk Manageress, played by Macpherson’s wife, the writer Bryher (also known as Annie Winifred Ellerman) who was involved in funding the film. The intensity of the nameless character is loveable and contagious, which contrasts with the dour, still character of her lesbian lover, Astrid, played by Hilda Dolittle, billed as Helga Doorn and better known as the poet H.D.
We meet Astrid in her opening scene, she is clearly agitated and ferociously attempting to contact someone by telephone. In another room in the house Thorne, her husband, seems troubled with his mistress Adah. A close up of a picture falling off the wall and the smashing of an ornament certainly hint that my first impression of a train wreck is on the way. Adah and her husband Pete, and I struggle to write this word, are described in the film as American Negroes, making the affair no ordinary matter. The camera zooms into Adah’s emotional eyes and, so far, the cinematography is doing a splendid job. I have easily absorbed that the scorned wife Astrid is on the edge of turmoil, the mistress Adah looks a bit sheepish and dismayed and Thorne is stuck between love and the right thing to do. Well for 1930 anyway.
The boarding house owner bursts on to the screen with her over exaggerated dancing. Her wild movements shout out that she is merrily drunk without much of a care in the world and knows how to have a good time. Hence, perhaps, the liberal and very ahead of its time boarding house which accepted all. So far so good and I am enjoying this very different kind of cinema experience.
The wife and the mistress engage in dialogue and intertitles (words on screen, yes I had to look that up) show Astrid telling Adah that she must leave Thorne and go back to her man Pete. The camera shoots back and forth to the nameless boarding house owner who dances the day away with her glass half full, whilst a cheery looking chap plays the piano. Undoubtedly the contrasting of the carefree socialising and the melancholy of Adah leaving, to do the right thing, and Astrid’s sheer panic are captured. A smirk from Adah to Astrid suggests that she is in fact in no mood to leave Thorne.
Thorne is still not a happy chap. He stares intently to the floor at a knife sticking out from the floorboards amongst debris from whatever has been broken. An overhead shot of Thorne staring at the floor shows how hopeless he feels. Pete, the betrayed husband, has more complex emotions. His eyes are clearly sad but somewhat forgiving and very kind. Close ups of his relaxed hands confuse me, yet it is apparent that Pete is by far the most rational and calm character.
Throughout the film, the boarding house owner and her lover, who seems to be a barmaid, mostly appear happy until a bit of flirting by the former with various inhabitants puts a look of distaste on her girlfriend’s face.
The catalyst for change comes when Astrid dances in front of Thorne with a sharp knife. She cuts his face and hand and kisses the knife which in the hands of Thorne ends up killing her. Meanwhile, in the bar area, the mood joyous again with embellished dance moves and the literal over flowing of booze. The house owner, her barmaid girlfriend and Pete are having a fun time and the smiles from Pete say it all. Two lesbians and a black American man enjoying socialising together but injustice is not far away.
Thorne is acquitted of Astrid’s murder and the mayor orders Pete to be removed not only from the boarding house but from the town. The drink keeps flowing but the merriment and dancing stops. A hand shake between Thorne and Pete, prior to Pete leaving, again crosses the borderlines of the time as not only has the cheated husband forgiven his foe, but a black man and a white man shake hands on screen for a lengthy time.
As a novice to this type of entertainment, it was clear that the cinematography depicted each character’s personality without any ambiguity. However, in my eyes, it did little to guide the plot, in which there are many areas that still perplex me. For example, the artificial seagull and the deck of player cards, the cat fetching a goldfish from a glass jar full of water and a toddler trying to kick away an adult who was attempting to put his shoes on. I also remain confused about the frequent appearance of an elderly lady, who only becomes clear when intertitles reveal her thoughts on black people.
That said, the emotions and feelings of these startling characters are wonderfully portrayed and worth viewing for that in itself.
by Anne Austin
Borderline screened at the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival, with a live score from Rick Anthony and Duncan Marquiss of The Phantom Band. For full film listings, click here.
Oscar Wilde once said, ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’ Port Glasgow’s outstandingly beautiful library is as far from a gutter as imaginable, but an exhibition currently being hosted there suggests that more than just a few Inverclyders enjoy – and benefit from – turning their eyes to the skies above.
The exhibition, entitled Space & Time, has been created by Inverclyde Skywatchers, and showcases many of the topics investigated by the group during the last eighteen months. A wide range of space-related subjects are covered, from the history of astronomy, with the early attempts of ancient South American and classical civilizations to interpret the cosmos, through to more modern technological developments and discoveries, such as the Apollo 8 moon orbit, and finally to contemporary (and very local) opportunities to study the universe at such places as Paisley’s Coats Observatory and Galloway Forest Park, the UK’s only Dark Sky Park, where light pollution is controlled specifically to allow a clearer vision of the wonders of the night sky.
Inverclyde Skywatchers meet each Monday at Greenock’s South West Library, from 3–5pm. The group was started in April 2015 after Marion McNeill and Margaret Lees, both of Gourock, and a number of other local residents were inspired by astrology classes given by Iain McEachran. All had an existing interest in astrology and wished to pursue this on a more regular and long-running basis. I particularly like the fact that Marion’s interest in astrology began as a child with the songs her German mother sang of the stars. A varied programme of talks, meetings and trips is now offered by the group.
I have to confess that, initially, I approached the exhibition wondering quite what its link to the aims and themes of SMHAFF would be. Indeed, little is made of any such link anywhere in the exhibition. However, as I admired and took in the imagery and information on the display boards, I grew increasingly intrigued and beguiled by the group’s extensive knowledge of their subject. In fact, it drew me in and distracted me from the hustle and bustle of traffic and ‘real life’ beyond the library walls, transporting me elsewhere – above, to a realm far greater than that of Port Glasgow, or even our world: the realm of an eternal and, as yet, unfathomable universe.
This I found both awe-inspiring and relaxing, and it occurred to me that to find the time to gaze up at the night skies – or even just to read about them, or visit an exhibition such as this – is always a deeply worthwhile and therapeutic activity, leading one to any number of philosophical or spiritual thoughts. Ultimately, we all of us suffer days when we feel we are, figuratively, in the gutter, but to look at the stars can often stimulate us to rise above our down-to-earth gloom.
Public interest in Tim Peake’s recent travels aboard the International Space Station testify to the public’s enduring fascination with the night skies and the nature of the greater universe beyond. Inverclyde Skywatchers are providing an excellent local arena in which this fascination can be explored and expanded upon.
by Mark Jones
Space & Time runs until Friday 28 October at Port Glasgow Library and entry is free. Opening times: Mon & Thu 12-7pm, Tue & Fri 10am-5pm, Wed & Sat 10am-1pm. Click here for full details.
The third annual SMHAFF Writing Awards took place on Monday 17 October at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. Held in partnership with Bipolar Scotland, the ceremony was hosted by poet and performer Jenny Lindsay. This year, Jenny was on the competition’s panel of judges, which also included playwright and novelist Alan Bissett, Andrew Eaton-Lewis, the Arts Lead for the Mental Health Foundation, and Alison Cairns and Gordon Johnston from Bipolar Scotland. Together, they selected ten shortlisted pieces and four prize-winners from over 130 entries on the theme of time.
Gordon Johnston from Bipolar Scotland has been involved with judging the competition since it began and remarked that this year had been the most difficult yet. He found lots of the pieces of writing very moving and, in particular, highlighted the beautiful use of language in many of the pieces.
Hearing the shortlisted writers read from their work was definitely the highlight of the evening and an absolute privilege. As Gordon commented: ‘You cannot assume that people are good at reading just because they can write, but the standard of reading was excellent.’
Following the readings, singer-songwriter Neil Pennycook, best known for his band Meursault, performed a short set of songs which went down very well with everyone in attendance. And then it was time to present the awards.
You can read all of the shortlisted entries in the beautiful e-book below, designed by Josie Vallely:
Highly Commended: Dear Doctor, Angela McCrimmon
In Angela McCrimmon’s absence, Alison Cairns read Dear Doctor, a beautiful mixture of prose and poetry that expressed the experience of bipolar disorder with clarity and warmth:
'26/05/2015...Dear Dr, I just want to give up. You don't understand. You look at me blankly while tears are pouring from my eyes. My words are locked up inside and I can't get them out. Oh well...maybe next time.'
As a poet who writes for performance, Jenny Lindsay explained that she especially enjoyed the pieces with a clear voice and felt that Dear Doctor was a great example of this.
Second Runner Up: Happy Meal, Erin Crombie
Erin Crombie has been writing since the age of eighteen and her short story Happy Meal used language in a very fresh way:
‘I looked down at the body attached to my head. The legs, the insect legs, were sprawled and tangled. The pressure of the tile on my knee, my hip, the base of my spine. All bones and bone white tile. If I tried to lie down flat pain would still find its way to all the pressure points. These are the points of my body that meet the world. If only contact with the world didn’t hurt so much.’
Erin described herself as ‘surprised and a bit horrified’ to win a prize, and described the experience of reading from her story on the night as ‘vomit-inducing!’
First Runner Up: Dear Uncle, Celia D Donovan
Celia Donovan was the first to read her work on the night, a very moving letter to her late uncle. A deeply personal piece, Celia dealt with her uncle’s – and her own – experiences of mental ill health:
‘Would you think badly of me to know that even though I saw the devastation your suicide caused that I have tried to commit suicide before? Or would you be the only person in the family who truly understands?’
Although Celia has written since she was a child, she only entered the competition following the encouragement of a friend. She initially wrote four pieces and she considered Dear Uncle a much more rushed – albeit much more personal – fifth piece.
When Celia found out that it had been shortlisted she was completely thrown, having not discussed the letter or its content with her family. Happily, they were very encouraging and supportive of what she had done and she was delighted to have her mum with her at the ceremony.
Winner: Taking Care of Jane, Angela Wright
Alison Cairns of Bipolar Scotland said that the judges had all been in agreement about Angela Wright’s short story Taking Care of Jane – it was a clear and worthy winner. Accepting her award, she told the audience that she’d never won anything before in her life and praised the other shortlisted writers.
Speaking after the ceremony, Angela said that she was absolutely astonished at her win. After hearing everyone else’s work, she said she felt that she had as much chance as anybody but would really not have been sad if she had left empty-handed, given the high standard of all of the writing.
Wright’s story depicts the struggle that a couple – indeed a family – experienced when one member suffered with an extreme spell of mental illness. It is a beautifully evocative story with rich description of place and feelings:
‘The train unsettles her. The noise of the wretched thing; the last flashes of daylight as the tunnel looms. Jane sits alone on the train. She is by a window, as close as possible to a corner of the carriage. She braces herself. Approaching the darkness, she wraps her body up small, notices the drumming of her heart.’
At the close of the ceremony, Jenny Lindsay spoke briefly about the difficulty of writing about mental health and commended all of the shortlisted writers: Celia Donovan, Susan Robinson, Brian Reid, Angela Wright, Kate Chapman, Lauren Jones, Shirley Muir, Angela McCrimmon, Helen MacKinven, and Erin Crombie.
by Rachel Alexander
Almost two years ago, a group of mental health patients discussed the idea of uniting mental health sufferers with a hidden talent into a single entertainment company. What progressed from those early meetings was the will of Stuart Doig and myself to make an impact and build a supportive organisation for talented mental health sufferers.
From our hard work, Fool On was created, through which we would educate sufferers in the arts, ranging from stand-up comedy and performance to singing and music. Our goal was to use our workshops to encourage all anxiety sufferers and those with a lack of confidence to reach different levels in performance. By progressing through these levels, mental health sufferers would be able to reach a point where they were finally able to perform to the public.
In Time You Will Recover, which takes place at Orbiston Neighbourhood Centre on Tuesday 25 October as part of SMHAFF, demonstrates the progress that these people have made and highlights the talent they have not previously been able to showcase due to their anxieties.
At Fool On, participants start by going attending the workshops themselves and on a regular basis, before they develop the confidence and ability to perform to the group. Next, Fool On takes the budding performers to the mental health wards of Lanarkshire hospitals, where they perform most weeks to small but enthusiastic audiences.
Taking it a level further are shows like In Time You Will Recover, where it’s not just about the comedy and the singing, but the art of performance also comes in to play. Having been a part of the organisation, I can recommend an afternoon of surprising talent that will inspire anyone suffering from mental health issues in the audience to want to take part.
Knowing the musical and comedy content of this show, I am sure you will have a pleasant afternoon, and all tickets are completely free. Please support these extraordinary performers as they combat their anxieties to bring to you a standard of entertainment that deserves to be recognised.
by Colin MacGregor
In Time You Will Recover takes place from 1–3pm on Tuesday 25 October at Orbiston Neighbourhood Centre in Bellshill. For full details, click here.
‘I am the son of a mother with a mask’
Interviewed after being awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival, A Family Affair director Tom Fassaert identifies this declaration from his father to be the very ‘essence’ of his documentary. The ‘masked’ woman in question is former model and femme fatale, 95-year-old Marianne Hertz, who has emigrated to South Africa from Holland, leaving behind her a legacy of estrangement and dysfunction. Invited by his grandmother to join her in her whitewashed bungalow, Tom embarks on a quest to discover more about this enigmatic figure whose sudden reappearance stirs up family secrets and old resentments.
The ‘mask’ metaphor, along with carefully posed family photos and videos, and lingering shots of Marianne applying makeup in her dressing gown and rollers, flags up a tension between appearances and ‘truth’, and of the faces we present to the world and those we hide even from ourselves. Tom tells his grandmother ‘I'm making this film because so many things were always kept secret… I want to find out what's going on,’ to which she replies, with a dismissive wave of her hand, ‘That's your problem! Not mine!’, alerting us from the outset that this quest for answers is unlikely to be straightforward.
What emerges is an intensely personal documentary that resembles a patchworked family album salvaged from memories and images from across the generations, but which also plays an active role in the ongoing creation of the family’s story, with Marianne journeying back to Holland for a family reunion. Tom’s interviews track how his father, Rob, and uncle, Rene, were placed in a home in early childhood, even if we never quite reach an answer as to why, as well as documenting the aftermath of sorrow, divorce and mental illness. And, although conversations add narrative to the black and white photos of a distant past – of Marianne’s own unhappy childhood in Germany – we gradually begin to realise that these tangled genealogies are not so easily unravelled.
What first strikes you on meeting Tom and his father is the ease and openness of their rapport, the intimacy displayed on screen just as apparent in person and in sharp contrast to the silences and ellipses that punctuate much of the family history. When asked how the film and promotional tour have impacted their relationship, they both recognise that their many conversations, both in and around the film, have allowed for this natural intimacy to deepen, with Rob likening it to a return to the closeness shared when the family was still intact and living under one roof.
While the interviews on screen appear spontaneous and open, Tom is careful to point out that the process was more challenging than it appeared, emphasising several times the ‘struggle’ experienced in his five years filming: ‘certain subjects, or certain emotions, you're not conscious of yourself, they're in there, but you live with them, they're part of you… and it takes an outsider, or, well, I'm like a half-outsider, to point it out. And that's what made it enriching for me, but also very difficult, especially concerning my father… because I felt I needed to touch on things or to keep on digging until I found what I was looking for.’
This persistence creates what Tom sees as the ‘ethical dilemma’ of creating such an intimate work, in contrast with his previous non-autobiographical film, An Angel in Doel (2011), in which ‘everything was clear’. The challenge, as Tom puts it, lies not only in terms of ‘loyalty’ to those represented, never taking sides, but also in constantly examining his own position about what gives him the ‘right’ to keep on asking questions, even in the face of emotional vulnerability: ‘in the end you have to trust your own sensitivity, that in the end the goal is to make a film in which all these people are represented in their most honest and truthful way.’
When asked whether having a camera made it easier to have such intense conversations with his family, Tom goes even further, admitting these exchanges would have been impossible without one: ‘I think I wasn't brave enough, well, not to ask certain questions but to go on asking… the camera was an instrument that let me do something I would have felt too awkward doing without it’. He adds that he is still filming his uncle, aware that he hasn’t yet told Rene’s ‘full story’ - the camera allowing him to build a connection with someone who previously felt like a ‘stranger’.
Tom’s ability to make people feel truly ‘seen’ is most striking in his relationship with his grandmother. Questioned about Marianne, both Tom and Rob identify the ‘tragedy’ of how, although she hated the way her father only loved her for how she looked, she ended up a model, spending her life trying to maintain the very beauty that she resented. There was ‘no alternative’, as Rob describes it, comparing her to a celebrity who both loathes fame and relies on it for a sense of self. What initially appears in the film as narcissism is therefore reframed as self-reliance, the survival strategy of a woman living in an era when her options were limited.
In a particularly emotional interview in the cruise ship cabin, en route to Holland, Marianne turns to Tom, referring to him as the only person who really sees something in her, who doesn’t judge her, before breaking down into tears and hiding her face from the camera. Asked about this scene, Tom notes that ‘it felt like THE moment of truth’ and although it is difficult to watch, there is a feeling that we are privileged in witnessing something unmediated and so resolutely human.
It is in this context that the revelation of Marianne’s desire for Tom becomes easier to understand. While aware that certain audiences might regard it as ‘perverse’, Tom comments that the feeling of taboo is much greater when talking about it, whereas when people actually see the film, it emerges as part of Marianne’s character and way of relating with men, shaped by her father, and, as Rob points out, by the fact that she never really saw herself as a mother or grandmother.
Crucially, when asked whether he had considered leaving this out of the film, Tom emphasises how he didn’t feel any judgment towards Marianne: ‘at a certain moment I had two choices… either leave her, in a way abandon her, or accept it… accept her feelings. And I chose to accept.’
Rather than ‘truth’, then, we move towards an understanding based on acceptance and a shared sense of sorrow, during a sequence of Super 8 footage of autumn leaves and tangled roots, with a quotation from Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, also about dysfunctional family relationships. Rene’s thoughts about how the ‘ideal moment’ of connection between mother and child is so fleeting overlap with similar feelings expressed by the others. According to Tom, ‘it's the emotional climax of the film – we're very close together, all our stories seem to be parallel even though in real life we feel we are hugely apart from each other.’
Referring to this festival’s focus on mental health, Rob, a former psychologist, talks of self-exposure as a necessary part of the therapeutic encounter and how his own troubled past was precisely what led to him training. He also observes how his son’s film and approach are ‘psychological in every way’, particularly in his equal focus on each person – ‘that was amazing for me, he's really interested in people’ and in asking the ‘right kind of questions’ that allow people to open up.
The value of honesty to mental wellbeing is also emphasised by Tom, particularly in a context where social media leads us to display ourselves ‘in a perfect way’ that none of us can really live up to: ‘I think we long for something real, for something that touches on emotional things that we all feel, that allow us not to have to pretend.’ Alongside the personal value of the film, it is through the positive reaction of audiences to this emotional honesty that Tom says he has come to appreciate the film’s importance, ‘that this is something really universal, it's not only about us…’, noting how many people have approached him with their own family stories.
There is no longed-for ‘happy ending’, then, but rather ambiguity and complexity. Marianne is both vulnerable and cunning, disarmingly honest and ‘a born manipulator’, falling out with Tom right at the very end: ‘It happened and it needed to be there, just to show you that things aren’t that easily solved… we don't live in a Hollywood movie.’
‘The truth is subjective... You'll never find what you're looking for. Impossible. Even if you try,’ Marianne declares in the film. And while she may be right, A Family Affair suggests admitting this does not invalidate the search for understanding: ‘not judging, not creating this oversimplified idea about right and wrong, black and white… that was my main ambition,’ as Tom puts it. We are all caught in this ongoing construction of ourselves and others; to quote Bergman: ‘We make each other alive; it doesn’t make a difference if it hurts.’ And while there is an undeniable tenderness at the heart of this documentary, this sense of how we exist in relation, and how these relations are inevitably messy, full of possibility and disappointment alike, is perhaps the closest we can get to something true.
by Clare Blackburne
A Family Affair won Best Documentary Feature and the Grand Jury Prize in the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival's International Film Competition. It is now available to watch on Netflix in the UK.