From this December vantage point. it looks like it‘s been a pretty good year for that often sickly looking beast known as the Scottish cinema. With Gillies Mackinnon‘s Leith-set screen version of Manfred Karge‘s play The Conquest of The South Pole acquired for transmission by Channel 4. and the Timothy

Neat/John Berger collaboration Play

Me Something garnering both European acclaim and a handy cash prize boot at the Barcelona Film Festival. 1989 would have seemed vintage enough. Yet. it is the fast-approaching release of Ian Sellar‘s Venus Peter. the first Scottish-made film in ages to play the commercial circuit in Scotland. that above all ends the year on a high-note.

Shot in Stromness up on ()rkney in the autumn of 1988. the film stars the late Ray McAnally in one ofhis last performances and impressive 9 year-old newcomer Gordon R. Strachan in the central role as an Orcadian youngster. born into the island fishing community of the Fifties. who is obsessed by the sea in general and his grandfather‘s boat

the Venus in particular. Amidst the shaping influences ofthe small coastal town‘s stern minister (David Hayman) and Jean Brodie-ish teacher (Sinead Cusack). the boy‘s developing perceptions ofa harsh world and growing love of the printed word is set against a backdrop ofthe declining fishing trade. and the yearned-for return of his absent father. departed for a better life on the mainland. Adapted from the evocative long prose-poem A Twe/vemonth And A Day by Scots author Christopher Rush. that the film has ended up on screen is a tribute to the vision and downright staying power of 28 year-old producer Christopher Young. who started out by selling

f £5o shares in the project to raise

'i £5ooo that would pay Rush to turn

his work into a screenplay. As the author‘s royalties cheques for the previous year added up to a grand £66. the offer was accepted. with film school graduate Ian Scllar soon joining the team as director. Financing for the {1.2 million effort was gradually accumulated from Channel 4. British Screen. the Scottish Film Production Fund (where director Penny Thompson generously chucked in most of the annual budget). and the unlikely source of()rkney Council. 'I‘heir £60 ooo was added in the belief that the film would help the island‘s tourist trade. but in the meantime hundreds of locals participated as authentic extras in a number of scenes.

‘When we held the premiere of the

film up there last June it was absolutely magic to watch the community seeing themselves upon screen.‘ recalls Troon-born director Sellar. ‘though a few ofthem were upset not to be featured as prominently as they thought they were going to bc.‘ Indeed. contrary to the usual preconception of city-slicker movie people cynically exploiting their country bumpkin cousins. the experience seems to have been an altogether positive one for both sides concerned. While Kirkwall Cinema benefitted from a new cinema screen for the film‘s first showing. Sellar feels that Venus Peter benefits immensely from the ‘strong sense ofself-identity" that the involvement of the working Stromness community brings to the piece. and cinematographer Gabriel Beristain has certainly made lovely use of the area's distinctively pure light.

In fact. Venus Peter's carefully appealing period visuals have seen some pundits somewhat thoughtlessly accuse it of being a typically British exercise in nostalgia. while Edinburgh producer Gareth Wardell (Conquest) even went on television to offer his opinion that Scotland should not be making films that wallow in the past. In response. director Sellar defends the chances he has undoubtedly taken to make the film he wanted to make. ‘I suppose I could have done some political polemic about the decline ofthe fishing industry. but I always find those social realist

i l

documents insulting to the people they're actually portraying. They lay down that. say. a mining family. looks like this. talks like this. thinks like this. You can't make sweeping generalisations like that. you have to treat your characters as individuals like yourself. In Venus Peter. I’m more interested in the inner life. the way these people connected to the community they lived in.‘

Just as Timothy Neat‘s Play Me Something attempted to find a cinematic equivalent ofGaeldom's oral culture. Venus Peter places a similar value on the strength to be gained from the passing on of experience. ‘lf I‘m saying anything about working communities or their declinc.' Sellar continues. 'it's about the way they survive in verbal traditions or inside people's imaginations. In actuality. that ()rkney community did economically die and the people moved away. but those families have lived on in Christopher Rush‘s work and we’ve gone on to make a film of it. That. I think. turns that community into heroes because they've been able to survive in some form even though the town. in a way. no longer exists. Now I know that's not very much. but if you're talking about something that‘s passed then it is a positive thing.’

Bringing ‘thc soul‘ ofChristopher Rush's impressionistic novel to the screen. Sellar's film favours a fragmentary approach to storytelling. its people and events floating episodically in the young

From page to screen...

Two recent Scottish novels face the transition from printed page to silver screen. Above. TrevorJohnston

alace Pictures‘ .

talks to Ian Sellar. director of Venus Peter. an * impressive movie version ofChristopher Rush‘s evocation of a seaside boyhood. A 'I‘welvemonth and a Day. which is about to go on general release. Meanwhile. on location in Glasgow (right). Kenny Mathieson meets author William Mcllvanney and hangs out with the cast and crew now shooting P £4 million film of The Big Man.

4'l'he List 8 21 December 1989