Northern Exposure: Organising Cromarty Film Festival
'Welcome to Cromarty, twinned with the town of Brigadoon', reads the sign on the Cromarty Film Festival's website.
This small (population around 700) community on the tip of the Black Isle peninsula, north of Inverness, is best known as a name in the shipping forecast litany. It used to be a county capital, but when Ross and Cromarty merged into one shire, the seat of power moved to Dingwall while Cromarty was left unscathed by the depredations of twentieth century developers and modernisers.
The result is one of the best preserved settlements in Scotland, a cosy huddle of fishermens' cottages with a scattering of fine houses and buildings of historic interest set in the midst of a landscape dominated by seashore, farmland and distant mountains.
Cromarty punches well above its collective weight on the arts front, being the home of Cromarty Arts Trust, Cromarty Arts Society, Cromarty & Resolis Film Society, and Cromarty Training Centre in the Old Brewery which acts as Hub for the annual film festival (and where they also promote various arts events through the year).
Even so, the idea of starting a film festival here was ambitious. Organisers David Gilbert, Dave Newman and Tanya Karlbach mull over the story so far with Jennie Macfie.
Jennie Macfie: Where did it all begin for the Cromarty Film Festival?
Dave Newman: Over five years ago, Don Coutts and I were sitting around drinking a bit too much wine when we started talking about what we'd really like to do. I think it was my idea to start a film festival and Don's cunning plan to call it “My Favourite Film Festival”. When we sobered up, we still thought it was a great idea.
David Gilbert: And so we started working on the first festival. That was the Eddi Reader year...there she was in full flow talking about Fargo when we realised the DVD wasn't in the projector. Dave said it was in his car so I crawled past the stepladder the projector was perched on, ran down the road and ransacked the car but I just couldn't find it anywhere. So I had to run back, crawl over to Dave and get him to go and find it. Which he did. I don't think Eddi and the audience noticed.
DN: We all ended up at Don's house till the small hours. I don't know how happy the neighbours were to be woken by the sound of us walking Eddi back to her lodgings at 5am, singing all the way.
DG: And that was the year the screens didn't arrive till after the opening film had started. Luckily we always project the opening film against the gable end of a house so that was already in place.
How hard was it to set up in the first place?
John Byrne's Cromarty invitation
DN: We were lucky because Don (Coutts), being a director, had lots of contacts in the film and music business and for the first few years we just pulled in all his friends and contacts as guests. What's great is that this year, Don's away in Bangladesh but though he's left a large Don-shaped hole, the festival's still gone on without him – we weren't sure it would, but it has, and with the best ticket sales ever. Quite a relief!
DG: The invitations started as a card with a range of responses ranging from “I would love to come so go prepare the red carpet” to “I would rather have my toenails pulled out with a pair of pliers but good luck anyway”.
DN: John Byrne accepted the first year and drew a little picture on his invitation – we had a look round his retrospective exhibition and apparently it's worth about £500 now! [see right]
Tanya Karlbach: One of the main barriers, for us and for all small film societies, is the price of renting films. The average size of a film society is 30 – 40 people and not all of them come to every film. A film costs over £90 to rent plus you have to pay rent for the space you screen it in, so you can start losing money really quickly if something happens like a blizzard which keeps everyone at home.
DG: Or a funeral which everyone in the community goes to... It's also hard as the programme depends on the guest's choices, so we don't have that much control over the overall shape it takes. But Don's original idea, and what we all wanted, was for it to be different from other festivals, not about marketing films but about why people love cinema.
How do you manage to keep going?
TK: The film festival's funded by people like Regional Screen Scotland, Eden Court has always been really supportive in every way, the Co-op sponsors us with wine.
DG: We do themed evenings at the Film Society – like Le Grand Voyage with food from the Greek restaurant in Inverness, or Mamma Mia with 70s food and a 70s disco afterwards.
DN: And we sell the film posters, and we're hoping to do Film Festival t shirts next year.
TK: We'd have done t-shirts last year but we just didn't have the money. It's all about growing it slowly, not rushing in blindly and hoping for the best. [general laughter]
DG: We're helped by the fact that every year the star turns out to be Cromarty itself. There's a thank-you email from William Firebrace (School of Cinematic Architecture, London) who brought up a party of students this year in which he sums it up: “Memories of bats in the cinema, flaming torch-lined streets, generous helpings of wine and whisky, macaroni pies at three in the morning and a good cinematic dose of snowfall will be with us for a while”.
Dave Newman (left) interviewing Kenny Glenaan (right) about his film, Summer
DG: Yes, when we were screening Leon on Friday night, a bat woke up from hibernation and started fluttering round the Stables. Luckily it went back to sleep and we didn't see it again. Another year it was a butterfly during Tous Les Matins du Monde. You won't get that in many film festivals.
A talk about cinematographer Edwin du Par is fairly esoteric – how did that get into the programme?
DN: We found out that Ken DuPar who lives in Cromarty is the nephew of Edwin B. DuPar. Ed was a cinematographer for Warner Brothers, a personal friend of Sam Warner's, on a lifetime contract, which was pretty unusual even then. We were really excited about such a direct link from Cromarty to Hollywood, so we asked Ken to talk about his uncle this year.
He's emailed his cousins in California and relations in Italy as well, and he's still researching his uncle's story. We're hoping to get Warner Brothers as sponsors next year for an Edwin DuPar section of the programme, showing some of the hundreds of films he worked on – documentaries, shorts, all kinds of stuff.
What's your most surprising success?
DG: The 'couthy' sessions go down a storm – we screen old black and white Scottish films in Sutor Creek [a small local restaurant, originally started by Don Coutts] with a cream tea. The first year we did it, Michael Caton-Jones and David Mackenzie went down to see what it was all about and it was packed - they had to stand at the back. We thought it was only going to attract the pensioners – in fact, we thought of calling it “The Silver Screen Sessions” but luckily we didn't as it attracts people of all ages. The students always love it.
What's been your worst moment?
DG: Worst, and best, all in one - last year's finale, The Fifth Element, introduced by its producer, Iain Smith. The weather was atrocious, lots of guests and the students from Napier University hadn't been able to get here. We'd ordered curry for 120 people from Gabi's in Avoch, and on the morning we'd sold a total of eight tickets.
We were talking about cancelling but then Don said, “No, we can't, we'll make it free to everyone instead,” so we did. We all emailed all our lists and in the end Resolis Hall was packed, everyone had a fantastic time and what could have been our greatest disaster became our greatest success. Iain loved it so much that if he wasn't filming in Africa, he'd have been back again this year.
Talking of guests, what did Ian Rankin (this year's finale guest) make of it?
DG: When I asked him, he said, “Funky!”, that's all.
What are your plans for the future?
DN: We're thinking of printing a booklet to sell.
TK: We need to look at this year, we'll be meeting in January. We did really well in terms of sales and feedback, we know that already, but we need to get it into proper shape, then consolidate next year before expanding it the year after. We need to work out the economic impact of the festival on the community..
DG: Yes, at this time of year Cromarty's usually dead, but with the festival every business benefits, we just don't know exactly how much; we have to find that out.
DN: And next year – oh, I forgot, they don't know about this – we're going to work with Inverness Old Town Art (I'm on their board) to brand Cromarty as an Arts Town.
DG: [surprised] Are we? [laughter]
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