At the Pictures: Cinema Outside the City Limits

My last three columns have focused on Glasgow’s relationship with its cinemas both evolving and extinct. While Glasgow has a broad and deep relationship with its cinemas, a sole focus on the central belt ignores a vast swathe of Scotland’s cinema history. Current figures show 98% of Scotland’s land mass resides in the “rural” category, a vast area which is home to roughly 17% of the nation’s viewing population. For this percentage, rural cinemas such as Oban’s charity-run Phoenix Cinema, Shetland’s Mareel, and Birks Cinema in Aberfeldy provide access to current releases across the Highlands and Islands.

But there are communities more remote still, where travel to these rural cinemas is, for many, too impractical or too costly for regular viewing. As with charity-run venues like The Phoenix, there are funded initiatives in place meaning that, for these communities, instead of a trip to the cinema, the cinema takes a trip to them in the form of mobile and pop-up cinemas. The most prominent of these travelling cinemas is the Screen Machine, a behemoth mobile cinema plonked on the back of an 18-wheeler lorry, capable of holding an audience of 80 viewers at a time and having all the modern trimmings of full-digital and 3D on offer. The machine itself has been running for over 20 years now thanks to funding from Creative Scotland among other backers, and is now in its second iteration. Its tour route currently visits 40 destinations across the Highlands and Islands, from Millport to Orkney. Bringing the full cinema experience to the remote communities whose best alternative otherwise is home viewing.

It’s not the first enterprise of its kind though. Over 100 years ago Robert Calder, a former ploughman from Aberdeenshire, was among the first to bring cinema to Scotland’s more remote communities. Calder’s touring ‘Famous Cinematograph and Pictorial Concert Party’ travelled as far as Shetland with the aim of bringing the moving image to the islands. The reels on show included footage of the funeral of Queen Victoria, the Paris exhibition and the Messina earthquake. Calder would later settle South in Fraserburgh to establish another rural cinema there.

The phenomenon of the travelling cinema is far from unique to Scotland’s past and present. The travelling cinema is steeped in the romanticism of the America’s Old West, as weary opportunists with tents and projectors moved from settlement to settlement with theatre troupes and other novelty acts. Across rural India, meanwhile, the practice is still very much alive. For decades now, cinemas have moved from town to town in tents and on the backs of lorries to bring cinema to audiences. However, the practice is reportedly in decline with audiences now having access to better connectivity and home viewing. On a side note: photographer Amit Madheshiya has a fantastic collection of portraits of these audiences online, which captures the romanticism and the imperative of the travelling cinema in the audience’s expressions – caught in escapism.

There remains a similar sense of importance around Scotland’s travelling cinemas – a feeling shared by many in the industry too. In 2009, Tilda Swinton, Oscar-winner and Nairn resident, literally dragged the cinema (with the help of director Mark Cousins and forty others) on an eight day hike through mountain roads back to the actor’s Highland home town. While many in the 40-strong team were on board for the sheer novelty of it – those among the lorry’s haulers were enthusiastic tourists – the daft enterprise still rings as something of a crusade of widening access to cinema across the Highlands.

I’ve visited the Screen Machine a few times before on the Isle of Mull. Much as a trip to the GFT today provides an escape from Glasgow Central’s ceaseless bustle, a step into the Screen Machine was a step out with the relentless calm of the island and into more lively settings. As Swinton said of her journey across the Highlands: “it was very easy to start fantasising about the idea that you can set up your own little world in really quite far-flung places.” And a trip to the cinema is just that: a trip into whatever fantasy you need at any given time and in any given place. While increasing broadband speeds across rural areas may be reducing the immediate demand for travelling cinemas in Scotland and India alike, the need for dedicated homes for these fantasies remains – rooted or otherwise.

[Ronan Duff – he/him]

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