On Saturday 23rd February,The Devil’s Plantation finally screened at the Glasgow Film Festival. Billed as an eagerly-awaited world premiere, it was only completed last Wednesday, the day I learned it had sold out. To say I was surprised is an understatement.
On the morning of the screening, I rush to the GFT to check that the film is glitch-free. Here I meet Barney McCue, their legendary chief projectionist, who tells me he is about to retire. He’ll be missed. Over the years Barney screened all three of my features and has always been willing to help me. Both he and his wife, Sadie, who until recently ran Cafe Cosmo, got used to me hanging around when I lived in Garnethill. Having witnessed the creeping transition from celluloid to digital exhibition, I doubt Barney harbours many regrets about leaving.
Screening a movie, especially a first outing, never gets any easier. Thankfully there wasn’t much by way of advance publicity, having received only one request – from Susan Mansfield, an arts journalist at The Scotsman, whose interview with me was published the day after I heard of the sell-out. As interviews go, it was enjoyable, especially the short stroll we took around the Saltmarket and Clyde Walkway where we entered the old arches close to Paddy’s Market, where we spoke to a long-time stallholder about what the closure of the market has meant for her. Her reply: an unfathomable loss of a place that for generations catered for the people of Glasgow, the poor in particular. Casting around the eclectic wares on display, I cursed myself for not having my camera to hand: parts of shop signs, old photographs, clothes on a rail. What was once called bric-a-brac, a lost era, about to become wholly extinct.
My only misgiving is agreeing to have my photograph taken with a serious skin infection that no amount of makeup can disguise. I decide I look like a weird person.
Entering the GFT for the screening, suddenly I’m weighed down by the thought – what if no one gets it? Even in these days of YouTube, Vimeo and the multi-hyphenate auteur, few feature-length films are entirely made by one person – concept, script, camerawork, editing, sound design, score, titles – the result of thousands of decisions made over many years. But to what purpose? Certainly there’s no money riding on this film, made with no funding whatsoever and shaped by repurposing existing material.
This mode of working has become almost second nature to me because I recognise my own failure to engage both politically and creatively with what passes for ‘cinema’ in this country. While I wait to introduce the film, I buoy myself with the knowledge that The Devil’s Plantation has already outgrossed Run for Your Wife.
Then, just as I’m feeling at my most nervous, I see a queue of people stretching the length of the corridor to GFT2. Several people I know approach me and I kick into the requisite meet-and-greet mode. I have, I tell myself, no choice. My husband, Owen, has opted to watch the film with the audience – something I never do. The GFF’s co-director, Allan Hunter, who took a huge leap of faith by selecting the film sight-unseen, has also opted to sit in, never having seen it before – a necessity since he’s chairing my Q&A – which I didn’t know about until the last minute, adding to my anxiety.
Roughly five minutes before the end of the film, I sneak into the projection booth to find Barney who asks me for timings on the end credits. Any walk-outs? I ask. No, but some guy went to the toilet twice, he replies. I peer through the glass and see the theatre still full. As the very short – five – end credits go up and Barney pulls up the house lights, I hear a round of applause and exit the projection booth only to see a swarm of people heading for the exit. Oh no, I think, but the better part of me tells me not to take it personally – people have other places to be. Entering the theatre, I’m glad to see that a large part of the audience remain seated, apparently willing to listen.
It’s been a very long time since I appeared in front of a crowd. For several years I spoke fairly frequently on the film festival circuit and was often amused by the simultaneous translation of my talk at obscure European fests. Here the Q&A session was hosted by Allan Hunter, clearly a bit stunned by what he just saw but with no opportunity to talk to me about it. Ever the professional – I recall Allan interviewing me in my tiny Garnethill flat just as I completed my second feature, Solid Air – he poses several questions; about the original work, about the provenance of both Harry and Mary and the idea of turning a website into a film. Thinking about it now, I can’t recall much of what got said – too stunned by the many people who had turned out to watch the film – old friends, fellow filmmakers, artists and curious punters. I’m grateful to them all.
When it’s all over I return to the projection booth to pick up the copy of the film and to thank Barney, knowing but not saying that this is the last time he will ever screen my work. As for the future of The Devil’s Plantation, who knows? The GFF screening was intended as a one-off event, with no plans for any future showings. Not yet…