Margaret Salmon on Sacred Paws-scored speedway film Mm
One of the highlights of this year's Glasgow Film Festival Sound & Vision strand is a screening of speedway doc Mm with a live score from Sacred Paws. We chat to Mm's director, Margaret Salmon, ahead of the screening
Head down to Tramway this month and you’ll encounter the work of American-born, Glasgow-based artist Margaret Salmon. Circle, her first major retrospective, is currently underway at the Glasgow venue. Spanning two decades, Salmon’s work is concerned with everyday people and environments, and in particular the relationship these people have with the worlds they inhabit. A centerpiece of the exhibition is a screening of Salmon’s 2017 film Mm, which is described as “part-feminist linguistic investigation, part-child’s learning tool and celebration of motor sport.”
Shot on 35mm (Salmon is dedicated to celluloid), Mm takes the form of a verité-style documentary capturing a night of racing with the Berwick Bandits, an all-male Speedway motorcycle team from the border town with the macho mantra “No Brakes, No Gears, No Fear”. As well as capturing a night of Speedway, Salmon also incorporates a wry voiceover focused on the letter “m” and a thrilling central racing section scored by SAY Award-winning post-punk duo Sacred Paws.
On 24 Feb, Mm will screen with a one-off live performance by Sacred Paws as part of Glasgow Film Festival. Ahead of the screening, we called Salmon at her Glasgow studio to discuss the film and her practice.
The Skinny: How does it feel looking back over your career ahead of Circle at Tramway?
Margaret Salmon: I see the films as a sort of community. Each film has its own identity and context in which it was made. Part of that may do with me [at the time], my skills, my resources, where it was shown, and all of those things colour and influence the final film. But I do see them as being quite separate from me and my life, and I suppose for me the things that I’m concerned about are usually the films I want to make; that’s what occupies my mind, generally. So it’s interesting to do a survey and this will be the first extensive survey of my work as of yet, so I guess there are some unknowns I’m still figuring out – how the work fits together, things like that.
What was the starting point for your speedway film Mm?
Originally it was Peter Taylor, from the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival – he approached me about making the film and he put forward the idea of doing something with the Speedway team. There was some access to some archival films, so it could have been more of an archive-based work. But I’m really interested in sport, and Speedway itself is a really thrilling event to behold, so it seemed obvious that it needed to be filmed onsite – just one night, one match – and we just took it from there.
You say you were interested in the sport, but it seems that you’re as much interested in everything around the sport: the fans, the atmosphere, the camaraderie after the match.
I guess I should say my interest in sport is purely from a filmmaking point-of-view. I usually shoot my films [myself], so I feel the cinematography and the technical aspects of the film are a big part of where my interests lie. The notion of filming a sporting event and having it just be completely in the moment is quite challenging and exciting, that’s something that I really wanted to do. And I guess I wanted to make my take on the sports documentary.
Inevitably, sports are sort of social occasions, so that connects to this idea of a community and the fans and all the very different people who create that spectacle and hold it up and support it – that’s fascinating to me. So for me, in terms of my maybe more intellectual or social interests, filming the Bandits was absolutely wonderful. It meant that not only was I able to try to achieve what I wanted to do technically with the camera, and try and capture motion and the event as it’s happening, but also I would be able to create a connection between that and the community and the fans.
A theme that often comes up in your work is time. Did that aspect of a speedway match, which by definition has to take place over a finite space in time, appeal?
That’s partly why I shot on 35mm film. It was quite a bold thing to do, but I think what was exciting about making the film, and was interesting and invigorating for me as a filmmaker, was this notion of these boundaries or these parameters you’re working within. The parameters of one match, one night, and a certain amount of film that I can afford to shoot. And also that there’s one camera essentially, so I couldn’t be everywhere at once; I had to work out how to film the entire event from start to finish with one camera, and with a certain amount of film and only a certain amount of light or time. So in a way, all of those elements come together and they create an atmosphere or a challenge that can be quite interesting, but also invigorating. Lots of things can happen that you might not expect, and that’s what interests me as a filmmaker.
Rachel Aggs from Sacred Paws
The voiceover gives the film an added layer – at what stage did you know you wanted that element?
That came really early on. In works I’ve made in the past, I’m always very aware of my position within a group of people or place that I’m working. Not coming as a Speedway fan or a local from Berwick, I felt I couldn’t really make a film about speedway racing or even so much about the community themselves. Those things could happen and did happen, but essentially my position going in was I’d like to make a film also about language and masculinity, and it felt like this was the way I could engage with Speedway as a subject within the film as part of the film itself.
The voiceover creates an interesting tension – it’s often critiquing the images we’re seeing.
Obviously I want to make visually thrilling work, and I want to please audiences and excite them. But at the same time there’s a wonderful opportunity to shift perspectives or address underlying deceptions or misconceptions within the western world’s mores and practices. So I’m very interested in walking the thin line between celebrating something but also questioning it or leaving an audience with a slight dilemma or more questions than answers.
The voiceover is spoken by Rachel Aggs and Eilidh Rodgers from Sacred Paws. How did they get involved?
I asked if they would make a song, and I wasn’t sure when we first spoke what that would mean or how much I would use it or if it would be the entire film. Originally, Mm was going to be quite a short film, and it’s ended up being 30 minutes, so it really evolved after I got the rushes back and the material was great; it was a very lucky shoot. A lot happened and technically things worked out really well. So it was really wonderful to be able to expand than. I wasn’t sure it would work out, but I asked Rachel and Eilidh to each read some of the statements, some of the text, and it worked out really well.
The song they’ve put together for the actual race is brilliantly propulsive. Did they compose the track to your images, or were you cutting that sequence to their music?
Based on my experience, the standard is usually to cut a film then add a score based on that cut. But in this case, and for most of my work, I tend to lay down the sound and then cut the image to that, give or take. We kind of did something in between here. I had footage of the speedway, and I played also sounds that we’d recorded, of the motors, which are really amazing.
So the beginning of the song, where they’re sort of improvising as the motors are revving, we knew that was going to happen; I’d asked them to do that. And then they also knew there was a beat or a cut when the first motorcycle speeds off, so that starting moment was really important as well. But beyond that they kind of just watched the rushes of the racing and they knew at some point it was going to end. But what I wanted was not for the song to end but instead to fall apart, so in a way the song is constructed and then deconstructed.
Mm + Sacred Paws Live: Sat 24 Feb, Tramway, 7.30pm