Local Heroes: Nick Higgins on We Are Northern Lights

Scotland’s first ever mass participation film project, <i>We Are Northern Lights</i>, has its world première at GFF. We spoke to <b>Nick Higgins</b>, the driving force behind the venture

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 15 Feb 2013

On the response
"We had over fifteen hundred submissions in the end – I think the exact figure was something like 1529 – which resulted in about 300 hours of footage. We'd hoped for about a hundred hours worth of footage, so we got three times as much as we thought, which is in many ways a good problem to have because you’ve got plenty to choose from, but it was a bit of a challenge in terms of being able to watch everything. All of that ended up as 14,000 clips, so our poor assistant editor had to log every single one of them; it was quite an undertaking."

On juxtaposing Scotland’s contradictions
"There are obviously a lot of stereotypes about Scotland, but there’s no denying that we have all sorts of problems: health problems; drink problems; drug problems; housing issues; all these things. Of course, it doesn’t mean that we’re in a country of miserabilists and that’s pretty much the way we positioned it. So we tried to keep the light and shade in there so we would end up with a kaleidoscope. If you asked the question ‘what is Scottish identity?’ we wanted to give many people's answers to that question, not just one filmmaker’s view."

On access
"We went to great lengths to make sure that people who don’t normally participate in these projects – people from deprived areas, those with mental and physical disabilities, black and ethnic minorities, as well as women and older people – were able to do so. We specifically went out and targeted them, and we worked with several groups – Diversity Films, Screen Education Edinburgh, Station House Media in Aberdeen and Room 8 over on the East Coast – who all do a lot of media outreach work and workshops. So it was a massive social endeavour in that regard, and that’s very different from a lot of previous projects of this nature."

On independence
"It shouldn’t really be that surprising that if you pose a question at this particular period of time – about the future of Scotland – that some people might choose to answer it in relation to the proposition of independence. What was most interesting for us was that the majority of those people who raised that issue themselves were not born in this country! They were English, or asylum seekers, or refugees. We didn’t have, as I expected, a whole bunch of people get on their soapbox. But the other thing I think is amusing is we somehow managed to pull off a film that is relatively feel-good. I think Scottish cinema somehow has a reputation for producing miserabilist films – even my own editor, Colin Monie, has got some responsibility for that [Monie's CV includes NEDsOrphans and Young Adam]. So I think it’s interesting that when we produce something more positive that people become more sceptical about it, that it might have a political undertone."

On Scotland, in a nutshell
“In the end, I felt that the conclusion, which might not sound quite like a ringing endorsement, is the same as the American girl in the film who tries Irn Bru for the first time, and her response was 'it’s not so bad.' And that’s maybe the feeling we got at the end, that most people had a look, pointed their cameras, spoke to people, recorded things and they thought to themselves 'you know, our country is not so bad.' And that’s not a bad conclusion to come to! It’s not saying we’re brilliant, it’s not a jingoism, but it seemed like a quiet sense of pleasure in our own country and its diversity. That, for me, is very gratifying and encouraging.”

Screens 16 Feb – GFT 1 @ 15.15

We Are Northern Lights: Meet the Filmmakers, a free informal discussion with director Nick Higgins and editor Colin Monie, will take place on Friday 15 February (17.30) at our Festival Club