Cameron Mackay on filmmaking as activism
We meet Glasgow environmental activist, filmmaker and composer Cameron Mackay, who's about to embark on a series of films for Glasgow Science Centre's Our World, Our Impact programme, which marks a one-year countdown to COP26 in Glasgow next November
The great African filmmaker Ousmane Sembène once said: “Cinema is like an ongoing political rally with the audience.” In his own modest way, Glasgow-based filmmaker Cameron Mackay is part of this lineage. The 25-year-old specialises in short documentaries that are perfect for sharing across social media and come with a hopeful environmental message. “To make any kind of change I think you need to be hit very deeply, and I’ve never felt that graphs or academic papers alone can deliver that,” Mackay tells us from his flat in Glasgow over a Zoom call.
Mackay grew up in St Andrews, and his passion for the environment was instilled early on. Hiking in the Scottish countryside was his gateway. “This might sound a little Nan Shepherd-esque, but there’s a real relationship you foster with the natural world when you’re walking in the Highlands.” He also plays the fiddle and composes, and reckons the rich storytelling in Scottish music was another influence. “I think if you look at trad music, it’s a link to the landscape. When you listen to people like Julie Fowlis and Duncan Chisholm, you feel this huge, almost spiritual connection with nature, so music really unlocked a lot of things for me.”
The idea to use film as a way of expressing this ardour for the natural world came later, during a trip to a mountain range that makes our Munros look positively dinky. “When I left school, I really wanted to do something big, so I went on an expedition with an organisation called the British Exploring Society to the Indian Himalayas.” The five weeks Mackay spent in northern India put a fire in his belly. “I came away thinking: we in the UK are emitting these carbon emissions, but it’s communities around the world – some of the most sustainable by today’s standards – who are the ones who are being impacted the most.”
The following year, while studying Geography at Glasgow University, Mackay organised his own expedition, but this time he documented it. “I’d just watched this film called Chasing Ice, and it was all about time lapse cameras in the Arctic, and I was like, ‘Wow, film is the best way to communicate these stories.’” Returning to Glasgow with reams of footage, Mackay had to find a way of getting it to the public. Not lacking ambition, he opted for literally the biggest platform in the city. “I took the footage to the guy who runs the IMAX at the Science Centre, and he was like, ‘If you can do a ten-minute cut, we’ll play it before one of our climate change films.’ That was the first film I ever made.”
Throughout university, Mackay would take his camera on more adventures, but his wanderlust seems to have faded in the last few years. “I began to realise that places like Greenland and Tanzania and the Amazon don’t need a wee 18-year-old boy from Scotland coming to tell their story for them. I was like, ‘Why am I trying to tell all these other people’s stories when Glasgow and Scotland mean the world to me and there are great stories to be told here.”
Mackay’s most recent films focus on local activism and can be found on BBC Scotland's The Social. They run the gamut from making your own environmentally friendly washing detergent to eating sustainably. The first thing that comes across is that Mackay isn't preachy – he’s no influencer smugly deriding your profligate lifestyle. “You can’t go in being like, ‘Here’s what you shouldn’t do.’ Instead, it should be, ‘here’s the opportunity.’ So I always try and emphasise that the sustainable option is often the cheapest, the healthiest, the easiest to do, and the most fun.”
You’ll be seeing more of Mackay’s films over the next twelve months as he’s recently teamed up with Glasgow Science Centre for its Our World, Our Impact campaign, which focuses on how people across Scotland can have an impact on climate change ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference COP26, which is set to arrive in the city next November.
“It’s a series of short pieces for social media, but together they tell a much bigger story,” says Mackay. The first film introduces the Our World, Our Impact campaign and COP 26, with further films exploring the campaign’s five key areas: climate justice, food, energy and travel, the environment and science, and our green futures.
“The Science Centre is an incredible place to discover science," notes Mackay, "and they’re also so public-facing and fun, so they’re in a great position to do some really cool communications around COP26, being just across the water from where these conversations are gonna be happening.” He’s also excited to be spreading the word about activism in Glasgow. “I’m probably a bit biased, but it’s a city that’s really issues focused, that looks out for people. I feel like if there’s something like COP26 going on here, the general Glasgow mood will be to support it.”
Anyone interested in finding out more about climate change in Scotland, and the small actions that will create a big impact, should sign up to the Our World, Our Impact newsletter at glasgowsciencecentre.org/ourworldourimpact
You can let the Science Centre know what you’re doing to help using the #OurWorldOurImpact hashtag on social media
For more of Mackay's work, head to cameronmackay.co.uk