Northern Lights: A Nation on Film

Scotland’s first ever mass participation film project, <i>Northern Lights</i>, is looking for vignettes about Scottish people's day-to-day lives. The Skinny spoke to filmmaker <b>Nick Higgins</b>, the driving force behind the venture, to find out more

Feature by Danny Scott | 01 May 2012

From 1937 to the early fifties the Mass Observation movement deployed hundreds of volunteers across the country to document day-to-day British life. Their technology was, however, limited to diaries and the odd recorded conversation at public events.

This national introspection is back. Only now it arises in a world where a few touches on a phone screen is all it takes to broadcast your thoughts to a global audience. Last year’s Life in a Day took advantage of this technology to document events of one day (24 July, 2010) on a global scale through the lens of 80,000 edited YouTube hours. Olympics-inspired Britain in a Day will follow on later this year.

Fascinated by Scotland’s place in this picture but keen to avoid “hundreds of clips of coffee pots boiling,”documentary director Nick Higgins came up with the idea for Northern Lights, Scotland’s first mass participation documentary film project and one that aims to portray the country on a larger canvas.

“I felt that this is a remarkable time in Scotland’s history and rather than commission an established director to shoot a poetic portrait of the nation I thought ‘OK let’s try and do this.’

“With digital technology people have the opportunity to share films about themselves that will have the power to change the way people think. And this is away from their representation on mainstream media, and politicians representing their interests. It’s digital democratisation.”

Funded by The Year of Creative Scotland, Higgins and his team have invited the Scottish public, and diaspora, to upload their vignettes to by 21 June 2012. The final film will go on tour this winter.

With a credits list of political documentaries under his belt, Higgins has softened his focus to pose three main questions to the Scottish public: What can you see? What do you wish you had seen? What would you like to see? And the project is already well underway with new films submitted every day.

“What Northern Lights might be is beginning to emerge, something that’s not necessarily communicated in the language of mainstream politics. It’s the distance between the Scotland we have in our heads, and the reality of day-to-day life. That’s where it can get interesting, when we can connect the ways we actually behave and think with some of the things we dream our country to be. And all that suffused with a distinctly Scottish humour.”

For the film’s director, or perhaps curator, opening out the filmmaking process and playing with the director/subject relationship is exciting.

“It is a daring thing to hand over the controls to the public but it is tremendously exciting. You can make real discoveries, things that you would never get as a documentary filmmaker. I am effectively invisible and handing over directorial control to everyone.”

To engage remote and disadvantaged communities in the project, the Northern Lights team is taking to the road to host over 50 workshops across Scotland. People are also encouraged to host their own workshops using downloadable materials. Watching oneself on screen provides a unique discomfort but for the famously introverted Scots, Higgins thinks the project offers us a unique language to communicate our thoughts about our country’s past, present and future.

“We struggle with how to communicate time. Film is perfect for this. It doesn’t force us to find a language for time, we just see it and recognise it. It can be with melancholy, nostalgia and sometimes with hilarity. We have ambitions for that, to cover all those things. It will be about life and its highs and lows but there will be something distinctly Scottish about that. We want to convince people that their lives are part of this bigger portrait of the nation. What people think is boring or uninteresting in their own life or community can be fascinating for those outside.”

Filmed contributions must be uploaded to the Northern Lights website by 21 June 2012 and you must be over 14 to submit to the project.

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