What's Up Doc? Scotland's lively documentary scene

Scottish documentary appears in rude health. We speak to some of the emerging voices in this nurturing doc scene to get a flavour of what makes it so vibrant and discover what's been enabling this success

Feature by Rohan Crickmar | 07 Oct 2021
  • Black Black Oil

For a small nation with an increasingly distinct cultural space within the British film industry, Scotland has had peaks and troughs of production. But in terms of documentary, the volume, diversity and reach of its output has steadily grown over the last two decades. Production companies like Hopscotch (John Archer), Lansdowne (Nick Higgins) and Aconite (Aimara Reques) have had award-winning success with titles like The Story of Film: An Odyssey (2011), A Massacre Foretold (2007) and Aquarela (2018). The documentary scene in Scotland has also received international recognition, with established figures like Amy Hardie (The Edge of Dreaming), Sue Bourne (Jig) and Mark Cousins (I Am Belfast) regulars on the international festival circuit. So what has been enabling this growth? And who are some of the new generation of doc makers who have made Scotland their home? 

Institutional support and internationalism

Alastair Cole’s Iorram and Cindy Jansen’s Prince of Muck are among this year’s most vital Scottish docs. The former – the first entirely Gaelic-language documentary feature – is an innovative look at the Hebridean fishing communities and their relationship to the sea, and blends contemporary filmed footage by Cole and his small team with carefully selected use of an oral archive going back to the 1930s.

New Zealand-born Cole has been working in Scotland since 2008 and straddles the line between academia and filmmaking, a route that makes it possible for many creative documentarians to make a living while working the lengthy periods necessary to complete such films. For Cole, the support of Adam Dawtrey at Bofa Productions, based in Stirling, was crucial, as too was backing from Screen Scotland, the body that allocates screen funding within Creative Scotland.

Prince of Muck, meanwhile, tells the story of Lawrence MacEwen and his stewardship of the titular small island off Scotland’s west coast. It’s typical of the internationalism of Scotland’s documentary scene: director Jansen is Dutch, and it’s co-produced by René Goossens of Dutch production house De Productie and Grant Keir from Edinburgh-based Faction North. A real hallmark of Faction North’s production work is their ability to find the right creative partnerships for the projects they work with, maintaining strong links with London and increasingly looking further afield for possible co-production opportunities. For example, Keir is currently producing Off the Rails, a coming-of-age doc directed by English filmmaker Rob Alexander (Gary Numan: Android in La La Land).

This outward-looking nature of the contemporary Scottish documentary scene has undoubtedly been shaped by the expertise, training and support offered to filmmakers by the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI). Founded by Noé Mendelle in 2004 to “nurture documentary filmmakers and audiences in Scotland and beyond”, the SDI has become a focal point for encouraging documentary making throughout Scotland. Year-round, the SDI offers training, masterclasses, networking opportunities and distribution support and has created a number of initiatives including Bridging the Gap, the Edinburgh Pitch, Right Here and, most recently, the New Voices development programme for women and non-binary filmmakers.

Alastair Cole striking a note of caution about the international look of documentary in Scotland, however. For him, as both a film practitioner and tutor, the “diversity gap between social classes is still as big a challenge as anything” in the industry. Cole asks where are the Scottish stories and how are they being told? How does the Scottish documentary industry bring through those people capable of telling such stories for the big screen? Mentioning filmmakers such as Paul Fegan (Where You’re Meant to Be) and Lou McLoughlan (16 Years Till Summer), Cole suggests the ongoing challenge for Scottish documentary might be found in nurturing those voices that don’t have the confidence to see themselves as documentary filmmakers, but do have new stories to tell.

New talent, Scottish Documentary Institute and BBC Scotland

For Flore Cosquer, the Head of Talent Development at SDI, offering greater accessibility to early career training and development is key. This ambition to open up and demystify the industry extends to New Voices and the 50/50+ Women Direct(ory), which directly address the imbalance between the number of men and women getting opportunities to direct their own documentary projects. Cosquer also wonders if we shouldn’t be having a more open conversation about the ways in which we support creative artists, looking toward emerging US models that are beginning to shift away from project-led support towards a greater investment in individuals developing and sustaining film careers.

A crucial first step on the doc making ladder has been facilitated by Bridging the Gap, which has been running for nearly two decades now. For Glasgow-based doc maker Hannah Currie the scheme literally “filled a gap” in her career, enabling her to complete a very personal short documentary, That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore, that went on to have a huge international festival release and walked away with the BAFTA Scotland award for Best Short Film.

Alongside this SDI-supported development opportunity, Currie also describes the launch of BBC Scotland in 2019 as “an absolute game-changer for establishing myself as a documentary filmmaker”. Her graduation project We’re All Here was picked up by the BBC Scotland New Talent Scheme and developed into a half-hour film that aired on the channel in May 2019. Currie has continued this relationship with the channel and is currently in the process of editing an hour-long doc about a Glasgow talent agency and the various hopefuls it handles. “Scotland is overflowing with characters and stories that need to be filmed,” Currie enthuses.

In the heart of Edinburgh’s northside, we can find Melt the Fly, a dynamic new documentary production company started by childhood friends Austen McCowan and Will Hewitt. Like Currie, they view the arrival of BBC Scotland as offering “opportunities to move things up in our careers”. Similarly, their short film Sink or Skim (2019) was commissioned by Louise Thornton as part of the New Talent Scheme that had developed Currie’s We’re All Here. In the space of three years, despite two of those being heavily interrupted by COVID, McCowan and Hewitt have managed to produce three high-quality short films and are about to launch their feature doc debut, Long Live My Happy Head.

McCowan and Hewitt suggest that compared to London, Edinburgh is a smaller pond to operate within as a creative. For them, there is a tighter sense of community in their little corner of Leith, with Freakworks (a post-production house), Bloc Collective (a filmmakers collective) and Studio Something (the production company behind A View from the Terrace and Scary Adult Things) all a few minutes walk from one another. “There is a sense that the first steps into filmmaking are a little easier in Scotland and there are more opportunities for independents like ourselves,” they say. That said, they still perceive a gap between the industry side of things and the distribution and exhibition side of things within Scotland: “films generally need more assistance getting out into the world,” they note.

Making a first feature documentary

Underpinning so much of what is happening in documentary in Scotland at the moment is Screen Scotland's continued support for documentary creation. Thanks to Screen Scotland “we are at a point in the development of documentary in Scotland where creative documentary is on everyone’s lips,” says Cosquer. But how do you build on the progress and successes of the last few years?

Sonja Henrici is an Edinburgh-based producer, originally from Bavaria. She has worked in the film industry in Scotland since 1999, first at EIFF and then as a co-director of the SDI until 2020. Her slate currently includes BBC Scotland-supported title Black, Black Oil, which explores Scotland’s complex relationship with North Sea oil, and a documentary from London-based German director Eva Weber about Angela Merkel. Henrici says she’s concerned that “there may be a gap emerging within documentary in Scotland between filmmakers like Felipe Bustos Sierra [Nae Pasaran (2018)], who have made a first feature, and those emerging talents who have yet to make that step up to feature level”.

Both Inma de Reyes and Lizzie Mackenzie are Scottish-based documentary makers in the process of completing their first feature-length films. Mackenzie, who is from Oban, was the recipient of one of the UK’s major documentary development awards, The Whickers, which helped fund her debut doc feature The Hermit of Treig, which looks at an elderly hermit called Ken who has lived in self-imposed isolation in the Highlands for over four decades. The hotly-anticipated film is currently nearing the end of post-production and is due to air on BBC Scotland later in the year. As with many of the filmmakers discussed here, Mackenzie credits the close mentoring of Amy Hardie as crucial. Having served an internship on Hardie’s forthcoming doc feature HorseMen, Mackenzie was accepted to the UK-wide ScreenSkills Rising Directors Scheme. For Mackenzie, a hallmark of the Scottish doc making scene is a sense of collaborative community, with Scottish doc makers tending to be generous with their contacts and with sharing knowledge.

De Reyes is a doc filmmaker from Spain, who came to Edinburgh in 2017 to do a Masters in Film Directing at Edinburgh College of Art. She mentions Noé Mendelle and Emma Davie as early, crucial mentors. But Bridging the Gap was, for De Reyes, a huge boost to her career. Her short film Vivir Bailando was developed through the scheme, which led to conversations with Aimara Reques, the producer of Aquarela and founder of Aconite Productions, who went on to produce De Reyes' debut feature documentary, The Boy and the Suit of Lights, a coming-of-age story about a young toreador from her hometown near Valencia, due for release in 2022.

De Reyes has found the Scottish doc industry a very supportive space and talks at length about the close collaborative working relationships she develops from one film to the next. One initiative she mentions is the informal support group for documentary filmmakers called DocKlub, started by doc makers Yasmin Al-Hadithi and Anne Milne in 2014. This was a space where doc makers in Glasgow and Edinburgh could share works-in-progress, view each other’s films and offer constructive feedback and support. De Reyes also mentions the challenges of securing funding and finding the right producers in Scotland, but holds strong to a working ethos that “when you have less you are much more creative”.

One final issue that was raised repeatedly across the conversations with the filmmakers above is to do with the ratio of documentary directors to producers. There are incredibly dedicated emerging producers within the Scottish documentary scene, such as Charlotte Hailstone, Clara Harris, Sinead Kirwan and Ruth Reid, but there are only so many projects they can invest their time in, leaving a number of creative filmmakers to navigate their way through the early stages of a project in relative isolation. Hailstone suggests that there perhaps needs to be a greater focus on creative production courses within the Scottish doc making landscape, offering the same kind of development to fledgling producers as to directors.

Scottish documentary-making has come a long way in a very short period of time. There are now a number of senior figures working in documentary within Scotland, offering their support and expertise to emerging new talents. There is also an environment that seems, on the whole, to be supportive and nurturing, and, as Sonja Henrici puts it, founded within an ethos of “compassionate filmmaking”. At its core, contemporary Scottish documentary seems to reflect the quietly international and outward-looking politics of post-devolution Scotland. Long may that continue.

Iorram (Boat Song) screens at Glasgow Film Theatre on 10 Oct, followed by a Q&A with Alastair Cole: tickets here
Long Live My Happy Head is previewing at Dundee Contemporary Arts on 10 Oct and GFT on 12 Oct; co-directors Austen McCowan and Will Hewitt are confirmed for a Q&A at the latter screening; DCA will have some form of Q&A, guests TBC. Tickets at GFT and DCA