Scotland on Screen: Mark Lyken on Notes From a Low Orbit

During a six-month residency with Alchemy Film & Arts, Mark Lyken developed Notes from a Low Orbit, a feature-length study of Hawick in the Scottish Borders, where Alchemy is based. Lyken reflects on making the film and its rapturous hometown premiere

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 16 Jun 2022
  • Notes From a Low Orbit

The very first films of the late 19th century did not feature glamorous movie actors or emoting thespians. Their stars were ordinary people, like the women spilling out of their workplace at lunchtime in Louis Lumière’s Workers Leaving the Factory, considered the first-ever motion picture. In that 50-second cinema landmark, the subjects were both the film’s actors and its future spectators.

Last summer, the residents of Hawick in the Scottish Borders were in a similar position as those Lumière employees. As part of a six-month residency with Alchemy Film & Arts, filmmaker and sound artist Mark Lyken was embedded there with his camera, with which he made a study of the town and its people. The result of the residency was Notes from a Low Orbit, which premiered last month at Alchemy’s annual festival, with many of its subjects sitting in the audience. “We didn't know it was going to be a feature film at first,” explains Lyken. “It could have very well be an installation or a number of different works that made up a larger piece – but the idea of the feature just felt quite right quite quickly.”

Notes from a Low Orbit begins with a fake-out. It opens on a series of long static shots of rolling hills shrouded in mist and a lonely telecommunications mast standing sentinel at the edge of town. There’s a whiff of arthouse pretension, like Lyken is attempting a Caledonian impression of a James Benning landscape documentary. But the spartan rigour is undermined after a few minutes when a nippy dog and its owner stumble upon Lyken in a forest and break the spell. “I love Benning's films and I love slow cinema, in general, but it can be very serious,” says Lyken. “It has its place, but that's not necessarily who I am, or who the people that I was encountering are either.” What follows instead is a series of vignettes – some observational and some staged; many of them comic – focused on mini-dramas within Hawick.

The title suggests Lyken is an alien visiting earth to document it. And like most movie extraterrestrials, from Starman to ET to The Man Who Fell to Earth, he clearly got wrapped up with the earthlings. “Yes, Mr. Newton is very tired,” says Lyken, referencing David Bowie in the latter film. “That is how I felt after the shoot.” Attempting to give a flavour of the multitude of experiences and rituals happening within this small town was one of Lyken’s chief ambitions. “Folk often talk about community as if it's a singular thing,” he says, “but it always strikes me as plural. A town is made up of lots of different communities that overlap or don't. That struck me really early on in Hawick, how many parallel things that were going on, with these little groups and organisations kind of squirrelled away doing their own thing.”

The communities Lyken comes across include musicians, pint-sized boxers and a video club where some sleepy school kids are being introduced to Buster Keaton. He cites one of his favourite discoveries as the town’s Scrabble club – and clearly, the first rule of Scrabble Club is, you don’t talk about Scrabble Club. “They've been running for 14 years but it was almost impossible to find out who they were or where they met. So it became this really funny search, like they were the Illuminati, but I really liked that. They have no need of doing any advertising; if you're in you're in, and they occasionally get new members through word of mouth. So I really had to do some detective work to find these organisations.”

There were two keys to breaking down barriers. First was the association with Alchemy Film & Arts. “Because Alchemy has been embedded there for 12 years, they have a certain standing in the community. That opens a bunch of doors and they could put me in touch with certain folks, and that got the ball rolling.” The second was simply the generous time of the residency. “By me being a visible presence, just the time being out with the camera, folk would just come up to me. I'd turn around and there'd be, like, three folk standing behind me, looking through my viewfinder. So it was quite easy to start chatting, and by just living and filming there I quickly got a sense of what's going on.”

We’re speaking to Lyken a few weeks after the premiere of Notes from a Low Orbit, and what surprised him most from the rapturous response from the Hawick audience was just how much laughter there was in the room. “There are bits that I think are funny,” he says, “and they're in there intentionally, but to the home crowd, it played way funnier than I imagined.” You’d expect getting a room full of people to crack up would be a pleasant feeling, but Lyken was sick to the stomach for a moment. “When spirits were high in that audience, I was really worried that the humour might come across in bad faith. I really care about the people in the film, I have this personal relationship with them now, and I wouldn't for a minute want them to think that I was laughing at them. Because that's never the intention; we made this thing together."

Lyken needn't have worried. The film captures the absurdity of small-town Scotland, but the audience clearly realised Lyken wasn't laughing at this absurdity, he was simply documenting it. The result is an absolutely charming love letter to the town that's wry, sweet and brimming over with affection. Like they appear to have done with its maker, Hawick's residents embraced Notes from a Low Orbit full-heartedly.

Notes From a Low Orbit had its world premiere at Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival and is currently touring other festivals

Filmography: Notes from a Low Orbit (2022), Waiting for the Buff to Rub Me Out (with Allana James) (2021), 1300 SHOTS (2020), LAW, VEX & THE STEPS (2020), Rue du Dernier Adieu (2020), New Town New Wave (2018), Táifēng and the Motorway Saint (2018), Hell Valley (2017), HAME (with Emma Dove) (2015), boneshaker (with Emma Dove) (2016), The Terrestrial Sea (with Emma Dove) (2016), Mirror Lands (with Emma Dove) (2014)

i: @mark_lyken