Pilgrimage through Scotland brings film to public

All the best revolutions start with a couple of people in a room who share a crazy idea that couldn’t possibly work.

Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins are two such idealists. The Oscar-winning actress and the film writer dreamed of pulling a cinema by hand across the Scottish Highlands, showing some of their favorite movies along the way. In August, they did just that.

In the process they laid down a challenge to more conventional film festivals everywhere to justify why they are nowhere near so inspiring, so thought-provoking, so joyful, or so much fun.

“I’m bored with film festivals. Not the content, but the form,” says Cousins, a charismatic Northern Irishman who programmed the Edinburgh Intl. Film Festival in the mid-’90s, and authored a seminal history of world cinema that he’s now turning into a documentary series.

“Festival directors have their heads so full of sponsorship, red carpets and premieres that they are blind to the form, or too busy to think about it, or too deep in to care,” he asserts. “I’ve always felt that film festivals should be the conscience of the film industry, rather than its shop window. There’s something gone wrong with the festival circuit. There’s a cynicism about it. All the festivals in the world have to rethink.”

Cousins found a soulmate in Swinton, an actress who has always cared more about art than commerce. “She has an uncensored imagination, she’s quixotic, and she encourages that in me. For years I’ve worked with people who said no to me, but Tilda says yes.”

They called their latest adventure A Pilgrimage. It was the sequel to last summer’s Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, when they began to play with a new form of film festival by taking over a disused dancehall in Swinton’s hometown of Nairn, on Scotland’s northeast coast, and turning it into a movie wonderland for 8½ days. Earlier this year, they staged a version of the Ballerina Ballroom in China, and plans are afoot to visit India next.

The festivals are just part of a larger project. Swinton and Cousins have set up the 8½ Foundation, dedicated to introducing children to the riches of world cinema at the age — 8½ — when Swinton believes their imaginations are most open and impressionable. The charity will send children a specially selected DVD on their 8½th birthday. The project is currently being piloted in one Scottish school.

This summer they led a motley band of 50 followers dragging the 37-ton Screen Machine — a large truck that opens up to become a movie theater — from one remote Highland village to the next, screening remarkable films from all eras and corners of the world.

The fellow travelers, ages 7 to 70, paid their own way from Milan, Stockholm, Berlin, Toronto, Abu Dhabi, Belfast and London, as well as nearer afield in Scotland. Some were acquaintances of Cousins or Swinton, a few were filmmakers or film journalists on a busman’s holiday. But many were just movie fans who came on a whim.

The exhilaration of pulling a cinema through a landscape of staggering beauty; the communal dancing led by Swinton and Cousins before each movie (“I can’t see any reason why Thierry and Gilles don’t do that at Cannes,” says Cousins mischievously); the camping or sleeping in hostels along the way; the swimming in lochs; and the endless opportunities to talk about films with like-minded strangers: All were part of the plan.

“It’s all about releasing your inner child,” Cousins explains. “The screening of ‘Night of the Hunter’ got the most vocal response to that film I can ever remember. My ideal is to watch films as a total child and think about them as an adult.”

They screened “Culloden,” a grim 1964 docudrama about the last battle fought on British soil, on Culloden Moor itself at 1 p.m., the exact time of day the battle took place. Then they went to nearby Cawdor to show “Throne of Blood,” Akira Kurosawa’s version of “Macbeth” — who was, of course, Thane of Cawdor.

Along the shores of Loch Ness, they unveiled children’s movies from India and Iran, Powell and Pressburger’s 1944 masterpiece “A Canterbury Tale,” Jimmy Cagney in the Busby Berkeley musical “Footlight Parade” and the Japanese/Icelandic road movie “Cold Fever.” The whole trip was filmed by maverick Brit documaker Matt Hulse, whose own debut feature, “Follow the Master,” was also screened along the way. For all the fellow travelers, it was the experience of a lifetime.

Cousins and Swinton say they won’t repeat the Pilgrimage, but their bid to revolutionize the way we think about film festivals, and therefore about cinema, will continue.

“We have this radical idea for a film festival without any money. A festival without money — that’s a real provocation,” Cousins says.

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