Interview: Luke Fowler
This article appeared in the February 23, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our Berlinale 2023 coverage here.
Being in a Place – A Portrait of Margaret Tait (Luke Fowler, 2023). Courtesy of Luke Fowler, the Modern Institute and the estate of Margaret Tait.
The subjects of Luke Fowler’s poetic portraits run the gamut: the radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing, labor historian E.P. Thompson, queer disco composer Patrick Cowley, Fowler’s mother, his neighbors. Typically shot on 16mm, the Scottish artist’s films draw on archival materials to create impressionistic encounters with life trajectories. They mark a double departure from representational norms, refusing both the linear narratives that tend to characterize biography and the concern with likeness that has been historically integral to the practice of portraiture. Mum’s Cards (2018), for instance, juxtaposes images of index cards that Fowler’s mother, a sociologist, used to keep track of her reading, with voiceover comprising fragments of an interview with her. She never appears; the film does not pretend to tell the whole of her story.
With his new work, Being in a Place – A Portrait of Margaret Tait, Fowler has made a film about a filmmaker for the first time. And not just any filmmaker, but one with whom he shares a sensibility and a nationality, and who has long been an inspiration to him. Born in 1918 in northern Scotland’s Orkney archipelago, where she spent much of her life, Margaret Tait made films outside the industry for more than 40 years. As is the case for so many women artists, the recognition that largely eluded her in her lifetime has come posthumously; Fowler’s film arrives on the heels of the multifaceted celebration “Margaret Tait 100,” organized on the centenary of her birth.
In Being in a Place, Fowler immerses himself in the island that shaped Tait’s life and work, as well as in a wide range of materials she left behind. But as much as it is a film about Tait, it is a film about Fowler, too: an intimate yet oblique reflection on the filmmaker and the idea of cinema to which he is committed. Ahead of the film’s international premiere at the Berlinale, I sat down with Fowler for a wide-ranging conversation.
For readers who might not be familiar with Margaret Tait, can you tell me a little about who she was?
Margaret Tait was a filmmaker born in Kirkwall on Orkney in 1918. She studied medicine in Edinburgh and then filmmaking with Roberto Rossellini at the Centro Sperimentale [di Cinematografia] in Rome in the 1950s before returning to Edinburgh, where she worked as a general practitioner and established Ancona Films. On a trip home to Orkney from Rome, she shot a short film of her mother called A Portrait of Ga (1952). It was filmed on a Bolex, with available light, and it records her mother in several different environments. It’s a very beautiful film because it captures all these different textures of Orkney. It’s done in a very intimate and nondidactic style. This marks her interest in combining poetry and film. Around this time, she made a few important short films in Scotland, but didn’t receive the same exposure as her peers. She kept reaching out to people and getting rejections. I don’t know if this was because she was a woman, or because she was fiercely independent, or because she didn’t cohere with the documentary style of the day. She wasn’t really accepted or invited into the fold of the male-dominated sphere of British documentary, and so she returned to Orkney in the 1960s, where she continued to make single-person films (32 in total), mostly self-funded, until the end of her life in 1999.
She was always inspired by Hollywood and “big films.” She called them “big films” and “small films” and didn’t really make a distinction in quality. She said there was a poetic quality in big films; you just had to look for it. She loved John Ford, René Clair, Yasujirô Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Robert Bresson, and other auteurs. But she was making what was possible within her means, which were very limited. She always aspired to make feature-length narrative films, but couldn’t until she made Blue Black Permanent (1992)—her first and only feature film—at the age of 74.
Thinking about this issue of rejection and limited funding, it’s significant that your film responds to an unrealized work of hers, Heartlandscape.
There’s a tradition of folk songs in Scotland, where you hear somebody sing a song and then you play your version of it. The same kind of tradition exists in storytelling as well. It’s an oral tradition continued through repetition, elaboration, and improvisation. I think that’s what I did with my film. I saw Heartlandscape as Margaret’s story. It’s almost like a diagram or a Fluxus instruction piece. I used it as a starting point. I’m not remaking something that exists already. Margaret talks about the dangers of what happens to ballads if they are written down and concretized: they lose that sense of being alive, of being passed on through iteration. I like the idea that someone might come along and make their own, completely different version of Heartlandscape one day.
You are a portraitist, and so was Margaret Tait. But portraiture is a tradition we think of more in relation to visual art than cinema. In cinema we often get biopics and biographical documentaries that are about narrating a life, but that is very far from what you do. I’m interested to know what draws you to portraiture and repels you from the conventions of biography.
This is the first time I’ve made a film about another filmmaker. (A few years ago, I made a sound work dedicated to the American filmmaker Warren Sonbert.) Margaret is, for me, one of the most inspirational cine-portraitists. Like all my films, this one is a way of getting to know something in a more intimate way through lived experience. I don’t write a script. My films about [women’s photography center] Pavilion and [musician] Martin Bartlett were very committed to an archival view. Here I wanted to do things a bit differently. I didn’t think it was in the spirit of Margaret to be as scholarly. I wanted to be free, like her, to observe—to “stalk the image.” To know Margaret’s work is to be in the world, and to be in the world as she inhabited it: to speak to people, to look at “the shape of things.” I took her chapter headings as invitations to have experiences and conversations, to have journeys into a landscape and a place and discover Margaret Tait through these cryptic titles she left behind. She often made portraits of people who weren’t prominent. She wasn’t interested in filming the mayor of Orkney or the police chief, but just people who were doing their work and going about their lives. I think what draws me to portraiture is the fragmentary, elliptical nature of it. What repels me in biography is the fixing of a comprehensive narrative. It’s a definitive way of looking at somebody that doesn’t allow for doubt, uncertainty, or subjectivity.
I always have the sense that you allow people their mystery, their opacity. You introduce your viewers to a person, but you make no claim to explain everything about them.
In painting, portraiture is tied to resemblance. Many portraits are meditations on the face. But most of my films, including this one, completely obviate that trope by not including the person at all in the film—at least not their body—or by including representations of them that other people have made. I feel that by being too preoccupied with physiognomy, we occlude other ways of considering somebody’s personhood.
There were a couple of documentary portraits of Margaret that were made in her time, one on Channel Four and one on the BBC, and she was dissatisfied by both of them. Interestingly, in the Channel Four one, the interviews with her were completely scripted. They hashed out what they would say beforehand. There’s no interest in documentary truth. I use offcuts of that documentary in my film to get at that repetition, the rehearsal, that one would not ordinarily see in the final film. I see my film as a continuation of my examination and interrogation of documentary as a form. I’m critiquing these dominant forms of representation and how they calcify into what we now call documentary. I’m interested in the potential for the nonfiction film to have openness, experimentation, beauty, and poetry. I think it could have all these things, but it has ossified into a sort of humanist bilge on one side and a fetishization of information and facts on the other.
The film ends with some remarks on Scottish filmmaking and the idea that Scotland is often used as a location for films that are not really Scottish, like a James Bond film. Tait says, “We lack films coming out of our own country.” Post-Brexit and amidst continuing discussions of Scottish independence, I wonder how much this is also a film about Scottishness.
Yeah, it’s a film with a withering critique of the Scottish film industry. I echo Margaret’s sentiments in a lot of ways. That does not mean that I don’t have hope for independent films made in Scotland, but I don’t see an industry that currently funds the sorts of films that interest me. When she goes through a list of great directors, she says, “Well I can’t really think of any British ones—maybe Lindsay Anderson.”
Truffaut said that British cinema was an oxymoron.
Aye, exactly! What Scotland deals with is romanticism and parochialism. There is a fetishization of its history, which in many ways is a false history.
Yes, and tartan. It eschews the more complicated narratives about colonialism and slavery and Scotland’s part in those stories. Margaret was pretty critical of Scottish film, probably for a good reason, and my experiences echo what happened to her. There’s a brilliant passage I’d like to read from Personae, a book of Margaret’s writings published in 2020. She says, “It is possible that in twenty years’ time the world will be a very different place. The great centres (what are the great centres now?) may all be destroyed, and life and living will be revived again from the periphery. The barbarians will renew things—the lively Barbarians. Scotland will survive, and especially the peripheral Scotland. The Celtic-Viking-Pictish fringe, where the life keeps coming from.” To me, that sums up her commitment to living and making films in Orkney.
Erika Balsom is a reader in film studies at King’s College London and the co-editor of Feminist Worldmaking and the Moving Image (MIT Press, 2022).