Citizens of Nowhere: Glasgow Short Film Festival examines sovereignty amid the UK's chaos

CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson was at the Glasgow Short Film Festival’s strand on sovereignty, nationhood and identity

A WEEK is a long time in politics, so imagine meticulously curating a politically-charged strand of short films about sovereignty, only for Nicola Sturgeon to announce a second independence referendum a few days prior to the screening.

The conversation concerning nationhood had never gone away, but the first minister’s proposal returned it to the forefront of Scottish news. It gave the Glasgow Short Film Festival’s first Reflections on Sovereignty strand – Citizens of Nowhere, which ran in March – a timeliness, of where we had been and what lies ahead, again.

Consisting of eight films, many of them were made pre-indyref and pre-Brexit. Questions about our (Scotland’s, the UK’s, Europe’s) political and cultural landscapes, and the relationships between them, have always been a source of artistic inspiration, but revisiting them in this time of uncertainty allows them to be seen through a new lens.

Matt Hulse’s We Look to Scotland For All Our Ideas of Civilisation is a video message from Hulse on the morning of the 2014 vote, posted from China. It has a hopeful air, acting as a reminder that for many there was something worth celebrating about simply being asked the independence question in the first place. With Article 50 now triggered, watching it in 2017 suggests the next vote about Scotland’s constitution may be less jubilant and much more urgent.

Rachel Maclean and Matt Cameron’s The Lion and The Unicorn is more outwardly challenging. The name itself is a reference to our union, but also our separate identities. It’s a verbatim piece where sometimes the Lion is Jeremy Paxman and sometimes the Unicorn is Alex Salmond while they both drink North Sea oil. There’s an overt snootiness from the Lion, but a quiet sense of superiority from the Unicorn simply because it isn’t the Lion.

With Article 50 now triggered, watching it in 2017 suggests the next vote about Scotland’s constitution may be less jubilant and much more urgent.

The most provocative of the bunch is John Smith’s Who Are We? Leading up to the Brexit vote, BBC’s Question Time became ever more vicious and confrontational. Who Are We? is a manipulation of one of those broadcasts, with David Dimbleby prompting “you, sir, up there on the far right” repeatedly.

“Get our identity back – vote leave!” one audience member shouts, while another declares himself a veteran, followed by a swift manipulated cut to rapturous applause. It’s a heavily edited and remixed edition of Question Time, but by highlighting those in the audience with attitudes ranging from nationalistic to xenophobic, Smith’s short film shows the now normalised extremism within our society and our political discourse.

Kristina Cranfeld’s Manufactured Britishness is a touch more artistic, and scarily dystopian. Emotionless people in black uniforms watch over immigrants as they prove their mettle through tests and displays of labour. Some scenes are akin to physically abusive slavery, while others show an enforced ‘Britishness.’ What does it mean to integrate as a newcomer to the British Isles? The film suggests we only want people who act like us in every way, and that we have no interest in the concept of multiculturalism.

Both The Lawes of the Marches and Time and The Wave are relevant because of their inclusion in a series of films about sovereignty. That is to say, The Lawes of the Marches is about tradition passed down through the centuries; in this case, the Common Ridings on the border between Scotland and England. Our traditions enliven our culture, but they tie us to routine and a sense of normalcy – how can constitutional questions that attempt to change fundamental ways of doing things engage with 500 years of history?

Similarly, Time and The Wave simply presents events without comment – the opening of Westfield shopping mall, Occupy Wall Street protesters, the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and how we react to massive outlets of capitalism is just as telling as how we react to the death of a divisive politician.

How can constitutional questions that attempt to change fundamental ways of doing things engage with 500 years of history?

As a reaction to Brexit, Richard Ashrowan’s Five Angels predominantly consists of an off-screen individual hammering nails through pictures of the faces of the politicians who led us to this point. The nail is pertinent to Christ’s suffering in the Bible, and here Ashrowan longs for some divine intervention to get us out of this ungodly mess.

Naked people painted as each flag of the EU all strive to bathe in the water from a single shower in The European Showerbath. At first there is a communal and joyful spirit, everyone sharing and keen to welcome. Eventually, the water runs out.

Director of the Glasgow Short Film Festival Matt Lloyd introduced Citizens of Nowhere by pointing out how, in the same year, Scotland’s EU elections had a turnout of 33 per cent while the indyref had a turnout of 85 per cent. In post-Brexit Scotland, people are having to consider not only their identity within the UK, but also the EU.

Filmmakers will forever make art about nationhood. Some will set out to provoke through agitprop, while others will document and present as is, allowing the viewer to ponder over whether they like what they see. Where our cultures create communities, so too do they exclude. Maybe the current political tensions in the world will calm once we decide to be citizens of somewhere – but who knows how we achieve that?

Picture courtesy of aworkerb

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