Invoking the folk at the Folk Film Gathering

CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson chats to Jamie Chambers, the director of the Folk Film Gathering, at the launch of the festival’s third year

“WHO ARE THE FOLK? What do we think of when we think of the folk on screen?” asks Jamie Chambers, director of the Folk Film Gathering, the world’s first folk film festival. “It’s very specific to who is invoking the folk, and why they are invoking the folk.”

We meet for a chat in Edinburgh’s Filmhouse, an arthouse cinema in the heart of the city where the festival calls home. Chambers immerses himself in film – he saw films here growing up, he’s just finished a film studies PhD, he works in primary schools helping kids make films, and he’s the director of the festival’s opening film, Blackbird.

He’s a warm, welcoming storyteller, keen to not only offer ideas but trade them, too. When he’s invoking the folk, it’s exploratory and questioning, and celebratory as well. To him, it’s inclusive and democratic, but he acknowledges the opposite is true for others. Nigel Farage’s name pops up, and how he uses the folk to mean “us” rather than “them”. It goes against what Chambers believes in, but that’s the power of the word.

Each utterance of the word “folk” in our conversation hints at a different meaning. My initial thoughts of a folk festival conjure images of foot-stomping and violins. Once we’re done, about two hours later, we’ve covered ideas of nationalism, internationalism, culture, tradition, individualism, generation gaps, and the clashes and harmonies between them all.

Chambers identifies with Shane Meadows’ view that to say something universal, you’ve got to start from somewhere very particular.

Now in its third year, the Folk Film Gathering brings together stories that tick certain boxes – the criteria is precise, but with wide-ranging results. They also help to answer the question, “what is a folk film?”.

The films need to be “as culturally accurate as possible”. The festival prioritises films that come from within the communities they’re depicting. Chambers identifies with Shane Meadows’ view that to say something universal, you’ve got to start from somewhere very particular. International feedback regarding Blackbird has been that of empathy – “this is happening in our country”. The gentrification of land and culture is both personal and international.

Revisionist films are essential, too. Think of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in response to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. “It often means that we’re interested in films that are making the case of the community they’re representing.” It’s a nod to the political tied up with the folk, a pairing that Chambers is passionate about.

Films about communities rather than individuals are prioritised. He likens these films to having a choral voice, with multiple protagonists that make up a collective rather than a singular central figure.

The criteria that comes last would be what most would think of first: the films must have traditional culture in them. Chambers’ own Blackbird features traditional songs, passed down through generations by the young learning from the old. That this is the concluding point rather than the introduction says a lot about how nuanced the Folk Film Gathering wants to be when approaching the folk – it’s not just what you see on the BBC at Hogmanay.

When Chambers gets excited about airing a UK premiere, it’s not because it’s a personal gain but because he’s facilitating the sharing of another story to receptive ears.

This year’s line up features films from Scotland, England, the USA, Finland, France, Peru, Lithuania Italy, and Brazil. There are female directors and female protagonists, and a healthy representation of the working class.

I ask if an event such as this is inherently political, a celebration of internationalism and inclusivity. “We certainly see it that way.” Chambers is tuned in to how ideas of the folk can be weaponised, like how Nazi Germany used it to pursue a so-called ethnic purity. By bringing together films told by worldwide communities, and thus by diverse voices, Chambers is proud to share a polyglot and international vision of what folk means to him.

There’s an unspoken defiance in his celebratory nature. The rise in success of the Folk Film Gathering coincides with a rise in political intolerance. It’s no surprise when he says he’s left-leaning and supports Scottish independence. This defiance manifests itself as a genuine receptiveness to stories everyone has within them that are often untold. When Chambers gets excited about airing a UK premiere, it’s not because it’s a personal gain but because he’s facilitating the sharing of another story to receptive ears.

He takes on the role of interviewer, too, asking me questions, teasing out my own story. I tell him about my experiences and why I focus on film instead of news (the latter is too depressing, I say). But the Folk Film Gathering feels a responsibility to respond to the news, and in doing so create a positivity. He says art can be an intervention, too, such as with Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. “Cinema’s a powerful means of engaging,” he says, and through that engagement we interact with the experiences of other people.

Chambers’ passion and vision is infectious. After a day spent with him and his work, I want this to be my vision of the folk too.

After we part ways, I go for an hour’s walk around a city steeped in culture, then return to the Filmhouse for Blackbird. Margaret Bennett opens the event, singing traditional songs that bring a quietness to the room that cinemagoers can usually only dream of. To my ears, there’s nothing more melodic than a Scottish folk song. Solemn laments are delicate and heartbreaking, and rhythmic dance numbers bring out an involuntary foot-stomp. Not only does it contextualise Blackbird, but it sure beats trailers.

After our conversation, it’s easy for me to see Chambers in his film, albeit amplified and less restrained. Protagonist Ruadhan – and, sure enough, his voice is one among a choral group – is deeply troubled by the threat of lost tradition and culture, particularly song. He needs to hear What a Voice, What a Voice, to learn it and preserve it. His obsession is called out as narcissism, as he becomes so single-minded that he hurts those around him.

It's a deeply folk film, because Ruadhan’s biggest mistake is in trying to accomplish this alone. Chambers wants to celebrate community, and Ruadhan turning his back on the people of his village leads to not only seclusion, but a roadblock which he can’t overcome without the folk he shares the land with.

Chambers’ passion and vision is infectious. After a day spent with him and his work, I want this to be my vision of the folk too. But his goal has always been to have folk films converse with one another, to share ideas like a community would. It’s a world of art and politics so powerful it produces both progressive, inclusive internationalism and authoritarian fascist regimes without losing what it means. It’s personal and universal, and it’s up to the folk to decide.

The Folk Film Gathering runs from 29 April – 13 May. It is presented by Transgressive North and is part of Edinburgh’s TradFest. Introductions to the festival by Jamie Chambers can be found on Bella Caledonia and The Herald.

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