Even though the Cromarty Film Festival has managed to obtain celebrity guests including Ian Rankin, Kirsty Wark, Tony Benn, Gregor Fisher and Channel Four News presenter Jon Snow, it’s a festival put on for its viewers, not publicity.
The ‘my favourite film festival’ isn’t force fed then made to regurgitate Hollywood pulp. Instead it takes a different route, inviting actors and directors to submit their favourite film and come up to the Highlands to introduce it. This premise moves the Cromarty Film Festival away from half-hour queues and five quid burgers to something more personal, which I found when I attended the event in 2019.
Arrival in a ‘fantasy land’
It takes around two and half hours to get to Cromarty from Aberdeen, being the second last stop on one of the headlands that create the bottleneck entrance to the Cromarty Firth. When the firth is finally reached, in the distance appear hundreds of lights lit up on the rigs taken from the North Sea to the dry docks of Nigg. These beacons of activity are an uplifting sight after the long drive along desolate country lanes in scant winter light.
I arrived in Cromarty at the same time as the guests – established professionals of the movie industry, surprised to be stood next to them in the doorway to ‘the hub’ – the base of the festival. There was no security or hyper-stressed PAs pushing me away from their sheltered stars. Instead what took place was a quick impromptu greeting between fellow disorientated travellers.
The ease with which the initial meeting took place continued when, on entering the box office, co-founder of the festival Dave Newman walked up to me and offered a hand shake coupled with a warm smile before telling me a welcome party had been arranged at the local restaurant Sutor Creek.
Over a couple of complimentary beers and slices of artisan pizza organisers, committee members and festival guests mingled together and greeted each other with the familiarity of old friends.
In this relaxed atmosphere I met festival chair and the person complimented with the idea of building a new cinema in Cromarty (more on that later) Tanya Karlebach.
After describing my impromptu meeting with the guests in the hub door Tanya told me this festival is pretty special like that.
“There aren’t many film festivals you go to where you can hang out at the bar and chat to the director. You don’t have to have a VIP pass. You can just wander in and at twelve o’clock someone will give you a private tour of the bakery.”
Channel 4’s Jon Snow
Notions of midnight at the Cromarty bakery were put on hold when perennial television anchor for Channel Four News Jon Snow walked into the restaurant, his tall frame slightly hunched and face a little red from the cold.
It was surprising to see a household name like Snow being treated with the same deference as any occupant in Cromarty. On his arrival all that happened was a few heads turned and a couple of committee members went up to greet him, briefly denying him the chance to get a slice of pizza and a glass of champagne.
Invited by long standing friend Christo Hird, a producer showing two of his features at the festival this year, I assumed Cromarty must be a bit of a culture shock for Snow compared to the bustle of London. But he explained to me he actually feels very much at home on the banks of the firth.
“I don’t feel a fish out of water here. Actually I feel a fish in water – a) it’s very wet and b) people are very very friendly.”
Cromarty might be hundreds of miles from his home in London but Snow retorts it’s still a convenient location.
“You’re no more than forty minutes from an airport. You’re also the same distance from a railway station. So in many ways it’s very easy to get to.”
London (Snow’s home) has the biggest film festival in the UK followed by Leeds, so what does a film festival in the middle of the highlands have that exclusively attracts him to share in the experience of watching film – Snow goes to no film festivals other than Cromarty which he’s been to three times before.
“I chose Cromarty because of where it is and I knew people coming here. You’re coming to one of the most beautiful places in Britain and absorbing a number of very interesting films. This festival is a real community and amazing that so many local people are involved which is really what gives it its edge.”
The down to earth movie festival
After the opening party everyone ambled five hundred yards up the street to the traditional Friday night showing on the lighthouse, where four short films are projected on the lighthouse walls enjoyed with a complimentary nip of whisky, then it’s to the hub bar.
No bigger than an average sized living room, this gloriously cramped space was alive with energy as committee members, festival goers and village folk came together to celebrate the start of the festival.
Principal guest and festival VIP (although these titles have no real place in Cromarty – it would be more accurate to say just another festival goer) former BBC journalist Lesley Riddoch nursed a glass of wine and spoke to the townsfolk after showcasing her favourite film, the 1996 Geena Davis action thriller Long Kiss Goodnight, which she said was a little embarrassing a choice in hindsight.
When I spoke to Lesley further about the festival she told me she was “chuffed as hell” to be invited but explained she had no idea what was going through the committee’s minds choosing her to be one of the star guests. I began to relate to this when I asked her if she has a big affinity with film.
“No. I worked in the BBC for twenty-five years and the bulk of that was in radio so you develop quite a contempt for TV and film. You convince yourself radio’s best.”
Even though her response is curt Lesley accepts that audiences respond more to film than any other medium which is why she planned to show one of her ‘Nation films’ at the festival.
“There’s no fighting the fact that the world is a televisual world and you just make points more powerfully. I’ve written books, done podcasts, done talks, but the film is more powerful than all of those.”
Having been able to speak to the principal festival guest with no hind or hindrance it started to dawn on me Cromarty Film Festival is different. It’s not about its stars, it’s about its people, which are both the audience and the organisers. The head technician is the local baker. The girls behind the bar grew up in Cromarty. The ticket sellers and venue organisers all live in Cromarty.
Bumping into festival co-founder Dave Newman again, he told me there’s a growing need for cinema in the Black Isle.
“We have a good audience that’s been coming on a regular basis not just for the film festival but for our society as well and we’re sometimes putting challenging films on but they seem to like it. There’s a thirst for cinema here”
A brand new cinema in the village
There clearly is a thirst for cinema in Cromarty and that thirst has been quenched with an industry spec 35-seater cinema about to open on the shoreline.
It’s the first public building to be erected in the Cromarty old town for over fifty years.
Chair of the festival Tanya Karlebach came up with the idea and says the vision was to give the people of Cromarty the opportunity to do something during winter.
“What we’re hoping is it gives people an opportunity to do things that they wouldn’t be able to do on a wet winter’s night. I think particularly for older and younger people who can’t take the bus to Inverness it’s an opportunity for them to see a film here.”
A day of sitting back watching films – all in the line of duty
The next day’s schedule included watching a screening at ten am, then a presentation at three, then fish and chips at the local pub before another screening at eight. Not a bad itinerary for mid-winter in the Highlands.
The first screening, Children of the Snowland, is an award winning feature documentary brought by producer Christo Hird and director Zara Belfour.
Christo, a former journalist for the Economist and Sunday Times, told me the first time he went to Cromarty he knew it was a special place
“They were having a summer screening programme and what was striking was we showed this film in the village hall and something like two hundred people turned up to watch it and I thought there’s something special going on here that two hundred people turn up to watch a documentary on a Saturday night in the summer.”
Christo highlighted the accessibility between film makers and its audience that sets Cromarty apart.
“It’s a festival to which only members of the public come, so you can get a real experience of what the ordinary consumer thinks about the film rather than just the producer and that’s quite unusual at film festivals. Most film festivals in the UK have quite a strong industry bias and that’s the thing that makes Cromarty different.”
Christo’s observation about the connection between the fan and the film maker in Cromarty held pertinence considering forty minutes away is one of Scotland’s leading film making courses – Contemporary Film Making at University Highland and Islands.
Managing Daniel Craig’s bow-tie
The next event was a presentation held by Stuart Wilson called ‘The Art of Noise’. Although Stuart is not as recognisable as someone in front of the camera, organisers of the festival tell me that people behind the scenes are often a lot more interesting to talk to about film.
This became clear when Stuart sat down in front of a packed Stables and began describing trying to problem solve getting a mic discreetly attached to Daniel Craig’s bow tie while shooting James Bond Skyfall. The actor, Stuart said with a wry smile, insisted they not use a ready-tied bow tie.
Stuart’s quite an unassuming guy. On looking at him you wouldn’t believe this man has been nominated four times at the Academy Awards and works in tandem with film maestros like Wes Anderson and Sam Mendes.
Stuart speaks with a gentle Glaswegian accent and when asked a question he really seems to be searching hard for an answer.
My line of inquiry wasn’t so pertinent that it required soul searching as I asked questions like who’s your favourite director to work with?
“JJ Abbrams. He works with spontaneity and is such a quick thinker. Choreographing a scene he won’t necessarily know how it’s going to be until everyone’s on set which is thrilling to see.”
When we talked about Cromarty Stuart described the former fishing village as “a hidden gem” with the festival supplying a level of access you don’t get anywhere else.
“Something like the London Film Festival doesn’t really have a heart. It’s spread out over many different venues which are far apart. People come in, show their film and leave. But at Cromarty you’ve got this community. It’s very informal so you can meet the film makers. It’s a great film festival for any film maker to attend.”
My favourite film
It’s a unique premise that makes for an astonishing variety of films to be shown. Over the weekend there’s a Hollywood release (Joker), a documentary on the Syrian war (For Sama) and an independent sci-fi horror from the 50s (Man From Planet X).
When I met co-founder of the festival Don Coutts for a chat in the hub he explained more about the special nature of the festival. Through a chance idea that popped up during a conversation in the pub, Cromarty film’s destiny was to be charted on a very different course to all the other film festivals run across Britain every year.
“One day we were in the pub and someone said wouldn’t it be great to have a film festival and then I came up with the wacky idea of calling it ‘my favourite film festival’ asking guests to bring their favourite film.
“So the idea was to have three to five famous people every year who were either practitioners or actors. Basically they give us a list of five favourite films and we choose one of them to show.”
Don doesn’t look like a stereotypical ‘movie exec’ in his army green woolly hat and black overcoat but he has a thirty year BAFTA nominated career as a TV director behind him.
Involved in the festival from the very beginning, Don told me some of the “issues” they had to go through in the early days.
“Paul MacGuigan (director of Lucky Number Slevin with Bruce Willis, episodes of BBC’s Sherlock and the critically acclaimed Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool) is a mate of mine and he came to the third festival we’d run to show one of his film choices and there was four people in the audience – two of my daughters, my wife and my son, and me doing the questioning. We spread them around to make it look more full. Paul came out of the showing and just went ‘fxxxing hell’.”
Since then the festival’s grown to the point that it qualifies for fourteen thousand pounds of funding each year from Creative Scotland.
Don says the festival’s been great for the town and now it’s established it just needs to continue being.
“Cromarty is a one in a million place and all the festival needs to do is be here every year and get interesting guests. It makes the town feel good about itself and it brings in some cash.”
A community boost
It’s certainly hasn’t gotten easier being a village in the Highlands. Throughout my time in Cromarty opinions varied between how wonderful it is and how hard it is to keep the community together.
From stories of Dave fighting with BT to give the town good internet connection to fears over the dreaded rise of holiday lets, the people of Cromarty have to work to keep their home alive. And a festival like this does precisely that – energising the town by bringing it together while attracting tourism over one of the bleakest periods in the year.
Shirley Matheson, who runs Sydney House B&B, says the festival helps fill a time which, not surprisingly, sees a lull in the year’s trade.
“We sell out over the weekend. The festival gives a great boost. It publicises the town and there’s a really good buzz the whole weekend and in the run up to it. I think it’s great.”
Watching a film with twelve other people in the most famous café in Cromarty
It’s not a critique that only twelve people came – that’s all the venue could fit.
Slaughterhouse is one of the most important places to visit in Cromarty due to the quality of its coffee – the owner, Tony Van Dyke, has completed certified courses on coffee making.
Tony, originally from New South Wales, moved to Cromarty and converted an old fishing shed into a coffee shop which, every year, hosts a couple of films for the festival, and for the Saturday night showing I was lucky enough to squeeze inside to watch Aussie mockumentary Kenny.
Slaughterhouse is one of two ‘intimate’ venues set-up during the festival with Yorkshireman and marine biologist Ben Leyshon giving up his own living room to guests for a film each year.
Won’t you be thy neighbour
The end to the weekend was a BYOB curry meal of two hundred people set in Victoria Hall. Between passing round naan and quaffing beer a short film was shown produced by the sound workshop run for kids on the top floor of the hub during the festival.
After the final feature I ended up back at the hub drinking whisky with the people of Cromarty and reminiscing about a cherished art form that still has the power to bring people together. In this hyper-dystopic superhero ‘universe’ us movie-goers are made to live there still exists pockets of the world where the genuine magic of film lives on.
The Cromarty Film Festival is held at the start of December each year.