Sarah Neely is a writer and academic researcher. She is a senior lecturer in Communications, Media and Culture at the University of Stirling and has produced two books on Margaret Tait (one, a monograph on Tait’s films, the other, a collection of Tait’s writings and poetry) as well as numerous articles and chapters on Scottish women filmmakers.
This interview between Sarah Neely, Mason Leaver-Yap (Project Director, LUX Scotland) and Nick Thomas (Programme Assistant, LUX Scotland) took place at the LUX Scotland office in Glasgow in May 2015.
Margaret Tait and the Archive
Mason Leaver-Yap: I was really struck by this quote you used before by Lauren Rabinovitz from The Future of Feminism in Film History (2006): ‘The radical politics of lost and found scholarship, lies not in merely correcting a record that swept away womens contributions, but in re-fashioning film theory and historiography’ and I feel that a lot of your research has been consciously making a contribution in the spirit of her assessment and how she has been taking about it. I wonder if you could talk a little about how that’s functioned for you in practice, with specific artists you have been looking at around the same period as Margaret Tait, or indeed by Tait herself?
Sarah Neely: I suppose why I like the quote is because it helps to offer… instead of it being, here’s someone that’s here, these filmmakers that no ones knows about, they are lost and they come out of nowhere and they are suddenly found again, it actually gets you to try and think about why they might have been lost in the first place. What it is about the ideology that’s framing peoples perception of film at whatever time period you’re looking at? What is it about that, that makes these filmmakers invisible in some way? I suppose that’s why I like the quote.
With Margaret Tait, with filmmaking during the period she was working in, it was at the height of the growth of the documentary tradition in Scotland and I think she had a very different approach. I think the over-looking…and other film-makers I compare it to, are people that look at more personal, intimate subjects, film-making on a smaller, more intimate level than perhaps the bigger subjects of a lot of documentary film that came out of the Grierson tradition.
I was thinking about this the other day, why is Margaret Tait continually lost again and then rediscovered? Maybe it’s because peoples perceptions don’t change, that it’s still a form that is marginalised. I was thinking about this in relation to the collection at Scottish Screen Archive [now National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive] and one of the things that has been an ongoing discussion, has been in relation to what work they are able to collect of hers. It has a lot to do with Scottish Screens’ remit, what they are able to take on and deal with in terms of access, but also their own priorities.
There was a film… I was up in Orkney doing a talk and one of Margaret Tait’s relatives said, I have this film that Tait made of my daughter, I can’t remember the title, I think it’s (the child’s name) with Oranges, it’s probably a family film, but it’s also her experimenting with her own film-making. Her relative wanted to see about depositing the film in Scottish Screen Archive and it wasn’t something they can take on. But at the same time, I was recently in Scottish Screen Archive and we were talking about their holdings and someone from Orkney had been in touch and they had a collection of family films, so they are still looking to add to their collection in terms of things that represent aspects of Scottish Culture that aren’t represented in the collection already.
Documentary and the Autobiography label
This movement, which is sometimes imperceptible, between artists’ moving image and documentary, both then and now, I think that documentary has hugely informed what we consider a history of Scottish artists’ moving image, but it comes with these quite ethical problems to do with female creatives about autobiography and art. This question of Margaret Tait and the idea of fragments, intentionality, creativity and observation are really similar to the debate about early fragments of Sappho, because Sappho says I and she it therefore must be autobiographical, all the way through to somebody like a literary figure, like Elena Ferrante the novelist, whose work is perceived to be autobiography because it couldn’t possibly be imagination. I was wondering if there were any issues that you could speak to where you’ve encountered this need to emphasis forms of creativity and observations as separate from basic biography or home-movie, the two inform each other, but there is a switch of intentionality?
She talks about it in her own writing; of how the fact that she is filming her family is just really a coincidence, it’s not really important that she’s filming what is around her. That said, there is that tension between it being the important part of her film, being biography. Her family were certainly really interested in her films because they were great records of her own family, but yes, there is a definite tension in her work between biography and her being taken seriously as a filmmaker.
These questions seem not to dog artists like Jack Smith and Georges Kuchar in the way that they dog female film-makers.
And that’s been a tension in my work as well that I find really difficult. At the film festival in Spain Tait’s work drew a lot of interest from the press, it’s amazing because the screenings that have been here, at Edinburgh Film Festival, will sometimes be picked up on, but I think I did 4 or 5 interviews as part of the festival in Pamplona. I was talking to the festival director and there were a lot of young women journalists who were interested in her story and her biography as a filmmaker.
I was speaking to Lucy Reynolds and she didn’t realise that Margaret Tait never had children. She said she assumed from the films, and the relationships she had with the children, that she must have had children; and we were talking about the interest in Margaret Tait’s biography and how great it would be if someone like Ali Smith would write a biography of Margaret Tait. But then I have always been resistant to something like that because her biography could detract from her films which were actually, for her, what was the most important thing. The other side of the coin is that it is quite an amazing story, and if it draws more people to her work then that’s a good thing.
Nick Thomas: You talked a bit about this constant re-excavation of her work and I wondered whether there was anything you thought might be driving the current interest – is it the fact that she passed away recently and the tendency, when someone passes away to want to look back at the work again, or anything more?
I think the availability of her work. Another interesting tension is the importance of 16mm in her work, and for a long time there was an emphasis on the fact that it should only be shown in 16mm, with a resistance to putting some of her films online. I certainly think the films which are online have brought new audiences to her work, so I think that’s had an impact. But, yes, certainly after her death, even the fact that the films were restored and there was the touring exhibition, had a big impact on making sure her work was seen.
There is another reason why her work strikes a cord with contemporary artists. From conversations I’ve had with people – I remember one with Anne Colvin, a Scottish artist based in San Francisco, who recently had an exhibition on at Mills College in California, and it’s the same with writers and poets – it’s this sudden realising that there is this figure, a film-maker and poet with this incredible body of work that’s like an iceberg beneath the surface. Suddenly all of it is revealed, and the fact that they weren’t aware of it before is quite an amazing realisation. It’s about having some kind of connection with a tradition of filmmaking in Scotland as well, of real, independent, single-minded approach to sticking to their own creative idea. I think everyone has that sense of discovery when they come across her work.
Do you think that the relative lack of scholarship, or perhaps the surfacing on historical materials in relation to artists practice has pushed artists into considering themselves as their own historians, or placed an impulse on understanding a narrative of practice in a way that if that is not in place, it’s hard to do, apart from through this issue of lost and found or reclamation?
Yes, I think that’s a good point of thinking about it in relation as something particular to Scotland and artists connecting with the history of moving image in Scotland. I guess I’d thought about it in terms of a feminist practice, of thinking about women filmmakers who have historically worked at the margins, so there has been. I find traces of this in the archive, of my own research of discovering filmmakers who might not have collaborated or worked together and yet there is some kind of connection that you find, like Marion Grierson. I wrote something on Jenny Gilbertson and then was looking in Marion Grierson archive several months later and came across a short piece that she had written about Jenny Gilbertson and so there is historically, in filmmaking within Scotland, and in relation to women filmmakers, this network of people acknowledging each others work and connecting to each others’ work. But I also think it ties into other feminist traditions of exhibiting work collectively.
Sarah Neely, Mason Leaver-Yap & Nick Thomas, May 2015
Edited by Marcus Jack, September 2017
Produced as part of Where I Am, 2015, a generative tour, which explores a deep history of artists’ moving image in Scotland over the past 100 years.