Last Sunday noontime as I sipped a coffee at one of our beautiful sidewalk cafes, I realized a film was about to start at Red River Theatre and on a whim I decided to go. I knew nothing about it except that it was being shown only this once, so I hurried off and was soon smiling: there was a bagpiper playing in front of the theatre, greeting all who arrived.
I expected it to be a typical documentary, praising the rugged history of Scotland and encouraging people to attend the Highland Games held at Loon Mountain in Lincoln NH this weekend. I was so wrong.
The film has not a single word of narration, only music scattered here and there, some with lyrics, some without. The film itself is a compilation of archival footage, much of it in black-and-white, in no overtly chronological order but rather centered around various themes of work, family, hardship, and the deep faith that when there are very few choices, you simply do the next right thing without complaint.
In one scene you see women working with band saws, drill presses, and metal files in a factory setting. Although it was a black-and-white film clip, you could tell the materials were high quality and a lot of care was going into the finishing of the softly curved lengths of wood. The women’s faces reflected a gentle pride, and I guessed they were working on prosthetic legs for the men who would be coming home from the war. The scene shifts, I think it was to workers on lunch break, and then returns to the factory scene, farther down the assembly line where it becomes clear they are working on wooden rifle stocks. I was stunned, and will never know if I was mistaken in my first assumption or if it was brilliant film editing. The effect was powerful either way. Soon thereafter there was a scene of men on parade together, faint smiles on their faces, marching in formation as best they could because each man had a cane and one pant leg tucked up into his waistband, revealing the air where his leg used to be.
It could leave you wondering “What is this crazy struggle of life for anyway?” Director Virginia Heath sprinkles that answer all throughout the film in a wise and even-handed manner. There were so many scenes of brotherhood when boys and men are enjoying each others’ company, horsing around, playing sports, consoling one another through personal loss, playing practical jokes, doing all those things that males do best in the company of males only. And the same goes for the ladies: from girlhood through adolescence, motherhood, and old age, the gals are at it with heads thrown back in laughter, arm in arm walking home together from a day at the factory, hugging, consoling, and moving on. There were teams of adults, men and women combined, digging, cutting, and packing up peat turf to be carried home for cooking and winter heating.
By contrast though, one image was particularly enchanting for me, of a man in a fine fedora hat pulled down in the front, wool jacket buttoned tight, hands shoved in his pockets as he gracefully careened in loose circles on an iced-over river. Children and couples would glide in and out of the scene. This gent seemed oblivious and content, a Fred Astaire on ice.
What I came away with was a deep sense of balance in this portrayal of one society. Money was not the guiding value, because there simply wasn’t much money. For the people who remained in Scotland and did not emigrate to America and elsewhere, it was clear that their society could not survive based on isolated family units alone, but rather had to be made of interwoven community identities: by gender, by extended family, and by township; that all those threads were essential to survival. Share what you have and carry on hopeful.
Thanks to Red River Theatre for once again sharing a hidden gem with the Concord community.
(In case you’re curious: From Scotland with Love)