Margaret Tait, an independently visioned film-maker if ever there was one, is being featured (in a joint exhibition with photographer Gunnie Moberg) at Stills Gallery in Edinburgh – ends this Sunday. Recommended.
Here is one of her early films: a portrait of her mother, granny or “ga”, who comes across as very much a woman of her landscape, a particular time and place, and yet girlish with it.
Margaret was a one-woman Scottish film studio, funding her short films by working as a GP, and based in a small room in Edinburgh. Her work is an early type of film poetry – she did not like her work described as “documentary”. In fact, she turned down an offer from the famous and well-regarded film-maker, John Grierson, to be mentored by him as it would involve making films in his style.
Glasgow Women’s Library has made this very good tribute to Margaret, recording those who knew her well.
She did study film in Italy for a couple of years, at a time when the neo-Realist style was prevalent: handheld cameras (before Steadicam), gritty low-light film with tremendous sense of texture, camera movements like a roving eye and an observance of shapes thrown by shadows.
Recurring motifs which I noted, as I sat in the video display area, were staircases, shadows, people moving, texture, dappled light and the beginning of a love of peeling, worn surfaces so beloved nowadays in photography. The visuals transported you back to Edinburgh in past times, simply watching people peering into shops or walking along the streets. The sound has not travelled so well – I found the high pitched drone of a woman’s folk song in one short film almost unbearable, and in another, sing-song young children’s babylike babbles a bit too cutesie and home movie.
Her filmwork is incredibly leisurely and seems to have sudden jumps in topic. I can imagine that John Grierson was itching to get her to do a bit more judicious editing – and I think it would have improved her work and brought it to a more ‘professional’ easy-to-watch standard. But without anyone else’s help, thank you, Margaret’s camera eye finds gorgeous visual rhymes and interesting places for us to look at.
Some of her work is comparable to street photography – she’s not as well known as photographers of Scottish streetlife at the time, but actually better at recalling her times, because you can see what games the children were playing in the street, how the women dressed and looked in shop windows together, how a shopkeeper would stand at the door to his shop and exchange banter with the young men earnestly dressed as dapper as possible.
Check out online the Independent’s Obituary here.
One of the best written pieces on her work is on the BFI film site here. It includes a still from one of her films, which caught my imagination as I watched her films.
The huge creative takeaway from Margaret’s work is to make your own work and learn by doing. Whenever you ask others for funds, it will inevitably affect what you make, the style and deadlines. Margaret worked how she pleased, making films which only very few people saw – she would show them to friends and family and would stage little film festivals in her studio for random passersby to pop in and see them. Eventually, she was given the chance to make a feature film, and she was ready, after finding her own style all those years, making her own short films.