Bravely selling Scotland

How can Scotland use film to get people to places like this?

Brave the Scotland

I went to see Brave at the cinema the other night. You’ll perhaps have heard the fuss – it’s a Disney/Pixar film set in a mythical Scotland about a young princess who tries to get out of being married off. With a cast packed full of well-kent Scottish actors, it promised to be a fresh and entertaining film about (if not technically from) Scotland. The Scottish Government, sensing an opportunity to sell the country as a brand, jumped on the bandwagon, and lo, the hype began.

Given the huge publicity, I felt it would be interesting to go and watch it. Not that this blog post is a mere review. Though if I can indulge you for a paragraph, I’d say that the characters were fun and splendidly voiced, the animation was gorgeous, the script was funny in places and generally avoided stomach-churning cliche, and the story a little thin, plodding and uninteresting.

No, instead, my thoughts drifted – and this may be an indictment of the film – towards the marketing hype. Given the lush portrayals of dramatic Scottish scenery (apparently heavily researched by the film-makers), there was a clear opportunity to push the brand of Scotland to a world of potential tourists.

But the problem is, the Scotland of Brave simply doesn’t exist. The setting is entirely fantasy, and is portrayed via animation. While apparently real places, such as castles, informed the shapes and texture of what we saw in Brave, there is nowhere you can visit to say “this is Brave country”. Not only is this a non-starter, it’s actually a potentially dangerous line of thinking – attracting and receiving tourists should be about exceeding expectations, and not about building up unrealistic expectations that will only be dashed by the eventual truth.

It makes me think about the misused opportunity of Tobermory, dressed up to be the setting for the popular childrens’ TV show Balamory. There was a huge tourism boom from the show, but I’ve heard more than a few stories of people whose children were sorely disappointed by the reality. Their favourite characters, it turned out, didn’t actually live there, the weather was miserable, and there’s frankly not a lot to do in Tobermory unless you fancy visiting a pub, the distillery, the arts centre or the chocolate shop, or engaging in hikes and other outdoor activities. That’s not to say that Tobermory is a disappointing destination – far from it, it’s beautiful and there’s lots to do.  The problem is that it is Tobermory, not Balamory. Of course it will be a disappointing place when you present misleading or inaccurate images of it.

The problem extends to the big screen, too.  Think of the most famous films that aren’t just about or from Scotland but heavily feature its scenery, culture and very essence. They mostly fall in to one of two camps: horror, and cheese.

The horror and cheese camps

In this first category of films, I would argue, are ones like The Wicker Man or Trainspotting. Now by “horror” I don’t mean the horror film genre, though The Wicker Man clearly belongs there. I mean horror in the general sense, in that this category of film presents a horrific view of Scotland. Trainspotting, for instance, is a magnificent film – grim, gritty, funny, poignant, and a brutal potrayal of drug abuse and addiction in Edinburgh. What it doesn’t do, however, is make you want to visit the city or the country. Meanwhile The Wicker Man boasts some lovely scenery, but it’s hardly an advert for warm Scottish hospitality.

I’d even add Gregory’s Girl into this category. It’s a heartwarming story of adolescence, though by the way I found it an underwhelming, boring and incredibly dated film. It’s “horror” for my purposes because it shows a dreadful side of Scotland: the ugly and soulless world of post-war new towns. Nobody will watch Gregory’s Girl and say “that’s beautiful, let’s go there”.

In the cheese camp are those films which misrepresent Scotland visually, culturally or otherwise to an over-the-top degree. Brave, of course, fits in here, as does the historical void that is Braveheart. Brave I have already commented on; and Braveheart gives only a Hollywood picture of Scottish early medieval history; and even the scenery is mostly Ireland.

By misleading people about the scenery, and by overdosing on the tartan and “hoots, mon” cliches, you will either put people off or disappoint them. Though perhaps anyone who wants to visit Scotland on the back of the scenery portrayed in Brave is probably stupid enough to deserve being disappointed.

Striking the balance

Now my point is not to deconstruct the artistic and creative merits of these films, but to put them in the context of Scotland’s tourist industry and the government’s commendable desire to “back a winner” that can turn cinema seats into hotel beds. Whether or not they are good films or not is irrelevant to my argument that they are counter-productive to the idea of selling Scotland to potential visitors.

Sell them horror, and they’ll not want to come. Sell them cheese, and at best they’ll see through it; and at worst they will visit then be hugely disappointed.

What films, then, exist in the middle ground between horror and cheese? What cinematic portrayals of Scotland have the right balance of beauty and realism, painting an attractive picture of Scotland without being way off the mark? And which ones, more importantly, back up that balance with good quality film-making that is likely to sell cinema tickets, stick in people’s minds, and be attractive to Scottish marketing budgets?

There are very few films in this middle ground that I can think of, that are or would have been attractive “riders” for the Scottish Government and tourist authorities to back. So I asked on Twitter, summarising much of the above in a few tweets and seeking suggestions for titles.

Examples of middle ground films

One response I got was Local Hero. With a mix of beautiful scenery and a classic tale of the oligarch versus the everyman, it’s a positive sort of message to get behind. Though I must confess to being less than wowed by the film, and the sad decline of the village of Pennan is testament to the lack of significant impact the film had in terms of tourism to Scotland.

Another suggestion was a marvellous film I had until then forgotten about: Restless Natives. I watched it once years ago, and while this 1980s film will I am sure feel dated today, I really enjoyed it and ought to track it down to watch again. It tells the story of two young men in Edinburgh who, seeking a thrill, don ridiculous disguises and begin holding up tour buses on Scottish roads and extorting money. Far from terrifying and deterring visitors, their cheery, non-violent demeanour turns them into cult heroes and major tourist attractions, with visitors flocking to the country in the hope that they might meet them. I don’t remember everything about the film, but remember laughing a lot and seeing a lot of beautiful countryside. Maybe this, with a balance of good Scottish humour and good Scottish scenery, is the key. The film was not successful abroad, but maybe it was the sort of thing that should have been jumped on by the tourist industry and government.

Wracking my brains, only two other “middle ground” films come to mind.

One is Doomsday, which I reviewed here, a science fiction thriller. Admittedly there are elements of both horror and cheese in this film, and while both are done firmly tongue-in-cheek it’s probably not politically correct enough to be the sort of film that would sell Scotland to the masses. Also, although there is a lot of great scenery, key elements of it are filmed in South Africa, which is a disappointment.

The second is Seachd, the first feature film to be made in Gaelic.  It made some headlines upon its release, not least because of its pioneering move to bring Gaelic to the big screen. I’ve not seen it, but from the little I’ve heard and read, I understand that it has some fantasy elements but is nevertheless rooted in real ideas, real culture and – importantly – real scenery. And not just any scenery, but some of Skye’s and Scotland’s most stunning. Was this a rider that the Scottish tourism moneymen failed to back?

Any others?

So with only two films in that middle ground that I can think of, I’m left wondering whether the Scottish Government has been backing the wrong horses simply because there aren’t enough of the right kinds of horse. In which case, that’s a separate debate about the support of film-making in Scotland. Of course, I’m far from a cinema buff, so perhaps I’m missing some titles that would be fine examples of how to sell Scotland.

And please don’t mistake this post as resting on the premise that cinema exists only as a hook for tourism. It doesn’t, and it should never exist as a creative industry purely for economic or political ends. However, occasionally there will be big hits that unintentionally or otherwise have the potential to sell Scotland abroad, and in those instances it’s only right that the government and tourist authorities look at how they can get involved in supporting the film and encouraging people to visit on the back of watching them.

The problem is, of course, and the point I’m hopefully making in this post, is that there is a lack of films that might work as a magnet for tourists that portray neither an ultra-realistic image nor a cliche-ridden schmaltzy image. Brave, I’d argue, fails to do this no matter how good it is as a film.

What, then, would work? What films fit that difficult middle ground?

If you can think of any films that are neither horror nor cheese, and which portray the very best of Scotland in a way that could sell the country better than Brave, Braveheart or any others, then let’s hear them.

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