Stars and films equal a reel hit among pupils
Tilda Swinton’s foundation is teaching Scottish children about the power and potential of cinema, as Henry Hepburn reports
Film stars are supposed to be aloof: shiny-faced, coiffured visions of impossible glamour. But here comes Tilda Swinton, bounding into a roomful of schoolkids with a tinfoil fish on her head.
A few months earlier, a huge box had arrived at Fernielea Primary in Aberdeen, dispatched by the 8 1/2 Foundation. The same scenario played out with 2,000 P4s across Scotland.
Inside were smaller boxes wrapped in crinkly brown paper, each marked with a child’s name; inside that a layer of silver paper and a red ribbon. Each box contained three DVDs pupils had selected personally, not one as expected, and a birthday card. “This is better than Christmas!” murmured someone. That night everyone dashed home, many for impromptu film nights. Families watched The Red Shoes, Laurel and Hardy, The Singing Ringing Tree, and other classics and curiosities not showing at a multiplex near you.
The foundation was set up by Tilda Swinton and film director Mark Cousins, who spent six years making a 15-hour documentary on the history of cinema. They wanted to give children an extra “birthday”, at 8 1/2, a “magical movie day” and a celebration of “the power of cinema to expand children’s horizons”.
Fernielea pupils were inspired. They made their own film in which viewers are ushered into a classroom where a red carpet has been laid and children stage exuberant recreations of Titanic and Kung Fu Panda. That got them an invitation to the foundation’s climactic jamboree, with St Patrick’s Primary from Glasgow, Deanburn Primary from Bo’ness, and three Arran primaries: Shiskine, Corrie and Brodick.
No one holds back, whether film star or bashful eight-year-old. There are 100 children dashing about the University of Stirling’s leafy campus, shooting films with professional movie-makers. In a darkened auditorium, Fernielea pupils are dressed in Edwardian garb, sparking ideas off new friends called Swinton and Mark. They gambol through the seats with placards bearing Les Vacances de M. Hulot and The White Balloon - among other world cinema classics - and “Happy 8 1/2 Birthday!”
The “most amazing moment” for Swinton is seeing almost every hand go up when she asks if anyone knows George Melies, one of cinema’s first special-effects geniuses, celebrated in the recent Hugo by Martin Scorsese - a friend of the foundation. The films shot today are intended as letters of thanks to Melies and Scorsese.
“We showed them a Melies film - basically an uproarious comedy to them,” says Swinton. “When we said, ‘we’re going to do some of this later, we’re going to make somebody vanish’, there were gasps: ‘I want to feel what it feels like to vanish!’” Mark, contorting himself into unlikely positions for the best camera angles, captures it all as Swinton gaily shepherds the young actors through light and shadows.
In between takes, a boy gravely intones: “Tilda, in Narnia you were a little bit scary.” Swinton, chuckling and dressed in a red lumberjack shirt, could not be farther from the White Witch’s glacial menace.
One of the most popular films - 37 are recommended on the foundation’s website - has been The King of Masks, from China. “All that stuff about children not wanting black-and-white or subtitled films - just nonsense,” says Mark Cousins. “Kids don’t yet have those categories in their head.”
Some films have melancholy subject matter and resonate with children going through difficult times, even tragedy. Fernielea depute head Lisa Walker has been struck by the inclusiveness of film, a form of communication not dependent on deciphering symbols on a page.
“I think cinema is brilliant at encouraging a shy child’s imagination, even a sad child’s imagination,” says Cousins. “You’re never alone in the cinema - cinema’s always there to keep you company.”
The day ends with Cousins gleefully taking a big plastic axe to a huge sponge birthday cake with enough slices for everyone, dished up by Swinton.
“We thought we wouldn’t get anywhere near her, that it would just be her talking,” says Mrs Walker. “But she came straight over and introduced herself with a big tinfoil fish on her head and said, ‘You must be Fernielea Primary’. It was marvellous.”
The movies made on the day will live on at film festivals. The foundation, having started in Scotland with help from the National Lottery and Creative Scotland, is turning to other parts of the world - but Cousins expects an enduring legacy.
“Within this group I’m sure a filmmaker or two will emerge, and one of these days they’ll say, ‘I remember this thing, there was singing, there was dancing - it was weird.’”
FERNIELEA PUPILS’ MEMORIES
Unwrapping the films was the most exciting part. They were decorated so beautifully and they had taken the time to make big red bows for us to open. I liked The Red Shoes because the story was exciting and the dancing was awesome.
Tilda was sweet and kind. I got on with her really well and I spoke to her for ages.
My favourite part was opening the presents. They had glittery paper and an 8 1/2 birthday card from Tilda and Mark and a badge. My favourite DVD was Laurel and Hardy.
I thought Tilda would be more like the White Witch but she was so lovely and fun. I got the Laurel and Hardy DVD, and my grandad told me he has more at home and we will be watching them together.