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In the spirit of the late filmmaker and poet, Margaret Tait (1918-1999), BEING IN A PLACE (A PORTRAIT OF MARGARET TAIT) is as much a portrait of Tait’s beloved Orkney—the place she lived and filmed for most of her life—as it is about her. Tait borrowed the term “Stalking the Image” from the poet Federico García Lorca to describe her own approach to filmmaking, a method which involved considering everything within the frame with equal intensity. Her approach to portraiture also gives equal attention to the person as well as the place they are situated within. Writing about LAND MAKAR (1981)—a portrait of neighbour and local crofter Mary Graham Sinclair—Tait describes the film as a kind of expanded portrait “worked out in differently coloured sequences, like a number of linked canvases”, depicting Sinclair in relation to her croft at West Aith, the surrounding fields, and the animals on her land who “lived there in equality”. Tait was reluctant to settle on whether or not it was a portrait of Sinclair or of the Orcadian landscape; she instead argued that the two are equally important and inextricably linked, and therefore must be given equal attention. 

BEING IN A PLACE (A PORTRAIT OF MARGARET TAIT) looks at Tait through a variety of lenses, considering her in relation to where she lived, as well in relation to her extensive archive. The film engages with Tait’s paper records, including letters, diaries, and production notes, as well as her sound recordings, both of which are now held at the Orkney Library and Archive. The film also draws upon newly recovered and restored film material, including rushes, tests, offcuts, and alternative versions of finished films that were discovered in the garden shed at Cruan, the house Tait shared with her husband Alex Pirie. Although Tait’s primary film archive is held by the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive a policy to only collect the artist’s completed projects meant this newly digitized material was ineligible for acquisition. Nevertheless, this “fugitive archive” continued to be preserved under the custodianship of Tait scholar Prof. Sarah Neely, the film’s co-producer. It is hoped that the material’s inclusion in BEING IN A PLACE (A PORTRAIT OF MARGARET TAIT) will draw attention to its significance.

During the film’s production, the family currently residing in Tait’s former home made a further discovery—a literal treasure chest of rushes relating to the 1983 profile directed by Margaret Williams for Channel 4. Tait had three television profiles made about her during her lifetime, none of which she was happy with. While this project incorporates some of the material from the profile—including Tait in dialogue with fellow artist and curator, Tamara Krikorian—it rejects the idea of offering a definitive portrait, and instead adopts the more peripheral gaze favoured by Tait, considering the material within a wider context.

Tait claimed that one of the only reasons she agreed to the Channel 4 profile was because she thought it would make them consider some of the scripts she was working on. Unfortunately, nothing ever materialised and several unfinished scripts remained. The discovery of one of such unfinished script in her archive was a further catalyst for BEING IN A PLACE (A PORTRAIT OF MARGARET TAIT). The proposal for a feature-length film, with the working title HEARTLANDSCAPE: VISIONS OF EPHEMERALITY AND PERMANENCE, was originally penned for Channel 4 in 1983, but the project was never completed. The ‘Heartlandscape of Orkney’ was the name she coined for the landscape she traversed on her daily drive to work, from her home in Aith to her studio, a former Kirk in Rendall. The journey encompasses views over Rousay, other Orkney isles, and beyond, to the Atlantic Ocean and Hoy. Tait was most fascinated by the variety of this terrain ranging from “peaty wilderness areas to prehistoric dwellings and signs of modernity” and of course the people who live and work on the land. In many ways, this “Heartlandscape” could be read as a microcosm of Mainland Orkney.

BEING IN A PLACE (A PORTRAIT OF MARGARET TAIT) retraces her journey, both literally and metaphorically, bringing the past into dialogue with the present, considering Tait within the wider landscape of Orkney, and providing a sonic and visual exploration of the place that meant so much to her.

Luke Fowler

Margaret Tait was one of Scotland’s most enigmatic filmmakers. She died in 1999 in Orkney, her place of birth, at age 80. 2018 marked her centenary with a series of worldwide exhibitions and events undertaken to broaden the distribution and appreciation of her work (MT100). Tait produced one feature film in her life (BLUE BLACK PERMANENT, 1992) but was best known for her short 16mm poem-films (or film-poems). She also wrote poetry and prose, publishing three volumes of poetry, a volume of short stories, and a book for children. After studying with Roberto Rossellini at the Centro Sperimentale film school in Rome (1950-52) she returned to Scotland. Based initially in Edinburgh, she established her own film studio, Ancona films, and ran the Rose Street Festival—rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Grierson, Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley Maclean, and Norman MacCaig. She returned to Orkney in the late 1960s, which became the landscape and subject of the majority of her films.

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