Across a decade, until her death in 1999, Scottish filmmaker and poet Margaret Tait produced over 30 shorts and one feature, with her entire body of work almost entirely self-financed. While she traveled and trained abroad when she was younger, Tait returned to Scotland in the 1950s, where she would live and work,for the rest of her life. Her film-poems, as she would call them, regularly featured the locals and landscape of the country’s northern archipelago of Orkney, her birthplace, eventual home, and the central influence in her oeuvre.
Within this context Fowler’s project operates less as a biography of Tait and more as an embodiment of her work, her way of seeing.
For Tait, if one were to give direct attention to an object, it would reveal its true nature, and she would use her camera to capture what remains imperceptible to the human eye. She was fascinated by the passage of time, of the changing quantities of light, of the rhythm of petals opening, all available uniquely through the camera. Tait’s films, first of Edinburgh and then of Orkney, were never romantic, though with the landscape and ocean it’s hard not to be stunned by how beautiful her surroundings were. In her approach, however, footage of local industry would be cut alongside pollution and garbage; her cityscapes are ever changing, with sites of construction seen alongside others of demolition. There’s no nostalgia here, no idealized better days in the face of an ever-changing world, but rather a focus on the passage of time, and the changes that come with it.
Luke Fowler’s BEING IN A PLACE (PORTRAIT OF MARGARET TAIT) draws inspiration from HEARTLANDSCAPE, an unrealized project Tait was never able to finance. Fowler and Tait’s widower, Alex Pirie, discovered plans and correspondences related to the project at the Orkney Library & Archive. Intended as a feature film about Orkney, the concept was clearly more avant-garde than funders like Channel 4 expected, and her proposals were declined. Within this context Fowler’s project operates less as a biography of Tait and more as an embodiment of her work, her way of seeing.
Tait had little interest in informational films, and with Fowler’s work with para-documentaries, this is more poetic collaboration than rote biography.
The source material utilized comes from a “fugitive archive,” all offshoots, trials, original sound recordings and rushes from her other films, as well as material from Margaret Williams’ 1983 documentary MARGARET TAIT: FILM MAKER. Fowler, whose presence is deliberately incorporated, follows and expands upon the plans of HEARTLANDSCAPE, documenting how Tait’s Orkney has changed since her death. He not only inhabits Tait’s imagined film, but also situates the artist. Tait’s presence is regularly felt in the portraits she directed, but only ever through brief glimpses in the mirror, or a shadow of her body cast on the grass below; here her interviewed neighbours invert the dynamic, discussing Tait as a figure in their community and the local reception of her films.
This isn’t the first time Fowler has worked with Tait, with his 2019 short HOUSES (FOR MARGARET) consisting of footage of her home and garden, with superimpositions of her notebooks and film plans. In both films Fowler focuses on the minutiae of Tait’s life. We see what she saw, her home and garden, we see the countless hours of work put into her films, notebooks upon notebooks of film sundries. Tait would say she simply used what was ready at hand, but there’s clearly a rigorous decision making here, albeit one open to improvisation and abstraction. Fowler understands that the life of an artist—a life of work—cannot be captured in a single finished project. It’s especially true for a figure like Tait, whose never-ending, independent practice must be as integrated into poetry and place as possible. She herself had little interest in informational films, and with Fowler’s work with para-documentaries the end result here is more poetic collaboration than rote biography. For Fowler, Tait is in her handwriting, in the surrounding landscape, and in recordings of her voice.
Regrettably, the story of Tait and her unrealized HEARTLANDSCAPE is only one in a long history of women filmmakers unable to complete or circulate their work. One thinks of Maya Deren, who died in New York while the city was replete with fliers asking for help funding her next project, or Jocelyne Saab’s documentaries about Palestinian refugees barred from broadcast. Fowler’s work, however, arrives at an interesting moment, where filmmakers are returning to projects, or taking up the work of others. In Sandi Tan’s 2018 documentary SHIRKERS she revived a film made with friends made as teenagers in Singapore, before the footage was stolen by a mentor. That same year Deborah Stratman was approached by Barbara Hammer, whose health was declining, to make a film from her unused footage. Paired with Maya Deren’s writings and field recordings, the resulting VEVER (FOR BARBARA) is both a tribute and invocation. Tait felt that the camera was an extension of herself, and Fowler, by making a film about Tait as well as taking up her filmmaking, has produced a moving portrait of a singular poet.
Madeleine Wall is a critic based in Toronto.