I’m no film buff, but I took the train from Bristol to Edinburgh last Wednesday at the invitation of the wonderful Take One Action film festival in Edinburgh, which New Internationalist has been sponsoring.
There was an obstacle. The train ‘system’ in Britain is a working model of market forces. You travel only in hope. You are allocated connections which are not made. You have a seat reservation that is not there. A whispered consensus emerges that no system exists - but resgination prevails only with an official announcement that this is so. There are too many people on the train. There is no standing room. You clamber over the bodies of unseated passengers to queue for a stinking toilet or acquire what little nourishment accounts for a pervasive scent of fast food. You come to an indefinite halt, because there is only one platform operating at Doncaster. When you get off, to seek the onward connection that has already left, you join a despairing tribe whose mobile devices have finally died.
Just as well, then, that Edinburgh (like Glasgow) is always ample reward. Whenever I go there I want to apply for political asylum. Film festivals like this one are more a part of the fabric here than in the flashing pans of London.
I watch Nero’s Guests, a film about the farmer suicides in India - now well over 200,000, maybe more than double that - and the work of the celebrated journalist P Sainath, who is present in person. The cinema is packed.
The title of the film refers to a notorious party thrown by the Roman Emperor Nero, which was illuminated by the burning of human bodies. After the film, Sainath tells the audience that Nero interests him less than the guests. How did they react? Sainath’s eloquence, together with the poems left by several of the suicides, would render this film unbearable, were it not for the challenge posed by its title to the audience - greater, surely, only to those who have yet to see it.
Then I watch World Vote Now, a film by Joel Marsden, also there in person. If you think you can’t make a drama out of a vote, think again. If the very idea of a ‘world vote’ seems fanciful, you might reconsider after you’ve seen this film. Marsden almost accomplishes the unfeasible - giving substance to what can be idly dismissed as naïve idealism. He does this by asking the opinions of ordinary people at the sharp end in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well at the blunt end in the US.
A democratic process can never be perfect, but its absence is always hell. Marsden goes some way towards showing how we already have the means to make a world vote happen. Near enough, at any rate, to win endorsement from Evo Morales and the Cochabamba gathering in Bolivia, as well as an award from the US State Department - though I doubt whether either would knowingly have followed the other’s example.
I did my best to earn my invitation by participating in discussion panels after both these films. I confessed to envying the power of the visual image - a moving one especially. But, as a recalcitrant believer in the written word, I also feel a pang of pity for any good journalist who’s encumbered by a film crew.
I’m thankful for the passionate brilliance I have seen, and I face up to the return train journey with renewed zest. The last time I tried to leave Edinburgh by train a malfunction of some sort sent us down a siding to Carstairs State Hospital, not far along the way. In its isolated desolation, the place resembles a prison.
‘"The one thing that saddens me most is the stigma attached to working here,"’ Staff Nurse Angela McLelland of Carstairs State Hospital told The Scotsman on 7 August 2002, ‘as she looks out the window and winces at the pouring rain thundering against re-enforced glass. "People think we work in a prison or a lunatic asylum or something, they don't see it as a hospital for the mentally ill. There is a lot of ignorance out there and it upsets the staff that the public often misunderstand the work we are doing here.”’
Eventually returning to Edinburgh whence we came, none the wiser, two trainloads of misbegotten passengers were promptly jammed into one. By the time we came back to Carstairs, a diversion down the siding might have been a blessed relief.
Fortunately, perhaps, there are plans for Take One Action to grow southwards in years to come.