Bill Douglas - My Best Friend


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Bill Douglas - My Best Friend
"This is more an introduction to Douglas as a man than a creator."

Screened at 2024's Glasgow Film Festival, before a retrospective opening Gala to its daughter festival Glasgow Short, Bill Douglas - My Best Friend attempts to contextualise the life and work of one of Scotland's neglected cinematic talents. He was a filmmaker's filmmaker, and the influences on and influences of Douglas' work may not be immediately visible but they are there nonetheless, an undercurrent of quality that still has an impact today.

Though he was from Edinburgh, Glasgow Short have an award named after him. He attended film school in London, and while his Trilogy is autobiographical to his childhood his final film Comrades is of England and Australia, following the fates of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

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With a voiceover by Brian Cox, an opening interview with Lynne Ramsay, there's a very clear sense from the participants how much Douglas' work means to Scottish film. The subject, the title, are taken from Peter Jewell. There's an explanation of Bill's life in three chapters, each nineteen years long. A childhood, a friendship forged in film and national service, and his subsequent career before an untimely death.

His upbringing was difficult. Barely fictionalised in the Trilogy (My Childhood, My Ain Folk, My Way Home) it is a tale of deprivation in a community now long eroded. A cinema stands at Newcraighall now, but it's not the one we see a young Kirsty Wark in front of in footage discussing Bill's work. The commerce that replaced the colliery has itself fallen victim to the sweep of time, what was then a UCI has been itself demolished and rebuilt and is again an Odeon. Time brings changes. Some more significant than others.

Jewell is a diamond, affable, charming, inheritor of a legacy and executor of a creative estate. He appeared in Q&A at Glasgow Short Film Festival at the opening Gala and later at the CCA, and even before seeing him in the flesh his friendliness is palpable. While likely inherent, director Jack Archer has given him space to speak in tribute to his friend, and to good end.

Scott Twynholm's score is used to create continuity across various montages, but there are other through lines. Funding, an ever-present issue in filmmaking, is often mentioned. Early 8mm experiments are for fun and on a shoe string. BFI funding for his films and employment as a teacher at the NFTS allowed him to keep working. The scale of the ambition of Martyrs is not matched by its market success, but Hollywood's greatest fictions are in accounting. Stories are made on the screen, and off it, and this is a compelling one.

This is more an introduction to Douglas as a man than a creator. It does assume a familiarity with his work. Many of the interviewed, including Alex Norton, will be more familiar than Bill. Many of Douglas' sensibilities are less of Britain than of Europe. At least one work is described as having "a touch of the Eisensteins". As an introduction to the Tartan Tarkovsky or the Pasolini of Portobello, it's a good one, but it's hard to get a sense of how he stacks up against contemporaries like Clarke or Jarman without knowing them too.

This is not the only documentary about Bill. Andy Kimpton-Nye's Intent On Getting The Image is one of a few films made by Kimpton-Nye on Douglas and his work. Some of them are available on YouTube, and elements of them are echoed here. One important thread in Bill's life and this documentary has an early version here, talking about pre-cinema and its influence on Comrades. We see other bits of footage, including Douglas demonstrating a zoetrope in his office.

Among the many charming stories is that the last film Bill saw was Chaplin's Payday. You can treat yourself and watch it too. While artefacts like this exist they're a bridge back through history. In an ongoing era of remakes and reimaginings I find myself thinking about the nature of copying. Some try to reproduce every detail, and in the process acquire new cruft, new noise, obscuring signal. Some try to reproduce tone, and in the process acquire new features from what grows into where they've cut away. Even copying is hard graft.

What's clear though is that Bill's was a unique voice, and Peter's similarly singular in tribute. The tone throughout is a balm, and in a tale of creativity and comfort after a depth of deprivation it is a warm welcome to the work of one of Scotland's under-appreciated voices.

Reviewed on: 23 Mar 2024
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Bill Douglas - My Best Friend packshot
An elegiac tribute to the hugely influential Scots filmmaker featuring contributions from the life-long friend who knew him best, Peter Jewell, as well as directors Lynne Ramsay and Lenny Abrahamson.

Director: Jack Archer

Year: 2023

Runtime: 77 minutes

Country: UK


Glasgow 2024

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