We Are Northern Lights


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

We Are Northern Lights
"Has a real sense of energy and speaks with a distinctive Scottish voice."

In recent years we've seen a number of films put together from clips submitted by private individuals. Although they have curiosity value, they have generally struggled to maintain viewer interest or form any kind of coherent narrative. We Are Northern Lights is an exception. Assembled from hundreds of short snippets filmed in Scotland during 2012, it has been masterfully edited to create a portrait of a nation at a fascinating moment in its history. A well judged score and a keen awareness of underlying themes mean that the slow parts are few; the whole has a real sense of energy and speaks with a distinctive Scottish voice.

"Scotland - it's not all heroin and shortbread," as Jimmy Carr once put it. Actually, though the twee tourist trappings are notably absent, there's a wee bit of the former here, but even that is making an important point - this is Scotland as it perceives itself, with no voices silenced. It's rare to hear an addict speaking for himself in a film. There are alcoholics here too, with a series of sad stories; and there are multiple glimpses of economic deprivation; but overall the mood is upbeat. Where there is suffering, we hear strong voices speaking out. We also hear tales of personal triumph and numerous people simply talking about their love for the places where they live or like to go adventuring. From the hearts of the cities to the summit of Ben Nevis, the lochs, the wooded glens, and even down under the sea, the whole country is represented here. Older people talk about the history of the places where they grew up. Children play. Three self-described neds, showing a degree of marketing savvy, carefully get a kitten into their piece of film.

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With both amateur and professional filmmakers involved, the quality is very variable, but fortunately those sections where the camera motion might make you feel ill are few and far between. Some of the landscape photography is stunning and the messier bits often effectively capture personality. There's a lot of humour, including the famous snow penis incident you may have seen on YouTube and, perhaps the best bit, an insight into the World of Stones. Sometimes it's hard to tell whether or not the participants are taking themselves seriously, and that only makes the film stronger.

At a time like this it would seem odd to leave national politics out of the picture and there are a couple of people here speaking about their desire for independence, whilst elsewhere a family go to the beach wearing Union Jack hats. There's a bit of gentle teasing at the expense of the English but not a hint of nastiness, and the film features a number of immigrant voices, English and otherwise, all positive. What comes across, overall, is a joyous sense of nationhood not dependent on external relations. The film presents a country quite aware of its problems but full of enthusiasm nonetheless.

We Are Northern Lights won't appeal to everyone. It's inevitable that it should have its weak spots, bits that just don't quite gel, characters not as interesting as its editors seem to have thought. That said, it's significantly better than could reasonably have been expected, and if you approach it in the right spirit you'll find it a joy to watch.

Reviewed on: 06 Feb 2013
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A collage of Scottish experiences recorded by professional and amateur filmmakers all across the country.
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