I saw Sean Connery last Sunday (as you do) and his first question was “How was Nairn?” He was referring to the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, a quirky wee community film festival that Tilda Swinton and I, and a great team headed by Matt Lloyd, had just put on in Charlie Chaplin’s sometime holiday haunt on the Moray Firth.
I told him that we had sold more than five times as many tickets as budgeted for, that a Japanese silent film was mobbed on a Monday afternoon, and had queues down Nairn High Street. I told him that we had a pyjama screening of a Miss Marple movie, that an Iranian film called The Boot had people weeping, and that there were cheers for Singin’ in the Rain. I told him that everything sold out, that Tilda and I were rubbing our eyes at the crowds. I told him that we were in China Daily, on CNN, in Australian, European and American newspapers, and all over the web. I made some lame joke about someone having put a cinephile pill in the drinking water
I listed all these things, but my answer was a bit rubbish. It told Connery about the scale of the event but not its mood. What I should have said was that, somehow, the Ballerina Ballroom felt like Christmas morning before you open your presents or, better still, Christmas Eve, after dark, under the glow of the Christmas tree. The music we played on our first afternoon was 50s Christmas carols. I should have said that the documentary Man on Wire shows the kind of quixotic excitement and camaraderie we felt, though our project was a pin-prick compared to Philippe Petit’s astonishing wire walk between the Twin Towers.
Our team, led by designer Claire Halleran, turned a smelly bingo hall into a cheap-as-chips but somehow glowing wee space, with Chinese lanterns, bendy mirrors, midnight blue walls, ultra-violet flashes and a brilliant John Byrne mural about dreams and stars. Before each film we cut the lights. A spot light roamed the room, as if Elvis was about to arrive. A song began. Judy singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” made us hold our breath; Marilyn Manson’s “Personal Jesus” rocked the place. We treated the screen as if it was sacred, by covering it with a flag that said The State of Cinema, then dropping it as the movie began.
But these things describe the room, not the fun we had therein. Tilda said that it was like we were all on an ocean liner together, which was spot on. As the great film critic Manny Farber died during our festival, I mentioned his distinction between white elephant art (blockbusters, etc), and termite art (small, unexpected films). Ours was definitely a termite movie house. Abbas Kiarostami once said that Iranian film is poor on the outside, but rich on the inside. Perhaps the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams was a bit like this and perhaps it was its lack of rapaciousness (tickets were £3 or £2 concession) and its clear passion for cinema (we cried at the Bill Douglas Trilogy, cheered Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, and were wowed by the Georgian film Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, etc) that touched us all.
I think I was totally myself in the Ballerina Ballroom. Usually at film events there is some degree of performed self, a touch of networking or trying to impress, or acknowledgement of the business agenda. In the Ballerina, Tilda and I and, I suspect, our whole team of great volunteers led by Emily Munro, who sometimes even sang the health and safety announcement before screenings, were more interested in making sure that the fine ladies and gentlemen of Nairn felt at home and excited than where the money was, because there was nae money. There’s a line from Helene Cixous, “the arena of contradictions where pleasure and reality embrace”. I’ve always loved it and, though it is far too grand for our hand-knitted, 8 1/2 day fest, it does describe what it felt like to eat fairy cakes, listen to a Carpenters song punked up by Red Kross and then watch the great, disturbing Polish film Crows, about a lonely girl who kidnaps an infant, all on the same day.
80 % of our audience were local Nairnites. They turned out in their hoards, with home baking and open minds. Tilda and I lost count of the number of times people would stop us on the street and say “you’ve re-kindled my love of movies” or “Palle Alone in the World [a Danish kids’ film] was the best fiver I’ve ever spent”. The audience made the Ballerina Ballroom special. Kenneth Anger and Brian Cox, Jefferson Hack - co-founder of Dazed and Confused – and the editor of Sight and Sound (who was wearing pink Doris Day pyjamas at one point) joined the Nairnites on the bean-bags and deck chairs and we all sang along to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”.
I will remember the Ballerina Ballroom as a kooky moonage daydream, a place where anything was possible, movie-wise.