“Who needs church?” actress Tilda Swinton exclaimed inside the Filmhouse in Edinburgh Saturday morning. A few hundred folks had gathered, grabbing placards that read a variety of things from “Jafar Panahi” to “Cinema For Everyone Everywhere,” dancing around the theater until Swinton and filmmaker and journalist Mark Cousins took the stage to address the primary reason of the gathering: The 8 1/2 Foundation.
“For those of you have never been here before,” Swinton continued, “this tends to happen when this group of people gets together.”
The majority of the people in the audience had a tendency to make their way to any event Swinton and Cousins threw together. Dozens had traveled from around the world to reunite after the previous year’s “A Pilgrimage” film festival, and had spent the weekend practicing a Laurel & Hardy-inspired dance routine, which occured earlier that morning. Eager to learn about what the nonpareil duo had up their sleeves this time around, the audience sat in anticipation of the announcement.
“How did it all begin? That’s the best thing for you to know,” Swinton began to address her audience.
In 2006, Swinton’s son Xavier had given her the idea for writing something. She’d been asked by the San Francisco Film Festival to deliver a “rather grand-sounding thing called ‘the state of cinema address.'”
“I was on about to write them and say ‘no’ because I assumed – as one might – that ‘the state of cinema’ might be about the condition of the industry,” Swinton continued. “Something about which I didn’t know much and…care little. And I was writing this gracious response saying ‘thank you, but no’ when I went up to say good night to my children. And as he went to sleep, my son Xavier asked me this question. He said, ‘Mama, before cinema, what were people’s dreams like?'”
Her son’s statement resulted in Swinton going back downstairs, and instead of telling the San Francisco Film Festival that she wouldn’t deliver an address, she wrote a letter to her son.
“Because what inspired me about his question was that somehow, at that age, that magical Fellini age of 8 1/2, he had access to a kind of understanding of what cinema might be that some people older than him don’t have,” she said. “So I wrote about a state of cinema. A place where we can all go… no borders, no visas required, no possibility of being excluded or exiled. And a place that filmmakers and – more important – film lovers, from all over all our planets might find a home, and might find company.”
The letter was quite widely published, and Cousins said it affected him quite significantly.
“I thought it was beautiful,” he said. “I didn’t have a child but I thought I could write some sort of response to it. So I wrote, as Tilda knows, to my 8 1/2 year old self growing up in Belfast. Who fell massively in love with cinema but did not know to grab or get at it as a subject. So I wrote to that wee boy: ‘You’re very lucky. You’re going to find your passion. What I just wish for you, is that the films could come to you quicker… If they could fall right from the sky, a magical gift of cinema, on your 8 1/2th birthday.”
So between them, Swinton and Cousins dreamt up the idea of “a new birthday for children” in their 8 1/2 Foundation, which would give a meticulously wrapped DVD to every Scottish child on their 8 1/2th birthday. Along with Kristy Irvine, they’d already done so at the Millbank Primary School in Nairn, Scotland, and the results were overwhelmingly successful. Children excitedly watched films like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s “The Red Shoes,” Jacques Tati’s “Mon Oncle” and Tian-Ming Wu’s “King of Masks”
Now, the Scottish Arts Council’s National Lottery Inspiring Communities has agreed to help them roll out the program nationwide, giving them funding to run for at least two years. Joined by an advisory board including producer Andrew Macdonald, MD of BBC Films Jane Wright, UK Film Council head and “Harry Potter” executive producer Tanya Seghatchian, Optimum Releasing CEO Will Clarke, and writer and development executive Adam Dawtrey, the foundation has high hopes to continue well beyond that.
“We hope this is only the beginning,” Swinton said. “We hope that we have a Euro rollout and then a Global rollout before too long. But Scotland, as usual, is first.”
Both “The Red Shoes” and “The King of Masks” will also be part of the national campaign, as will Tati’s “Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday,” Laurel and Hardy’s “Our Relations” (which inspired the aforementioned flash mob), Scot Alexander Mackendrick’s “Mandy,” Francesco Stefani’s “The Singing Ringing Tree,” and Jafar Panahi’s “The White Balloon.”
Despite the resistance to Hollywood films being included in the foundation, it was made clear that this was in no way a statement against more well-known fare.
“It’s very important to us that it’s known that are we are anti-nothing,” Swinton said. “We are for all cinema. We’re just more for films that don’t usually get sold on countless screens in countless cineplexes across the globe.”
After inviting a group of (roughly) 8 1/2 year olds on stage to pick up their very own “gift of cinema,” Cousins and Swinton introduced a screening of “The White Balloon.”
“It’s one of the most beautiful and pointed films for children ever made,” Cousins said before the screening. “And made by the magnificent Jafar Panahi who many of you know. And many of you know he was imprisoned by the Iranian authorities and went on hunger strike. He’s now out, and sent us an e-mail of support, which was so very moving for us.”
Thanks to the 8 1/2 Foundation, there’s going to be a whole generation of Scottish children (and, hopefully, beyond that) who will also know who Jafar Panahi is.