Eight and a half days ago, at a train station in a tiny Scottish village, I stood awkwardly with forty strangers, holding a placard that read simply “Lillian Gish.” I held it high as a train full of people arrived at the station. Some of them weren’t getting off the train, and the looks on their faces as they watched us enthusiastically welcome those who were was the first inkling of the magic that was about to materialize. For I had managed to find myself on “A Pilgrimage,” Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins’ cross between a film festival, a summer camp, a circus and a dream. Only those folks who grew from strangers on a train station platform into a temporary family will ever truly know the magic that Swinton and Cousins somehow managed to foster, but I feel it’s necessary to attempt to articulate it anyway.
The sign that Cousins was holding up that day read “make visible what, without you, might never have been seen.” Quoting Robert Bresson, it’s a notion that has been etched in my mind for the entire duration of the event. As a journalist it reads like a daunting invitation. Objectively reporting on what followed that day feels impossible. The handful of other journalists along for the ride felt similar apprehension. Two actually decided against even writing anything, agreeing that experiencing “A Pilgrimage” privately was worth more than any freelance paycheck. But, I disagreed with reservations. As the days wore on, and the experience began to present itself as the continual utopia I’ll always look back on it as, it was clear to me that what was going on here needed to be known. Taking on that responsibility is an overwhelming idea, and one I am not at all confident I’m capable of, but if my recollection could inspire others to consider this event as a glowing example of an innovative way to exhibit cinema, I would feel as if I have done some minor justice to this experience.
Articles in various UK newspapers detailing what was occurring would make their rounds through the pilgrimage. Written by journalists who had popped into our gaggle for a few hours to interview Swinton and Cousins and take a few photographs, the articles defined the event not by its magic, but by its relation to the accidental celebrity behind it. This article in The Guardian, for example, used the deglamorisation of Tilda Swinton as an entry point into their story, and “Oscar-winning actor” as her defining quality. Or this piece in The Sunday Herald, which called Swinton a “Hollywood star” on repeated occasions despite the fact that she resides in the area of Northern Scotland the newspaper represents.
It is articles like those that make Bresson’s aforementioned quote feel all the more crucial in this regard. Because, if it wasn’t already clear that Swinton is essentially the antithesis of the term “Hollywood star,” it certainly was over the past eight and half days. Film history educator, fellow pilgrim, impromptu roadside disco administrator, camp counselor. But not “Hollywood star.” And she was all of those things in complete partnership with film director and journalist Mark Cousins – one of the most enthusiastic cinephiles you might ever meet – and one often neglected from coverage of the festival because he wasn’t once co-stars with George Clooney or Brad Pitt (not to mention filmmaker Matt Lloyd, who helped organized the event and was thanked by Swinton at screening when she noted her and Cousins “have all these ideas, but Matt makes them happen”) .
What should define A Pilgrimage more than anything is the generosity and creativity that Cousins and Swinton have put forth in facilitating an event that found a way to present cinema as community in such an organic and joyous way. The forty or fifty people that participated in it – locals and internationals, journalists and filmmakers, children and adults – went into it incapable of making expectations because the event was so unchartered. They left it ready to take on their respective paths, themselves inspired by what had just transpired.
The festival was Cousins and Swinton’s follow up to last year’s “Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams,” which took place entirely in Nairn, Scotland – a seaside town on Scotland’s northern shore. I had read with fascination about that event – which brought folks from around the world to a former bingo hall which was converted into a cinema, screening some of Swinton and Cousins’ favorite films. So when I read about this sequel of sorts, I figured passing up such an opportunity – one literally once in a lifetime as Swinton and Cousins have agreed that this incarnation of the festival will never occur again – would be a horrible waste.
After “Ballerina,” Cousins and Swinton decided their festival should hit the road, beginning at that train station, and continuing back to Nairn. On a red double decker bus, we would travel to seven Scottish villages – most of which had never enjoyed a cinema – screening twelve films programmed by Swinton and Cousins, and themed around journeys and the self-exploration they generate. This was made possible by The Screen Machine, a fabulously decorated, 80-seat mobile indoor cinema following behind the bus. Once a day, Swinton, Cousins and the pilgrims would get off the bus and physically pull the 37-ton The Screen Machine as far as a mile.
The festivities officially began as we all gathered on the top floor of the double decker bus. The pilgrims – some friends of Cousins or Swinton, but most – like me – curious folks from dozens of different countries – anxiously began introducing themselves to one another, whispering questions regarding what exactly was about to take place. As the bus took off through the scenic Scottish Highlands, Swinton and Cousins welcomed us to their “little experiment.” They warned that this was obviously not something they (or anyone) had attempted before, and there might be a few bumps along the road. This proved to accurately foreshadow the day in front of us, which would include heavy rain that soaked many of the campers (I barely salvaged my laptop by leaving the tent in the middle of the night to sleep on the floor of the double decker bus), and the vehicle physically breaking down, leaving us temporarily stranded at our first stop.
Though somehow, the mishaps just added to the magic. When we awoke from our first sleep on A Pilgrimage, soaked and cold, Cousins was standing outside the campground, holding a placard that read “campers, sorry you got really wet” and handing out cups of coffee and hot chocolate. We all gathered inside the Screen Machine to dry off and enjoy what Cousins announced as the “Scottish premiere” of Iranian filmmaker Mohamed Ali Talebi’s “Bag of Rice.”
“Rice” is a precious little film. Produced in 1996, it tells the tale of a young girl and an old lady traveling across Tehran to buy a bag of rice, being helped along the way by locals. Obviously quite relevant in its depiction of a society currently undergoing significant political and social upheaval, it also proved to be pertinent programming for our own context. One memorable scene from the film finds the old lady’s giant bag of rice breaks on a city bus, and its passengers joining together to place the rice in whatever bags they can find. One by one, the bags are hauled off the bus to the old lady. An hour after the film finished, the pilgrimage eerily mirrored this when we moved all of our belongings from the original, broken down bus to its replacement. Like in the film, we stood in a line, passing each bag to the person beside us as we readied ourselves for the next leg of our journey.
What’s more, the sense of connectivity conveyed in that scene – and in “Bag of Rice” as a whole – set the tone for what was to come. For the next now seven and a half days, we joined together in the Screen Machine, anticipating Swinton and Cousins’ lively introductions. They would sit down at the front of the theater as a cleverly programmed song would bring the audience to its feet. Stevie Wonder’s “For Once In My Life,” for example, opened Les Black’s 1982 documentary “Burden of Dreams,” which follows the troubled production of Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo.” Robert Bresson’s “Au hasard Balthazar” was introduced with Marilyn Manson’s cover of “Personal Jesus,” which brought upon definitive rocking out care of Swinton and Cousins, with the pilgrimage soon following.
Cousins and Swinton would then go back and forth with a few rounds of anecdotes while holding a giant flag – held up by broomsticks – that read “The State of Cinema.” Both would display their endless knowledge of film history, or dedicate the film to a related person or place, from the people of Iran with “Bag of Rice” to a sad story about a woman who died in a car accident shortly after attending last year’s Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams. The woman’s daughters had e-mailed Swinton to tell her how grateful they were that their mother had passed shortly after having had the time of her life.
Other selected films continued the imaginative programming of “Bag of Rice.” Preston Struges’ “Sullivan’s Travels” follows a depression-era Hollywood director sick of making fluff who sets off a road trip to “find out how real people live” and thus make a socially worthy film. Peter Watkins’ “Culloden,” which recreates the 1746 battle of the same name, was shown mere feet from the battlefield in the film, and moments after the pilgrimage had taken a tour. Les Black’s aformentioned “Dreams” depicts a film set so troubled our own misadventures seem serene in comparison (it also had us quoting Werner Herzog in German accents – Swinton herself setting the bar for authenticity – for the remainder of the trip. Most notably (and out of context for anyone who hasn’t seen the film): I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and… growing and… just rotting away.”)
What all the films had in common was their ability to motivate conversation and community among the pilgrimage. After the film, we’d head back to our campgrounds or congregate in parking lots, drinking beer and wine, arguing about what we did or didn’t like. I felt for the first time in my short career as a film journalist that art and industry had been separated. Once I ended up finding myself in a conversation about how we thought “Funny People” might have done at the box office that weekend (none of us had internet access the entire time), for the first time in my memory – I didn’t really care. I was immersed in something that meant so much more.
Perhaps the perfect metaphor for A Pilgrimage comes from within its programming. Vincent Minnelli’s 1954 musical “Brigadoon,” set in the Scottish Highlands but quite obviously shot entirely on a Hollywood sound stage, follows two Americans who randomly come across Brigadoon, a mysterious village seemingly lost in the mists of time. As we come to know through the wonderfully ridiculous narrative of the film, Brigadoon actually only exists one day every 100 years, and then disappears.
In a sense, A Pilgrimage is Brigadoon. For the folks that were a part of it, the mystical world it created has just disappeared forever. At least physically.
On the final night, seven of the pilgrims (myself included) dressed up like the swimmers in that famous scene of Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkely’s “Footlight Parade” (via tin foil bras and bathing caps) and surprised an audience with a dance in the middle of the film’s screening. The audience laughed hysterically as our tin-foil dresses began to fall off and our half-hour rehearsed choreography held up as best it could.
Then, we all had one final, emotional dance to Vera Lynn’s “We’ll Meet Again,” with Swinton and Cousins leading us around the inside of the theater as we held the same placards we welcomed people on the train with. I randomly was handed “Lillian Gish” once again, and held her with pride as I danced around the room with an enthusiasm I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager.
As Swinton and Cousins took their final bow, they avoided sentimental speeches. Clutching “The State of Cinema” flag, Swinton simply quoted The Smiths.
“There is a light that never goes out,” she said. Looking around the theater at forty glossy eyes, I am certain for all present, that suggestion has never felt more true.