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Tait Gallery Restored

A near forgotten filmmaker's inspirational work is back in the frame for some long overdue recognition

She claimed to be the first person to capture Sean Connery on camera, as a young man delivering coal in her 1956 short film Rose Street. In her 50-year career she made 32 films, including one feature, Blue Black Permanent, which opened the 1992 Edinburgh International Film Festival, and which she directed at the age of 73. She published books of sublime poetry and short stories and her films have been touring the world for two years. So, seven years after her death, why have most people here still never heard of Margaret Tait?

According to Ali Smith, the Booker-nominated author of The Accidental, who discovered Tait six years ago on a visit to the British Film Institute, the Orcadian poet and filmmaker is one of Scotland's great forgotten artists. "She really is like nobody else," Smith says. "It's extraordinary that she's still so little known in Scotland. Tait was a real pioneer to the extent that no one really knew what to do with her. She's a terribly generous filmmaker and one of her gifts was simply to give the world back to us. She does the same with her poems and they really are lost to us. There is a frankness and spirit in them that's particularly Scottish and she was here years before Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead and Tom Leonard."

It is only now that Tait's spirited, evocative and sometimes brutal work is being recognised. When she died in 1999 her husband Alex Pirie approached the Scottish Screen Archive with 150 rusty cans of 16mm film containing some of the most exciting experimental work produced in Scotland in the second half of the 20th century. Work on restoring her film stock continues, and remains some of the most technically demanding the archive has ever attempted, preserving films that Tait had hand-painted or scratched on to, frame by frame.

In 2004, the interest generated by a Tait retrospective at the Edinburgh International Film Festival led to a touring programme of her work that has been to MOMA in New York, the Mumbai International Film Festival and, closer to home, last year's St Magnus Festival, where her films were screened in Tait's own studio, a converted kirk she bought in 1984.

With the success of the tour came a Margaret Tait reader, to which Ali Smith contributed a glowing essay. She also included two of Tait's poems in The Reader, her recent anthology of some of her favourite writing. Now, for the first time, a DVD of a selection of Tait's works has been produced by LUX, a London-based arts organisation. It is being launched at a special screening this month in London.

"It means that her work is recorded to some extent," says Smith. "It means that we haven't lost it, that we have it in this century and that people can find it more easily. I included her in my collection because I can't forget her poems. They changed words for me."

Tait's lyrical "film poems", as she described them, are shot in Edinburgh - where she attended boarding school, studied medicine in the 1940s and went on to set up her own production cornpany - and Orkney, where she was born in 1918, and where she died 80 years later. In the early 1950s, she travelled to Italy to study film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografla, later claiming in a rare television interview that "I thought medicine would be my life work but I gradually came over to feeling that it was necessary to do something more than just simply bringing people back to bodily health". That something was to make films that are true one-offs, that explore and revel in the gardens, seas, cities and people of Orkney and Edinburgh.

Her irreverent portrait of poet Hugh MacDiarmid uses the structure of one of his poems to pace the film and shows him walking, childlike, along the pavement kerbs of Edinburgh's New Town.

In some of the films, Tait appears herself; we hear her voice or observe, through her handheld 16mm clockwork camera, her studio in Place of Work with its stack of dusty film reels before the camera guides us into the garden to steadily watch a bird with a mouthful of wriggling worms, or a blade of grass quivering in the Orkney winds.

Tait's watchful eye is all about focusing in on small but magnificent details, whether it be a close-up of her mother's wrinkled hands removing the wrapping from a sweet in Portrait of Ga or the synchronised movement of people's legs as they march to work in Where I Am Is Here, her impressionistic tour de force exploring everyday Edinburgh.

"The heft of an image which you get in Tait can be found in the great artists which we recognise as remaking film in the particularly Scottish tradition of Bill Douglas and Lynne Ramsay," says Smith. "She takes risks that allow realism to be poetic and poetry to be real. Scottish filmmakers are for some reason able to take more risks with narrative and Tait made that possible. She worked away for 50 years on her own, made a full life's body of work. Let's not lose it."

Margaret Tait, Selected Films 1952-1976 will be launched on November 22 at the Curzon Soho, London, at a special screening of rare and newly restored films. On December 10 a Margaret Tait double bill will be shown at The Belmont, Aberdeen.

Chitra Ramaswamy
Tait directed her only feature, Blue Black Permanent, at the age of 73. From top: Rose Street (1956);Blue Black Permanent (1992)
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