Raising money for my Jenny Gilbertson in the Arctic fieldwork


I am planning to set off for in late June for my six months of fieldwork in the Arctic.

Following in Jenny Gilbertson’s footsteps, I will head to Grise Fiord, the settlement she filmed from 1977-178.  After a month of intensive Inuktitut lessons (kindly funded by SGSAH) and building relationships, I will hear the experiences of those Gilbertson lived and filmed with. Alongside this I will make a film that visually explores the dynamics between the filmmaker and those being filmed as they go about daily life in Grise Fiord 40 years after Gilbertson. A lot has changed in that time: socially, culturally, politically, environmentally.

Travelling to and around the Arctic is unbelievably expensive as it the cost of living. To date £10,000 has been secured from SGSAH, D.C. Thomson & Co. Ltd (my first employer) and the film supper fundraising event in Bigton in Shetland (where I grew up). I have applied to a number of other sources for grants but to supplement but meantime I have set up a crowd-funding campaign.

The target is £10,000. These funds will help me cover the costs of my accommodation in Grise Fiord. They will allow me to pay young people in the settlement to operate and carry my equipment. They will allow me to contribute to the costs of those I accompany on the hunt for food (if you want to understand what it costs the Inuit to hunt for food watch Angry Inuk (2016) by Alethea Aranquq-Baril). And they will help me to feed myself and others. Food is the Arctic is scarce and alarmingly expensive (£28 for a cabbage, £64 for a chicken, £10 for a small bag of rice). I will of course eat the food they share with me and support the Grise Fiord Co-op but I have been advised to send supplies ahead: enough for me and extra for feeding the people I am filming with. Feeding folk is very much the Gilbertson way.

Very importantly, I hope to raise enough to let me to travel to Whale Cove to meet the family originally from Coral Harbour who helped Jenny make her early Arctic films. Other voices from a different place will make for a more balanced representation of Gilbertson’s time in the Arctic.

I crowd-funded for Clavel (2014) and while I was successful and people were so generous (including people I had never met), I felt very uneasy about my friends feeling there was any expectation on them to contribute. There isn’t. The other riches they bring to my life are of much greater value and will undoubtedly be the thing – albeit in electronic format – that gets me through 6 months in the Arctic.

Thank you to those who have already contributed. This is very gladdening and fires me forward.


Note: thank you, Alan Richardson for taking this photograph. I love how you have put me in the picture with Jenny Gilbertson.

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Elizabeth Balneaves comes out of the BBC archive

Notes from my SGSAH Artist’s Residency at the Shetland Archive

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 13.54.44I itemised these when I was at the Shetland Archive. They are cans of cuts and trims from Elizabeth Balneaves films. They contain bits of 16 and 35mm films that no one has seen for years. We don’t know if some of these film still exist. They are the bits Balneaves rejected (I stop breathing at the idea of people coming across my cuts and trims) but they may be all we have of these films.

They are not held by the Shetland Archive but are in the possession of Balneaves’s son who is deciding what to do with them. Hopefully they will soon be preserved and digitised so we can see what they are.

As I research Jenny Gilbertson, Elizabeth Balneaves pops up time and time again. Born in Aberdeen in 1911 and a graduate of Gray’s School of Art, Balneaves was a most adventurous and independently-minded woman. She travelled across Pakistan in the mid 1950s where she wrote and illustrated The Waterless Moon (1955) and then later Peacocks and Pipelines (1958) about her journey from Baluchistan to Bihar. Married to a man of Shetland descent, Dr James Johnston, they moved to Bigton in Shetland  in the 1960. Her travelling continued but she took up filmmaking. In Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) she made The Kariba Dam (1960) and the uncompromising The Aardvark or Antbear (1961) (preserved and digitised by NLSMIA and viewable here). Later, in East Pakistan and Bangladesh, she filmed Where Water is Life (1963) and Logging in the Sundarbans (1963). These are all films about man and the environment or a wild animal coming to terms with man’s idea of it.

Jenny Gilbertson and Balneaves were great friends. Balneaves helped Gilbertson get back into filmmaking and shared her contact Peggy Broadhead at the BBC. It was Balneaves idea for her and Gilbertson to film in Coral Harbour but she became ill and Gilbertson went alone in 1970. Here first film was People of Many Lands: Eskimo Settlement. Joanne Jamieson of the Shetland Moving Archive has recently unearthed this and a number of other films at the Museum of History in Ottawa and it is currently being restored and digitised. In Gilbertson’s writing and interviews she refers to a BBC People of Many Lands film about Papa Stour (an island off the West of Shetland) that she made with Balneaves in 1967. NLSMIA had a People of Many Lands: Shetland on their catalogue under Balneaves, but no one had seen it and NLSMIA did not hold a copy of it

But the BBC Scotland Archive in Glasgow did. I rather badgered the archivist Gregor Marks in the hope that he could extract it from their stores so we could see it, the film where Balneaves brought Gilbertson back into filmmaking. He finally was able to do this and sent me a research copy.

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 15.36.48As soon as I got it I watched it and realised it was Elizabeth Balneaves work alone. Having grown up in Bigton, I was aware Balneaves had filmed the Leasks of Hayhoull around their croft in the 1960s. This was it. Kathleen and Laurie Leask casting peats, working with sheep and hay and Kathleen knitting.

Gregor allowed me to show it to people in Bigton to help me find out who was in it (above is a photo of Kathleen’s daughter and great grandson watching her knitting). However, after a few showings on people’s TVs and some wonderfully circular conversations, it became apparent we needed to let more people see it and that if we were going to truly work out who we were seeing in Fair Isle, in black and white, 50 years ago, we needed a big screen and the knowledge of the Bigton community as a whole.

Gregor kindly agreed to us having a screening of it at the Bigton Hall. We did this the night of a Jenny Gilbertson film supper screening Mary Leask and the Bigton folk organised to help me raise funds for my Arctic fieldwork. Jenny and Betty pulled in a full house and we played the Balneaves film twice. I’ve have lots of good nights in the Bigton Hall but this was special. You could see and hear and feel how film can return the audience to a time, a place – and to people, loved ones.


We have now largely established who is in each of the scenes (though there has been some disagreement). Sometimes people are only seen for a second. Sometimes they don’t look themselves. And sometimes it’s maybe not actually them. There are one or two people from Bigton who haven’t seen it yet who were around in 1967 and are likely to be able to confirm or dispel. We need to make sure they see it soon.

People from Bigton who have vivid memories of Betty of Brinna as Balneaves was called. Lang Jim, now sadly departed, remembered her holding film nights at Brinna (the Manse in BIgton where she and Jim lived) and “a big godless bowl o’ punch” that Balneaves ladled out generously before the screening. Peerie Mary, Lang Jim’s wife, was working earlies at the Spiggie Hotel at the time and can only really remember struggling to stay awake as she’d to be up again at 6.

The received pronunciation of Max Robertson raised titters (Balneaves would never have been allowed to do her own voice over in 1967: would she be allowed to do so now?). But Balneaves beautiful composition, pace and poise are evident in Shetland, just as her uncompromising eye is in The Aardvark or Antbear, something many people remarked upon when we screened this as part of the Real Illuminators: Scotland pioneers of documentary filmmaking programme we have shown across Scotland.

So this wasn’t the Balneaves/Gilbertson collaboration. But it is one more film of Balneaves we know is saved. There are others that await restoration, maybe it won’t be long before we can see these.

So thank you, Gregor Marks, who has now moved on to another kind of media management role in BBC Scotland. I have come across a lot of flat nos when dealing with archives. But because you said yes, we were able to reconnect Balneaves film with the community where it was made. We have been able to gather rich layers of information about the making of the film and who was in it before this knowledge is gone for ever. And as John Sinclair from Rerwick said after watching his father, mother, brother and aunties, all now passed away, “it’s fine to see your folks again, moving aroont.”

NB other books by Balneaves are Elephant Valley (1962); The Mountains of the Murgha Zerin (1972); Murder in the Zoo (1974); The Windswept Isles: Shetland and its People (1977).

Update: the Bigton Hall film supper raised £1,205. Thank you to Mary Leask, for organising it; the Bigton Hall Committee for all their help on the night; Stuart Hubbard of Shetland Film Club for his beautiful projection; the Sinclair and the Gilbertson families for running the raffle; NLSMIA, Shetland Moving Image Archive and the BBC for the films; and, of course the people of Bigton – and folk from all over Shetland including Angus Johnstone from the Archive who walked over the hill to get there – for a great night. You are helping me get where I need to go.

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In the Shetland Archive: letters to Jenny

Notes from my SGSAH Artist’s Residency at the Shetland Archive

Jenny did not throw anything out. Ever. So her archive is full of letters, letters to her, carbon copies of letters from her, notes made from phonecalls in response to letters.

Here Arctic letters are full of description about the events in the settlements and pleas for more letters. As she returned from the Arctic and set up home in Exnaboe, she begins to move through her eighties. Here her letters become more fraught. Aware the clock is ticking, she desperately seeks funds to edit and finish the films she had been commissioned to make for the Museum of Man/Civilisation/History (it changes its name) in Ottawa about Inuit hunting and making kamiks. She doesn’t find the money and she dies in 1990, the films unfinished.

Frustrations and rejections: this is a large part of being someone who wants to create, particularly one who does it from the outside. That she didn’t throw anything out means these letters afford us a sense of the whole of her experience as an independent, self-funded filmmaker and as a woman, a wife, a mother and a friend.

InukchildlettertoJG.SMABut then, in the archive, comes moments of relief.  A pile of letters in a folder that are letters from her Inuit friends in Coral Harbour and Grise Fiord.

Some, tell of life’s struggles, babies born, weddings, deaths. But then, a run of letters from young girls – and young women – who continued to write to Jenny after she’d left the Arctic. I see myself in these young girls, listing the things they bought with money Jenny had sent them, telling her about how annoying boys are, wanting to write but struggling to find something to say.

And one, with something so simply done but so beautiful.

“here is incy wincey spiders hand. Nancy’s hand”

Jenny must have loved to receive that.


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International Women’s Day 2018 at the Shetland Archive

SAwomenstheses spinesNotes from my SGSAH Artist’s Residency at the Shetland Archive

I am back in the Shetland Archive for the last month of my SGSAH Artist’s Residency, cataloguing the Jenny Gilbertson Collection. While I await delivery of the new box of papers which came from Marion Grierson’s daughter (Marion, a pioneer filmmaker in her own right, who was writing a biography of Jenny when she died in 1998), I had taken to reading some of the theses in the archive in the vain hope that some thesis-writing ability jumps from the pages, into me.

And to celebrate International Women’s Day 2018, Mark Smith, one of the archive assistants, and myself thought, wouldn’t it be good to amass all the copies of women’s scholarship on Shetland we could find and document the size and scale of it. This is what we found. Forty two in total* which seems to be more than the amount of men’s theses…

SAwomentstheses angleIt is mostly PhDs but there is one undergraduate dissertation, two Masters dissertations and a working report. Not every woman has the chance to do a PhD and some don’t want to but all of what you see are contributions of new knowledge about Shetland, by women. We didn’t include all the books that had been written by women as we’d have emptied the archive’s shelves. That’s for another day. However, we did slip in Professor Lynne Abrams book* Myth and materiality in a women’s world: Shetland women 1800-2000 because it is such an astounding piece of work and she has been such an inspiration to me. (If you are wondering just how inspiring she is, you can watch her inaugural lecture in 2014, Speaking the Self: Women Narrating Liberation in Post-war Britain.)

SAwomenstheses bookendspinesAnd in amongst the theses it was a joy to see some of my friends’ work included in this monument to women’s scholarship on Shetland: Dr Sarah Browne, whose thesis his currently being bound by the archive so it is represented by the book version The women’s liberation movement in Scotland; Dr Lindsay Macgregor’s thesis The Norse settlement of Shetland and Faroe, c800-c1500: a comparative study; and Dr Ann Black’s The impact of external shocks upon a peripheral economy: war and oil in Twentieth Century Shetland. To all of the women behind these black bound books (and the green one and the red one), thank you for inspiration and motivation.

And thank you, Mark, for a worthwhile and interesting diversion from cataloguing; thank you, Vivica for being a woman of scholarship in the photo; and thank you, Brian, for putting them back on the shelves.

Update: since writing someone on twitter has helped the archive identify a thesis which isn’t in the collection but hopefully soon will be.

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Support my Arctic Fieldwork Jun-Dec 2018

Screen Shot 2018-02-13 at 22.30.30

As I prepare for my Arctic Fieldwork in Grise Fiord, quite a few people have asked if there is anything they can do to support me. I am thinking about how best to do this. In the meantime I have an Amazon list of kit that I need. It’s here. Thank you.

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Intrepid in-training

Currently, I am Artist in Residence in the Shetland Archive in Lerwick by day, cataloguing the Jenny Gilbertson collection of papers, sound files and images. By night, I am planning, preparing and fundraising for my fieldwork in Arctic Canada, scheduled from June to December 2018.

Following Gilbertson’s “footprints in the snow”, this research trip will allow me to revisit and reconnect with the Inuit people of Coral Harbour and Grise Fiord who Gilbertson lived with and filmed in the 1970s. Through my own filming I will visually explore the way she built and sustained trust and how she – a white woman – used her power as a filmmaker and theirs as a subject. Following PhD submission this film will be re-edited for broadcast/ cinema release, offering a long-needed examination of her work and the particular way she engaged with the people she filmed while asking, what can documentary filmmakers today learn from Jenny Gilbertson?

Julia Horton from the Sunday Times did a piece on my research and plans here.

A friend, one whose questioning keeps me in check, asked why I was spending so much time in the archive when I should be “in training” for the Arctic. Sadly/gladly I am not going on an expedition: I will not be hauling a sledge with 50 days supply of food and making a break for the pole. Where I’ll be will be in an a different, perhaps even more unknowable terrain: inside or alongside the thought processes and dilemmas Gilbertson – an outsider – made and negotiated as she made a film about her Inuit friends’ way of life. Spending time with the traces of these thought processes and dilemmas that Gilbertson left behind in letters and diaries whilst learning about her and her subjects’ lives in the Arctic feels like the right kind of preparation.

That said, I am redoubling my efforts at learning Inuktitut, have upped my activity levels and am constantly googling multiple layers in filmic colours that will keep me warm as I hang around in temperatures of minus 30 degrees celsius trying to get a shot. I know I need a multiplicity of efforts to get me ready for six months in the Arctic.

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Creative Life podcast, with James Taylor

sitting2James Taylor interviewed me for his Creative Life series of podcasts. We spoke about the making of Clavel and the relationship I had with James Robert, the crofter I filmed over a year. We also talked about appreciating the beginning of something (we all want to get to the end) and the importance of encouragement (giving and receiving).

Hear it here. And have a listen through his other podcasts. He’s spoken to some fascinating folk.

I had as many questions for James as he had for me so maybe one day I’ll interview him.

Image: This is one of my favourite pictures of James Robert and myself in the house he stayed in to when he moved out of Clavel. He would never let me take my boots off when I came to see him.

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