Anyone coming along to the Caught by the River Social on Tuesday night is in for a cultural high and not (only) because the line-up includes the poetry of Will Burns, Neil Thomson’s breathtaking photography and … ahem … me reading from Silt Road and talking about my book with John Andrews. The cultural high amongst these other summits is (no pun intended) Alison McAlpine’s wonderful, wonderful film Second Sight.
Jeff Barrett and I have been planning this screening for too long. Various mishaps have tripped us up, but now Jeff has a DVD and we have a pub to screen it in.
I watched Second Sight when it was first shown on UK TV as Ghostman of Skye on the 31st October 2009. Broadcast late on BBC4 I could have easily missed it, but a Pick of the Day caught my eye and I stayed up to watch what proved to be – to borrow a phrase from Michael Hulse’s assessment of The Emigrants before it was translated into English for the first time – the most ‘moving and quietly beautiful’ hour of television I have ever seen.
I pinch that assessment of Max Sebald’s writing deliberately, not only because it is the best arrangement of four words of praise to describe this film that I could think of, but because McAlpine’s Second Sight would have utterly delighted Max had he lived to see it, and is exactly the sort of film he would have made had he been a producer of ‘documentary fictions’ in film instead of prose.
But far from garnering the praise it deserved, as an art-work in film to stand beside works on the page such as Dr Henry Selwyn, as a truly groundbreaking documentary that pushed at the boundaries of what is possible in film, Ghostman or Second Sight (its original title) seemed to more or less fly under the radar in this country. Though it has won awards at numerous international film festivals, I have never found anyone else who saw the film when it was broadcast in the UK. When I search online I find few references and those that exist seem to to be on batty Fortean web-forums where those who stayed up hoping for a fright or a fragment of ectoplasm seem mostly to have been disappointed. It feels as if some comet passed by without a mention.
It can’t have helped that it was screened on Halloween and worse still, in Scotland, billed as one installment of the “fright-night” schedule. TV land, I sometimes think, must be a drear desert for the few documentary makers around who are serious artists. Very few slots exist and bugger all funding. Second Sight was screened as a Wonderland film, and Wonderland is one of the best strands there is for this type of work. And even then the film’s title was changed to run with the whole ghostly thing. Let’s call it Second Sight though, the original title and one that resonates with the real subject of the film – the forlorn longing of a widowed man for his dead wife.
How do you spell ‘ghost’ asks Donald ‘Angie’ Maclean as the titles rattle up on the screen in time with his typing. An unseen and never heard film-maker whispers the answer … McAlpine’s subtle signature. It is her film-making debut. What a debut. She must have spent years on Skye in the company of Angie and his friends. And I can’t imagine McAlpine went there knowing this hauntingly beautiful story was what she would find.
Angie was a minister in his day and so, he confesses, not someone who could or should admit to believing in ghosts. But who could deny them on an island like Skye? ‘The whole area has a kind of weirdness,’ he says. And he cannot help but dwell on its ‘strange, terribly strange stories’. And so Angie, in his little red car, his name scratched in the paint under its back window, drives from croft to croft interviewing those who have witnessed this strangeness – ‘most usually at night’ – drinks tea with them, stands by empty cross-roads and listens to them describe the glowing ghost car (thrice chased by constable Ian Morrison) and of how a child’s face was once seen imprinted into a wax cotton rain-jacket that had not yet carried the body from the reed-fringed lochan where she drowned, hours later.
Angie’s mission, it seems, is to record and catalogue these sightings – he has a fondness for filing cabinets. And the film’s mission is to follow him.
But the real ghost Angie seeks is Nina and the real subject of the film is Angie’s mournful love for her. Second Sight is a love story. ‘I can’t remember her in a red hat’, Angie says, showing us a photograph of Nina, one face among several in his congregation … ‘but she’s wearing it tonight’. I still remember how the present tense of that line hit me. Nina is not dead in Angie’s world. She has passed on to some other place and Angie, with his coal black, fidgeting eyes and steadfast loyalty, seeks the second sight that might bring him to her.
The stage for this gently moving love-story is the breathtakingly haunting landscape of Skye. The film, like its subject, seems to hover between this life and the next. Kettles, cats and pot plants evanesce into mist-drenched valleys, rainbows over ashen seas, shafts of sun racing across hillsides. How McAlpine lets the camera linger over these vignettes of landscape, no sound but the wind, until we can almost smell the peat-heavy air, feel the spectral strangeness of the place and wonder, with Angie, about that ‘other country’ where he may one day see her ‘face to face’.