Imaginatively: Recognizing Aberdeen in a Short Film

by Enxhi Mandija

‘A music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given ourselves.’ (Alasdair Gray, Lanark. 1981)

In 1981, Thaw and McAlpin lamented that Glasgow didn’t exist ‘imaginatively.’ ‘Tales of Silver City’ belongs to those cultural products that define and create a community, a place by giving it a representation in art. In this case, it is through a series of five short, entrancing fairy tales that the picture of Aberdeen is drawn – and protagonists are its architecture, its geography, and its (Nu)art. 

Written and directed by Kristina Borhes and Nazar Tymoshchuk (MZM Projects), ‘Tales of Silver City’ is commissioned and produced by Martyn Reed. Shot during NuArt 2019, and intended to premiere at this year’s edition of the festival, the film was instead released online. Lyrical yet well-grounded, dream-like yet real, the five tales are masterfully voiced by invisible storytellers in counterpoint to smooth, rolling image work. The camera sweeps over rooftops or the expanse of the sea; we hold our breath as it zooms in to the dance of a single leaf. Even though at times, as in ‘Caroline,’ the image slips into the illustrative, rather than being a more poetic complement to the words, the overall effect is that of an intimate yet timeless experience – a fairy tale whispered into your ear. 

Flutters of recognition – when you see yourself and your family and your community and your history in a marvellous fictional world, of paper, canvas or film reel – are important for building identity. Seeing yourself in a work of art, as the protagonist and not the side-kick, or the baddie, or the comic relief character, means you are possible, you have a voice. Cultural production and the formation of collective identity go hand in hand – how important these moments of recognition can be for people and places and histories that do not see themselves otherwise validated within the context they live in. Recognition in art is empowering. 

There’s no lack of moments of recognition in ‘Tales of Silver City’. From David Henry’s poem ‘You Are Here,’ printed and pinned all over town during NuArt 2019, to the buildings we walk past every day, to the street art that edges around every walk we take. These encounters, recognizing the city, made me feel a pang of nostalgia, and long for the moment I can come back, now I’m away. 

In the Q&A that followed the launch, the filmmakers themselves described the work as a re-imagining of Aberdeen, creating five fictional cities, inspired by Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities.’ Indeed imagination reigns free, with tales of giants, magicians, witches. And the city itself, its physical space, with its architecture, street art and landscape, is the protagonist of the tales. As such, this is a truly beautiful way to tell a story and present the city. A short film I will be happy to revisit when I’m away and miss the North Sea. 

I couldn’t help but notice, however, the more and less overt references to NuArt as the protagonist in a cultural renaissance that’s giving Aberdeen a space and a voice in art. Not to say this is not true, or might not be true in some respects, nor would I want to underplay the role NuArt is and has been playing in forming a cultural collective conscience; I simply did not see the need to claim that in the short film, and I wonder if that was the right place to do that. Somehow, that made me uneasy, together with watching a short about Aberdeen and not hearing a note of local inflection. I appreciate the distance and objectiveness that a non-local voice gives, and a sense of a bigger world; I do not, however, see Aberdeen as pure glittering granite buildings, colourful murals. I see people in the silver streets and walls, and stories and histories that are less than glittering. People and stories and connections and relations in and around the granite. I’d like to hear something about them.