As we sit down on the terrace just off the food court of Ocean Terminal, the first thing that comes to Shona Thomson’s mind is to check her MarineTraffic app. I haven’t heard of it, and she pulls out her phone to show me as it checks her location, then proceeds to provide information on the ships we can see moored in the Leith docks in front of us: a Bahamas-registered cruise ship bound for Kirkwall, and a buoy-laying vessel built in 2000. Shona’s Twitter handle is @urbantwitcher and, whether or not the Leith docks count as urban, there is a sense that these boats are in contention for becoming this moment’s rare birds.
We’re here to talk about the latest leg of the Following the Fleet tour which Shona has produced, which connects a 1929 documentary about herring trawlers with the communities that lie along the seasonal route those same trawlers once followed. The medium for this connection takes the form of the film’s live soundtrack, composed and performed by beatboxer Jason Singh.
It may sound like hyperbole to say that Shona’s way of describing this score is just as good as actually hearing it, but there is a fascination of its own in the way she describes its mix of everything from drum and bass to South Indian konnakol music that is clearly wrought of experiencing it over several years. Having first encountered it at the 2013 Bo’ness Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, the score’s accompanied her through last year’s Unst-to-Anstruther tour and now follows through this one: beginning in Leith, continuing through Northumberland and Suffolk before coming back ’round to Great Yarmouth, where John Grierson’s film, Drifters, itself ends.
Despite this long association, Shona’s enthusiasm for the score clearly hasn’t dimmed one bit – nor has her admiration for Singh himself. “He just has this connection with people that is so open and honest. He was doing a workshop in Bo’ness, part of a youth club, which happened every Saturday night – an open place for young people where there’s maybe not a lot for young people to do. It was in the sports centre, in one of those rooms with a window to look in. We were in there setting up the kit, and Jason was just testing it out – and about two minutes later, there’s five people pressed up against the window. Then we had about twenty-five young people in there, all beatboxing.”
This connection of films to communities lies at the heart of almost all of Shona Thomson’s various projects, which come together under the name A Kind of Seeing. “I’m really fascinated by that idea of bringing films home, to where audiences come with an anticipation and expectation of seeing something that they will recognise on screen. To see somewhere so close to you, that’s what really gets me: the idea that these are films of your place.”
Hence why each screening of Drifters on this tour shares its billing with local archive footage, accompanied by local performers. On the same day as we conduct this interview, Shona confirms that the Leith screening will feature folk collective Davno. A group of six women who perform traditional songs from across Eastern Europe, they reflect the multiculturalism of Leith both now and at the time the film was made. “It’s that whole idea of people moving for labour, for their work”, Shona explains, “which is obviously what the fishermen did as well.”
It’s also about making a palpable connection to the heart of each of the communities where the film is being shown – which explains the extraordinary number of organisations with which Shona has partnered for the tour. In Leith, this includes LeithLate and Citizen Curator, both of which share Shona’s longstanding passion for connecting the identity of their community to forgotten or neglected aspects of its history. Such collaborations have resulted in Shona’s presenting archival footage of the old Leith Pageants at the screening, which will be seen alongside a topical item now nearly a century old – that of local troops returning from internment camps at the end of the First World War.
“We love Leithers to come along and see their patch on the big screen”, Shona tells me. And as she segues into the history of her screening venue – Destiny Church Leith, built as a bathhouse before becoming a cinema, and still boasting one of the last remaining plaster cinema screens in Europe – I’m reminded that discussing any aspect of her screenings becomes yet another testament to her passion for the details of curation, and to the extraordinary research process that every one of her projects entails for her.
It starts raining just as we’re about to leave, and we pause a while, judging how best to wait out the rain. Just at that moment, Shona gets a call from Jason Singh, and so we part ways. I head off, pausing awhile at the front of Ocean Terminal. For me, there are few sounds to match that of rain falling on a quiet city. And this is what reminds me of one of Shona’s earlier remarks: “one of my favourite sounds is showing a silent film in a cinema with no soundtrack, and everyone chatting all the way through about what they can see on screen. It’s so pleasing that they’re stirred enough. Cinema is a very one-way street – physically, as a space: you’re in receiving mode as soon as you walk in. Whereas, what this offers is a chance for people to transmit, even if it’s just to the person sitting next to them.’” Once again, the urban twitcher listens out, following her chosen brand of birdsong.
Following the Fleet: Drifters begins its 2017 Live UK Tour at Destiny Church Leith on 5th August, before continuing through 30th September. For the full list of dates, click here.
For more on Shona Thomson and her projects, visit this site.