The Scottish Amateur Film Festival
It is well known that Glasgow Film Theatre in Rose Street has been the premier venue for specialist cinema in Glasgow since 1939, yet its enduring role in nurturing non-professional film talent is often overlooked. The Scottish Amateur Film Festival was held annually in Glasgow from 1933, moving to what was then known as the Cosmo Cinema in 1948. The festival attracted amateur films from both Scotland and further afield; rising from seven entries in 1933, to a record one-hundred and thirty-two films just over two decades later in 1956. In the years before Bill Forsyth’s That Sinking Feeling (1979) changed the ambitions of Scottish filmmakers, the SAFF played a key role in encouraging and screening titles made by filmmakers based in Scotland. During what is now considered the wilderness years of Scottish film history, hundreds of documentaries and fiction films were made by a range of individuals and clubs all over the country.
Supported financially by the Scottish Film Council, the festival effectively acted as the main gateway for self-taught filmmakers to get their films in front of an appreciative audience, and even players from the British film industry. The chief difference between the so-called 'Scottish' and other amateur film festivals held around the UK was that here the professionals were recruited as final round judges in addition to presenting trophies to the prize-winners. The assistance the festival received from the industry is evident from the names given to their awards; the Alfred Hitchcock Cup for best fiction film, the Humphrey Jennings Trophy for best animation, and the Michael Balcon Trophy for best documentary, amongst a wide range of prizes for different genres. While famous figures would act as judges most years, it was the 1936 festival that is now considered a pivotal moment in Scottish film history. That year John Grierson discovered the work of a Glasgow School of Art student named Norman McLaren and his subsequent patronage of McLaren’s work in Canada is well established.
The SAFF also featured the talents of some less famous figures in Scotland who contributed substantial bodies of work in various genres, simply by regularly entering films year after year. For example, the cosy comedies of Frank Marshall, the gothic tales of Enrico Cocozza, as well as numerous documentaries on various aspects of Scottish life and landscape which now represent a considerable legacy preserved for future generations by the Scottish Screen Archive. The festival continued to rise in popularity and tickets for the event were sold in local businesses such as Cuthbertson’s in Sauchiehall Street. This support from both institutions and audiences continued into the 1970s as the SAFF attracted international entries- including Robert Zemeckis in 1974, who would go on to direct Back to the Future (1985) - however, the festival struggled to maintain its respected position into the next decade.
The last Scottish Amateur Film Festival was held in 1986, but GFT continues to provide a space for those outside the media industries to screen their work through Glasgow Film Learning as well as the 48 Hour Film Project. These contemporary filmmakers may never have heard of the SAFF or its filmmakers, yet they continue to benefit from a long tradition of non-professional filmmaking being showcased at Rose Street in Glasgow.
by Ryan Shand
Janet McBain, ‘And the winner is…A brief history of the Scottish Amateur Film Festival (1933-86)’, in Nancy Kapstein (ed.) Jubilee Book: Essays on Amateur Film (Belgium: Association Europeenne Inedits, 1997), pp. 97-105.
Ruth Washbrook, ‘Innovation on a shoestring: the films and filmmakers of the Scottish Amateur Film Festival’, in Ian Craven (ed) Movies on Home Ground: Explorations in Amateur Cinema (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009), pp. 36-64.