Credit: Luke Fowler/Cinéma du Réel
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Being in a Place: A Portrait of Margaret Tait — Luke Fowler [Cinéma du Réel ’23 Review]

March 31, 2023

Luke Fowler’s latest feature film reflects a slight shift in his creative project, something that might not be immediately apparent even to longtime admirers of his work. Although he is an experimental documentarian, Fowler could also beconsidered an intellectual historian. His major works have focused on specific artists and thinkers of the last century, including psychologist R.D. Laing (2012’s All Divided Selves), historian E.P. Thomson (The Poor Stockinger, the LudditeCropper, and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott, also 2012), electronic composer Martin Bartlett (2017’s Electro-Pythagorus), and the short film Cézanne (2019). Ineach of these cases, Fowler has combined biographical data, images, and sounds from historically pertinent locations, and various excerpts from the subjects’ creations and archival holdings.

The overall impression of Fowler’s films is that the past is a constellation, a series of objects and moments held together conceptually but never capable of forming an irrefutable whole. In that respect, Being In a Place is certainly of a piece with the director’s previous films. Composed largely of archival documents and voice recordings of the late Scottish poet and filmmaker Margaret Tait, the film abjures any simple didactic impulse, offering up fragments that provide an impressionistic sense of her creative worldview. However, this film also marks a turn toward speculative or corrective history, an attempt to tentatively accomplish something that Tait herself was unable to do.

As we see from various notes, shot lists, and official letters of rejection, Tait was planning a project called Heartlandscape, a featurette in which she would trace a heart shape around Scotland with her camera. The film would combine Tait’s interests in nature and landscape cinema with her other primary tendency: cinematic portraiture. Moving through the land and encountering the people in it, Tait aimed to produce a kind of materialist panorama of her homeland. However, Fowler shows us documents from the Tait archive that show that at least two British media organizations, the BBC and Channel 4, rejected the project, essentially stating that the work Tait proposed did not fit their existing formats.

So although Being In a Place indeed provides a portrait of Margaret Tait, Fowler is also trying to reconstruct Heartlandscape, based on the artist’s notes. This effort, however, is not revealed until the end of the film, and this makes the viewing experience a bit frustrating. We see Fowler out and about in the Scottish countryside, shooting people and recording their voices (although the two never sync up). But the purpose is unclear; this approach sometimes seems to be to the detriment of getting a firmer handle on Tait’s work. To be fair, Tait is probably the most studied and written-about Scottish artist of the 20th century, so Fowler may have thought that a more conventional documentary, or even one more in keeping with his earlier strategies, would somehow be redundant. But the overall impact, while always intriguing, is ultimately rather mixed. We  see and hear just enough of Tait to desire more access to her work and her thinking, and the supplement Fowler provides never quite coheres. Nevertheless, if Being In a Place encourages more viewers to seek out Tait’s quite singular films, it’s all for the best.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 13.