I must express a very emotional and personal interest in Shona Main’s film. My Granny was from Bressay; I still have a significant number of relations living in Shetland, and the last time I was there in 2010 was not only the year my Dad died, but it was the last time I was able to travel on a plane with my Mum due to her deteriorating mobility and eyesight. Shetland is a vital part of me and my heritage, and I am still overwhelmed with emotion when I think about that holiday 5 years ago, and the unexpected death of my Mum just 2 years later.
It was a beautiful summer that July, and we spent time driving round the most stunning landscape in the world, up to the sheltered sandy beaches of Yell and Unst; feeding Shetland Ponies with apples en route; out to the Voes and over to Bressay to see photos of our ancestors at the Heritage Centre, then on to Sumburgh Head to witness the amazing travails of young puffins as they made their maiden flights. Despite my bias, I can assure anyone who loves the natural world, who longs for a slower, quieter way of life, and who appreciates the very best qualities and characteristics of humanity, that you will love this film.
Debut filmmaker Shona Main introduced Clavel by talking about the subject of her film, James Robert Sinclair being “always there”, from when she was growing up in Shetland, through the times she returned, after leaving to become a journalist. This idea of a particular adult (often not a relative) we might remember from our childhood or our early lives, who has been a constant, an anchor of emotion, of time and of heritage, translates beautifully into the constancy and importance of place which is explored in the film itself.
Shona talked in her introduction of her return to Shetland in 2011 at a time of great personal loss, and her determination to then make a film about James Robert, after having already started to write a book about him. She told us that, although she had little skill in and experience of filmmaking, she had a clear idea of what she wanted to do, and managed to finance the whole project through crowdfunding. She also felt, that at the age of 45, her life experience would surely inform her craft, which I certainly felt was something I, and surely many others in the audience could identify with and feel inspired by.
So, Shona continued, she spent a whole year travelling to and from Shetland, with the support of her partner, and she developed a relationship and a certain level of intimacy and trust with James Robert, by following him everywhere and also by giving him carte blanche to stop the filming at any point, which he never did, as he said he enjoyed the company.
The hours they spent together were more like informal chats and conversations and the end result has James Robert telling his own story and narrating throughout. Although Shona explained it is currently unfashionable to have the main character as narrator, she gleefully declared “I don’t really care for fashion”, which brought a ripple of applause, laughter and approving noises from the audience.
The music is a very important part of the film; it is beautifully synchronised with the cinematography, and enhances the viewing experience perfectly, as all good film music must do. Shona talks more about the composers and musicians, Alice Mullay and Jonathon Ritch, who had also know James Robert all their lives. The harmonium in Bigton Church, where he himself had attended christenings, weddings and funerals over the decades of his life, had been used to play much of the music on, and the final piece of choral music, Dagalen, is sung by the men of the village of Bigton – Shona also thanks the whole village for all their support throughout the filming.
This review has taken me the longest to write of all the reviews I have written so far, but it is amongst the shortest, as I felt it a near impossible task to convey such a visually moving experience in words. Clavel, as it unfolded in front of me was a work of utter joy; the reflection of one man’s simple way of life, for which he expressed a quiet passion. His continuing involvement with the sheep farming year was beautifully filmed, and the long shots of Shetland’s unique landscape interspersed with more intimate moments and conversations with the people he is closest to, were perfectly balanced.
James Robert’s love for Clavel and his expression of his desire to die there was a moment among many in the film for which I cannot find the English language that adequately describes the emotion it stirred in me. The only word which comes near is the Portuguese or Galician word “Saudade”, which has no literal translation, but has been described as a nostalgic or melancholic longing for something/someone which is beloved yet absent; “the love that remains” after someone is gone. Clavel is filled with saudade, but it is also filled with a series of sublime moments which warm the heart and send your spirits soaring into the big blue Shetland skies.