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Avengers director Joe Russo to speak at Sands International Film Festival of St Andrews

Joe Russo will speak at The Sands in St Andrews
Joe Russo

Scottish fans of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame – two of the highest-grossing films ever made – might have been pleasantly surprised to see locations within the country turn up in both movies.

First, a major battle scene was staged in and around Edinburgh’s Waverley Station in 2018’s Infinity War, then the coastal East Lothian village of St Abbs doubled as Norway in 2019’s Endgame.

None of this was an accident.

The film’s co-director Joe Russo (with his brother Andrew) has had an interest in Scotland for a number of years, and in St Andrews in particular.

Love of golf

“He’s a golfer, so he loves St Andrews,” says Ania Trzebiatowska, programmer of this month’s new Sands: International Film Festival of St Andrews, which was co-founded by Russo, alongside Byre Theatre directors Kally Lloyd-Jones and Jessica Richards on behalf of the University of St Andrews.

Ania Trzebiatowska.

“His daughter also did Film Studies in St Andrews, and now his nieces are studying here too.

“He loves festivals like Telluride and Sundance, ones set in smaller towns where there’s an actual community that comes together to watch films.

“That feels particularly important right now, when we’re trying to get people back into cinemas and feeling safe together as a community.”

Purposes of Sands

The Russos, she explains, feel they owe their career to the patronage of director Steven Soderbergh, and Joe wants to pay that forward where he can.

With a growing Film Studies department at the university, the inaugural Sands has a number of purposes.

On one level it’s a community film festival which will bring a diverse range of under the radar films.

But on the other, there are industry-focused events – including a talk from Russo – which will hopefully bring students and anyone else interested in the business of film-making from Dundee, Edinburgh and further afield.

Professor Katie Stevenson

“It’s not just about screening films, it’s about all of the industry events around it, which will bring together filmmakers with young people who are looking to join the industry and trying to learn more about the craft of filmmaking,” says Professor Katie Stephenson, the university’s Vice-Principal (Collections, Music and Digital Content), whose remit includes the Byre.

Hollywood founders

She explains that Joe is just one of a number of Hollywood founders with St Andrews connections who have helped the festival come together.

“Part of what’s appealing to them is that this is an event which is investing in the future of the industry.

They’re very committed to the idea that Scotland has extraordinary potential for being somewhere people come to make films, and perhaps they feel the country’s underplayed that.

They want to be part of a regeneration – or a renewal or reinvigoration – of Scotland in the creation of major blockbuster films as well as arthouse films, short films, local productions and so on. That’s a very noble cause.”

Sands International Film Festival.

Opening film

The weekend’s opening film on Friday night is My Old School, a unique documentary tale made in Scotland.

It tells the story of 35-year-old ‘schoolboy’ Brandon Lee, who went back to Bearsden Academy in Glasgow in 1993, 18 years after leaving the same school.

For a time he actually managed to attend the school, with nobody – not even teachers who taught him the first time around – realising how old he was.

Director Jono McLeod was one of Lee’s classmates at the time, and now he’s told the story in documentary form, featuring an exclusive interview with Lee.

Except Lee asked not to be seen onscreen, so McLeod has dubbed his voice over scenes of Alan Cumming acting his words, while interviews with other ex-pupils and teachers from the time are accompanied by animated re-enactments.

Scottish actor Dawn Steele, known for her television roles in Monarch of the Glen, River City and currently Holby City, has provided voiceover performances for some of these segments. “What attracted me to this film was that Jono’s one of my oldest friends,” she says.

Dawn Steele

“He said, gonna come and do this? I’ve known he’s been working on it for almost five years, I’ve seen it percolating this whole time and known he’s put all this effort into it.”

The film was booked to get its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this year, but the event ended up being online-only.

The cast didn’t see the final result until the Glasgow Film Festival earlier this month.

“The really special thing about that, for me anyway, was that it was a reunion for all Jono’s classmates as well,” says Steele.

“The film’s really natural, and everybody’s got different stories of what they remember.

Quite emotional

“It was lovely to watch all of them being together in Glasgow, and Jono being with them as well, watching this piece he’s made out of what happened to them all.

“What struck me watching it was how time warps your memory.

“Some of the teenagers – they’re adults now, of course – were like, I remember this, and the other one’s like, what?

“It really makes you think about your own school and your old friends.

“I found it quite emotional, because it really makes you think about how influential those people were, whether you see them now or not.”

Alan Cumming

Steele’s also full of praise for Cumming’s performance, which she describes as essentially a mime which catches every mannerism and is timed to perfection.

“It’s also a really sympathetic film in terms of Brandon himself, it’s really interesting the way Jono presents it.

“It’s about second chances, and whether or not you go for then… I don’t want to say too much, I want you to watch and see for yourself.”

St Andrews connection

McLeod will be presenting the film in St Andrews, but ironically, even though Steele – who is from Glasgow, but who’s lived in Whitstable in Kent for over a decade – won’t be able to make the screening, she’ll be visiting the town later in spring.

One of her own old school friends has a caravan there, and a bunch of them will be getting together.

The rest of the festival’s programme is deliberately compact, with nine films in total happening over three days, and (Im)material Worlds short film showcases and talk events built around them.

Partly this is because Sands was being planned around unpredictable Covid rules, and the team wanted to have it as flexible and uncrowded as possible.

Byre Theatre.

“If you wanted to see every single film we have in the programme, you could and it wouldn’t be overwhelming,” says Trzebiatowska.

“But of course, not everyone’s as big a film junkie as some of us. We have a mystery screening (on Friday afternoon) that I would urge everyone to book – you have no idea what it’s going to be, which is fun in itself, and it’s going to be a film you might not be able to see right away in theatres.”

She won’t say any more.

Saturday night’s In Conversation event with Russo is expected to be a powerful draw for many, and independent producer Mollye Asher will also be appearing in person; her hits include the 2020 Oscar-winner Nomadland.

“She’s someone who’s really intriguing in terms of the decisions she makes within the industry,” says Trzebiatowska.

“She’s very selective about the projects she works on, but she somehow manages to connect the more independent style of cinema with films that appeal to larger audiences. She obviously knows how to seek out new voices.”

Queen of Glory Nana Mensah

Another film Trzebiatowska recommends is Nana Mensah’s Queen of Glory, about a young woman from the Bronx who studies at Columbia University, but who finds herself drawn back to her childhood home and her Ghanaian roots when her mother dies suddenly.

“Many things are very special about it, but among them is the fact it’s written, directed and acted by Nana Mensah, who’s a tremendous talent,” she says.

“I think she’s really special in terms of her filmmaking voice, but also the way she’s put together an incredibly personal story that appeals to a really wide audience, which I find very impressive.

“It’s a particular setting, but it’s still an emotional story that audiences will respond to, regardless of where they from and whether they understand the context.”

Ascension

Trzebiatowska also mentions Jessica Kingdon’s documentary Ascension, which uses images and music, but no words, to examine the growth of consumerism in China, in a manner reminiscent of films like Koyaanisqatsi or From Scotland with Love.

It’s been nominated for an Academy Award, and whether it’s won or not will be revealed later in the evening after it’s screened.

“The fact it got nominated for an Oscar surprised everyone, including the filmmaker,” says Trzebiatowska.

“It’s her first feature documentary. She’s incredibly talented, but I think it’s one of those smaller films that snuck up on people.

“Again, people might not seek it out otherwise, because it’s a documentary about China and the things we don’t think about much – how things are made and how labour processes work in factories, how various industries work too.

“It’s a really fascinating take on all of these things, though, and it’s a beautifully executed film.

“It’s stunning visually, and I think seeing it on the big screen will be really quite amazing.

“Jessica won’t be in St Andrews, because she’ll be in LA at the Oscars, but she will tune in to have a conversation with us, at least.”

Long Live My Happy Head

Other films screening include Long Live My Happy Head by filmmakers Austen McCowan and Will Hewitt, another hybrid live and animated documentary which tells of Scottish illustrator Gordon Shaw’s life with an inoperable brain tumour; Hive, about the life of women in post-war Kosovo, which won three awards at Sundance; and Down with the King, Diego Ongaro’s film about a big city rapper trying to find solace in rural life.

Scale and ambition

None of these films are world, or even UK, premieres, but Trzebiatowska points out that’s not important to a film festival of Sands’ scale and ambition, which doesn’t need to concern itself with how many stars it can book to fill its red carpets.

“We’re concerned with having a really good quality program and wanting to bring the filmmakers to town as well, as much as we can,” she says.

“Obviously not everyone is willing to travel right now, but we’ll have most of the filmmakers attend, which is great.

Premieres aren’t that important to us, because it’s all about creating conversations around films.

Nguyen Trinh Thi-how to improve the world

“Also, the audience never usually cares about premieres that much, it’s us programmers that get hung up on that stuff.

“It’s conversations that they care about, and we’re trying to create a feeling of these film conversations as being accessible and not intimidating.

“I’d love for it to feel like a space that people can feel they’re not out of place, where there’s an atmosphere of feeling welcome and it’s okay to ask questions.”

Trzebiatowska – who started and ran the Off Camera Film Festival in Poland and now works for Sundance in Los Angeles – says that Sands will return in April next year.

“We’re hoping we can put this on annually, but if not, it would be every two years,” says Stephenson.

“The intention at the moment is annual, and there’s scope for growth. Next year we hope to expand internationally, leveraging the success of the first year – more events, more films, more contributors.

“Also, can I recommend the mystery screening? That’s all I’m going to say.”

How to get tickets

– Sands: International Film Festival of St Andrews runs at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews from Friday 25th to Sunday 27th March. See sands-iff.com for tickets and more information.

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