Films focus on life in Papa Westray
A series of short films documenting life in Papa Westray, one of Orkney's north isles, has been produced. The films focus on different aspects of the cultural heritage of the island, from wartime memories to fishing, farming and even the local post office.
Papa Westray might be one of the smallest islands in Orkney, but it still has its fair share of stories to tell.
Like a lot of similar communities, these stories play a vital part in documenting the history and heritage of the place and its people. But they can become lost over time, as populations and generations change.
In Papay, as it’s known in Orkney, the local community decided to take matters into its own hands and ensure these stories were caught on camera forever. The Development Trust secured funding and commissioned some short films, all aimed at capturing the cultural heritage of the island.
Diesel & Drawbars, one of the beautiful short films made by Mark Jenkins in Papa Westray
Orkney based filmmaker Mark Jenkins won the contract to make the films, with the original plan being to create more than one. In the end, eight were made – an unexpected development as far as he was concerned!
‘I didn’t imagine I would make quite so many but I quickly realised there was so much about life in Papay to tell,’ he said. ‘We had an open night when we were first getting started and I had themed tables for folk to write down their ideas and suggestions. The response was just phenomenal but by the end I was a little freaked out to be honest!’
Around half the island’s population took part in that meeting, discussing subjects like farming, schools, history and heritage and everything in-between. ‘I thought immediately that this can’t just be one or two films,’ said Mark. ‘But in a way I was quite happy about that as it was something I’d thought about when submitting my proposal for the project in the first place’.
Mark travelled from his home in Stromness on the Orkney mainland to Papay in February 2016, where he stayed for six weeks during the dark days and long nights of late winter. The conditions meant that every potential filming opportunity had to be grasped with both hands.
‘I was living right on the beach so felt the full force of the winter gales and some of the weather was crazy,’ said Mark. ‘But, as is often the case in Orkney, as you’re sitting inside thinking ‘when will I ever get out to film’, the sky would suddenly clear and you’d have to rush out with a shopping list of shots to get in your half hour or so window!’
Lug Sails & Limpets, a short film about fishing in Papa Westray
Over the course of his time in Papay, Mark became a familiar sight on the beaches and in the fields with his camera. He enlisted the help from some islanders for things like sound recording, with others helping research archive images and stories. Local residents also gave up a lot of their time to take part in interviews too.
It was these interviews, along with recordings stored in the Orkney Library and Archive, which formed the backbone of Mark’s films. Eight subjects were identified, including farming and fishing in Papay, wartime tales from the island, life at the Papay Post Office and shipwreck stories. Mark picked up the imagery with the constant stream of audio in his mind, helping to structure each shot and sequence.
‘It was all such great subject matter, be it the archive audio, the new interviews or the beautiful island scenery. It was very much a social project too – a lot of the time was spent with people just having a chat and listening to them. I really loved that aspect of it.’
Mark also experienced two classic ‘Orcadianisms’ during his time in Papay, on one hand the incredible friendliness of the people, on the other that innate Orkney shyness.
‘I was loaned a car by a resident who was away on holiday which was so kind, and highlights how friendly the people are. The problem was it was the noisiest car on the island and everyone heard it coming. I imagined curtains being closed and doors shut as I approached houses as the residents knew I would be asking for interviews!’
Eventually Mark took delivery of his own, less noisy car, meaning he could sneak up on folk without warning! ‘I found people quickly got over their reservations about being recorded and really took the project to their heart.’ he said.
The resulting work is a series of beautiful portraits of island life, with stunning imagery seamlessly matching the audio and an original score by Orkney composer James Watson. ‘I knew James’ music would bring another level to the films, half of a film is aural, and so that was always in my mind when pulling it all together. I also didn’t want the imagery to detract from the audio, so there is a ‘slow cinema’ approach to it all’.
It’s an approach that has certainly paid off, and the films were warmly received as they were premiered in the new Kelp Store Craft and Heritage Centre in Papa Westray. More than eighty people, effectively the entire island, crammed into the building and were captivated by what they saw. The films are now on permanent display in the Kelp Store, something that means a lot to Mark.
‘I was really nervous because the films were so local and involved so many people, their relatives and their friends. They were so personal,’ he said. ‘The response was just overwhelming though, and I’m very proud the films now form part of Papay’s cultural heritage.’
It’s an experience that Mark will remember for a long time. ‘I felt incredibly accepted on the island, and I still do. I try to get up every couple of months and it feels like a second home now. I still feel part of the community.'