For the Love of Movies: Tilda Swinton's Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams

Alistair Harkness visits the remote Scottish village of Nairn where Tilda Swinton's upstart film festival is reconnecting the community to cinema.

It's Sunday morning and Tilda Swinton is decked out in Clark Kent glasses, blue pyjamas and big fluffy slippers. She's not the only one. Huddled round her is a group of cinemagoers ranging from the toddler-young to the pensioner-old and all wearing a fantastic array of nightgowns, pyjamas and bathrobes.

Some combine their outfits with boots, some with sneakers, some follow Swinton's lead with slippers. An elderly woman is dressed head-to-toe in a multi-coloured set of Kaftan pyjamas.

"A round of applause for the best pyjamas in the front there," whoops Swinton as the group scrunch closer together for a photograph.

A voice asks, "So, is this the alternative red carpet?"

Actually, this is day two-and-a-half of The Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, a new eight-and-a-half day film festival that Swinton has organized in her hometown of Nairn in the Scottish Highlands. The festival's quirky insistence on marking time in half-days is part tribute to its closing night film (Fellini's 8 1/2), part romantic belief that 8 1/2 is the perfect age to fall in love with cinema and part acknowledgement that the festival has its roots in a conversation Swinton has been having with her co-organizer, Edinburgh-based writer, broadcaster and filmmaker, Mark Cousins, about setting up a foundation to provide children with their own cinema day on their 8 1/2 birthday.

It hardly needs to be said, but this is not the kind of thing that normally happens in Nairn. A few days ago its biggest cinematic claim to fame — apart from Swinton's residency here for the past six years — was that Charlie Chaplin used to vacation in the nearby Newton Hotel during the latter years of his life. That was back when Nairn was known as the "Brighton of the North."

Now the town, with its 11,000 population, its smattering of coffee shops and pubs, its seafront promenade and its annual day-long Highland Games (the 131st edition of which has coincided with the Ballerina Ballroom's first weekend), is playing host to one of the most unique film festivals around: a "hand-knitted" celebration of cinema co-organized by one recent Oscar-winner (Swinton) and endorsed by another (Joel Coen).

That Swinton is putting Nairn thoroughly on the map is evident from the roll call of nationalities attending. In the audience for a sold-out screening of Powell and Pressburger's 1945 Scottish-set romantic adventure, I Know Where I'm Going!, there are shout-outs for Papua New Guinea, America, Germany, England, Canada, China, France, Ireland and Japan. Some are holidaying in the area anyway; some have made the trip exclusively for this, which isn't bad going considering it's not a festival of new cinema, but an eclectic selection of classics and rarities compiled by Swinton and Cousins.

Established crowd-pleasers such as Singing in the Rain, All About Eve and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are screening alongside less well-known or more esoteric fare like Peter Ibbetson, a Gary Cooper film from 1934, and Fassbinder's twisted 1972 take on All About Eve, The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant. Swinton describes it as a festival of favorites. Cousins says, "They're all quite expressive, non-realist pictures. Highly designed, I would say, and most of them are very droll."

That's certainly the case with guest programmer Joel Coen's opening night choice of Ray Enright and Busby Berkley's 1934 musical Dames. The witty, precise dialogue, highly stylized choreography and mordant sense of humor results in numerous discussions about how much it has influenced The Big Lebowski and The Hudsucker Proxy.

"It was very honest of him to show that film," says Swinton a couple of days later. "He was basically saying, 'This is my lexicon, take it.'"

The allure of Coen's involvement, and the opportunity to mingle with an A-list actress without any of the attendant VIP bullshit that separates audiences from stars at most festivals is doubtless part of the reason why all the films are playing to capacity crowds (even an un-subtitled Danish children's movie called Palle Alone in the World sells out twice in the space of a morning). But it's not the sole reason. A lot people are just curious and up for experiencing something different.

Which is why Swinton is currently standing around in her pyjamas. On the first day (or day 1/2), she decided that anyone who turned up wearing pyjamas to this morning's 10.30 am screening of the Miss Marple adventure Murder Most Foul would get in for free. Why? Because that's what people do anyway on a Sunday morning — sit around in their pyjamas watching Miss Marple. "Especially in my house," she says.

And people have taken her at her word, getting into the spirit of the festival, much like they have with the festival's ongoing offer of free entry to anyone who brings a tray of home-baked cakes.

"What's completely amazing about the cakes is that we're getting the right amount per day," marvels Cousins. "The number of cakes is roughly equal to the audience's appetite for them. And even if the screenings are full up and people can't get in, they hand their cakes in anyway. Their attitude is, we baked them for you, so we want you to have them."

"It's all about good will," says Swinton. "It's not about cash. It's not about some clique moving in and appropriating the town. I don't know what the statistics are, but for all we said earlier about our international visitors, I would say around 85 percent are local."

The extent to which the locals are behind Swinton is evident from the way they've embraced her transformation of the Ballerina Ballroom. Having suffered years of neglect as a Bingo hall, the Victorian stone building, which is tucked away at the bottom of Nairn High Street, has been restored to something a little more in keeping with its illustrious heritage as a rock venue in the 60s and 70s (The Who, Pink Floyd and Cream all played here).

The thick textured wallpaper has had a glam rock makeover, with red-and-black lightening bolts criss-crossing the walls and silver stars stuck on at random. Red Chinese lanterns hang from the ceiling, casting a warm seductive glow over the room. A grand piano sits to the left of the screen in preparation for a semi-improvised live score to Ozu's silent classic I Was Born But… on Day 3 1/2. Balloons and velvet curtains line the back of the hall, gilt-edge magic mirrors adorn the corridor and beanbags and a couple of rows of deck chairs provide seating for the 135-capacity crowd.

And that's not all. Wander through the curtains on the left-hand side of this improvised screening room and you'll find a café lit up by mirror balls that make the walls shimmer like under-water effects in a cheap children's TV show. On those same walls, John Byrne, Swinton's partner and one of the UK's leading artists and dramatists, has replicated his dreamy hand-painted designs for the festival's programme. Daybeds and donated sofas draped with roughshod material found in Swinton's garage add to this endearingly ramshackle ambience. The whole thing is like walking into a Michel Gondry video.

"Well it's all hand-made," says Swinton. "There's no corporation behind this. There's no committee. It's completely personal, so that's Michel Gondry for you."

A weird kind of serendipity resulted in the festival happening here. Having long fantasized about opening a cinema, Swinton was walking past the building while out shopping, saw a rental sign above the door, called the number, had a look round and, after being told there was strong interest from someone wanting to open up a showroom for prosthetic limbs, took a year's lease on the place there and then. A week later she won the Oscar for Michael Clayton, or as Swinton puts it, "I won a prize and got a bonus from the studio, which was the same amount as a year's rent. I thought, 'Someone wants this to happen.'"

There's more to this renovated space than an Oscar winner acting on a quixotic impulse, though. Swinton hates the way impersonal, out-of-town multiplexes have wrecked the cultural life of small towns. "That old idea of going to the pictures as part of your daily life has changed because there aren't really any cinemas left on the High Street. Every small town in the world, certainly in Europe and certainly in Scotland, has these cinema-shaped holes in them. There used to be two cinemas in this little town and now there's none, so it's thirty-minute drive to the nearest multiplex."

The Ballroom, then, is something of an experiment to see if it's possible to bring that idea of cinema back into people's lives. And it's not just about providing access to the films, either. This is also about creating an experience. That's why Swinton and Cousins perform a little ritual before each screening. It starts with the lights fading to black. Then, from the back of the ballroom, someone whirls a spotlight around the room, as if they're illuminating a film premiere from Hollywood's golden age. A piece of music is blasted over the speakers. As each song draws to a close, Swinton and Cousins climb to the top of a pair of stepladders positioned at either side of the screen and proceed to drop a huge red-and-blue banner in front of it. Written in gold are the words, "The State of Cinema."

"We came up with that a couple of nights ago," says Cousins, after Saturday's screening of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. "I'd been thinking about how in Russian Orthodox churches the icon is covered and is only revealed during the serious moments and I thought, what if we treated the screen as something really precious and covered it up with something. When our designer came back with a banner, Tilda and I both looked at it and immediately said this looks like a flag and almost simultaneously we decided to write 'State of Cinema' on it".

It works as a mission statement, promoting an idea of cinema as global a location that anyone can travel to, but the religious influence is also oddly fitting. Preceding Murder Most Foul, Cat Stevens' version of "Morning has Broken" results in the first spot of spontaneous audience participation, with unified swaying and singing turning the Ballroom into a mock church before laughter gets the better of everyone. In the bathroom, someone has drawn a smiling face with the words "A Happy Critic… No, Really!" scrawled beneath it. There are a lot of born-again movie lovers here.

"People have forgotten it can be like this," says Swinton. "Someone said to me yesterday that coming here reminded them of going to the cinema as a child and it occurred to me that when you're a child and you're taken to the cinema, you don't really know what it is. You haven't read reviews. You haven't followed a director's work. You just go, 'Take me and I'll see.' And that's what people are doing with us. They're like, 'We'll dress up in pyjamas and we'll bring a cake and we'll trust you to show us The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant in between All About Eve and Miss Marple.'

"And that's the great thing, it's the same audiences going to all those films."

Alistair Harkness is the film critic for The Scotsman.