After receiving unprecedented access to its archives, filmmaker Shona Thomson decided to show a side of the RNLI many have not seen before with her documentary film Launch! On the Sea with Scotland’s Lifeboats. Rachael Harper reports

It does take a community to launch a lifeboat,” said director, researcher and editor Shona Thomson as we discussed Launch! On the Sea with Scotland’s Lifeboats, her new archive film celebrating RNLI communities across Scotland. 

“The amount of folk that are connected, whether they’re actually on the crew, whether they’re in the office fundraising, whether they have family on the crew – they are in so many communities. That building of a community, that collective experience, just had a connection with me.”

The film spotlights the women who work with the RNLI in Scotland, such as in the Aberdeen crew. Left to right: Hannah Nash, Susan Murray and Kirsty Noble. (Photo: Jack Lowe)

After being granted unprecedented access to the RNLI’s archives as part of a previous project, Shona Thomson decided to explore this connection for Launch!, weaving the RNLI archive media with 1920s footage of lifeboats and 1960s colour promotional films sourced from the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive, alongside digital video captured by RNLI crews’ 21st-century helmet cameras whilst out at sea. 

With such a vast catalogue of footage to choose from, Launch! incorporates a plethora of elements involving the RNLI, from volunteer fundraising work, to the technology involved, and the rescuing of individuals and fishing vessels. The latter was a fundamental aspect to include, and the movie depicts huge, treacherous waves while out at sea, as well as footage of the RNLI assisting fishermen who have been caught up severe weather. 

“You’re able to get an idea – only an idea! – of what fishing crews are facing in order to bring home produce,” said Shona. “The camera footage shows the conditions that you can find yourself in. The RNLI is an ally to fishermen, and what happens out on the sea has an impact on the community. If Launch! can go some way to explain that, then that’s what I wanted.”

Launch! also depicts the dangers the RNLI crews themselves face while out on rescues. “It comes with a risk and danger,” said Shona. “When you speak to folk who are on the crew, they have a different perspective on life and on death. I was speaking to one crew member in the Western Isles, and the decisions that they have to make in a very short time, and the frame of mind they need to be in when they go out, are incredible.

“When you speak to them, they’re just so modest and earnest about what they do. In a film like this, you could just have it all about the wonderful flags and boat launches, but it’s more than that, and if there was a way that we can represent that on the big screen… I hope that it does a little bit of justice to what they do.”

Launch! utilises the RNLI’s vast archive alongside 1960s colour promotional movies, like the one seen here filmed in Shetland. (Photo: National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive)

When representing RNLI crews in her film, Shona wanted to incorporate female members too, and Launch! also includes a section about the women who save lives at sea in Scotland via images taken by Jack Lowe as part of his eight-year mission to photograph all the RNLI lifeboat stations in the UK.

Something that struck her when watching archive footage was how rarely they depicted women, she said – so she was keen to emphasise their vital contribution today.

With Launch! including both static photographs and moving video taken over almost 100 years, it was no mean feat to decide what to include in its short 45-minute run-time. “The RNLI have huge amounts of footage, and I was quite clear I didn’t want it to be one long story. I didn’t want a ‘voice of God’ commentary. I didn’t want something that was that traditional. It didn’t need it – the images were incredible – but music was very much in my mind in how it could shape and weave the images.”

Music is a vital element to the film, and Launch! features a brand new immersive 5.1 surround soundtrack composed and recorded by John Ellis, Arun Ghosh, Jason Singh and Jenny Sturgeon, who worked together online whilst in lockdown.

“It is really important to have that immersive experience in a cinema,” Shona continued. “The original plan was to make the film and the musicians would perform live to it in the summer of 2020. We got to the point where we decided we really wanted this to happen, so we decided to record the score as a full soundtrack with 5.1 surround sound.”

Banding together during uncertain times was not only an integral element when creating Launch!, it is reflected in the film itself, with its archive footage of RNLI crews rushing to come together for a rescue, with just minutes to prepare and launch into unpredictable circumstances.

A naming ceremony in Aith in Shetland in 1961. (Photo: National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive)

Thomson hopes audiences will see this connection and understand the role the RNLI plays in their local community. “I hope that the fact that it is going into cinemas encourages local cinemas to connect the community with the local RNLI station,” she said.

After a number of setbacks due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the release of Launch! release may have been delayed somewhat, but it finally kicked off its major Scottish big-screen tour by premiering at Mareel in Lerwick on 20 June. 

It will now be visiting cinemas and local halls in lifeboat communities across Scotland throughout the rest of the year, with all screenings supported by EventScotland as part of Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters.

“We need to come back together after the pandemic,” Shona said. “It comes back to the idea that it takes a community to launch a lifeboat. Everybody in the cinema has a role to play in that, and hopefully you’re able to connect with what’s on screen.”

Not only will Launch! be visiting cinemas across Scotland – including the Screen Machine mobile cinema, the new Montrose Playhouse and the island of Tiree’s community cinema –local cinemas and film clubs are also being encouraged to arrange a screening of Launch! in their community to support their local lifeboat station. 

“I’m hoping that the screenings that are happening in cinemas will act as a fundraiser for the local station, because they haven’t been able to do a Lifeboat Day in the last 15 months or so,” Shona explained. “I just hope the film shows that there’s a chance to play a role in the RNLI, however small, and encourage a bit more connection.”

To find out more about Launch!, or to organise a screening of the film, visit the project website here.

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.30 here

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