The Ballerina Ballroom: The Place of Moviemakers’ Dreams


From the minds of Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton and director-producer Mark Cousins has sprung a rather unconventional film festival that combines everything from fairy cakes to Singin’ in the Rain to Joel Coen. Opening on Friday, August 15th and running until August 23rd, the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams was conceived on what Swinton calls a “quixotic seizure” when she first stumbled upon, and subsequently fell in love, with an endearing ballroom—called “The Ballerina”—nestled in Nairn, Scotland. Together, Swinton and Cousins have developed an exciting new event that rids itself of red carpets and press conferences, A-list pretension and superficiality, in order to simply appreciate, celebrate and fall in love with the magic of moviemaking.

With a goal as simple as rekindling a love for cinema, it only seems fitting for the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams to have a homemade, do-it-yourself feeling. Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on a movie pass, tickets cost either a modest three pounds per screening or a tray of fairy cakes; stadium-style seating has been replaced by comfortable bean bag chairs; and the audience is encouraged to boo and cheer as loud they wish. Screening at least two films each day and devoid of categories and competitions, the program consists of an eclectic list that ranges from Old Hollywood to the avant-garde and also represents moviemakers worldwide, from Poland to Denmark and Senegal. Festival highlights include screenings of Singin’ in the Rain, The Old Lady and the Pigeons, Fellini’s 8 ½ and Sergei Parajanov’s Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors, as well as Academy Award-winner Joel Coen’s special picks of Busby Berkeley’s Dames and Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low. And to add a touch of hometown charm, three short films produced by Nairn residents will also be shown at the festival.

Gearing up for the festival’s first event, Mark Cousins took some time to provide some very romantic answers to MovieMaker‘s burning questions about this new and intriguing festival.

Lauren Barbato (MM): What about the atmosphere of the Ballerina Ballroom attracted you to it? And what is it about Scotland that would attract moviemakers and artists?

Mark Cousins (MC): The Ballerina is a lovely old stone Victorian building in the center of town, which, from the outside, could call to mind a sturdy Calvinist meeting hall but which, in the 1970s, rocked to the songs of Pink Floyd and Cream, who played there. [Tilda] loved this, and fancied the idea of re-igniting the ballroom as a place of “moonage daydreaming”.

Nairn is where Charlie Chaplin holidayed; the Victorians loved it because it has a warm microclimate; its views across the firth are fantastic; its people are great. Scotland is visually seductive; it draws you in; the light here changes all the time; you get kipper skies in November. Scotland co-authored the Enlightenment. It is wiry, expansive, a great place to have your own road movie, a great place to lose yourself, tell a story, point a camera, curl up by a fire, swim naked or have ideas.

MM: Did you follow certain criteria or a theme when choosing the movies to be viewed at the festival?

MC: Tilda made a list of old favorites, I made a list of old favorites and we mashed them together. Somehow we were on the same planet—a gothic, childish planet of baroque, or creepy or highly designed and not very rational movies. There’s a good dollop of mysticism in our choices and lots of surrealism. We had absolutely no rules but had just co-directed a wee film together, in which we talked about imagination and excess in movies, so maybe that helped guide us.

MM: The event is a bit offbeat than most film festivals. What has the reaction been from the moviemaking community in regards to your event?

MC: Hundreds of emails. Some of the sainted press can’t quite believe that there really won’t be any champagne receptions or press center for their WiFi, or comps. Others, adorably, sent in their personal cheques. As we have no accommodation department (we have no departments of any kind) some film industry people are—shock, horror—having to book their own B&B’s! Most of them secretly enjoy this. Lots of industry people, for whom film fests are often work, are seeing ours as play and so are kicking off their shoes and jumping into the sand pit.

MM: What was your and Tilda’s original intent when creating this quirky festival?

MC: Tilda’s intent, and then mine, was to have a holiday lark, a total treat of great movies that would feel like the opposite of work. It was a quixotic idea and, I would say, has a touch of the Scottish Romantic about it.

MM: What does the future hold for the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams? Do you see this festival continuing annually?

MC: We will see how this year goes. If it is a good party, we will repeat it. Tilda and I think our wee fest should be like Brigadoon—it pops up magically, out of no-where, and is its own (ramshackle) world, then disappears.

MM: Last but not least: Why bean bags?

MC: They’re cheap and you can roll about on them or have pillow fights with them.

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