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Shetland Experience, The (1977)

Courtesy of BP Video Library

Main image of Shetland Experience, The (1977)
35mm, colour, 27 mins
Director Derek Williams
Production CompanyBalfour Films
SponsorSullom Voe Environmental Advisory Group
ProducerDouglas Gordon
ScriptDerek Williams
PhotographyMaurice Picot
MusicPatrick Gowers
CommentatorEric Porter

The environmental measures taken by the oil industry at the Sullom Voe terminal in the Shetlands.

Show full synopsis

Britain's northernmost archipelago is the site for one of the great modern mouse-that-roared stories, beautifully told by Derek Williams' Oscar- nominated short. The Shetland Islands council, under shrewd leader Ian Clark, had secured unprecedented powers from central government to enable the islanders to negotiate with the North Sea oil companies a novel, environmentally conscious profit-sharing solution to a looming clash of interests. Proportional to its size, Shetland is today reckoned to have gained more, economically, from North Sea oil than anywhere else in Britain; the environmental record, too, apparently remains solid. Hence, the guarded optimism of The Shetland Experience has not rung retrospectively hollow, as happens to so many well-intentioned documentaries. Shetland is, in fact, an unusual documentary case. Produced for the environmental advisory group of the Sullom Voe Association, to which the council and the companies all belong, its mixed sponsorship can be sensed in the narrator's careful calibration of the issues. Happily, this never detracts from an absorbing, finally moving, screen experience.

The film has deep cultural roots twice over. Here, on one hand, are "sea and land in eternal collision" and "fast fingers conjuring bright patterns out of long evenings". Beneath a gently romantic score, sweeping pictorial compositions visualise nature and culture, both supposedly unspoilt by modernity. It is the conservative, pastoral side of the British documentary movement that is at work in these sequences, and that of the movement's great American predecessor Robert Flaherty (no stranger to lonely places, or to oil sponsorship). Among feature film forebears, Michael Powell's The Edge of the World, filmed on Shetland in 1937, has several visual similarities to The Shetland Experience. Beyond all of that lies British landscape painting, poetry and prose, from all of whom melancholy is never far distant.

Working just as strongly, alongside such lyricism, is another tradition: the film is methodical, rational and pragmatic, like the incoming engineers glimpsed in several sequences. Its structure is superbly designed, the more so for being so self-effacing. Much of this is down to sound directorial planning, helped by Williams writing his own script, which alternates explanatory with elegiac passages. The images are matched to this prose with a logic and concision alien to more anarchic, intuitive filmmakers, 'pure' romantics of the Flaherty type. Like Williams' cerebral The Shadow of Progress (1970), The Shetland Experience engages the mind, then surprises us by causing our hearts to leap.

Patrick Russell

*This film is included in the BFI DVD compilation 'Shadows of Progress: Documentary Film in Post-War Britain 1951-1977'.

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. Three ways of life (4:21)
2. A new urgency (2:23)
3. A migratory crossroads (2:22)
4. Up Helly Aa! (2:52)
Crofter's Life in the Shetlands, A (1932)
Edge of the World, The (1937)
Island, The (1952)
Rugged Island, The: A Shetland Lyric (1934)
St. Kilda - Britain's Loneliest Isle (1923/28)
St. Kilda, Its People and Birds (1908)
Williams, Derek (1929-)
Postwar Documentary