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Morag McKinnon makes black comedy Donkeys

Directorial debut is second from Scottish/Danish project behind Red Road

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Morag McKinnon makes black comedy Donkeys

Scotland’s hottest upcoming filmmaker Morag McKinnon has finally made her feature film debut with Donkeys. She tells Miles Fielder about working with the Danes and what’s next.

The degree of international acclaim generated by Andrea Arnold’s Cannes and BAFTA prize-winning Red Road rather clouded the fact that it was the first of three films to be co-produced under the Scottish/Danish project The Advance Party. Four years later, the second collaboration between Glasgow production company Sigma Films and Lars von Trier’s Copenhagen-headquartered Zentropa, Donkeys, arrives with a touch less fanfare. Following its comparatively low-key premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June, Donkeys is being self-released by Sigma via the Digital Screen Network initiative, set up by the now defunct UK Film Council to give smaller, less commercial films a chance against cinema screen-hogging Hollywood blockbusters.

And, as directed by Morag McKinnon from a screenplay by longtime writing partner Colin McLaren and Lone Scherfig (the one-time Dogme filmmaker and director of An Education), it’s a perfectly formed one. Making a break from the grim drama of its predecessor, Donkeys is a blackly comic look at the life of an old rogue named Alfred (played by the great James Cosmo) who has a health scare and subsequently attempts to make amends with his estranged family (Kate Dickie and Martin Compston, playing re-imagined versions of their characters from Red Road).

McKinnon, who announced her considerable talent with a series of short films co-written with McLaren and including the BAFTA-winning Home, makes her feature debut with Donkeys. ‘We were given these characters,’ McKinnon says, referring to The Advance Party scheme dreamed up by von Trier and his colleagues at Zentropa and I was instantly attracted to Alfred. I’m a bit morbid. I wanted to do something about somebody coming to the end of their life and about having to assess it. I like the idea that he comes to the conclusion that it’s all been futile. I think getting it wrong is what’s beautiful and human and funny in life. Life is absurd. So I always wanted Donkeys to be a black comedy.’

In terms of its comic tone, Donkeys is reminiscent of some of the Dogme films. Does McKinnon see a natural affinity between Scottish and Danish filmmakers? ‘One of my favourite Dogme films is Mifune,’McKinnon says, ‘and that’s quite funny. I think there are some similarities of culture and sensibility between the countries, and I think there’s a lot to be gained by these collaborations and by us looking at the Danish filmmaking model.’

With a view to directing her second feature, McKinnon is currently adapting Luke Sutherland’s Highlands-set fantasy Venus as A Boy. ‘I absolutely love the book,’ McKinnon says. ‘I hope we’ll be able to make that in the not too distant future. In the meantime, I’m making a feature documentary. I’m co-directing it with my friend Emma Davie. It’s about someone I knew from Edinburgh College of Art [where McKinnon lectured on filmmaking] who developed motor neurone disease at just 33 and wanted to raise awareness of the illness before he died. I hope we can make it not just a campaign film, but a really beautiful cinematic documentary.’

Donkeys, GFT, Glasgow, Fri 8-Thu 14 Oct; Filmhouse, Edinburgh, Mon 1-Thu 4 Nov.

Donkeys

  • 4 stars
  • 2010
  • UK
  • 78 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Morag McKinnon
  • Cast: James Cosmo, Martin Compston, Kate Dickie

Glaswegian black comedy detailing the travails of old rogue Alfred (Cosmo) as he attempts to rekindle relations with his estranged family. Director McKinnon's first feature is both a strong and distinctive follow up to Red Road (it is part of the same Scottish-Danish co-production project as Andrea Arnold's film) and a…

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