Paul Gray, Lecturer in Film at Edinburgh Napier University, approached Scottish Adoption in 2015 with a film idea sparked by his family’s own experience of adoption. From past contact with the society, he knew they were interested in engaging its clients in innovative ways, and wanted to know if a film might work for their purposes. He remembers: “We recognised there was a similar dynamic in the ways we write scripts, and their caseworkers put together adoption profiles and cases.” Work began in earnest after the project won funding from a Scottish Funding Council Innovation Voucher.

Mr Gray created the characters and suggested potential storylines, while Scottish Adoption helped to inform the accuracy of the scenarios and arranged meetings with adoptive and birth parents, and a group of adopted teenagers. A film, ‘And Violet’ took shape, centring on the story of an adopted girl who accidentally bumps into her birth mother on a day out, in an encounter that sets off a series of reactions from everyone involved, including the girl’s adoptive mother. 

Anonymised details

Mr Gray remembers: “The teenage group influenced a lot of the detail of Violet’s character and story, such as suggesting that events took place around her 16th birthday.” Actress Hana McKenzie, who was cast as Violet, improvised video diaries in character using anonymised details of the teenagers’ own stories, which when shown to them generated more insight and realism from their reactions

The film premiered in 2017 to an invited audience of adoption & fostering, film and education communities, and public screenings took place during that year’s Adoption Week Scotland. Adoption Today magazine described it as ‘required viewing for anyone whose life, professional or personal, is touched by adoption’. ‘And Violet’ won both the Best Dramatic Feature Award & Special Jury Award for Best Performance at the Arizona International Film Festival in 2017. Scottish Adoption continues to use the film to create greater awareness of what contemporary ‘open’ adoption practices involve for all parties, while the fictional ‘Form E’ (adoption form) created for the film is used in the society’s training materials. .

Telling prisoners’ own stories

Mr Gray’s next film, ‘On the Outside’, explored storytelling through a series of film group seminars and one-to-one discussions, with female inmates in HMP Polmont.

The collaboration with Fife College and the Scottish Prison Service set out to challenge preconceived notions about prisoners by creating a film that told real accounts, played by actors.  

Retold in the resulting feature film, the women’s histories of family life, drug abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence, are explored, as well as their hopes for the future and the bonds that form between them.

Ahead of the premiere, one participant said: “I wouldn’t have done (writing) otherwise. I am pretty proud of it. I want to see this finished piece so badly and say, ‘I wrote that’. That’s something.”

On the Outside’ won best International Film at the 2019 Alexandria Film Festival in Virginia, USA. The film was used in Scottish secondary education, with a series of screenings and workshops in five local schools. Pupils said it influenced their opinion of criminal justice, with one saying: “It allows us to look at the woman as a human being who got lost and made some mistakes.’

Political engagement

The ENU film-makers also produced ‘Our Future Scotland’ (2018), a documentary examining political engagement commissioned by the Scotland’s Futures Forum at the Scottish Parliament. Led by Head of Screen and Media, Associate Professor James Blake, this work featured Scottish people including refugees, school teachers, artists, actors and early career scientists voicing their views on themes such as technology, environment and education, sharing a platform alongside Scotland’s political leaders.

The film and related online project were a central part of the Scotland's Futures Forum 2030 initiative in Aberdeen, with additional screenings at the Scottish Parliament, Historic Scotland Centre and the Scottish Learning Festival. The Forum’s Head of Business Rob Littlejohn commented: “It set the framework for challenging and deep discussions. It can often be hard for people discussing the future to leave their current preoccupations behind; this film has been brilliant in bringing everyone in the room to the same stage of thoughtful interaction on the future.” 

Mr Gray’s latest venture is a film involving male prisoners serving substantial sentences at HMP Shotts based around the creatives works they make, which he hopes to continue post-pandemic. He said: “What we’re always aiming for is an integrity behind lived experiences that can be shared through storytelling. I think that can help to validate the authenticity of stories; and the hope is that it can start a dialogue or open up further avenues. If it helps to spread understanding in a wider community, then that’s very worthwhile.”