A Scottish Self-Portrait: The Northern Lights Documentary Project
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Edinburgh
Unit of AssessmentModern Languages and Linguistics
Summary Impact TypeCultural
Research Subject Area(s)
Studies In Creative Arts and Writing: Film, Television and Digital Media
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
Northern Lights was a University of Edinburgh research project that
engaged members of the Scottish public in documenting their lives on
camera. Its objective was to create a novel, multi-perspective documentary
portrait of the Scottish nation in 2012. The project had enormous scope:
press and media impact reached over 4 million people. Northern Lights made
its impact by empowering the 1,500 individuals who contributed video
portraits to explore issues such as addiction, disabilities and mental
health. Northern Lights thus opened up a unique opportunity for
participants to represent their experience, voicing, for themselves and
for a wider, national audience, often poorly understood and neglected
sectors of society.
From 2004-13, Dr Nick Higgins was successively Lecturer and Senior
Lecturer in Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
His research interests focus on the experiences of marginalised social and
ethnic groups in Scotland and Latin America: his monograph (2004, see 3.4)
on the Chiapas rebellion revealed a centuries-long protest over the Maya
people's identity and place within Mexico.
Higgins is also an internationally acclaimed documentary filmmaker who
has used documentary film as an innovative aesthetic medium through which
to explore sociopolitical issues. Questions of mental health, addiction,
ethnicity and identity drive his documentary research as well as his
written research. Emphasising the creative participation of the film
subjects in the filmmaking process, Higgins encourages the
self-articulation of marginalised social groups; subsequent screenings
have produced the further impact of creating empathy in audiences from
across the social spectrum for the experiences of these groups.
An early documentary project, Women in Black (2004) explored the
challenge of representing a silent, women-only peace protest movement.
Higgins sought to capture their experience in documentary form, which
resulted in a film that was broadcast on television (2004), a screening at
the Nobel Peace Awards in Oslo (2005) and, immediately following
broadcast, the creation of three new protest groups in cities across
Scotland. The positive impact this research generated inspired Higgins to
use the documentary form in another project on the creative and emotional
life of the schizophrenic artist extraordinaire, Angus MacPhee. This work
won several awards, including best documentary at the Britspotting
Festival in Berlin in 2005, and has been viewed by over 3 million people
worldwide. Mental health professionals in the UK and USA continue to use
the film as a means to explore art and mental illness.
In 2007, Higgins completed the film A Massacre Foretold, the
result of 5 years of research on the massacre in 1997 of 45 unarmed
Indians in Acteal, Mexico (3.3). The feature-length documentary premiered
at the Edinburgh International Film Festival (EIFF), screened at
over 40 international festivals, has been broadcast on 4 international
television stations, and in 2007 won the WAAC/SIGNIS Award for best Human
Higgins's interest in the representation of human rights issues led to a
further award-winning film in 2008, The New Ten Commandments, a
documentary response to the question of individual Human Rights in
Scotland (3.2). This project gathered together ten co-directors, including
Oscar winner Tilda Swinton and Turner Prize winner Douglas Gordon, and
produced an educational publication (3.5).
The BAFTA Scotland-nominated Northern Lights (2012), his most ambitious
project yet, is the result of several years of refining this approach to
documentary film as research tool and output simultaneously (3.1, 5.10).
The findings of Higgins's practice-based research are thus twofold: first,
they reflect on documentary film as an invaluable research tool for
gaining knowledge about neglected social groups; second, because the means
of the filmmaking process encourages the creative participation of these
groups, the end product of the film captures in a unique manner the voices
of the marginalized.
References to the research
Links archived at http://www.wiki.ed.ac.uk/display/REF2014REF3B/UoA+28A
3.1 Northern Lights, 2013. www.wearenorthernlights.com
Evidence of Quality: Creative Scotland, the National Lottery and
the Mental Health Foundation awarded Higgins a "Once in a Lifetime" grant
of £260k (March 2012 — Jan. 2013) for this project.
3.2 PI on feature-length documentary (with co-directors Tilda Swinton,
Irvine Welsh, Douglas Gordon et al.), The New Ten Commandments: www.newtencommandments.co.uk
Evidence of Quality: Scottish Screen, the Scottish Arts Council and
BBC Scotland awarded Higgins a grant of £285k for this project (Feb. 2008
— Dec. 2008).
Winner Best Broadcast Award, Refugee Festival, Scotland 2009.
Winner Student Jury Award, DokumentART Film Festival, Germany & Poland
Invited to Screen at the Scottish Parliament in 2009; Theatrical Release:
14 cinemas in Scotland (Dec. 2000 — Feb. 2009); broadcast on BBC Scotland
(Dec. 2008); screened at international festivals including premiere at the
EIFF in 2008, which was attended by the Minister of Culture.
3.3 A Massacre Foretold, 2008: www.massacreforetold.com
Evidence of Quality: This film won the WAAC/SIGNIS Best Human
Rights Film Award 2007 and was Nominated Sky Movies Documentary Award, UK
2007. It was screened at over 40 international film festivals, at the
Universities of Yale, Harvard and Berkeley, and received 4 international
TV broadcasts. It was front-page story on Mexico's national newspaper, La
Jornada, and featured in El Universal, The Herald, The
Scotsman, The Sunday Herald, and The Hollywood Reporter.
3.4 N. Higgins (2004). Understanding the Chiapas Rebellion: Modernist
Visions and the Invisible Indian. Austin: U of Texas P. Evidence
of Quality: Reviews in Hispanic American Historical Review,
Development and Change, American Anthropologist, Journal
of Latin-Latino American Studies. (Can be supplied by HEI on
3.5 N. Higgins & A. Cole (2012). Learning Through Film: Human
Rights In Scotland. Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh, 2012): www.learningthroughfilm.co.uk
Details of the impact
The Northern Lights documentary film project, which obtained £250k in
grant support from Creative Scotland, was launched on 20 March 2012 by
Scottish Minister for Culture, Fiona Hyslop. The key insight of this
project is that the creation of audio-visual representations can have
transformational effects on the lives of often overlooked and culturally
contested individuals and groups. Northern Lights seeks to apply this
insight to the whole of Scotland. Going further than any previous research
project by attempting to democratise the filmmaking process, it invited
members of the public to film their own lives and communities, in any
language. Northern Lights thus gave everyone in Scotland the opportunity
to participate in the creation of a unique documentary portrait of the
nation in 2012.
Its impact was to alter the self-perceptions of minority groups in
Scotland, and also the mainstream's perception of these groups. Impact was
two-pronged: it occurred during the creative process and also afterwards,
with the release of the feature film in February 2013. Participant
responses, both to the project's preparatory workshops (5.3) and on the
project website (http://wearenorthernlights.com/submissions/listen/),
testify to the ongoing impact of the creative process and finished product
on those who got involved. The project's Facebook and Twitter accounts
evidence the ongoing impact of the film on Scottish audiences (5.1).
The breadth of the impact is evident in the engagement in the project of
many different individuals and social groups. Working with the Black and
Ethnic Minority Infrastructure for Scotland (5.8) and the Scottish Mental
Health Foundation (5.7), both umbrella groups for hundreds of smaller
local organisations, Higgins enabled widespread participation by designing
a two-day intensive filmmaking workshop, so that interested parties would
know how to make their own films. He delivered 30 workshops to communities
across Scotland, and 20 two-hour introductory ideas sessions to members of
the general public. For those unable to attend, he created online
instructional video tutorials (http://wearenorthernlights.com/get-involved/preparing/).
Members of the public were thus enabled to make films about "their
Scotland" on any format, including mobile phones, video cameras and
digital cameras. They then uploaded their footage to the Northern Lights
The public buy-in to the project was extensive: by the end of the
three-month submission period the project had received over 1,500 video
submissions, generating over 300 hours of footage, clear evidence of the
reach of Higgins's workshops on diverse communities around Scotland,
including youth groups and OAPs, Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland and
groups with experience of mental health difficulties. Feedback from the
workshops testifies to a sense of empowerment felt by individuals in
getting hands-on experience of film as a representative medium: "I've
learned a lot about cameras, how to film, what to shoot and what not to
shoot. I'd love to make more films in the future. That's the dream" (Jamie
Price — STUC Workshop, Glasgow, 5.3). The submitted material was then
edited into a 98-minute documentary. For those who provided video
submissions, the experience of seeing their own small contribution unified
as part of a final audio-visual portrait generated a further level of
impact, as the recorded video responses and online testimony show. A
typical example of feedback is: "Thanks to Northern Lights workshop I
discovered how to communicate my world with picture and sound!" (Soozie
Tarkenter — Hearing disability, http://wearenorthernlights.com/submissions/listen/).
The positive effects on participants are thus considerable. Higgins has
helped empower individuals to create their own personal media
representations that in the process have enriched and expanded their life
worlds and imaginations. This effect is especially important for the often
disadvantaged and marginalised groups the project targeted. In addition to
the impact of making creative and coherent audio-visual sense of their
lives, these groups have been positively affected by their inclusion in
the project (5.7, 5.8). It has enabled them literally to see themselves
alongside other members of society and thus experience a social visibility
and recognition that is rare, both in research projects and in wider
society. This comes across powerfully in their self-description as film
directors: 121 participants list themselves as film directors on the IMDb
Beyond the impact of face-to-face encounters, the Northern Lights website
was the main interface for the project. It provided video-making support,
and submissions could be viewed on the site. The site received between
2,000 and 3,500 unique visitors per day, with an overall total of 55,000
site visitors in the 3-month submission period (5.4). The project's
Facebook page and Twitter feed created an online community complementing
the project's offline activities (5.1). The Facebook page had a weekly
reach of 4,000 people, with over 250,000 people talking about the project.
The Twitter feed had 1,495 followers, with a reach of many more thousands
The public impact of the project can also be measured by the considerable
print and broadcast press coverage it received, including features on the
BBC, STV, Radio Scotland, The Herald, The Sun, and
The Mail on Sunday. The film was described as capturing "the very
essence of Scotland. Unmissable" (Evening Times, 14.2.13), "a joy
to watch", conveying "a joyous sense of nationhood", "Scotland as it
perceives itself, with no voices silenced" (Eye for Film, 6.2.13)
(5.5). Based on viewer and circulation figures, the project reached over 4
million people in Scotland and beyond (5.9)
The Cineworld cinema chain released the film across Scotland — the first
ever Scottish documentary to receive such distribution. It has screened in
New York as part of the Scotland-Tartan Week celebrations, and in June and
July 2013 it travelled to rural communities in Scotland with the UK's only
mobile cinema, the Screen Machine. In total it has received 196 screenings
since its premiere in February 2013. The Scottish Government Culture
Secretary has said: "Northern Lights has set a standard for cultural
projects — it's reached out to our diverse communities and inspired them
to think about how they can use culture and creativity — not only to
promote their local identity but to enhance community engagement" (5.6).
On 16 May 2013 the SNP passed a motion to announce that the Scottish
Parliament considered that Northern Lights, which it described as "an
excellent initiative", "gives a superb range of images of Scotland, [...]
including superb scenery and socially challenging issues, such as drug
On 8 October 2013 BAFTA Scotland nominated Northern Lights for the
Cineworld Audience Award 2013 (5.10).
Sources to corroborate the impact
The following sources can be supplied by the HEI on request. All listed
weblinks are to an original page, but should they be unavailable a PDF can
be found at:
5.1 Audience Reactions to We Are Northern Lights (PDF file). Corroborates
positive audience reactions to the project.
5.2 Pre_release_social_media_data (Excel file). Corroborates statistics
for Facebook and Twitter.
5.3 See Northern Lights: Interim Report (PDF file). Corroborates positive
experience for participants in the preparatory workshops, also the groups
5.4 We are Northern Lights traffic statistics (PDF file). Corroborates
no. of visitors to the NL website.
5.5 Press_quotes (PDF file). Corroborates positive media reception of
5.6 Scottish Government Culture Secretary. Corroborates statement on
Northern Lights as role model for cultural projects that creatively engage
diverse Scottish communities.
5.7 Chief Executive, Scottish Mental Health Foundation. Corroborates the
inclusive nature of the project for groups affected by mental health
5.8 Chief Executive, Black and Ethnic Minority Infrastructure for
Scotland. Corroborates the inclusive nature of the project for ethnic
5.9 WIRE_Report (Excel file). Corroborates circulation figures (radio and
media) for Northern Lights, in Scotland and beyond.
Corroborates BAFTA Scotland nomination for Cineworld Audience Award 2013.