A group of around 50 men, split into two groups, strain and call to each other as they pull a pair of ropes leading into a shed beside the coast, and gradually they heave their lifeboat out and onto the water.
The men are now long dead. This footage, which opens the new RNLI documentary Launch!, comes from the organisation’s impressive archives, and it was shot close to 100 years ago.
It is the clip director Shona Thomson picked to open her film, and she believes it sets the tone for what follows.
She said: “It’s just incredible: there must be about 20 or 25 men on either side of the boat, pulling it out, and then when it comes back they’re back again, pulling it in.
“It’s a really physical image, and it connected with me in terms of what I wanted the film to show – this idea that it really does take a community to launch a lifeboat.”
A century of stories
Launch!, which is to be shown in Aberdeen next weekend, is a documentary quite unlike the ones shown on TV which follow crew members racing to carry out a rescue against the clock.
Instead, it spans decades of work by the RNLI‘s inspiring volunteers, and as well as showing dramatic shouts, it taps into that deeper concept that Ms Thomson tried to weave throughout the film – community.
The organisation’s integral role in Scotland’s coastal communities was a focus from the very start, when the director reached out for permission to stitch those old clips together into a longer-form piece.
The RNLI was very keen to provide help, and when 2020 was designated the Year of Coasts and Waters by VisitScotland, several more channels of funding opened up.
That, plus access to the Moving Image Archive at the National Library of Scotland, gave Ms Thomson the ability to tell the story of Scotland’s lifeboats the way she wanted to.
Footage from another era
Among the clips is a 1964 film called The Ben Barvis, about the Longhope crew on Orkney.
Ms Thomson said: “A few years later, there was a rescue that happened, and it actually ended up that most of the crew lost their lives tragically.
“You watch The Ben Barvis, and you can see crew that, only a few years later, gave their lives in service.”
Another depicts a lifeboat naming ceremony in Whitehills, Aberdeenshire, from 1950.
The director said: “It’s a beautiful colour 16mm film, and the whole town is out there sitting on the quayside. There must be hundreds of people out there, the whole of Whitehills probably.
“They’re in their finest clothes, the boat’s there in the harbour, the crew are there with their red woolly hats, and that was shot locally.
“I had to ask permission to screen that from a gentleman in Whitehills.”
This is another aspect of the community theme: a town that relies heavily on the sea, supporting and celebrating the heroes who carry out rescues when it turns against them.
Screenings around coast
The support carried over beyond the film itself, and into its screenings.
Thanks to the fact it is largely based on requests from communities, the production’s cinema tour is different from a typical one: There is no date in Glasgow, but there are screenings in Liniclate on Benbecula, Castlebay on Barra and Tighnabruaich in Argyll.
Aberdeen’s RNLI branch also asked for the film to come to the city, and Ms Thomson believes that the city stop shows the full breadth of the organisation’s influence.
She said: “I think they’re really special screenings that we’ve got in Aberdeen, because perhaps when you think about the RNLI you look at that tour and it is very small places, it’s a coastal community and everybody knows each other.
“But Aberdeen’s so different – they still do the same incredible job, but it’s a city obviously. The fact that the RNLI are so crucial in the city as well, I think it’s really important.”
The screenings at the Belmont Filmhouse – “such a beautiful cinema” – will both be accompanied by Q&As with Ms Thomson.
She will also be joined by crew from Aberdeen RNLI: on Saturday October 16, Chloe Urquhart and Mark Gray will be there, and on Sunday October 17 it will be Ciaran McRae and Andy Haines.
A spokeswoman for the RNLI said: “Aberdeen RNLI is delighted to be supporting the Scottish tour of Launch! at the Belmont Filmhouse next weekend and we’re excited to have some of our own volunteer crew on hand on both nights to answer questions about what it’s really like to volunteer for the RNLI.
“We’re sure that the event will be an absolute success and we really hope that the local community comes out to see the film.”
Tickets are available from the cinema’s website here.