Box office draw: Highland film fans feel pulling power of Tilda Swinton

Oscar-winner follows Nairn film festival with mobile cinema 'pilgrimage'

The B863, which winds past silver birch and rowan trees under the Mamore mountains of Lochaber, is not where you would expect an Oscar-winning actor to be spending her summer break. But here is Tilda Swinton, co-star of George Clooney and Tom Cruise and model for silk Lanvin gowns, straining on a thick rope in heavy drizzle, pulling a mobile cinema through the Scottish Highlands.

Swinton swats a cloud of hungry midges and ignores the relentless rain as she heaves the 33.5-tonne vehicle along beside Mark Cousins, the Northern Irish director and cineaste, his neck muscles straining. Behind them are 40 people of numerous nationalities who have paid to lug and tug a film screen on an eight and a half day odyssey through the mountains, camping each night in a different village. This is a film festival, Swinton-style.

A year after she and Cousins staged a celebration of independent cinema in an old bingo hall in her home town of Nairn, near Inverness, on Saturday the pair launched their latest adventure. On their journey across the Highlands back to Nairn the pair will screen Iranian, Icelandic and Hollywood road movies, Akira Kurosawa's samurai version of Macbeth – Throne of Blood – in Cawdor, and a drama-documentary on the battle of Culloden in 1746 at Culloden battlefield.

Their 40-minute physical ordeal was symbolic – the lorry is driven for most of each leg. But pulling the Screen Machine, its sides garlanded with multi-coloured flags, tinsel and garish strips of tartan and fluorescent fabric, was euphoric, said Cousins, in spite of the drizzle and relentless insects.

"Tilda just said to me, 'This is pure bliss', and I feel the same," he said, heaving the lorry towards their first stop, the village of Kinlochleven, with steep mountain slopes to his left and the birch-lined loch on his right.

"Look at the landscape. Yeah, there's the midges and everything, but look at this, look at that gorgeous light. And we're doing something that feels so fun, so childlike, and so about what our adult selves do, our job, our passion for cinema."

The festival's first day had unwelcome parallels with one of its main movies, Burden of Dreams, the Les Blank documentary on Werner Herzog's epic struggle to pull a 320-tonne steamboat through the Peruvian jungle to film Fitz–carraldo. A minibus hired as a support vehicle cum taxi for festivalgoers broke down before it arrived at Bridge of Orchy, and was towed off.

Then a vintage Routemaster bus, built in 1965 and last seen in London on the streets of Stoke Newington, broke down as it arrived at Kinlochleven, just south of Ben Nevis. On Saturday, the bus carried the number 159, and its route board read: St John's Wood, Baker Street, Whitehall, Brixton, Streatham, Green Lane; destination: Brigadoon.

But after a day lumbering slowly up and down steep Highland roads through the mountains of Glen Coe, its braking system failed, leaving two village mechanics stumped. The double-decker missed the movie named on its destination board.

Outside Strontian, Swinton and Cousins again picked up the ropes and pulled the 33.5 tonne articulated lorry for the last few miles into the village. Swinton noted: "It's just mad idea number 567 and we're going to have to look for the 568th."

The idea for a portable festival, with a core group of "fellow travellers" pulling the cinema between screenings, came after Swinton and Cousins staged the Ballerina Ballroom film festival in an old bingo hall in Nairn last year. A major success, it was a one-off event. The Pilgrimage film festival is the follow-up, part odyssey, part guerrilla cinema. It is based in part on Swinton's experience of watching a travelling cinema in a remote part of Kenya in 1979, when a cowboy movie was screened on a sheet nailed to a tree.

Cousins had screened moves in Sarajevo, in an underground tunnel network, when it was besieged during the Bosnian war. Now, film lovers from across Scotland, Sweden, the Middle East, Germany, England and the United States had joined in.

"It was very easy to start fantasising about the idea that you can set up your own little world in really quite far-flung places; that was really attractive," said Swinton. "I think it's really just a little imaginative leap to pulling it yourself."

Most of the screenings have been heavily over-subscribed. Many people living in remote areas were starved of good cinema, Swinton said, and were hungry for non-mainstream films. Satellite television and DVDs could not replace live cinema, she added. "People want more difficult cinema than they're being given and the experience of cinema, not just the film."

Linda Johnston, 45, from Dingwall in northern Scotland, was on the third day of a walking holiday with her two nephews and niece on the West Highland Way, which passes through Kinlochleven.

She bought tickets for Sullivan's Travels, Preston Sturges's 1941 road movie. "I just thought it was something unexpected, on our last night of the walk, to go to the pictures in Kinlochleven. It did make us laugh: they don't make them like that any more. It was great."

Lena Karlsson, 49, a film enthusiast who had flown over from Stockholm had heard about the Ballerina Ballroom festival in Nairn last year. "It has been road movies so far, and it has been quite exciting. It makes you draw parallels to this. It is a holiday thing to do, and it really is great fun."

The youngest and smallest pulling the ropes was Fraser Dawtrey, aged 7, from Bridge of Allan near Stirling. His father Adam is a Bafta judge and film writer. "It actually felt quite good, that it seemed to be moving. It was really fun," said Fraser.

The "pilgrimage" would not be repeated, said Swinton. But she and Cousins are mulling over how and where to stage their next festival.

"It [is] a genuine experiment," said Swinton. "I thought – you know what, we don't know what we're doing. We mightn't be able to move this an inch, and when we did, I couldn't be more amazed. What's it going to be next year? Airborne or in freefall?"

• This article was amended on Wednesday 5 August 2009. Confusion about the chronology of the mobile cinema's arrival in Strontian was introduced in the editing process. This has been corrected.


Severin Carrell, Scotland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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