For a woman who has studied astronomy and European folk tales, Boston-born film-maker Jessica Fox probably shouldn’t be surprised at how chance, fate and weird planetary alignments can intervene in a person’s life. But recounting how it happened to her, there is still a sense of surprised wonder in her voice.

Fox’s story would bring her eventually to Dumfries and Galloway. But it begins – where else? – at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory in Pasadena, California. Here she was employed as a “storyteller” (it’s chewier and much less ‘gather round children’ than it sounds), and in the evening was making and editing films in her guise as videographer for The Dresden Dolls, the art-rock “punk cabaret” duo fronted by fellow Bostonian Amanda Palmer.

“I was possibly burned out, but I started having visions of working in a bookshop by the sea in Scotland and I thought: ‘Well this is going to make a great screenplay’,” she tells me. “So I started writing it down, and the more I investigated the story, the more I realised the girl behind the long wooden counter wearing a woolly jumper is me. It’s not a character, it’s me. And I thought: ‘I work all the time, why am I letting my fictional character have all the adventures? I’d love to do this’.”

So she Googled ‘second hand bookshop + Scotland’. Unsurprisingly, up popped Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town and home to the well-liked Wigtown Book Festival. Clicking on the first bookshop on the list, she saw it also had holiday accommodation. A series of emails followed – at first terse, later more forthcoming – and Fox eventually found herself invited to Scotland to hang out in Wigtown, as she puts it. “So I did. And I ended up falling in love with the bookshop owner and staying.”

The Herald: Director Jessica Fox (left) and actress Oli Fyne, star of StellaDirector Jessica Fox (left) and actress Oli Fyne, star of Stella (Image: Innerwell Media)

That was 15 years ago. Today, Fox is embedded in the town and its community, and works as a film sector specialist for XpoNorth, which offers cultural sector support across the Highlands and Islands.

But the story writing didn’t stop, nor did the determination to make films. So she assembled an all-female production team, secured private financing, gathered cast and crew into a secure lockdown bubble in a single location – 18th century Galloway House, near Garlieston on Wigtown Bay – and shot her first feature. It has since won awards at the Tel Aviv International Film Festival and at the Montreal Independent Film Festival, and next week receives its Scottish premiere at Edinburgh’s Dominion cinema ahead of another screening at the Wigtown Book Festival in September. It will also be available to stream on the STV Player.

The film is called Stella and stars newcomer Oli Fyne as the titular heroine, a young German Jewish woman who has reluctantly left her studies at Oxford University because her money has run out. Desperate for work she arrives at the House of Rig in Scotland’s southwest, where she thinks there is a job waiting. Wrong. There was, but it has already been given to someone else.


The year is 1937 and of course there is a storm coming. Stella’s own parents have disappeared back home in Hanover and, to make matters worse, Lord Rig is in deep with Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists (BUF). “I won’t have any son of mine fighting the Germans,” he says when the threat of war is raised by his more tolerant wife, Lady Rig.

But when he learns that Stella is German – and with a good Aryan profile to boot, at least to his eye – he takes her on to teach German to his children. Complicating things is an intended visit by Mosley, and Stella’s growing attraction to handsome, tousled poet Will. He is camping out in a hut on Lord Rig’s land and, when not composing verse, studying transcendental philosophy or reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, he joins Stella for wild swimming sessions. Love blossoms, despite the icy water.

The Herald: Oli Fyne and Louis Hall in StellaOli Fyne and Louis Hall in Stella (Image: Innerwell Media)

Oddly, Fox alighted on her location before she had her story, and initially fancied shooting an adaptation of Shakespeare in the grand but mouldering Galloway House, which is currently part way through a renovation project. But then her background in folklore intruded – so too something more pertinent to her own family history.

“I loved fairy tales, but I always disliked Cinderella until I heard the old folk versions,” she explains. “The old versions happen all over the world and have similar tropes, and the tropes that I really responded to were that she was in danger in her kingdom and had to flee, changing her name and her identity. The other one I responded to was that she could only take what she could carry. Sometimes she had a magic chest that sank into the ground and followed her wherever she landed. To me, that was the story of a refugee.”

As the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, that’s obviously a story which carries considerable weight in Fox’s own life. Her mother was born in Germany to a father who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz, and a mother who had lost her entire family.

“As a child, you don’t know any different, so when we would go over to my grandmother’s house she would have a massive wall of photographs of people who were murdered,” Fox says matter-of-factly. “So there’s definitely an inherited sense of survival and sadness, or survivor’s guilt – and also I would say a sense of exuberance for life.”

Joining Oli Fyne in the cast are Louis Hall as Will, and veteran Scottish actors Gary Lewis and Susan Vidler. Lewis, best known for the Oscar-nominated Billy Elliot and for his work with Peter Mullan and Ken Loach, lives in the area and actually attended Galloway House in its previous incarnation as a centre for outdoor learning owned and run by Glasgow Corporation. Noted theatre actor Vidler, meanwhile, featured in Trainspotting and is another Loach alumni, having played alongside fellow Trainspotting star Ewen Bremner in his film Naked.

The Herald: Gary Lewis and Susan Vidler as Lord and Lady Rig in StellaGary Lewis and Susan Vidler as Lord and Lady Rig in Stella (Image: Innerwell Media)

Rounding off the cast are Fiona MacKinnon as the Rig family’s housekeeper, and Rufus Wright, who plays Mosley. His visit to the House of Rig will prove pivotal for Stella.

But if it sounds fanciful to transport the British fascist leader from his urban stomping grounds to Scotland’s rural southwest for the sake of fiction, think again. In fact Dumfries and Galloway was as close to a hotbed of support as Mosley ever came in Scotland, and a fruitful recruiting ground for his party.

Scotland’s first BUF rally was held at the Drill Hall in Dumfries on April 6, 1934 with 3000 people in attendance. Dalbeattie bank manager James Little was an enthusiastic and effective local BUF organiser, to the extent that the party’s Blackshirt magazine christened Dalbeattie ‘the cradle of Fascism’ in Scotland. Meanwhile a Special Branch report from September 1934 noted the BUF’s intention for Dumfries to be made its Scottish headquarters. At a time when Glasgow was essentially a no-go area for Mosley, and there were no BUF members in Inverness, Aberdeenshire, Ayrshire, Fife, or Argyll, Dumfries alone had 400 members.

Fact, fiction and fairy tales, it all comes together beneath the Machars of Galloway. So too personal stories of displacement – one willing, the other not, part of a family history which acts as a warning against ever forgetting the past. “Stella is definitely her own person but probably has a lot of my grandmother in her,” Fox admits.

But it’s also a love letter to the place the director now calls home.

“Cinderella is all about identity,” she says. “I think when you are different and have emigrated to a country, that sense of identity and where you belong comes up a lot. I love southwest Scotland. I feel like I belong here.”

Stella will be available to watch on the STV Player from June 7