Time, Space, Structure & Process - Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival 2015

For a festival ostensibly serving a town of 12,000, Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival (BFMAF) holds a position in England’s film festival scene somewhat above its mantle. Now in its eleventh year of operation, England’s most Northern festival saw frequenters from across Scotland and Northumberland return; as well as a sizeable number of new visitors from across the world, both invited guests and welcome interlopers.

The latest iteration saw a change in management. Director of the last five festivals Melanie Iredale departed for a position at Sheffield Doc Fest and International Film Festival Rotterdam alumni Peter Taylor headed up his first festival, bringing an offering as eclectic as might be expected from someone who has spent so long programming at the Dutch experimental-leaning festival.

Fortunately, BFMAF is a festival that encourages eccentricity. Hosting installation works in some of the town’s historic venues (the 14th Century fortified Coxon Tower, or the 18th Century Custom House which has been vacant since 2006, for instance), BFMAF offers a strange interposition of space and image. Installations draw passers by in with the chance to see inside an otherwise inaccessible building before bombarding them with art, some of whom appreciate the imposition and others who do not.

That the year’s theme happened to be ‘Fact or Fiction’ furthered this sense of the blurring of lines and crossing of boundaries. BFMAF offered various interminglings - history and modernity, narrative and fiction; traditional cinema and artist’s moving image, as well as a pleasing disregard for concerns of length or format (short, medium and feature length films are mixed wilfully, and the festival’s only competitions are for short films), and made a noble attempt to redefine what cinema should be, or at least where it can be found.

Mostly inside small, dark spaces it seems. Using the Kielder Water and Forest Park as a basis for wider psycho-geographical rumination, Kathleen Herbert’s A History of the Receding Horizon proved a complex yet supremely confident mix of personal recollection, collected site-specific memories and broader philosophical musings. Mixing 16mm, analogue stills, and digital video, Herbert makes a visual inquiry into how alteration of the natural landscape into what she calls “the engineered landscape” can affect memory; contrasting recollections of a lost place through her narration and childhood photos with an exploration of the significance of the area as it is now.

The strength of the (textual) narration (in Patrick Keiller mode, if not as sharp nor crucially as funny) doesn’t quite match the stunning cinematography; but its a picturesque, cooly philosophical film that, at 26 minutes, is not too long as to overstay the welcome the subject matter requires, but also short enough to revisit a number of times, each new viewing demystifying a previously elusive point, idea or image. Stationed atmospherically in one of Berwick’s underground ice storage chambers, a film that muses extensively on time and the passing of it is appropriate for viewing in a near pitch black, freezing cold space that feels, like the Kielder reserve seen on screen, frozen in time.

Also impressive was Cave Exits, a four panel ‘cinema cube’ installed in one of the town’s other ice houses. A large cavern with a short tunnel that exits onto an impressive view of the River Tweed means that visitors to Peter Burr’s installation hear the pulsating soundtrack from outside before seeing the work. Once inside, visitors are encouraged to stand on a platform between four screens mounted inside a wrestling style cubic chassis, making it impossible to see every image at once, forcing either multiple watches or a constant bodily rotation on the part of the viewer.

Though the festival notes credit Andrei Tarkovsky, specifically Stalker, as an influence; music seems more of a inspiration than cinema. Burr’s film matches the kinetic aural/visual digital blasts of recent Ryoji Ikeda sound/image works with the ‘post-internet-art’ aesthetic that audio collagists like Oneohtrix Point Never and James Ferraro seem drawn to. Satiating those with a short attention span and a taste for the sensorially overwhelming, Burr’s half hour long loop immerses cave-dwellers within a constant surge of visual information. A combination of cross-screen barrages of scrolling code, geometric pixel abstractions, wireframe models, interrupt text passages and ever warping videogame styled sequences, Cave Exits seems the perfect visual explosion to illuminate such a space as Bank Hill’s Ice House.

Lastly, in terms of notable installations, Pacho Velez (of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab), brought a 9 minute loop made from cuttings from the White House’s collection of recordings of Reagan’s presidency titled The Reagan Shorts, which proved a welcome break from the sometimes portentous world of video-art. Inside a clammy prison cell, Velez played three strange moments selected from an abundance of material, most hilariously Reagan wrestling a turkey, gently distorted aurally, and followed by trumpet fanfare and a jarring cut to credit roll. These micro-performances from the actor-president, amusing as they (especially on the third or forth loop), felt like cuttings from a larger project, a gesture of favour from a ‘name-director.’

Cinema occurred above ground at Berwick too and two of the best films showing at the festival happened to be, as is often the case, repertory offerings. Presented by filmmaker Phil Collins (“not the”) along with a fine short of his own, (The Meaning of Style, a mesmerising 3 minutes spent with a group of Malaysian skinheads, beautifully shot and elegantly cut) was a 35mm presentation of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema. The film, made to celebrate cinema’s centenary and something of an obscurity, was an unexpected highlight of the festival.

A classic piece of 1990s Iranian cine-trickery, in Salaam Cinema Makhmalbaf stages a series of screen tests for actors wanted for a film never to be made. Beginning with incredible scenes of swelling crowds near-trampling each another to death for the chance to audition, Makhmalbaf then puts the lucky few who get to face him through a series of pointedly overly demanding trials - forcing them to cry, laugh, even die on demand - all the while pushing audiences to constantly question exactly what is happening, what is staged and what is real, and what the meaning of it might be.

Introduced by Collins as a premonition of the X-Factor era of eternal televised performances and auditions, though prescient Salaam Cinema is occasionally a little too on the nose as to what it is doing. The last thirty minutes, involving two teenage girls that Makhmalbaf pushes to the limits, tests viewer patience too much, but such is the meta nature of these sort of films that’s precisely the point. “Did you not know that the cinema was cruel?”

Also considered too much for audiences on its making fifty years ago, Peter Watkin’s seminal doc-drama hybrid The War Game was screened at the festival. Described by Peter Taylor as the “quintessential fact or fiction film,” the film imagines a nuclear attack on Britain from Soviet Russia. Imitating the format of a public information programme, mixing jerky 16mm closeup handheld footage of atrocities and disorder with mock response interviews with authority figures and public; Watkin’s film explores, with unnerving precision and no punches pulled, the chaos that would ensue were nuclear war to occur.

It is difficult to imagine the effect Peter Watkins’ film would have had on people in the ‘60s, were it aired on BBC as planned. “Would the survivors envy the dead?” It remains today a shocking, thought-provoking study into both the horrors of war and this (or any) country’s lack of readiness for an attack of any kind or scale. An incredibly effective polemic as well as the perfect study of the complexities of the ‘factual’ form, The War Game serves as a singular illustration of Watkins’ exceptional integrity and moral authority.

Maligned and marginalised in the UK, Watkins left England shortly after The War Game, never to make a film here again. As if to make a gesture towards reversing this mistreatment, Watkins received another tribute at BFMAF in the form of two short films from Deimantas Narkevicius, amongst a programme of nine works from the Lithuanian scattered around Berwick. Narkevicius’ chilling The Dud Effect, which screened before Watkins’ film, shows an imagined reconstruction in the style of The War Game, recording a former Soviet officer going through the steps of setting up and firing of a warhead, retracing the learned mechanical processes of inducing annihilation, linking history and memory, work and war.

Narkevicius, who met Watkins in Lithuania, also showed his very affecting The Role of A Lifetime, a two hour conversation between the two filmmakers cut into a 15 minute soliloquy on the documentary form. By running Watkins’ voice alongside home videos from Watkins’ hometown Brighton, and illustrated, semi-animated line drawings of Grūtas Park (a Soviet sculpture garden which Watkins refers to in his speech), Narkevicius achieves a rare thing for interviews, subtly complimenting the speech with a visual component that is vivid, evocative but never distracting. Hearing Watkins, talking about representation in documentary in relation to historical record with an almost impossible lucidity and erudition, served as one of the best, deepest examination of the ‘Fact or Fiction’ theme in the festival, if also the least ‘filmic’ moving image there.

These two films by Narkevicius, both inspired by Watkins but entirely different in form, were indicative of the breadth and diversity of working methods suggested by the selection of films from him on display at BFMAF. In a small exhibition in Berwick’s repurposed gymnasium gallery, Narkevicius’ Revisiting Solaris was the centrepiece. Made 45 years after Tarkovsky’s film, Narkevicius stages something of a reimagining, using Donatas Banionis (Tarkovsky’s original actor) and an unused chapter from Stanlislaw Lem’s source novel as material for an investigation into another possible Solaris. Mixing 19th Century landscape photography (of areas in the black sea, used also by Tarkovsky) and languorous, gliding cinematography that follows Banionis gracefully through the architecturally surreal, mid-century sci-fi corridors of a former Russian television station, Narkevicius finds a way to offer a reinterpretation of ‘untouchable’ material.

The other works, shot on every imaginable format (Super 8, 35mm, Betacam SP etc.) and displayed on a number of block mounted CRT monitors, were similarly mysterious, difficult to tie together apart from all coming from Narkevicius’ experiences as a Lithuanian emerging from life after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Once in the XX Century shows the destruction of a Lenin statue in Narkevicius’ hometown Vilnius, reassembling CNN footage so that it appears that the crowd is celebrating its construction instead. Another, Disappearance of a Tribe, shows familial life in Soviet Lithuania through a series of scanned photographs. These works refrain from condemning the Soviet Union, instead expressing the myriad states possible under communism, as well as exploring Lithianian identity and Narkevicius’ own developing understanding of his national and personal past.

Narkevicius was asked in a Q+A how it might be possible to unify and interrelate such a broad, seemingly disparate body of work. The films on show, varied as they are in style, form and content fit Narkevicius’ response that we shouldn’t bother. As he said, he makes films about what he wants to make films about, starting a new project with a fresh approach and inquisitive mind. Though this makes little concession to audience and makes the work harder for a curator or critic, the selections shown at BFMAF achieved the balance of feeling somewhat unified, a group of varying studies into personal and historical memory, whilst remaining open enough as to invite further exploration into a wider body of work. It is hard to go as far as one local festivalgoer who remarked (with a level of pomposity you could only find at a film festival) that “this is the only stuff I’ve seen at the festival that hasn’t insulted my intelligence,” but the Deimantas Narkevicius films were a definite attraction.

A final draw, and a way in which BFMAF can separate itself, was the mid-length strand of the programme. As Peter Taylor said, thanking those in attendance for taking a chance on something that struggles to find a place even within the niche, insular world of film festivals, many will ask “where’s the other forty minutes, then?” In fact, the mid-length films (around 40-50 minutes long, usually programmed alongside a 60/70 minute feature, or left behind entirely) were much more interesting than the longer features.

La Fievre from filmmaker and photographer Safia Benhaim proved an enigmatic delight, blending personal memories with folk narratives as fragmented stories of colonialism move into the experience of the Arab Uprising in Morocco. Reminiscent of more renowned experimental filmmaker Laida Lertxundi in its striking use of natural light sources, Benhaim contrasted the rich orange hues of the Moroccan sun against starkly dark frames of the home interior shots that dominate. An incredibly well composed film, Benhaim dislocates sound and image effectively, as a bellowing drone soundtrack is interspersed with aural narration and onscreen poetic asides - some that seem to relate to the visuals, some that don’t. Abstract but grounded in a political reality, La Fievre makes anything else from Benhaim, who seems to work mostly as a gallery artist but premiered this film at Rotterdam, worth seeking out.

Even more politically resonant was Abdul & Hamza, a film from Marko Grba Singh that picked up the award for debut filmmakers at FID Marseille earlier this year. Following two Somali refugees planning a crossing of the Serbo-Romanian border, Adbul & Hamza manages to be sensitive and quietly affecting, dwelling on small moments (Abdul slowly, attentively eating a lemon for instance) that speak of a greater malaise. Some of the more arthouse touches grate (Grba Singh is a current student of the Faculty of Dramatic Arts at Belgrade, and includes sound recordists deliberately in the frame, and a jarringly inserted video game screen sequence), but the film has many moments of real beauty, taking on a greater significance because of current circumstances.

Niche by definition, BFMAF is unlikely to ever truly pose a threat to larger UK festivals like Edinburgh, London or even the North East’s similarly idiosyncratically minded AV Festival. Yet it does well to offer local and visiting populations a selection that stretches the lengths that film can offer. It might be fair to say that under Peter Taylor’s more eclectic watch, the festival may have succeeded in broadening its horizons, but failed to capitalise on its usual sneak-attack strategy. Past festivals have excelled in opening wary eyes to new sights by drawing visitors to familiar, or at least accessible sounding feature works in the main cinema before sending them off on a walk of discovery through the towns free-to-enter, just as free-to-leave, installation venues. This year’s feature billings did less to achieve this, with no real name attraction other than perhaps Georgian Oscar submission Tangerines, which opened in UK theatres simultaneously anyway. For many visitors this won’t matter too much, as much else in the rest of the festival exceeded expectations. Should he return next year, under Peter Taylor’s clever curatorship BFMAF will only continue to expand in terms of bringing interesting, unexpected fare to the small, boundary blurring bordertown.

This report was originally posted on Festivalists.

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