This annual festival, organised in the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, lovingly showcases a huge amount of film, moving image, installation and performance. It sounds cutesy to use a word like ‘loving’, but it’s obvious that a lot of care and personal sacrifice is fed into this well-formed, if slightly haphazard, event. It represents a vast cross-section of the contemporary, the under-sung, the quiet, the brash and the truly wild.
This year, a number of bursaries were made available to artists working in the North East to cover travel, accommodation and a weekend pass. Having received one, I became part of a nebulous group of new and familiar faces exploring the town. We had the chance to see work together, to socialise and find connections in a quite unique way, conducted lightly by the shape and stimulus of the weekend.
The fact this volume of great work is programmed around such a small and historically rich area means each moment of the weekend can be jam-packed. I found myself comparing it to similar events in Newcastle, and the way I consume them. When AV Festival comes around it boasts a similarly exciting selection of work, but due to the time restraints and commitments of being in my own city, I always regret not seeing more.
Moving image work is very rarely seen in such large doses, and of course this can be a test – at certain moments you have to stave off the eyerolling exhaustion that can accompany longer or slower films. But there’s a beauty to be found in sitting quietly and giving yourself over to the screen. A meditative film becomes a form of meditation in itself, and we are left to free associate off the imagery.
So much of video art goes against the grain of the clean narrative, or the slick image. You can view this as obtuse, but sitting with this array of films I am reminded that most artists just want to loosely guide our looking, and our thinking. There are many different ways that films invite or demand attention, and the place and programming facilitate them all so well here.
At a festival like this you want to be super-human, to see absolutely everything, but inevitably clashes, gut-choice and circumstance shape your experience. Queueing to enter the late night screening of Lips of Blood we come across friends leaving Luke Fowler’s Enceindre. The enjoyably expansive, quietness of the event had left them spaced out, whereas we were rowdily awaiting the erotic vampire thriller. It’s a sign of a great festival that you can chart your own mood-path through the weekend.
It’s hard to pick highlights but I was so glad I saw Terror Nullius (2018), Soda_Jerk’s cut-up reimagining of Australian history, using clips from existing films shot in Australia, made by or featuring Australians. Seeing Olivia Newton-John and Jenny Agutter superimposed into Mad Max: Fury Road alongside a whole host of angry, lost and dejected women, had incredible power. When the continent’s deadly wildlife starts to fight the colonial occupants too, the film solidifies its cathartic battle cry. It’s sadly not surprising that the high-profile funders of the work declared it “un-Australian” and demanded their name be struck from the credits. Luckily others saw the worth of the film and ensured its distribution.
Morgan Quaintance screened and spoke about Another Decade (2018), his new film that cuts a window directly into the nineties, and not the white-washed version that’s usually served up. Where Soda_Jerk re-imagine, Quaintance weaves together rarely-seen archival moving image. “Starting from statements made by artists during the 1994 conference ‘Towards a New Internationalism’, the film is propelled by a sense that very little socio-cultural or institutional change has taken place in the UK since that time.” Indeed the words of the artists in the film were echoed in the heated post-screening discussion, part of the new ‘propositions’ strand that brought extra dialogue to this year’s programme.
Another proposition was a new work by Giles Bailey, Jamie Hammill, Nellie Saunby and Sophie Soobramanien: Islanders (2018) was an experiment of sorts, bringing together limber cuts of dance, text, video, costume, music and drawing to explore what it means to inhabit or become an island. The post-show Q&A did slightly step on the atmosphere created, but fruitful legs were grown from the discussion and I imagine the work and the collaboration will blossom through its iterations. Islanders – Version 3 will be shown as part of Tyneside Cinema’s Projections programme, on Thursday 6 December.
Temporal Vertigo was a special selection of short films by Sophia Al-Maria ranging from hypnotic music video, to graphic documentary, to lo-fi sketch – her rhythmic, pulsing flashes and patterns occassionally gave way to high-gloss portraiture. In all her films we glimpse the surfaces and depths of her subjects, sometimes through a digression into a degraded image and sometimes through a reveal of what’s behind the camera.
I sadly missed the majority of the Screening The Forest strand, but I did catch Worldly Desires which was another stand-out film that portrayed the workings of cinema. The director Apitchatpong Weerasethakul “invited fellow Thai filmmaker Pimpaka Towira to shoot a 35mm film in the forest while [Weerasethakul] observed the production through his digital camera.” The result is a slowly unfolding snapshot of an incongruous film shoot amongst wild jungle foliage. We see multiple, over-the-top takes of a musical sequence that punctuate more functional, banal moments of the usually-invisible paraphernalia: the film crew, the lighting, the catering, the waiting-around, the effort needed to capture the singular cinematic moment.
Tales of the Dumpster Kid (1971) was an exciting event to be part of – an episodic film made up of twenty-two parts, available for the audience to choose from a risograph menu on arrival. The riotous film is comprised of a striking colour pallete and visual language, with surreal twists of narrative and character. The whole thing was made even more special by its screening in Charlie’s nightclub, where mere hours before we had screamed along to Pitbull ft. Ke$ha.
Of the exhibitions, those by Heather Phillipson and Carolyn Lazard lingered longest with me. Both works immerse the viewer in a moving, personal narration, using completely different devices. Lazard’s Consensual Healing (2018) used the language of counselling, psychotherapy and dystopia in an audio conversation accompanied only by a swinging, glowing orb. Phillipson’s of Violence (2017) presented a breathy diary-entry rumination, taking dark and hilarious detours but never straying far from a fierce love of the dog in the frame.
I also loved The Hurt Goes On, an exhibition made by fifteen members of the Berwick Youth Project (alongside Film Bee). The show was incredibly perceptive, overlaying headlines with iPhone footage, and 35mm slides with emojis, in ways that were often unexpected, tragic and funny. The room felt as overwhelming as the world right now, and as you circled within it you became an extra canvas for the errant projections.
On Saturday night the Festival Club crash-landed into the Tweedmouth Bowling Club, featuring the deadpan, angular brat-punk of Vital Idles and the furious improvised squall made by Yeah You! – two brilliant bands brought together in my favourite type of venue to baffle and delight. The next morning I found myself in a screening, hungover, gulping down water and feeling the liquid re-awaken my body. The effect mirrored that of the programme on my synapses – the whole weekend was a visual rehydration. Glug glug, friends!
Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival (BFMAF), various locations, Berwick-upon-Tweed, 20-23 September 2018
Grace Denton is an artist based in Newcastle upon Tyne.