Film festivals, whatever their stated persuasion, are principally about preserving the shared aesthetic experience of the cinema. Or equally, revitalizing it. Why else would they exist? Why else would it be worth struggling to justify, for instance, director retrospectives studded with movies available on YouTube if it were only a question of access? If you were feeling particularly cynical, you could say that the large festivals exist to display the glittering wares of powerful production houses or PR firms, to boost a national cinema, and to inject capital—of the cultural or fiscal kind—into a given region. Meanwhile, the smaller ones have a more pronounced curatorial role: premieres are of a chiefly local stripe and the selection of films, old or new, is inevitably narrowed and molded into a pattern. To read a festival post-mortem by a film critic is often to observe them ably weigh, quantify, and anatomize their findings, to streamline the rush of, as those of the marketing persuasion call it, festival content and gin up a coherent, often intelligently and tastefully stated viewpoint on the whole thing. That is, to act as an on-the-ground good-taste arbiter in an environment peopled in large part by (far better paid and better equipped) representatives of the industry. But the lived experience of these things big or small is quite a different matter. Their very existence in their locales begets a multiplicity of private responses and reactions left largely uncatalogued.
I am not the first British cinephile to exhibit symptoms of cultural self-loathing, grown all the more acute since this, purportedly the dullest and most moderate of societies, began the protracted act of self-immolation it has engaged in for the last three years. How, daresay, will our embattled film culture react in the event of the unthinkable? Ticket prices will remain out-of-reach for most working people. Broadcast documentaries and self-serious, overproduced literary adaptations will continue to dominate and titillate. The major players on the festival scene will double-down in their role as the collective sluice for the international art-house circuit over here, a few stragglers notwithstanding. It is strange, in light of all of this, to find myself going about my day-to-day business at a pair of decent, if miniscule, micro-festivals in environs familiar from the long-running national kammerspiel that is Brexit. Like a Cronenberg hero casting a disbelieving glance over his own pustules, orifices, and oozing ulcers, I find myself thoroughly alienated from a body politic with which I have grudgingly and at least ostensibly had to grapple for my entire adult life.
In Berwick-upon-Tweed, a village just a stone’s throw away from the Scottish border, I plod through a somewhat rosier version of the kind of hollowed-out town center that plagued the minds of disenchanted Leave voters as they stepped into their voting stations what now feels like a lifetime ago to mark that X on that particular piece of paper. Which is not to say that Berwick is not the peaceful idyll promised by those few friends who have visited: it is, in fact, thoroughly lovely, even with the scars of a decade of austerity showing on stretches of its high street.
As I observe all this for the first time, I am on my way to join the delegates at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival (BFMAF), an inexplicably dazzling local celebration of media in all its forms that takes place in the town in September. Within hours, I am quietly stalking a gallery and peering at an exhibition on the great Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz. I am one of the first in the place and so encounter and interact with this cornucopia of Ruizian bric-a-brac in relative peace. Displayed on the wall before me are letters from the maestro himself, as well as short texts from collaborators, funny and routine images from his travels, in which he perennially appears as if woken from a nap mere minutes before, and copies of his amazing, double-volume Poetics of Cinema pasted to the wall like artefacts. It is telling that my first encounter at Berwick is an extra-cinematic one like this, both expanding the horizons of what as a festivalgoer I should expect as well as deepening and enriching an existing relationship—in this case with Ruiz’s work.
In London, I sit alone in a Wetherspoons between movies during Open City Documentary Festival (OCDF)—a minor miracle of a fest that briefly occupies a cluster of Leicester Square-adjacent cinemas for a few days that same September. I wait for my food and eavesdrop on the Brexit prognostications of a group of harried students therapeutically supping cocktails as well as those of an isolated but jubilant cluster of Boris-loving codgers clutching their cheap beers and muttering like gulls. This would not be a remarkable occurrence in another context: these pubs have been the site for many similar dual bubbles existing side-by-side across the country since the vote. I step out onto the street and into the typical British metropolitan assemblage: dreary grey sky and scattered clouds overhead, bustling crowds of red-faced city-folk weaving distractedly between oblivious tourists on the pavements, the smell of fried onions from a nearby food cart filling the air. On the short walk to the BFI Stephen Street, where press screenings take place, I manage to avoid a gaggle of activists stuffing pamphlets into the palms of anybody unwise enough to extend the courtesy. As I duck into the screening space, which is decked-out above ground like some twinkling restaurant panorama out of Todd Haynes’ Carol, I realize how weird it is that embedded within this oh-so-familiar city scene is a living and breathing film festival, mostly ignored by the quotidian world, that is showing, well, real movies.
The BFI space itself is an uneasy reminder of the immaculate but dreary corporate landscape that in London creeps its tendrils right into the guts of the cinephile world. Yet the films on display, which are strikingly well-curated, belie this impression. Somebody from the festival lets slip that the press screenings are arranged more according to need than want, though a random afternoon offers up a trio of languid, lucid movies about living and breathing figures and their absences: Juan Pablo González’s Caballerango (2018), Ian Soroka’s Greetings from Free Forests (2018), and Miko Reverenza’s astounding No Data Plan (2019). But notwithstanding the somewhat overdetermined yet studious poise of the first two films—which, with Sebastian Brameshuber’s similarly nuts-and-bolts vision of working life, Movements of a Nearby Mountain (2019), form a solid trio of artful “slow cinema” films that are nonetheless preoccupied by practical considerations of lives lived and fought for—Reverenza’s film in particular struck with the force of revelation. He shot it over the course of a train ride taken from Los Angeles to New York while living as an undocumented person; though Reverenza very much identifies as an American, the experience of the trip clearly oscillated between extremes of comfort and alienation, fear and contentment. It closes with about the most moving image I have seen in a 2019 film: Reverenza’s battered phone as he flicks through the frames of his Instagram story. Devastating thusly: first, the sight of Reverenza’s tarnished, battered, and bruised iPhone, which has become a chain anchoring Reverenza to what little stability remains in his life; and second, as a vestige of control that he retains upon a chaotic world. ICE agents scouring the stations for undocumented immigrants are ensnared by the filmmaker as data in these fleeting visual stories, helplessly bending to his will as he taps and scrolls and flips back and forth between the slides of his Insta-story (“Help: How do I decline questions on citizenship???” he scrawls on one image, like a message in a bottle).
On reflection, what OCDF brought to these depopulated and indifferent screening spaces for press showings in particular speaks to a taste not for the slavishly Interesting or Poignant but for actual, practicable ideas of cinema. The point is hardly whether everything worked on its own terms, simply that even in this most parceled-out and depersonalized of screening spaces this collection of images, sounds, and ideas somehow evinced—as a grouping—an actual ethos of film programming. That this was possible to infer from a handful of unrelated movies hosted in order for us press minions to gorge speaks to the rigor and attentiveness with which the team at OCDF go about their work. And all of this is without my paying due diligence to either of the two outstanding retrospectives that formed a helix at the festival’s core: the first, on Chinese documentarian Zhao Liang—I managed to catch two, Paper Airplane (2001) and Crime and Punishment (2007)—and the second on a series of delicate mid-length documentaries by Naomi Kawase about her grandmother, Uno.
Whereas the Kawases were characterized by their tenderness, autobiographical complexity, and visual poetry, I was conversely struck by the sheer, horrifying monumentality of Zhao’s scrubby DV images. In Crime and Punishment, unthinking and thuggish representatives of the state reign terror upon cornered low-level criminals and mentally ill people almost as a matter of course. It is hard to see any passion or pride these languid, sleepwalking officers take in what they do; instead they act as sheepishly, unsurely, and involuntarily as their terrified victims. In scene after scene, we see would-be lawbreakers’ desperate attempts to wrest free of the officers’ grasp, trying every version of excuse or flattery or defensiveness in the vain hope that one will loosen the institutional grip enough for them to slip through. In one amazing sequence a scrap collector, dragged in for a permit violation, has to defend his loudmouth of a son. After being called to assist his father’s search for a specific document, the tinny phone voice of the son begins loudly denigrating the policemen. What follows is the older man’s alternately anguished and calculating attempts to quell the rage of the officers. Zhao captures an immense and varied spectrum of these panicked tactics: from appealing to their better graces to struggling to forge temporary solidarity with the men’s sense of themselves as authority figures (“You know what young people are like...”) to claiming he did not hear the original insult. When the old man finally slams up against the fortified and impenetrable wall of institutional authority, one he instinctively senses he will not be able to bypass, his emotions slip away as he mumbles a feeble excuse (“He won’t be able to see you—he’s not home, I’m sure of it...”). This man, in other words, becomes a petrified schoolchild stood facing the very embodiment of institutional power. Throughout this whole exchange, Zhao refuses to cut away to the policemen themselves, instead holding on the face of the scrap collector. In doing so, he refuses to identify us with this kind of authority, with this malign manifestation of power. Our attention shifts to a hapless victim of it whose quaking terror is the proof of its destructive capacity. In fact, Zhao had established this very idea in the opening scene with a single image: a nameless policeman diligently, almost rhythmically, folds and squashes a thin, grey barracks mattress along the crease lines that had existed in it since its manufacture. Human beings, Zhao seems to be saying, are not always as pliable to routinized pressure.
Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival’s tradition of both welcoming guest programmers into their line-up and preserving their quirks of taste is a clever tack. This plucky and resourceful festival spans a weekend, running Thursday through Sunday. In these few days a casual viewer could saunter without much effort between a great many varied sessions without having to leave a single cinema. Steffanie Ling, artistic director of Images Festival in Toronto, presented seven 16mm demi-movies by Julia Feyrer, screened (mostly) in 16mm—a rare chance to luxuriate in the textures of these freaky, contingent experiments-for-experiment’s-sake works—for the first time outside of a gallery environment. Paul Clinton ushered onto Berwick’s screens a double bill from radical queer filmmaker Lionel Soukaz. With its screechy, deafening soundtrack, hammy juxtapositions of Richard Nixon’s face with clumsily-given blowjobs, and the irate audience reaction it provoked (“This film is ANTI-SEX!!!” screamed one lady in Clinton’s general direction as she vacated the cinema mere minutes from the conclusion), the 45-minute IXE (1980) will likely get all the press from that particular session. Yet for me, Soukaz was at his best in moments of gentleness: in the opening stretch of “Royal Opera”—the final section from his opus Race d’Ep (1979)—he pairs images of bar-side seduction between two men with the Bee Gees’ “Massachusetts” to stunningly tender effect. Rabz Lansiquot paired two shorts from dancer Zinzi Minott’s ongoing Fi Dem (2018-) film series with the Sankofa Film and Video Collective-produced Dreaming Rivers (1988), a beguiling mixture that was only intensified by the sprawling discussion afterwards, a match of movie and Q&A that achieved the rare feat of extending the shelf-life of the viewing experience beyond the confines of the screen.
Best of all was Herb Shellenberger’s Fantastika series, which delivered unto Berwickians such delights as Vojtěch Jasný’s bonkers Až přijde kocour (When the Cat Comes, 1963)—about a cat in sunglasses who compels all those over whom he casts a withering glance into fits of compulsive jigging, while transforming them into resplendent head-to-toe block colors—as well as serving up platters of fantastical finger food for us, the audience, to delight in greedily gobbling up. Worth particular praise was one genius program that wedded Jethro Tull (The Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles, 1973), Anna Biller (the unfinished yet sublime Fairy Ballet, 1998), and Yugoslavian wunderanimator Zlatko Bourek (Mačka / The Cat, 1971, the product of a delightfully bizarre collaboration between Zagreb Film and Rome’s Corona Cinematografica) with the U.K. premiere of the funny and achingly sweet Chilean environmental animation Extrañas Criaturas (Strange Creatures, 2019) by Cristóbal Léon and Cristina Sitja.
BFMAF was like a potion that, once consumed, transformed the whole world into a cinema. One night late in the festival took the form of a spontaneous magic-lantern show. In the midst of a collaborative performance with the artist George Clark, a duo of performers that go by the name lololol (Sheryl Chung and Xia Lin, who also hosted open, early-morning Tai Chi classes throughout the festival) led their audience—your correspondent included—Pied Piper-like out of the gallery space and into the obscure night. Lit only by faint starlight and guided along the way by our barely visible hosts, we shuffled anxiously through the wet grass, up a small hill, and towards a tree. We paused there, waiting for some kind of signal, chilled by a breeze. People soon lit cigarettes or trod the ground nervously, unsure whether this seemingly spontaneous move on the part of the performers would indeed pay off with anything. I could only faintly hear the muffled discussion of Chung and Lin off ahead when suddenly several bright lights—cell phone lights, I guess—shot up into the body of the tree. Never mind that it was near-impossible to hear what exactly was going on: the beautiful big oak, its broad branches extending high above us, became a magic lantern, a vessel for a kind of proto- or para-cinema. As the artists jigged their beams down below, so too did the quivering branches seem to shift, warble, and shimmy in a strange 3D effect across the black sky. Whether by coincidence or not, a parallel cine-séance had taken place the previous evening, with Lav Diaz’s eight-hour A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016) playing all through the night in a local rose garden, timed to draw to a close at the first light of day. Yet here, in that moment at the base of the oak, the screen seemed to have extended to encompass not only a single movie, however epic, but our whole world; the great tree itself was illuminated from trunk to tip like a translucent paper lantern shivering by dying candlelight before our eyes.