"While the archaeologist digs into ancient silt, the astronaut leaves soft prints in the virgin lunar dust."
—The Future Was Desert Part I, Sophia Al-Maria, 2016
"What must occur is a revelation."
—Empty Metal, Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer, 2018
England’s northernmost town, Berwick-upon-Tweed. Quiet, peaceful, serene. A place best known as the setting for hundreds of years of border wars between England and Scotland—it has passed back-and-forth, finally settling in England in the 15th century—and its medieval radial defense wall, Elizabethan ramparts, and the country’s earliest barracks building. With a population of around 12,000 (plus frolicking grey seals and common dolphin visiting offshore from the North Sea), it is perhaps not where you would expect to find one of the U.K.’s most exciting events for film and artists moving image; step forward Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. There is clearly something in the soil on the borders—with the slightly younger Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival also occupying a small-town home in the liminal zone—that makes it prime real estate for festivals pushing at, and re-forging, the boundaries of the medium. The BFMAF was founded in 2005 and has since that time grown continually in stature despite its relatively small size.
Ex-Rotterdam programmer Peter Taylor took over curatorial duties in 2015 and in the same year introduced a competitive shorts strand called Berwick New Cinema, which forms the spine of the festival. This year’s line-up included a number of much-discussed shorts: Beatrice Gibson’s I Hope I’m Loud When I’m Dead
, Benjamin Crotty’s The Glorious Acceptance of Nicolas Chauvin
, Helena Wittman’s Ada Kaleh
, Hu Bo’s Man in a Well
. The competition was won by Callum Hill’s atmospheric hybrid short surveying the political climate in the U.K. through fire, Crowtrap
(2018). Around these were screened new work and rare repertory offerings supplemented by seminars, presentations and site-specific installations in unique venues and the dark nooks of the historic town. It allows the town to act not merely as a backdrop to the art on display, but also as an interlocutor. This year that integration went the other way as well, with the world premiere of Luke Fowler’s Enceindre
, a 30-minute study of two fortified locales: Berwick and the city of Pamplona in the Navarre region of Northern Spain. In collaboration with renowned sound recordist Chris Watson—best known for his work with David Attenborough—Enceindre
(which translates to "encircle") is an architectural and aural exploration of these places. Fowler’s images probe at the walls like skeletal remnants of the past and ponder whether they can be considered as heterotopias given the contemporary obsolescence of these defensive structures. These are questions that feel especially pertinent in the U.K. now after the decision to leave the European Union and the concern amongst many about the implications it has for the inward focus of island mentality. What the film does, however, especially in the play between visual and audio, is open a dialogue regarding the ways in which the structures are both anachronistic and have been recycled—particularly in Berwick’s case by wildlife, which plays a starring role in Watson’s recordings. This was particularly evident in a "dark cinema" run through of the soundtrack, which played alongside the film screening.
The idea of recycling complemented the installations throughout the town, which occupy old spaces, co-opting commercial or military buildings to artistic ends. The opening of doors that usually remain locked make this a part of the festival that local inhabitants seem to really embrace and there is little denying that being able to clamber down into the interior of Coxon’s Tower, part of the ramparts, to watch Sky Hopinka’s Fainting Spells
was an arresting and unique experience. In some cases, the interplay between location and work had specific relevance. A Georgian guardhouse was home to Heather Phillipson’s short film on Violence
, which uses the comforting concept of an intimate chat with a canine companion to playful tackle weighty human concerns ranging from social media or body consciousness to gendered and racial oppression. One of my festival highlights, Consensual Healing
(2018) by Carolyn Lazard, a re-imagining of Octavia Butler’s short story "Bloodchild," was showing in a room secreted in the walls and accessible by a short tunnel. The piece features a round yellow shape moving back and forth across a black screen like a pendulum while an audio conversation between a therapist and a patient searches for a lost memory. While the surroundings did not feed literally into the narrative, the enclosed space emphasized the closeness and claustrophobia of the conversation, and the smell of old stones and mud plucked at the strings of my own memory to an almost overwhelming degree.
Somewhat more low-key was Kevin Jerome Everson’s Carrs Down South a three-minute delve into the thoughts of three generations of the Carr family in North Carolina in which they contemplate personal history, agency, and legacy. That legacy—entrepreneurial spirit and, potentially, a business—is subtly reflected in the installing of the film in an unused shopfront, though the canny placement didn’t occur to me until after I’d left. Back on the more highly charged and physically bracing end of the spectrum was Sophia Al-Maria’s bold and confrontational film The Magical State. Screened vertically, it was suspended at the end of a walkway in the long, thin Magazine—a building originally used for storing gunpowder and still lined with wooden barrels. Again, the nature of the setting fed into the unease of the piece, helped by a surround sound that seemed to reverberate down the building from behind, hitting you from all sides. The video itself was no less arresting—depicting the possession by an oil demon of a Wayuu woman from Colombia in order to chastise man for the violence with which it rapes the natural world for resources and displaces those in the way. The imagery mixes strobing patterns and bright colors, assaulting the senses and, as was elucidated by Al-Maria in her seminar at the festival, draws direct inspiration from Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Inverting the famous shot of Joan looking up at her accusers, Al-Maria’s film sees the goddess initially questioned by a male voice only to turn on him with scorn and wrath, looming over the camera to deliver her imposing admonishment.
Al-Maria was the festival’s artist in profile for 2018, and alongside The Magical State and the aforementioned seminar, there was a program of ten other short works titled "Temporal Vertigo." This was a fascinating survey of music videos, documentary vignettes, and futurism that tied together the recurring rhythmic editing of her style, and the interplay of tensions within and between works. Creation Myth (2017) was a companion piece to The Magical State in which the actress from that film, Ziruma Morales, free from the oil demon, beautifully recounts a Wayuu creation myth to camera—the two films are both of a piece and juxtapositional. Choque (2014) contrasted jubilant crowds in Doha celebrating Qatar being awarded the 2022 football World Cup with masses in Rio de Janeiro protesting about the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Slaughter (2013) was by far the most provocative film on show, a visceral documentary depiction of the Eid el Adha slaughter, originally intended as b-roll of a narrative feature and here transformed into an alarming and thought-provoking short. Not Really in Reality Reality TV (2018) is an interview with actress Bai Ling in which Al-Maria and the rest of the crew are reflected in the mirror of a dressing room. Ling spouts various pearls of enigmatic wisdom as the film prods at the notion of reality and porous boundary between truth and performance, all while Ling sits in the make-up chair.
Bookending Al-Maria’s screening were the two parts of her The Future Was Desert (2016) which play with time and muse on the ephemerality of human existence on the earth, and the archaeology of the future. There is an echo of Fowler’s engagement with heterotopias in her consideration of cave-paintings not as relics but as time travelers connecting civilizations over the millennia. There is also, in these films, an implied ecological warning, which chimed with another strand of the festival focused on nature. "Screening the Forest" was programmed by Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn and included a number of recognizable features—Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Worldly Desires (2005), Naomi Kawase’s Genpin (2010), Reha Erdem’s Jîn (2013)—alongside a shorts selection titled "Forest Experimenta." A collection of films from Southeast Asia, they engaged in different ways with how we view and capture the forest. Of particular interest were Jet Leyco’s Not a Soul (2013) which frames largely natural landscapes with a human crime story that emphatically demonstrates the disconcerting way narratives can be projected onto place. Tony Chun-Hui Wu’s The Legend of the Mist (2012) was a three-screen installation reformatted for the cinema that brought together scenes of nature, and especially mist, in classic films by martial art director King Hu to explore the poetry of nature in Chinese art. In Minyong Jan’s Breath (2007), abstract images of a bamboo forest in absolute silence offer a trancelike exchange, with the play of light on plant recalling Nathaniel Dorsky’s Arboretum Cycle (2017).
Taking a different approach to our interaction with the natural world was Jessica Sarah Rinland’s Black Pond, a wry but loving depiction of a local natural history society in the U.K. Rinland’s beautifully captured footage observes as members of the society go out to measure trees, catch and record information on bats, or trap and identify moths. Often shooting wildlife itself or close-ups of the handling of wildlife, the film is less interested in the factual reality of the human history of the area and more of the way nature is currently experienced there. This is reflected in the way that the soundtrack, made up of un-synced interviews that act like voiceover, are of varying levels of veracity—sometimes they offer information or theories that are demonstrably untrue or have long been debunked. Rather than discrediting their work in any way, it heightens the sense of this as being a human experience of local natural history. Following the screening of the 45-minute film, Rinland gave an additional live presentation that included papers and committee meeting minutes that discussed the running of society and delved a little more deeply—and dryly—into the politics of a local action group of this kind.
Many of the films already mentioned engaged to a greater or lesser extent in the politics of their specific time and place—Beatrice Gibson suggested in a Q&A that “the place of poetry for me is as an alternative newsfeed” to counteract current political turmoil. Elsewhere, Gelare Khoshgozaran’s Medina Wasl: Connecting Town tackles the War on Terror, while Sky Hopinka did a reading from his collection of writings, "Around the Edge of Encircling Lake," which provided personal and political background to the formal aesthetics of some of his work. Two feature films that acutely engaged with the political landscapes of their respective countries were Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer’s festival opener Empty Metal and Soda_Jerk’s TERROR NULLIUS. Both films adopt radical and often violent methods of rebellion against the current perceived wisdom, though they do so in vastly different ways.
Empty Metal is a narrative feature that takes place in an alarmingly familiar dystopian United States. Shot bit by bit over several years among friends, it strains ideologically against the limits of unarmed resistance in the face of an oppressive police state. Interspersing the live action drama are computer animations that re-enact instances of police brutality and the deaths of civilians by the guns of officers of the law. The primary story follows a trio of young musicians, disillusioned by the inequality of modern society, who are convinced to take up weapons and deliver justice by a secretive cabal. In its second half it intertwines this story of a new rebel cell with a group of survivalists locking, loading and obsessively training so that they are one day ready to defend their liberty when the government goes too far. Until it’s too late, they remain blissfully unaware that they’re under constant surveillance from a drone satellite. Empty Metal is a film with disruptive intent, asking fundamental philosophical questions and then actively undermining anything approaching an answer that the action of the film might posit—but there’s a shimmer of hope amidst the darkness.
TERROR NULLIUS is also interventionist but in an entirely different way; here Soda_Jerk take a scalpel to Australian cinematic history to right, and re-write, some wrongs. Personally, this was the conceptual highlight of the festival, a brazen, funny and pointed Frankenstein’s monster editing together familiar footage into a new form. It almost circles back around to the anachronistic structures of Luke Fowler’s Enceindre: In TERROR NULLIUS the dinosaur-like bones on show are those of an outdated political environment rather than a physical one. Like the birds adapting the function of the Berwick walls, Soda_Jerk turn landmark Australian films into a damning critique of toxic masculinity, endemic racism, and environmental neglect. These positions are so potent that one of the film’s primary funders has subsequently distanced themselves from the film, calling it "un-Australian." That feels like exactly the kind of territory that Soda_Jerk are taking aim at with laser-like precision. They do this by combining footage from the likes of Walkabout (1971), Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), Mad Max (1979), Crocodile Dundee (1986), Muriel’s Wedding (1994), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and Lantana (2001) into a series of vignettes that challenge the myths of Aussie national identity. Only an hour long it rarely puts a foot wrong but there are some standout moments. The gunning down of Mick "Crocodile" Dundee (Paul Hogan) by his love interest Sue (Linda Kozlowski) after some condescending misogynistic banter is a particular highlight. Similarly, Mel Gibson’s Max Rockatansky comes to a grisly end courtesy of a battalion of women including Nicole Kidman’s Judy from BMX Bandits (1983) and Olivia Newton-John’s Sandy from Grease (1978) with the charge led by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) from Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). Equally inspired was the kangaroo Skippy’s concern—upon discovering the girls from Picnic at Hanging Rock—that obsessing over the fates of four fictional white girls might further obfuscate the oppressions of an already neglected colonial past. TERROR NULLIUS was an absolute riot and felt like a perfect encapsulation of Berwick’s bristling artistic spirit—contesting, contorting and re-shaping the traditions of the medium to tell bold new stories and challenge the status quo.