“Don’t try to hold onto the wave that’s breaking against your foot. So long as you stand in the stream, fresh waves will always keep breaking against it.”
—Widow Begbick in Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Man Equals Man’
A preface for the unfamiliar. Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival is a small, strange and very special film festival situated in the northernmost place in England, the quite lovely Berwick-upon-Tweed, a small, much contested coastal town on the Scottish border that is home to a set of impressive defensive walls, Britain’s earliest barracks building, some nice pubs and a few good fish and chip shops that close at 5pm. Inaugurated in 2005, the town’s film festival—a five day affair that consists of a mixture of short films and features exhibited in the town’s single cinema, performances elsewhere, and installations placed in historic sites along the town walls—has a reputation that entirely precedes its scale, understood as a place to discover and engage with challenging, complex work in locations befitting of the idiosyncratic offering. Since 2015, under the eclectic curatorship of former International Film Festival Rotterdam programmer Peter Taylor, that reputation has only grown. The competitive strand Berwick New Cinema—launched in the same year and increasing incrementally in size and confidence in the editions since—contains films of a quality and rarity above and beyond the festival’s perceived stature.
This year’s competition contained 22 films of varying lengths, new works of cinema and artists' moving image drawn from all around the world, many of which were being screened for the first time in Berwick. Highlights emerged, but drawing parallels between them proved difficult. Program titles such as ‘Surge Channel’, ‘Civil Twilight’ and ‘Porcupine Seabight’—titled to tie in with the festival’s special proposition Ultramarine: The Sea as Political Space and intended as much as an act of curatorial misdirection as indicators of any thematic connection between the included films—offered little assistance but did initiate some productive head-scratching. According to the festival, “a drive towards liveness and agency provides a critical framework for selections” in the competition. The films profiled below demonstrated this to an excessive degree, showing the most rigorous formal concern, or the clearest signs of their creator’s presence. They displayed an almost aggressive formalism, manifesting either in a command over cinematic conventions, or a profound desire to subvert or deconstruct them. They were films that reveled in the complicated act of creating images, films that wrote their own film language or took the familiar and made it new.
This arrived most directly in the form of two overt treatises on filmmaking, on the practices and processes that going into making a film. At the start of Bernd Lützeler’s Camera Threat, the central figure (Pushpendra Singh playing an archetypical Bollywood director)announces with deliberate pomposity that “without a camera, there cannot be a film.” Performing the chauvinist, he flirts smugly with a potential actress, bombarding her with film theory and empty aphorisms. “I don’t distinguish between filmmaking and real life,” he quickly plants, both a working statement for this film as meta-exercise and declaration of his expectation that she perform her romantic role both on and off camera. Surprised to find her welcoming these advances, he retreats, intimidated. Sat opposite each other on a casting couch, often occupying two sides of a split image, they continue their dialogue as equals now rather than artist and subject. As they conduct an unravelling, part-satirical, part-celebratory conversation about filmmaking practice and the surrounding industry, Lützeler introduces visual examples of the discussed elements to match.
Camera Threat vibrates with the spirit of the cinema it sends up, a celebration of filmmaking in all forms with a specific fondness for the ‘masala film,’ Bollywood movies that mix genres and styles—complex aesthetic exercises served in a popular form. A voiceover—delivered in the somewhat ludicrous style of a television info-documentary—examines Mumbai’s relationship with cinema in between how-to segments breaking down the craft of filmmaking. At one point, the narrator explains the ‘camera threat’ of the title, noting it as the moment “when the machinations of the object produce material results.” This is apt, as Lützeler's film is both a satirical object and an aesthetic one too. Designed as a double projection, Camera Threat consists of a 35mm film and a digital file than are ran over each other, the images mostly operating in different fields but occasionally intermingling and overlapping - juxtaposition and superimposition. Utilizing techniques specific to celluloid and to digital filmmaking, Lützeler manages to have the pleasure of parodying film format fetishism whilst indulging in it himself, mocking materialist traditions (“this is the digital age, after all, everything is liberating”) in the text, whilst experimenting with them playfully in the visuals.
Sorayos Prapapan's Death of the Sound Man also probes at process, but in a gentler fashion. Prapapan heads behind the scenes of the sound recordist, opening the film memorably with one of the more farcical examples of this work in action, a man dedicatedly deepthroating a frankfurter, slurping and slobbering into a condenser microphone, straight faced and seriously focused. From here, he and his partner work towards producing sounds for an unnamed production, walking around and discussing their practice and its perception, or rather, its imperceptibility. Whether blowing bubbles underwater, recording the breathing patterns of bemused looking cows or calculating the perfect whip of a fluttering flag, the dedication to craft is absolute, the utmost attention put into the cultivation of sounds they insist a filmgoing audience doesn’t hear, let alone value.
As with Camera Threat, this vision of film production is specialized and regional, as well as subtly metatextual, serving as both demonstration of the processes involved in constructing the elements of a film, and of the wider implications of that act of creation. “In Hollywood, the foley team handles foley effects and the sound effects team do the sound effects, but in Thailand there is only you and me,” the main recordist says at one point to his partner, amusing mainly himself. What emerges is a sly rumination on listening, or more specifically on how what we hear affects how we receive and process what we see; how contemporary consumers of visual media have grown accustomed to remaining suspicious of visible information but nearly always trust what they hear. Further, as the director has remarked, it’s just not cinema audiences who aren’t listening, and not just film sound that is being ignored. In restrictive environments such as Thailand where criticism can’t be vocalized, dissatisfaction is sounded out quietly in fear of it being classed as dissent. Prapapan is voicing his, as subtly as he can. “I am living in a place where my voice is not being heard.”
Mary Helena Clark’s excellent Delphi Falls is also very much a film about filmmaking, though more form than process. An artist preoccupied with the creation (and deconstruction) of cinematic codes, her precise, playful films explore how narratives are built through images and their sequencing, challenging the vocabulary of film as it has come to be understood. This, her most ambitious work yet, confounds viewer expectations by cycling through imagery than is constantly suggestive of something that never quite connects, planting a narrative that continually remains just out of reach, gesturing towards meaning that remains elusive.
Take the opening, for instance. A row of cows dissolve into clouds, while a cry is heard faintly in the distance. As this call rises in volume, the scene cuts to reveal its source. A close-up of a girl, hands clasped to her mouth in an amplifying gesture, a signal of a sign. Another cut, a boy in seen from behind in medium-shot, obscured within the nature that surrounds, a figure in a landscape. Two protagonists, the shell of a story. In the next shot, a cinematic gesture as the camera pulls focus from a wide view onto a detail, revealing the intricacies of a spider’s web, an enticing image and a signifier for intricate constructions and hidden meanings. Then another cut, and a top-shot, tracking down rigidly before becoming loose and mobile at the end of the surge, spiraling into a shaky point-of-view perspective that makes the camera a character, the rigor of everything before undermined, the authorial style subverted. Finally, after another call is heard, a tree is shown (and deafeningly heard) falling, collapsing the scene with it, a climactic call with a dramatic response, a small story in many acts made of components that are inextricably, masterfully linked, but don’t quite fit together in the way the searching viewer desires.
After this, Clark repeats the same trick, with increasing effectiveness, her command of visual language more ambitious, the imagery itself ever more striking, and the interplay between image and sound more complex; the results stranger and more surprising, the connections more cryptic and the dissonances more disquieting. Each time, a semblance of a narrative is formed and the suggestion of more is placed tantalizingly near, intrigue mounted and then collapsed. The director’s own statement surmises the effect best: through suggestion and denial the viewer is left “constantly questioning who or what they are, and where they are located in the film’s world,” cyclically hypnotized and then awoken. Images, once realized, are quickly de-familiarized, the expected occurrence subverted, subjectivities cycled through, a concrete meaning eluded. As soon as you get a sense of it, it transforms. As soon as you try to grasp it, it’s gone.
Rhea Storr’s Junkanoo Talk does something similar, using abstract visual language—extreme close-ups of colors, textures and patterns in motion—to conceal that which is being displayed, slowly showing more and more of her subject but never “revealing the full picture,” returning to concealment as soon as comprehension of the contents of the image seems near. With her approach to moving image, Storr’s self-proclaimed aim is seeking a “new forensic way of looking,” engaging with the same process of de-familiarization of images seen in Clark’s film, selecting parts of a larger picture in order to more fully investigate their specificities as well as their role as components of a whole.
The subject in focus is a dancer performing in the Junkanoo parade, a Bahamian carnival that Storr has experienced “only through mediated imagery, through first-hand accounts, the internet and television.” Her representation of it here is similarly mediated, never showing the carnival in which the dance occurs, or even the full performance, only fragments of costume and gesture, vibrant red and yellow shapes set strikingly against a black background, composed precisely and artfully shot on vivid Super 16 mm stock. As in Delphi Falls, the layering of these compositions and their sequencing provide a sense of something that remains unintelligible, as if the images are attempting to speak to the viewer without words, conveying a codified meaning that cannot be understood without first learning the image-language that Storr is communicating in.
A similar dialogue occurred in two films that both match words with images more explicitly, exploiting the tensions of these two differing languages by finding interesting ways to visualize a monologue. Patrick Staff’s complex and arresting Weed Killer takes a passage from Catherine Lord’s memoir ‘The Summer of Her Baldness’ as its basis, employing various visual devices to interrogate the issues central to the passage, which retails the author’s experiences with cancer and the intensity of the physical and sociopolitical repercussions of this affliction. In between more conventional segments in which actress Debra Soshoux performs the incisive, provocative monologue to camera—the frame locked tightly on her strained expression to make her address as direct and intimate as possible—Staff’s formal approach is more outlier. Ultra-high fidelity thermal imagery is interjected frequently, heat-maps showing fleshy bodily forms and sinewy strands of hair in hot color-pulses of vibrant red-yellow-blue-green radiation that appear alongside a soundtrack of jarring, wiry sound and bolts of violent red color flashes.
These formal discordances, alongside a closing segment featuring a trans singer performing an impassioned sonnet to an unappreciative bar crowd, creates a distance between the material and its performer(s). Staff’s inclusion of two transgender performers—with Debra Soshoux as the memoir-performer and Jamie Crewe as the bar-singer—is a gesture that makes this not just about the infringement of cancer on a single, specific body, but about bodies in a wider sense. His film becomes less of a simple adaptation of the text and its core elements than a reinterpretation of it with a wider frame. The text’s interest in the toxicity of both cancer cells and the pharmaceuticals used to treat them, as well as the fragility (and, especially when viewed as a thermal x-ray, the materiality) of the body take on a different meaning through Staff’s interpretation. An immediate connection is to transgender individuals undertaking gender confirmation therapies and the complications therein, but also to wider chemical treatments, the ways that medicines cause afflictions of their own and users can cycle through pharmaceuticals, each treating the last and complicating an internal cocktail of physiological intrusions.
Staff has described this film as visualizing the processes of “disidentification” experienced by all kinds of individuals, not just cancer patients. As the viewer is guided through the experience of cancer and its treatment in precise and discomforting detail (the title comes from a line describing chemotherapy: “it’s like mainlining weed killer”), eye contact with the performer is always maintained. With this, they are drawn into the hyper-specific aspects of such an experience, the intensely personal and grueling bodily experience which medical terminology glosses over by design and those who haven’t directly experienced will struggle to understand. “Something has broken into your body with murder on its mind,” Soshoux reads at one point. Defending it proves just as great an act of violence.
Miko Revereza’s no less brilliant Disintegration 93-96 also centers on a performed text, though in this case the narrative voice is that of the filmmaker, the story his own. Filing through what he calls “home movies that projected this dream of American life,” Revereza examines the period in which his family arrived in America from the Philippines, musing on his volatile relationship with the country he has grown up in and the father who brought him there. Opening his monologue, he places the film firmly in a contemporary self-autobiographical mode, shooting his face from below, front-camera selfie style, cigarette in mouth, sunglasses on, his tone of address decidedly confrontational and his attitude anarchic. From here, he runs through a rapid barrage of aestheticized, distorted footage, both self-shot and drawn from his home archive, Revereza’s eloquent and confessional narration laid over the top in an uninterrupted stream, heartfelt reflections fired out with an incessant ferocity, remembrances saddled somewhere between rage and acceptance.
Just 5 minutes long, Revereza's story, built from the recorded images but expanding much beyond them, is dense, poetically described, and cumulatively convincing. Armed with the archive, Revereza manages to accomplish what image-control affords, the power to reshape an extant narrative. Distorting and dictating the meaning of the footage, he can reclaim the past from the way it has been presented to him, rewrite the narratives which have been imposed. Despite his initial indignance, Revereza's final note is a poignantly peaceful one. For all the ills they reveal, all of the problems with his father and his questionable attitudes and politics, and with the country which he left and the one in which he now resides, these uncovered tapes are for the filmmaker, at the very least, “a document that proves we’ve been here.” For an undocumented citizen in a country hostile to outsiders, that is really something to behold—a respite from the complications of the present, if not a complete restitution of the past.
Lacking a direct monologue, but also built around autobiographical materials, Stanya Kahn’s Stand in the Stream took the modernistic approach to film language seen in Revereza’s film to another level entirely, forming maybe the most inventive, disruptive and iconoclastic film in the Berwick New Cinema competition. Stand in the Stream mergesa conventional diaristic mode with a web-browser-based aesthetic that employs events observed through Internet live-streams, Twitter feeds or video calls, all of which are recorded at the moment of their occurrence for an extra-contemporary sense of collective temporality, as epitomized in the post credits “thanks to all the live-streamers.” A multi-format, multivariate collage of clattering images, Kahn’s connecting principle (if there is one) is the simultaneous disintegration of her mother’s mind and of the Western world, catalogued through a host of protests, disasters and human rights abuses, witnessed with the simultaneous sense of horror and excitement that comes with the immediacy of the live-stream.
Filming her mother’s late stages in a home movie style (where formal concerns are secondary to the primary aim of documentation), Kahn weaves in the events of the world around her mother that run parallel to her decline, linking the activism of her mother’s youth to contemporary protest activities, alongside interludes of everything and anything occurring in between. “Everything’s going to the wrong place, and it comes out as gibberish,” her mother says at one point. The speed is relentless—discordant imagery cut frenetically to music, sparks of ordinary beauty that flitter and flicker around the screen, a vortex of daily life—and it’s hard to keep pace. Kahn’s aesthetic has become a familiar one—the style of post-Internet art that employs images less as self-contained entities but as layers of a chaotic virtual canvas that can be flipped, moved or flicked away at pace—but the employment here of it doesn’t feel empty.
With all images made at the instant of their occurrence, and material ranging from 2011 through to 2017, it starts to feel like a micro-history of Internet culture (and its ephemerality) in the period, particularly with the heavy use of Chatroulette in the early period, where a monster-masked Kahn plotting insurrectionary politics with strangers over the chat site at one point, a perfectly singular image in this most peculiar, unpredictable film. More than this, it offers an index of various recent acts of popular resistance, alongside historic counterpoints, which, whilst never going to be complete because of its basis in subjectivities, both Kahn’s own and her mothers, is collectively impacting.
The use of so much material focusing on a political ‘now’ should feel opportunist, or exploitative even, but such is the construction of the film, it doesn’t. Everything comes back to Kahn’s mother, tying her struggles (in health and in sickness) with those of contemporary activists, a continuity of collective action that is both inspiring and depressing to behold. In the final instance, protesters at Ferguson, Missouri chant, “we got nothing to lose but our chains,” before the film ends, a chorus of YG and Nipsey Hussle’s ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ breaking in and playing over the credits. With it, any question the viewer may have why this work—non-chronological throughout and infinitely extendable by structural design—concludes here is swiftly answered. Then and now are inextricably linked. The public and the private, the personal and the political, all unavoidably inseparable. All things are entangled in life’s many streams.