Beside ourselves

In anxious times people tend to become more inward-looking. That’s when I need cinema the most, to nudge me off the boring orbit of my self. A few films I watched over the last week or so, at the newly-minted Sands Film Festival and the always exciting Glasgow Short Film Festival, helped with that. I thought it would be worth sharing a few notes on here to justify my continuing to pay for web hosting, if nothing more. Here’s what I watched:

  • Most of the (Im)material worlds programme, a collaborative curatorial project instigated by Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn (Chulalongkorn University) and Philippa Lovatt (University of St Andrews) with Emma Dove and Tina Fiske (CAMPLE LINE) and Kitty Anderson and David Upton (LUX Scotland), and which played at the Sands International Film Festival of St Andrews in March 2022, and also online.
  • A couple of screenings in Glasgow Short Film Festival, though I’ll mainly be talking about the one that wasn’t a short film – Theo Anthony’s All light, everywhere (2021)

One obvious way in which cinema can move beyond the self is by gathering bits of experience from other perspectives. Moreover, cinema can do this through other means of perception beyond those available to a human body. Maeve Brennan’s Listening in the dark (2018) makes this point through the history of scientific attempts to understand bats. Microphones and pitch-shifters are needed to hear, see, and record bats’ sounds, and to discover echolocation as a new form of sensing that can be redeployed by humans through technical means. I learn from the film that insects have also done this, evolving varied sensory organs to detect and avoid bats.

Theo Anthony’s All light, everywhere is an interesting counterpoint to this, looking at the history of camera-based visual surveillance. Janssen’s revolver and Marey’s photographic gun starts with natural curiosity, about the transit of Venus and the flight of birds, and is quickly appropriated for artillery targeting. But precision is not always the goal of the militarised image; it is also a rhetorical device and an extension of power. The guy from Axon, the company that makes both Tasers and police bodycams, explains that the cameras should retain some of the limitations of the human eye and perspective. This is, in particular, the police officer’s perspective. The camera is not there to record ‘what happened’ but how the officer may have perceived it. Another guy tries to present an alternative, a bird’s eye view that he claims would be more neutral. But only some kinds of action in some kinds of places are visible to an aerial camera, and only some people in certain positions can choose to use recorded images to defend themselves or incarcerate others.

There is a great pull to use image-making as a tool for social control. Both the anthropocentric technologies of facial recognition (from eugenicist physiognomy to AI) and the seemingly detached perspectives of cartography and geo-sensing appeal to a scientific materialism that is supposedly neutral. Neutrality is not a path to justice. Neither is solipsistic subjectivism, however. Thinking critically about the colonial lineage of technologies of sound and vision can also mean a recognition of the ways they open up non-human perspectives. Perhaps technologies are not entirely predetermined by their histories. Arguably, the whole trajectory of decolonial moving image practice is embroiled in this dialectic.

In Shireen Seno’s film, there are photos of trees, with humans for scale. White men. Scientists again, observing, measuring, collecting the Filipino flora. “Photographs as a catalogue of the resources of the colony”, as Seno puts it, as concise a statement about colonial image-making practices as you’ll get anywhere. There are also photos of women, not white, with potted plants (perhaps for company, Seno speculates). These are harder to read and more demanding. One goes back to Édouard Glissant and opacity as anticolonial resistance. To become unrepresentable in order to become ungovernable. In Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Vapour, opacity is literal; fog fills the frame and the figures appear and disappear as they go about their toil. Perhaps you’d want to use sound to orientate yourself in this shifting cloud, but there is no soundtrack. Ethereal as this may seem, people are working or going around on motorbikes; this is an earthly landscape. Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa’s Promised Lands skewers the kind of mystifying, exoticist encounter with landscape that sometimes informs liberal ecocinema. Her on-screen words speak back to the voiceover, sternly rejecting its poetic flights. NO. I REPEAT NO. NO TO YOUR EMPTY SPECTACLE.

Alia Syed uses a similar anti-spectacular strategy, fixed long takes with voiceover, on Meta Incognita: Missive II. The language of colonial exploration and resource extraction from an old captain’s log is flipped on its head once transposed into a dystopian future. It’s an incomplete story that demands an imaginative effort, while the slow changes in light and tide challenge the viewer’s attention. The archival underlayer and geographic coordinates invoke a documentary principle, an external referent that might or might not fill the gaps of the incomplete fable. Emilia Beatriz’s many-layered tale of two islands separated by a whole ocean, but linked by their resistance to becoming mere military target practice, also goes to the archive and to the future. As the multiple screens connect Vieques (off Puerto Rico) and Garvie (off Scotland), their anticolonial resonances necessarily oscillate between historical and speculative registers. The land itself can tell human time: this is how much peat you’d use in a year, this is ten years, or forty. A moving scar that slowly heals, if done properly. A few days earlier I had watched a BBC documentary about another Scottish island, contaminated with anthrax by the British army in the 1940s. By the end of this unseasonably warm week, the island was on fire.

These fires are apparently fine, though. It just looks cool.

I don’t know what good it may do to watch films while there are fires everywhere. In their introduction to a dossier on the work of some Southeast Asian filmmakers, Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn and Philippa Lovatt invoke animism “as a way to acknowledge a different mode of ontology and cosmology, a way of being in the world where humans are not superior or centred” (2021). Without necessarily ascribing any single spiritual hypothesis to these very different films, they do share this decentring, made possible by cinema’s means of perception. Their perspective is subjective but not human-subjective; they are films of and about the world, of which people are a mostly perplexed, often careless, sometimes disastrous part.

Failing from home

With a commission from Glasgow Short Film Festival, video-essayist Jessica McGoff recently published a 10-minute reflection on her experience of attending online film festivals. In this piece, McGoff reflects on the conflation of domesticity and cinematic space, and pins some hope on the potential of film festivals, through curation, to resist the homogenising trend of streaming monopolies. In the last section of the video, she recalls watching Purple Sea (Amel Alzakout, 2020) and feeling questioned about the ethics of spectatorship, as “[t]he film altered the space around me as much as that space provided viewing context”. This reminded me of some notes I had made a few months back when I watched this film, at a different online festival, at home. I was also struck by an ethical dissatisfaction, a discomfort that I struggled to articulate, so I appreciated the chance provided by McGoff’s film to reopen that question.

Screening Room: on digital film festivals from Jessica McGoff on Vimeo.

Purple Sea is an account of the Syrian filmmaker’s journey from Turkey to Greece on a boat which capsized with over 300 people on board. Alzakout was wearing a camera on her wrist and this footage, captured accidentally while she tries to stay afloat, makes up most of the film. Her voiceover situates this moment in a personal timeline of displacement and love, which brings the viewer into its confidence to share memories of joy and hardship. It would be possible to call the footage beautiful, with the shimmer of the sun on the Mediterranean, the slow movements of objects and people underwater. But 42 people died on that trip, so formal beauty is not the point. The filmmaker first considered giving the footage to Forensic Architecture to demand accountability for Greece’s delay in launching a rescue. The camera is called to witness, and the film then produces a framework where the spectator is also asked to witness. The intimate voiceover, the impression of liveness from real-time, shaky footage, and the embodied point of view carry a strong demand for empathetic viewing, but they may also hit the limits of this identification.

I watched Purple Sea as part of the 18th edition of Document Human Rights Film Festival. As a member of the festival board, I think Document went well: the programme was both weighty and exciting, the conversation events were generous, and the platform ran smoothly from an end-user perspective. A year into the pandemic, the online film festival format is gradually crystallising into familiar forms, within a range of pragmatic choices and platform affordances. Before the festival, we had discussed the need to consider the conditions of viewing. Many human rights films deal with painful subjects, and the emotions they may awaken could be harder to process for viewers watching alone, after months of relative isolation and emotional depletion from the pandemic. Does the festival then have a duty of care towards the viewers even if they’re not in a festival venue? Beyond clear content warnings and opportunities for discussion, it seemed particularly difficult to figure out how to extend an ethics of care into the domestic spaces where the festival was streamed.

Powerlessness, anger and frustration are common emotions when watching distant suffering, a phenomenon widely studied by anthropologists. Activist film festivals try to shift those emotions towards engagement and empowerment, by emphasizing resistance and showing clear options for action. While mostly symbolic when enacted by relatively privileged audiences, these actions serve to cleanse the conscience and postpone the crisis of powerlessness. I’m familiar with those feelings of personal inefficacy and those recuperative twists. In other words, I’m used to feeling bad about not doing enough to change the world, and trying to hold on to some hope that watching together can lead to acting together. But watching Purple Sea in an online festival gave me a new experience of failure: Not just failing to act, but failing to even witness.

I watched Purple Sea in my living room, while my flatmate cooked dinner in the kitchen, the dog fussed, the laundry hung by the radiator, the carpet needed hoovering, the shelf needed dusting, work needed to be attended to, an entirely mundane mess extended out past the border of the screen. The minutiae of all this, while unimportant in itself, made my attention to the film something optional, that needed to be actively produced, and therefore something I could fail at. Failing to commit to witnessing was an ethical failure, a dereliction of my part of the deal with a film that opened itself up so generously.

Writing about film and video as testimonial encounters, Leshu Torchin says:

A constellation of factors contributes to the efficacy of a testimony. Rhetorical and iconographic strategies supply interpretive grids to make distant suffering a cause for concern, compassion, outrage, and solidarity. Practice, too, matters, as activities associated with distribution and exhibition can help channel the sentiment into action. It is as much about the testimonial encounter as the testimony itself. (Torchin 2012)

If Purple Sea’s formal strategies offered an embodied route towards a subjective understanding of a specific tragedy within the general violence of borders, and the spectator also starts out from a material situation, then the testimonial encounter in this case poses a problem of how to move from one embodied position to another in order to witness as required. Without wanting to go all 1970s theory on this, there is something in the claim that the classic cinematic apparatus works as a machine for attention and subjectivation, removing distractions and encouraging the spectator to move beyond their body. More importantly, the cinema screening (and especially the festival screening) is a social situation and this sociality binds us into a tacit pact to attention, bearing the responsibility of witnessing as a collective. As Torchin writes,

witnessing publics are not an enduring, eternal, or general formation, but temporary and contingent collectives hailed through address and encouraged into an active engagement and responsibility with what they see. (Torchin, Creating the Witness, 2012, p. 14)

The viewer can be hailed and encouraged, but ultimately they need to make an active choice to open themselves up, offer themselves to the testimonial encounter. This is what I am failing to do while watching at home, simply because it is more difficult, it demands more from me. First of all, it brings to the surface the incommensurability of the experiences. I am safe on firm land, looking at the cobwebs on the ceiling; how can I also be off the shore of Lesbos, treading water? It is an impossible identification which jars with the perceptual invitation to immersion through the immediacy of the footage. This is no phantom ride.

In her video, McGoff notes that while watching the film, “it struck me that I couldn’t really leave the space where I viewed it”. This living space, which during the pandemic has also been the space of work, leisure, and media use, becomes what she calls a “contextual monoculture”. Lacking the diversity of audiences and contexts that different spaces create, she worries that the dispersion of film viewing into individual encounters threatens the survival of film festivals and other forms of resistance to the culture industries’ flattening of experience. I think festivals will be fine for a wee while longer, but some thought must be given to their ritual function in preparing audiences for a demanding encounter. There is a long stretch to go from the mundane familiarity of the living room or the laptop screen to the openness to an experience that is radically outside ourselves (like any perspective on the world will be). After a year or two of gratefully accepted sameness and avoidance in the midst of disaster, some of us may need some coaxing into responsibility.

Death and the online film festival

One of the first blog posts here was about cinema as ritual, in two senses: as a social practice and as a formal set of actions that may address an abstract or supernatural purpose. The pandemic has brought about a crisis of collective rituals, from the quotidian to the transcendental. This unravelling of common habits has mundane consequences, like losing track of the days of the week, but also profoundly painful ones. At tens of thousands of lonely hospital beds and funerals, the conventions that allow human societies to cope with death and grief are tenuously sustained by video-calls. It is both miraculous and crushing in its banality.

If the most sacred and necessary of rituals are being mediated by online streaming, it is no surprise that everything else, from pub quizzes to orchestras, is streaming somewhere. After a spate of cancellations, film festivals and academic conferences have also now returned as online programmes, and probably stand a better chance of survival than the cinema venues and universities that would have hosted them. For anyone lucky enough to have a computer, an internet connection and a safe home, and who isn’t being forced to risk their lives at work, this situation has generated a surfeit of ‘content’ far beyond the usual limitations of geography and timing. The expanded remote access includes participants that otherwise would have been excluded due to disability or location, and it excludes others who have divergent relationships to technology. I don’t want to enter into a discussion of whether streaming is good or bad, better or worse than cinemagoing or conference panels, as I have no interest in protecting those rituals. I don’t care if they survive; I care deeply about the people who depend on them for a livelihood, but that’s a different issue.

This is not a festival venue

This is not a festival venue

Online access is the consummation of mechanical reproducibility, and as Benjamin argued, the breakdown of uniqueness can demystify the reproduced object and wrench it out of the sphere of ritual. The tension between reproducibility (of the film) and uniqueness (of the event) is constitutive to the existence of film festivals, conceived as a way to ‘eventify’ film. This is being negotiated online in many different ways, as the sector fumbles towards new models that may enable some semblance of survival. Live streaming, time-limited access, and live Q&A sessions are some of the strategies that festivals are using to assert a sense of occasion, which is to say, a ritual time. The first online festival I attended this year was Alchemy, which had live screenings and a very pared down, straightforward interaction centered around brief introductions by programmers and a chat box after the film. As a taste of the new normal, and it had many advantages, such as an international audience and the ability to eat lunch during the screening without bothering others. But it didn’t have the treasure hunt of site-specific screenings around Hawick, the floor-to-ceiling screen in perfect darkness, or the gap between screenings to write notes in a sunlit window, go charity-shopping, or eavesdrop on earnest filmmakers at the café. It’s the ‘in-between bits’ that are missing, as Tara Judah wrote a few days ago. The gaps are backfilled with housework or email, and so the ritual contract is fragmented.

It becomes very difficult for festivals to offer a distinctive experience without their unique locations. In a recent piece, Erika Balsom considers how “presented online, moving-image artworks risk absorption into a ceaseless cascade of undifferentiated “content.””. From behind a laptop screen it all looks pretty much the same, despite the bewildering proliferation of platforms and logins. It is all also a bit more intentional, less random, like most things online which depend on being called up by the consumers, and are therefore less likely to surprise them. The waning of unintentional, unplanned sociability is harder to articulate as a loss in the pandemic, as governments entrench a worldview where the important relationships are those of wage work first, and normative family unit second. Online film viewing is – in my experience – similarly tending towards the productive or the familiar, more fully realised as labour because the stretches of time around it have been minimised. With no travelling to the cinema or waiting in the lobby, there is nowhere online where you can just sit and do nothing, let things unfold that don’t depend on your intervention and choice.

The fantasy of digital availability of everything presents itself as a fugue from mortality. You can’t miss anything – you can always watch it later (I am still genuinely upset about MUBI’s departure from its 30-days-only model, which at least allowed you to move on if you had missed a film). But of course, you don’t have infinite time. You don’t know if you can ever watch it later. Life is literally too short. The life of images can also be shorter than you think, links rotting all over the web, emulsions sliding, nitrate burning. At Alchemy, several films reflected on the failure of the archive to deliver the future promised by the past. In Salma Shamel’s short film, Those That Tremble as if They Were Mad, an inkjet printer sits in a backyard, printing certificates intended to reward contributors of oral testimonies of Egypt’s 2011 revolution. The bureaucratic attempts can’t help but extinguish the same radical fire they intend to record, and soon succumb to the reactionary collapse of the popular uprising. In another screening, Onyeka Igwe’s No Archive Can Restore You lingered over the rusted cans of the Nigerian Film Unit. The decay of analogue film has a well-established romance, perhaps because its time is just out of reach, within living memory, and hence its destruction is imagined as preventable. But as with any technology of memory, the loss of film is as indispensable as its survival to its history.

The Orphan Film Symposium is premised on this ephemerality. Orphan films survive by accident. They give the lie to the fantasy of total availability, representing as they do the tip of a lost iceberg. Meant to serve a time-limited purpose, the passage of these films into history has been crafted with today’s arguments, technologies, and archival optics. Often meant to be private, their public existence diffracts their modes of address and complicates their understanding. This is perhaps the logical setting in which to think about death, and this symposium offered a needed space to do that. It was also one of the best academic conferences / film festivals I have ever attended, and its expanded universe of blog posts and videos constitutes an incredible, generous, and timely resource. Against the relentless futurity of business as usual, the mood at this event felt more authentic. The incredibly skilled technical team greeted us from Mexico DF, wearing facemasks. Presenters joined in from around the world, lamenting a missed appointment at Amsterdam, and always finishing with ‘stay safe’. The combined themes of the symposium – water, climate and migration – reminded us that beneath the current emergency there is a catastrophe that hasn’t gone away with the decreased CO2 emissions of recent months. In other words, widespread death, closed borders, and a retrenchment into the private sphere are not going to stop the waters from rising.

There were two moments in the festival that confronted me with death more directly. At the end of the first day of screenings, as I watched from my sofa well past midnight, I was taken by surprise by a film where Eiren Caffall reflected on her life with the same chronic illness that will probably kill me one day. Safe and alone in my house, I could let my fear run through me until it exhausted itself, find a healing use for that metaphor of the sea within. In that moment I was glad not to have to make small talk with colleagues over canapes afterwards. Then on the third day, also late at night, Ja’Tovia Gary introduced her extraordinary essay film The Giverny Document. Watching this multilayered inquiry into Black experience and pain, on the day of George Floyd’s murder by a white policeman, amplified the rage that the images demand. The artist talked about the intricate, beautiful work of animation directly onto film as a somewhat therapeutic practice, which created a powerful tension with archive footage including evidence of police brutality recorded on phones. In conversation with archivist Terri Francis, they consider the fact that thinking about Black media is also thinking about the moving image as evidence. Over the days since then this question has been on my mind, as the harrowing images of George Floyd’s death, filmed by a black teenager, join this ‘counter-archive’ of atrocity and injustice.

But also in the archive: a Black child twirling in the sunshine with a paper plane.

And also for the archive, today: the statue of a slave trader being hauled off its plinth and into the water. Signs of life.

(via GIPHY)

The featured image is a still from In de Tropische Zee / In the Tropical Sea (1914), one of the films screened at the Orphan Film Symposium. It can be seen here with an introduction by Ned Thanhouser, but please be warned that it is a disturbing, cruel film infested with animal death and deploying a racist, colonial gaze.

Alchemy 2019: Notes from a weekend away

This year I finally made it to the Scottish Borders town of Hawick for Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. I had been hearing about Alchemy for years, as it build a reputation for its fresh and knowledgeable programming, and for staging a distinctive event using the official and hidden infrastructures of the town. Due to the festival’s interest in artists’ moving image, video installation and mixed-media projections in unconventional sites are an integral part of the programme. This, along with the premiere of Phil Collins’ feature documentary Ceremony, persuaded me to get on the train and bus to the Borders during a weekend on the cusp of summer.

Dudendance, Out of the Wild

Dudendance, Out of the Wild

According to the website 147 works were screened over five days. I was there for two, and spent some time answering emails from coffeeshops and climbing the somewhat underwhelming motte, so I only saw a fraction of them. Enough to get a sense of how special this festival is. The variety of venues is certainly an attraction: shopfront venues up and down the high street, in the museum, the archive, and of course the very well equipped arts centre. The festival is a visible presence in the town, without commandeering it. The programme shows a serious labour of research, curation, and presentation, sourcing films that would hardly be available elsewhere. I didn’t like them all – but that’s irrelevant. They give me something to think with and some time to do it. Experimental films, especially those that draw attention to the surface of the image, and to the flow of time, are devices to untether the mind from its obsession with yesterday’s petty failures and tomorrow’s little problems. They make time for something else – sometimes more abstract, sometimes more visceral.

The first film I watched, in the superb auditorium of the Heritage Hub, was Tondal’s Vision. This is a highly stylised reinterpretation of a single-reel early silent film, stretched to feature length. In its fascination with patina and decay it is in the tradition of Bill Morrison, but it departs more radically from the existing footage. Slowed down to an extent that is either meditative or exasperating, depending on how much coffee you’ve had, the footage is looped, mirrored, repeated, and reframed. The filmmaker hijacks the film’s tableau aesthetics, dwelling on the contortions of condemned souls in a nightmarish circular journey. The sticky, flattening effect on the emulsion had its moments. At its best, it abstracted the figures until their movement, the articulation of their joints, was all that mattered. This modernist strategy was intensified in the segments of blank lead film, dirty and scratched and tinted with rainbow colours. I found myself thinking I would like to freeze the frame and paint my room in those colours, or have a t-shirt made; this is how decorative this film is. The catalogue says the technique used to unpick the nitrate figures from their backgrounds is called mordancage, a word I had never heard and which has led me to a very pleasant ten minutes of internet browsing. I was taken with the neon colours, pushing the boundaries of the spectrum, and found myself disappointed to learn the colourising had been achieved digitally. Not because I necessarily hold on to the romance of celluloid, but because I had hoped that these colours were accidental discoveries, rather than design choices.

No such disappointment with Esther Urlus, whose 16mm works were shown a bit later. There she was, as full of light and mischief as her films, with red hair to match, standing by the emergency exit just in case. Each film was a genuine experiment; I could imagine the filmmaker in the dark room, trying this or that chemical bath, strips of celluloid running through her fingers. I tried to imagine the artist-run film lab in Rotterdam where this was made. I watched the impossibly flat landscapes of Idyll or Red Mill and wonder what it is like to grow up without mountains. She told us of a homebrew emulsion she used for the somewhat hermetic Konrad and Kurfurst, a historical tale told against the grain. The approach to sound was as uncompromising as the images. Like Tondal’s Dream, some of the films here – particulary Elli – used flicker and rapid reversals to produce physical discomfort. This was a formal strategy that reappeared in several other films, but here it was used in small doses to greater effect.

An example of a more all-encompassing take on flicker was Take It Down, a short included in a programme addressing memory and history. I really wanted to like it, as it played with documentary footage of the movement to remove statues glorifying racists from American university campuses, and of local reaction. The decolonisation of universities and public spaces is an important struggle. Unfortunately, this film’s formal strategies felt unjustified, and this diluted its political stance. The relentless flicker and solarisation of the little Confederate ceremony at the start did not counteract the fact that the audience gets to listen to their arguments for a solid few minutes. The film platforms these white supremacists and, rather than confronting them, just makes them painful to watch. This is not critique – this is the ‘enough rope’ argument that has made Farage a constant presence in the supposedly liberal BBC. The second part of the film, with the visual removal of the monuments, was less jarring but more disquieting. The postcard images of the sites were improved by the removal of the offending statue, but this seemed to absolve the very institutions standing right behind them of their blame. Yes, of course the statues of confederate warriors should be taken down from the front of the court house, but let’s not pretend that black people are not going to still be imprisoned much more than whites. The pretty colours added here were less distancing than embellishing. I am not here doubting the anti-racist commitment or the intentions of the filmmakers, but acknowledging that it’s really hard to make sufficiently sharp socio-political critique through the medium of experimental cinema.

In the same programme, I liked Morwenna Kearsley’s string of reflections laid along a train journey I make often. But while I get off halfway, she goes all the way: To Perth, to those reflections on cultural memory that I always abandon as too complicated and unproductive. Her project was funded by the Leverhulme Trust, and in unpicking the thread of injustice that holds together the institutions of heritage, there was one bit that she didn’t pull: The connection of the Lever fortunes with forced labour and genocide in the Belgian Congo. (Disclosure: I was also funded by the Leverhulme Trust till last year.)

But it was the first film in that programme, the simplest, which held my attention. Armindo and the Dark Chamber (Tânia Dinis) was possibly my favourite film in the festival. Apart from two bookending sequences, it is simply a continuous shot of a metal band carrying old photographs one after the other, from right to left, and her voiceover. The writing is precise and well paced. As we looked at endless provincial children and weddings, she said that we strive to find ourselves ‘in other people’s faces, in other people’s houses’, a grasp for recognition. That ease of recognition was poignant for me, because it necessitates colonialism. I can recognise myself in those Portuguese provincial middling classes because my whiteness is like theirs and it’s the same Catholicism that produces the rituals to be photographed and that makes grandmothers look like one another.

Another film that builds on a romance of analogue media is That Cloud Never Left, but its documentary lyricism is harder to pin down. I was intrigued by this, a collaborative work that doesn’t stop to explain its process. In an Indian village, people make toys out of scrapped 35mm film. Young men build a platform and a giant version of their rose-tinted cellophane lens. The red filter is also the blood moon. On television, spellbinding animations explain the lunar eclipse, awaited by the town. I am fascinated, as always, by making, craft, tools: the curved knife to peel fruit, the handsaw to cut clay. I am drawn to re-use, and this, like so many places in the global south, is a scavenging place. The staged elements get in the way of my ethnographic desire to see and understand the ‘authentic’ way of life of the village’s inhabitants, which is a way to say I didn’t enjoy them but think that’s as it should be. At the end, we tried to Skype with the director, but we couldn’t hear her, which was a much better outcome.

On paper, Phil Collins’ Ceremony is a similar type of film: Video documentation of an intervention, a process carried out with a collective. In intention and execution, it is the opposite: prosaic where That Cloud is lyrical, expositive where the other is more cryptic. This comparison is not intended as a value judgement, though I did think that there was too much Momentum-style certainty to Ceremony. In short, Collins orchestrated a public outdoor event during Manchester International Festival, the centrepiece of which was a statue of Friedrich Engels brought by road from the Ukraine. The journey is the best part of the film, as people in Eastern European towns half-recognise Engels with a mix of Ostalgie and mistrust. That ambiguity is diluted in the celebratory and celebrity-led street party. That is understandable: this is not a time for subtleties. On the other hand, it is not a time for Great Men From History either.

Image from What does she see when she shuts her eyes (Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff)

Image from What does she see when she shuts her eyes (Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff)

There were, by the way, several special programmes, all of women filmmakers (eat your heart out, Cannes). And lots of individual works by women. Before getting the bus back out of town, I stood in a low-ceilinged room at the back of an empty shop, watching as a rocky, snowy path stretched across two screens facing each other. Sequences of words swirled towards and away from the viewer, simple sentences announced by a tinkling of tiny bells or beads. It was joyous and cold, the playfulness of the WordArt defiant amongst the sharp edges of the rock. The words were about dogs and desires for a good life. Simple, mundane things; a simple, small setup. The work is called ‘What does she see when she shuts her eyes’ and it is a collaboration between Sabina Ott and Dana Berman Duff, but also a kind of memorial to Ott, who died recently. The information sheet says the rocky paths are Icelandic lava tubes. Somehow, in this austere room, in the intimate words moving between the two projectors, I feel hopeful.

Other people’s fandoms

One of the peculiar things about conducting research on certain forms of film exhibition is that I end up watching lots of films that I would not have chosen to watch otherwise. I choose my viewing according to place, rather than title. This makes for an eclectic viewing experience, especially when applied to the intensified frame of a film festival.

Glasgow Film Festival was on last month, and I did not go to any theatrical screenings or watch any of the main programme strands. Instead I went to several of the ‘special events’. This strand has been gaining strength year on year, and it has developed a certain character, with recurring features. Like last year’s Where You’re Meant to Be (Paul Fegan, 2016), this year one of the most popular events was Lost in France (Niall McCann, 2017), screened in a music venue and accompanied with a live gig. There was again an excellent event, MOVE!, organised by the MSc students in Film Exhibition and Curation in Edinburgh (I hope to write more about this in another post). But six of the ten ‘special events’ were not new releases at all, nor part of a retrospective strand. Instead, over the last few years Glasgow has developed a successful stream of ‘eventified’ repertory films. Part of this strategy is what Lesley-Ann Dickson has called ‘spatio-textual programming’, so that a match is sought between film and screening location; live performances or audience activities add further value (Dickson 2014: 150). So, for instance:

  • Dirty Dancing was shown in the Oran Mor’s ballroom, preceded by a tribute dance act and a slice of watermelon;
  • The Thing was screened at -5C in an indoor ski slope, after a themed pub quiz;
  • The Princess Bride was a family event featuring a treasure hunt and a fencing demonstration;
  • and perhaps most successfully, the offbeat vampire thriller The Lost Boys was screened at an amusement park

P1050724 P1050740 P1050854

All these are fairly mainstream 1980s productions that have acquired varying levels of cult afterlife. What counts as ‘cult’ depends on who you ask, but two common denominators of cult film watching are repeat viewing and ritualistic practices (Mathjis and Sexton 2011: 3). These ways of engagement serve to create a sense of community stretching over time for a relatively small but committed audience. For those outside that sphere, the appeal may not be obvious: had I not been doing this for work, I would not have parted with £14 to watch any of them. I was only vaguely aware of most of these films before booking the tickets, so it was rather surprising to see how much they meant to other people. Festival programmers know what they’re doing by putting on event screenings that encourage the ‘active celebration’ element of cult cinema. Many of the events were sold out long in advance. But what was most interesting was the distinctive character of each of these crowds, and how they differed from my own assumptions about cult audiences.

I must be clear that my project is not an audience research one, but I continued to think about these topics while sitting in a lecture last week by my colleague Dr Becky Bartlett, who was covering the ‘Fandom’ week in our Understanding Audiences course. In her lecture, Becky showed a clip from Best Worst Movie (Michael Stephenson, 2009), in which the makers of Troll 2 (the aforementioned ‘worst’ movie) try to promote a revival of the film through different spaces associated with genre and exploitation films. They are first overwhelmed by the hundreds of adoring fans that turn out for a DIY screening in a New York basement, but find only blank stares at sci-fi and horror festivals.

While there are people who see themselves as cult cinema fans, most cult fandom is more specific. At Glasgow, there were quite distinct audiences, behaving in particular ways, for the films I saw. Almost only women for Dirty Dancing, more mixed and younger audiences in friendship groups for The Thing and The Lost Boys, mainly straight-presenting couples for Secretary, and parents with children for The Princess Bride. The more mainstream acceptability of the festival context makes these good sites for the ‘cult’ to grow, as people attend with their friends and partners. At the Princes Bride screening, for instance, the process of deliberate cultural reproduction was quite evident. Adults were using the opportunity to socialise with one another, but also to introduce their children to a favourite film – or to re-introduce it as a collective experience rather than a DVD at home.

The most rewarding forms of audience activity at these events, then, depend on familiarity with the film, and recognise people’s existing investment in it. The audiences for Dirty Dancing and Lost Boys cheered, whooped, and shouted out key snippets of memorised dialogue. (An obvious observation that is still worth making is that the availability of alcohol before and after some of the screenings had an observable effect on audience participation.) Decor and activities before the screening also set the tone to be more playful and participatory. But that effort is mostly lost on uninitiated viewers, like me. I felt out of my depth most of the time. At The Lost Boys, I missed out on the stage-setting details scattered around the amusement part or on the significance of the location itself. My attempt to dress up as a cool 1980s vampire was half-hearted. In comparison, there were a few hundred people who had absolutely made an effort. The line between cosplay and an 80s-inspired Friday night outfit was blurred, much more than with the rather coy interpretations of S&M to be found at the screening of Secretary. On the one hand, there is not a huge style gap between 1980s vampire bad-boy and modern ‘ironic mullet’ hipster. On the other, these lighthearted cosplayers were comfortable in a fannish persona but hardly defined by their fan identities. Again, Lesley-Ann Dickson has written about Glasgow Film Festival audiences in much more detail and has outlined GFF’s approach to event programming (Dickson forthcoming). What I want to note is how successful the Festival has been in attracting both cult and novelty/nostalgia audiences who may not be interested in the contemporary arthouse core programme.

From the perspective of my own research on pop-up cinema, the fact that restricted and ritualised exhibition is so strongly associated with cult spectatorship is important. It places the pop-up as both a unique experience and a repeat viewing. The intensity of cult viewing is different from the immersion of the cinephile festivalgoer, so the time-limited nature of the event works differently in both cases. I’m aware I’m only scratching the surface here, so your comments are very welcome.

More images from these events can be found on the Festival’s Flicker page.


Dickson, Lesley-Ann. Forthcoming. ‘Screening Spaces: Spatio-Textual Programming & Alternative Modes of Spectatorship at Film Festivals’, in Sarah Atkinson and Helen Kennedy (eds) Live Cinema: Cultures, Economies, Aesthetics. London: Bloomsbury.
Dickson, Lesley-Ann. 2014. ‘Film Festival and Cinema Audiences: A Study of Exhibition Practice and Audience Reception at Glasgow Film Festival’. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.
Mathjis, Ernest and Jamie Sexton. 2011. Cult Cinema. Malden, Mass: John Wiley.

Cinema as occupation

This month started with a memorable couple of days racing around Glasgow to try and catch glimpses of the Radical Film Network festival and unconference. There was a lot on, and incredible variety, as many local groups and individuals organised screenings and events autonomously. We will be talking about it for months, but I wanted to try and start organising some thoughts emerging from some of the conversations that took place that weekend at the unconference, and from the unconference itself as a form of organising.

Chelsea facilitating the scheduling of unconference sessions

Chelsea facilitating the scheduling of unconference sessions

Many of the people who came to the unconference from outside Glasgow show films in places that are not cinemas (and some have started their own cinemas). Most of the screenings during the festival also took place in spaces that are not normally used for film exhibition. Although the RFN Scotland organising group deliberately avoided policing definitions of what’s radical (a point that keeps coming up for discussion in the broader context of the Network), a tacit alignment to the left was evident. The RFN’s website talks of “film culture for a fair, just and sustainable society”, which is obviously a pretty broad church. In practice, in the context of film exhibition at this particular juncture, this meant mainly non-commercial and/or underground practices.

P1040173 P1040139 P1040187 P1040192

The events throughout the May Day weekend, like with most socially-engaged forms of film exhibition, had something in common: they used film to bring people to a place, in the hopes that a meaningful engagement would happen, that conversations would start. But just as often, it was the place itself that was an attraction, and the film screening was an opportunity to be in a space. Under the pretence of watching films we get to sit in a shop in the Barras market, the ruin of a church, a women’s housing co-op, or under the railway arches. Entering these temporary venues while thinking politically left me with some questions regarding film exhibition as a radical tactic.

Popular struggles have a long history of using physical presence in and control of a space as an effective form of pressure, but most importantly as a form of direct action (such as in factory work-ins and free universities).  The college sit-in and the landless farmers‘ unauthorised tilling are both forms of reclaiming a space and transforming it into the kind of space that is needed. Doreen Massey said of Occupy London that  it was “a real creation of a space of the kind that we need a lot more of. A space that brings us together to talk and to argue about the kind of future world we want”. At one of the unconference panels someone mentioned Hakim Bey’s concept of the Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ), a “free enclave […], a guerilla operation which liberates an area (of land, of time, of imagination) and then dissolves itself to re-form elsewhere/elsewhen, before the State can crush it.” I will park the question of whether Occupy camps or other specific occupations are to be considered TAZs or not; it is the notion of ‘liberating an area’ that matters. In their reflection on film and resistance against the capitalist appropriation of urban space, Geraldine Pratt and Rose Marie San Juan argue that cinema can work as “a temporary suspension from everyday life, in which new relations can come into being” (2014, p. 176)

So in what ways is the event of cinema like an occupation?

There might be similar logistics: a need to provide creature comforts, whether that means central heating or open fire, plush seats or stacked pallets, a cocktail bar or a communal pot of soup. Conditions must be created that allow people to stay – and these obviously depend on how long people are planning to stay. This is particularly the case when the place under occupation is not one meant for living/for cinema: a factory, a city square, a university lobby. But just as important as the material conditions, the space has to be reinvented socially; it acquires new function and new meaning, and therefore new ways of behaving in it need to emerge. In a screening, the film is the backbone that makes the event understandable from the outside, imaginable, legitimate, even fundable. Getting together to watch a film makes sense to a lot of people; going to an odd place to meet with strangers and have an unplanned conversation, not so much (although if you frame it as an unconference it might even work!).

P1040156 P1040162P1040165 P1040167

Moving Parts and Revolutions

One of the challenges of inventing new spaces, especially liberated spaces or spaces for liberation, is that of finding ways to be together that are not mediated by institutional law and policing. The topic of safer spaces came up during the Community Cinemas roundtable towards the end of the festival. Do temporary cinema spaces need safer spaces policies to be upheld for their duration, alongside or replacing the tacit or explicit rules of the venue? With or without such policies, can organisers contribute to make these spaces more accessible and more radical than ‘standard’ cinemas by communicating a kind of ‘vibe’? An interesting idea that came up (from Liverpool’s Small Cinema, if I remember correctly) was to tell the story of the cinema, perhaps in the form of a short trailer before the movie, helping build the trust and sense of investment that can make the audience feel like a fleeting community.

But often the cinema isn’t at all like an occupation. To begin with, its presence in space is, for the most part, not oppositional in itself; it is allowed by the usual controllers of the space, often invited, in celebration rather than protest. (I need to write much more about Cinema Up‘s endlessly thought-provoking Radical Home Cinema programme, but that’s for later.) It is also important not to lose sight of the distinctiveness of cinema as aesthetic experience. It is still at a remove from life, and so it opens up opportunities for introspection and wonder that are often missing in the collective busyness of activism. In foregrounding film’s ability to congregate people, it is easy to forget the power of individual experience (especially when it takes place in public). As Pratt and San Juan hope, cinema can create “an actual concrete space.

Not just as a space to gather information but as a space of fantasy, imagination, affect, and bodily reverberation and resonance. Not just as a space of individual reflection but as a space of sociality and discussion.” (p. 176)

At the same time, the non-committed relationship that is established in the temporary community of the viewing audience is very different to the long-term solidarity required to sustain radical social action, or simply to survive oppression. So perhaps the parallels don’t stretch too far – but they might still offer useful sightlines to bring the political back into thinking the cinema space.


Pratt, Geraldine and Rose Marie San Juan (2014) Film and Urban Space: Critical Possibilities. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.


Two festivals and their venues

This blog post is based on a presentation I gave at Besides the Screen at the end of November (see my previous post, Rituals of Cinema). This, the very first public appearance of my current research project, talked about two events I attended during the first month of the project, and about how they had started to shape new questions. The two events were Scalarama and the Southside Film Festival. I chose to compare them because both events position themselves very explicitly as a response to a lack or a loss of more institutional sites of exhibition (by which I mean full-time cinemas and arts centres). Since the theme of the conference was Methods and Materials of Curatorship, I was interested in how this response is connected with programming strategies that have their own logic. These observations were made in the early days of my research, and as I have not had direct contact with the organisers, they depend only on publicly available information.

My first example was the Scottish part of Scalarama (dubbed ‘Scaledonia’). Scalarama, briefly, is a season of film events loosely associated and supported which runs throughout September in many parts of the United Kingdom and beyond. It started in 2011 as a tribute to the Scala cinema in London, a repertory cinema with a cult following (Jane Giles is currently writing a book about the venue, which I look forward to reading). Its organisation is decentralised, as anyone who wants to have activities included in the programme is only asked to submit a declaration of principles.

Scalarama’s own manifesto starts with the demand to “fill the land with cinemas”, using their own minimal definition of cinema: wherever there is a film and an audience, there is cinema. Suggested location types include pubs and boats, and certainly all those kinds of spaces have been used for Scalarama-related events. You could think it ironic that a homage to an actual cinema should look for its place away from the cinema space; in that case, it might be reassuring that this year’s programme has such a high proportion of permanent cinema spaces as venues for Scalarama.

A classification of the 311 events mapped on the Scalarama website for this year shows that over two thirds of the screenings took place in cinemas, theatres, art centres or galleries; that is, in spaces that already have some form of institutional relationship with cinema. The other spaces mainly include bars and pubs, gardens, and community projects. The variety and quirkiness of the venues is perhaps less prominent this year that it has been previously, which might be a trend worth following. A more detailed look shows further patterns.

Some of the Scaledonia venues
Some of the Scaledonia venues


In Scotland, exhibitors taking part in Scalarama organised autonomously, calling their part of the festival ‘Scaledonia’. There were numerically more events in Scotland this year than in previous editions, but only nine venues. Two of these are arthouse cinemas: the Edinburgh Film House and the Glasgow Film Theatre, two are independent cinemas, the Grosvenor and the Birks, and two of them are arts centres. It is this latter category that covers more events and distorts the picture somehow.

This is because the Scalarama programme includes 27 screenings by SQIFF, the Scottish Queer International Film Festival, which ran for the first time this year. This collaboration is, to an extent, simply a consequence of both SQIFF and Scalarama happening at the same time, but it also meant that SQIFF could access Scalarama programming strands like the Shirley Clarke catalogue. Most of the SQIFF screenings take place at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Glasgow, which has become a convergence point for culture industry workers of different types, and the main site for non-profit film festivals in Glasgow. This is an interesting development, which speaks of a rather close relationship between the film and the art scene which is not entirely surprising in such a small milieu. It does however complicate the structuring distinctions of the field.

In her book Film Cultures (2002), Janet Harbord outlined the arthouse cinema and the gallery as two distinct sites for contemporary film exhibition, with their own embodied expectations. The proliferation of arts centres with dedicated screening facilities alongside gallery space, shops, cafes, and office and workshop space is as much a staple of contemporary urban culture as the flashy art galleries. Amongst this trend, the CCA is perhaps a slightly more politicised space, retaining some of its radical roots from when it started as the Third Eye Centre. Its centrality to Glasgow’s film culture has a parallel role to the more cinephiliac, middlebrow position of the Glasgow Film Theatre, only a few blocks away.

But what about the other Scaledonia venues? Three examples allow us to identify different curatorial strategies in operation.


First we have a community cinema in a village hall, in Dunlop which is a village just outside Glasgow. The Community Cinema is supported by Cinema For All (British Federation of Film Societies) and Film Hub Scotland. So this is a regular provision with institutional support. As part of the BFI Film Audience network, locations like this one are the prime target for the curated seasons that the British Film Institute puts together. That constitutes the core of their regular programming. Through these networks, the volunteer-run (but very professional) cinema has access to curatorial expertise and practical support in dealing with distributors. The Dunlop Community Cinema also organise event screenings, such a tea dance to go with the re-release of Brief Encounter, and a Northern Soul night to go with the recently released film of that title. Their base at a multi-purpose hall with a licensed café is helpful, as the chairs can easily be put away for dancing and there is a proscenium stage for performances or presentations.

For Scalarama, Dunlop showed the 2012 film Hannah Arendt (Margarethe von Trotta), which linked the programme to the Directed By Women fortnight. Directed By Women is a campaign to encourage exhibitors to show films directed by women during the first two weeks of September, as a ‘worldwide viewing party’. This temporal overlap resulted in a collaboration with Scalarama, who launched ‘Project 51’ as an initiative with the aim of achieving gender equality in exhibition. Hannah Arendt was not, however, one of the core films offered by Scalarama, and even though it is a mainstream biopic, it was a surprising choice for a Saturday evening show, as it is a very discursive meditation on ethics and theory, and large parts of it are in German. It was also very different from other Scalarama-promoted films, as it is neither a cult movie or a nostalgic mainstream movie. This suggests that the association with Scalarama was contingent on the association with the Directed By Women. The volunteers were surprised that their cinema was featured in a national newspaper article about Scalarama, mentioned in the same sentence as the urban arthouse cinemas that seem as a world apart.

Closer to the Scalarama ethos was the screening of the Japanese film House (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1977) organised by Matchbox Cineclub. This was run at the cine-club’s usual place, a bar in Glasgow city centre which has an upstairs room for music gigs, exhibitions, and a wide variety of weird stuff. The screening was on Matchbox’s usual monthly date. Matchbox have been running cult cinema screenings for several years, and this film was not out of character. It was known to the programmers, who have extensive expertise. The film has recently been released on DVD by Eureka, which is one of the distributors working in partnership with Scalarama. So while the Cineclub could have programmed the film at some point anyway, the Scalarama connection facilitated the process.

Finally, the #PeoplePower double bill was an initiative of the Radical Film Network that programmed the same two short documentaries about British activists, on the same date in different places around the UK. The Scalarama programme proposed,

“6 double-bill screenings of A Time Comes (2009) and McLibel (2005) happening up-and-down the country. The events aim to unite individuals within the screening space and foster dialogues of what we can do as individuals and as collective to effect change.”

The overlap of these two networks – Radical Film Network and Scalarama – introduces a politicised programming strand branching off the cult aspect. The Glasgow screening was organised by Document Human Rights Film Festival, who are local members of the Radical Film Network – so this thematic shift connects another organisation to the Scalarama scheme. This was a more purely one-off event, at a space with a history of activism. The Govanhill Baths is a public swimming pool that was closed and then occupied by the community. Several community groups and projects are run from its spare rooms. On the day of the screening, the venue had been awarded funding to restore and reopen the swimming pool, so there was a sense of victory. During the screening there was a collection for striking workers at the National Galleries and a solidarity group photo was sent.

These three examples, thus, engage with modes of practice that come from different traditions: the village hall cinema, the cult movie cine-club, and the activist screening. This draws attention to the very fluid convergence of cinematic practices made visible by something like Scalarama, which started as a celebration of a very specific type of cinema experience.

The Southside Film Festival in Glasgow is also, like Scalarama, referencing a loss, but it is a very different beast. This is a much smaller event, offering about two dozen screenings and several workshops over a weekend, and explicitly positioned in relation to a local history of cinema.

Some of the Southside Film Festival venues
Some of the Southside Film Festival venues

The 2015 brochure opened with this text:

“Southside Film Festival started in 2011 as a response to the lack of a local cinema or film screenings in the Southside of Glasgow. Four years later the festival reflects on the continued lack of a local cinema with the theme of cinema heritage and film archive.”

In this case, the pop-up strategy is not necessarily valorised in itself; it is presented as a response to a lack. In practice, however, there is a lot of creativity and pleasure in programming in unexpected spaces. This is a site-specific film festival; the choice of films responds to the choice of venues and the ancillary events available at these locations. So for instance pairing films with food, or using the Wurlitzer organ at the local town hall to accompany silent movies. This year the emphasis on history and archives was articulated through an exhibition about the old cinemas of the Southside, and an open call for home movies which were digitised and edited into short films and shown on the opening night.


But for all that the festival is so explicitly invested in history, the old cinemas that still stand in the area are yet to be reclaimed for it. The exception is the large Pollokshaws Burgh hall. Here we have an example of a building that has hosted cinema for more than a hundred years without ever becoming a cinema. These histories about what, where, and when cinema is, and where it has been, continue to shape where cinema’s going, even through the apparently novel forms of exhibition practice. Over the next three years I hope to throw away these preliminary ideas several times over, and to make the acquaintance of many of those making cinema happen in every corner of Scotland. If you’re one of them – I’d love to meet you!

Watching and hoping

Para leer en español de click aquí

Colombia is a hopeful country. Against our best instincts, after nothing but catastrophic disappointments and broken promises, people hope that the current peace process will come to something. This is not naive hope – even in the best possible scenario, the current agreement will only address one aspect (and one actor) in our historical clusterfuck. But there is no other option. It is either trying again or accepting that the world’s oldest ongoing conflict is a permanent feature. Even those who want to continue the war sell their militaristic programme on the basis of hope: for security and growth.

In Colombia people think about identities. Not just academics either; concepts from critical theory (‘the other’, ‘symbolic violence’) permeate journalistic and political discourse. This much attention given to cultural or ideological categories in a country with so much material inequality and physical violence may seem surprising. And yet, in 2015 Colombian film production hit a record high of 36 feature releases, while around 80 film festivals are active. This is an unprecedented scenario, and the hopes are also high. It is therefore an interesting moment for me to go back to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a festival I had not been to in almost a decade. Much has changed.

On the year the Festival started, 2000, only four Colombian films had been released, and there was no structure for state support of film production, after the collapse of the previous awards and tax credits system. A critic remarked that year on “the precariousness of our environment and the effective lack of a national film industry”.1 In 2015, the festival starts with a morning meeting of the National Cinematography Council, a body that includes representatives from all branches of the trade (except, as a vehement student noted, the universities). It was set up to oversee the execution of the 2003 Film Law, which established a tax on exhibition, distribution and production to be reinvested in the making and promotion of Colombian films. Nowadays, most Colombian films receive some support from this fund, as well as using other tax incentives for national and international production. Festivals like this one also apply for these public funds, in combination with an intricate mix of in-kind or cash support (the programme lists over 20 supporters, plus a dozen media partners and a longer list of local businesses).

Santa Fe de Antioquia, 2000

An image from the first Santa Fe de Antioquia Film and Video Festival, in 2000. Taken from Kinetoscopio.

While this ensures a professional organisation and smooth delivery, this festival is not aiming to compete with Cannes. It doesn’t have the same purpose. The aforementioned critic also described the event as “after all, a provincial festival”. This is still true, though the festival’s sense of locality has changed. Initially the explicit purpose of the festival was to reinvigorate film culture in a town that did not have a cinema. There was a focus on engaging the local audience, not only as spectators but also as budding filmmakers. The festival’s relationship with the municipality and schools is still strong, and many locals do attend. However, the audience has changed since the start of the festival, due to the increase of tourism in the region, and the nurturing of an audiovisually inclined milieu in the many Media and Communications university programmes in the nearest city, Medellin.

Located in the valley of River Cauca, some 35 miles north-west from Medellin, Santa Fe de Antioquia has long been a tourist town, due to its hot, dry weather and colonial architecture. However, since the opening in 2006 of a new tunnel that shortened the travel time from Medellin in half, Santa Fe’s appeal has increased considerably. Wealthy Medellin couples choose it for picturesque weddings, thrill-seekers find a variety of lightly regulated adventure sports, and the less well-off visit on day trips by motorbike or bus. The festival’s own crowd, however, is mostly students, who come as much for the parties as for the films. Many of them are more interested in making films than in watching them, or at least watching them while sober. I don’t know why, but many people here really want to make films, and the festival has found ways to show their work to an audience mostly of peers. The talks, panels and workshops take a practical angle, from independent film production to film acting and 3D animation. There are also a number of open-air panel discussions with filmmakers and actors, a festival tradition. The presence of well-known actors (likely to be familiar to the audience through their work on television) continues to create popular interest in the academic programme.

Throughout the day, the programme of screenings, talks and workshops is spread around various indoor spaces in the town, through agreements with the municipal theatre, the Chambers of Commerce, the state university, and other public and private entities that have appropriate venues. The free-of-cost and unticketed nature of most events is in the festival’s ethos, but it creates a variety of logistical problems. During the day, the small spaces available are not enough to accommodate the demand; people were turned away from many of the screenings I attended. Many film festivals wished they had this problem – keen audiences for films that are not necessarily brand new or exclusive. Screenings of shorts by young and emerging filmmakers are also full to capacity.

Open-air screenings start at about 6.30 or 7pm, after the sun has set, and face other issues. The presenters introducing each screening explain their censorship rating and try to persuade parents to take home their children if the film has more adult content, like the lyrically sexual Cheatin’ (Plympton, 2013) which opened the festival. In any case, there are plenty of unaccompanied minors who are unlikely to heed the advice. The efficacy of the four walls and single entrance of a cinema as a device for exclusion is obvious by comparison.

Light pollution affects projection quality, but the audience is patient

Light pollution affects projection quality, but the audience is patient

Walls are also rather good at keeping light and noise out, and a tourist town on a busy weekend is definitely not a quiet place. The light from street lamps and shops makes the darkest parts of a dark movie, Violencia, completely undecipherable. The three quiet, naturalistic, devastating stories distil the tragedies and dignity of thousands of victims and survivors, and commit them to memory. They deserve better than competing for attention with the party music blaring from the corner of the park, or the tuk-tuks racing down the cobbled streets. And yet, it was important to have this film there, and La Tierra y la Sombra on the following night. This town has its own history of violence, and the watchful eye of the paramilitaries is still an unspoken presence in these colonial squares.

Panel discussion at Jesus Nazareno square

Panel discussion at Jesus Nazareno square

On Saturday evening, people are leaving mass at the Nazarene church, and in the cosy, secluded square outside it, a conversation follows two shorts. Like other events in the festival, the panel includes film actors and the director of Violencia. But the event is organised by the National Agency for Reintegration (ACR) and the International Organisation for Migration, and one of the other participants is a demobilised guerrilla combatant. As she speaks plainly of how hard it has been to work alongside the people she once fought, I fear for her. Some of her old enemies may still be circling around on their motorbikes, I think. She is brave, and speaking of peace here is a courageous act, and peace is going to take a lot of courage.

Trailer for Jorge Forero’s Violencia:


1Braulio Uribe, “I Festival de Cine y Video de Santa Fe de Antioquia: Pueblito de mis cuitas”, Kinetoscopio No. 58 (2001), pp. 107-111.

Continue reading