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.