Having never spent more than an hour in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and those few visits all related to coming or going somewhere else, I’m not sure what to expect from a five-day sojourn. What will a film & media festival be like in this small coastal town? I imagine tramping back and forth from my accommodation to a few different venues, seeing most of the things worth seeing after a couple of days. I certainly don’t imagine that I will leave having missed things I wanted to see, or with the feeling that there were even more places to discover than I had time for.
The first clue to tip me off was the festival catalogue. It’s both a gorgeous and extremely well put together booklet 127 pages long – yes, that’s right, 127 pages – where not only the feature films, but every short and exhibition, are treated to a full synopsis. There are even essays written by the programmers on the films that they’ve curated and the themes behind each strand of the program, as well as on the visiting artists whose work is featured this year. To complement the catalogue, a handy map and schedule detail where and when each event takes place. I count no less than fifteen venues within the limits of the town’s historic walls, and happily realize I’ve got some exploring to do.
Festival Director Peter Taylor welcomes us all to The Maltings, the main festival venue which serves as Berwick’s main cinema. Peter talks briefly about this year’s 13th edition of BFMAF, before Ilona Jurkonytè, a founding director of Kaunas International Film Festival and one of this year’s programmers, introduces the opening film, Battleship Potempkin. It sits in the strand ‘Ultramarine: The Sea as Political Space’, alongside other films where the fluidity of borders are explored, and where, as Jurkonytè writes in her essay, filmmakers are responding to ‘tensions exerted onto ocean space whilst also raising questions around territory making’. As with most of the people I talk to before and after the screening, I’ve seen bits of Potempkin but never the whole film, and never on the big screen. It’s pretty staggering. Though the plot is thin as ice on a Scottish loch in wintertime, the crowd scenes in which Eisenstein must have filmed nearly the entire population of Odessa, and the steps sequence in particular, accompanied by an equally dramatic score, leave you feeling emotionally drained. We gratefully pile out of the screening to be greeted by cold glasses of fizz, and the party has just begun.
Meanderings and Discoveries
The next few days I spend discovering what is probably my favourite part of the festival – the Exhibitions programme. Dotted about the town, in The Main Guard, The Lookout, The Ice House, the town jail, and numerous other intriguing and unique places, are exhibitions of individual films being shown on a loop. You enter, take a seat, and immerse yourself into the world of the film and the environment.
This is where I discover the trance-inducing music of Franco Melis, a master launeddass player and subject of the short film Allegro Largo Triste showing in Coxon’s Tower. For 36 minutes the drone of his instrument fills this stone-built space while a breeze off the sea slips through the slit window behind me, playing with my hair. At 57 Marygate, Ebb and Flow tracks human emotions through images of the ocean from above and within. A beautifully executed soundtrack punctuates the crashing of waves with chaotic urgency, while schools of fish, a spinning shell, or dancing tangles of seaweed explore texture and colour equally as powerfully as they do emotional response.
Downstairs in the cellar-like gloom of The Barrels Ale House, Bye Bye Deutschland! takes you to a parallel universe of German singers in the Schlager genre, crooners who cover sentimental German songs with simplistic lyrics. Shown in eye-popping colours, often in fantastical sequences, their music isn’t completely at odds with the stuffed seats and barroom atmosphere of the pub, where cheesy music often finds a home. I stay to watch the full loop, but like many of the other films on this exhibition circuit, people filter in and out, some staying for the duration, others looking at their partners with quizzical expressions and quiet nods, ducking out quietly.
Other films that I find dotted about the town in unlikely venues are the creation of festival guests Peggy Ahwesh and Hardeep Pandhal, who are taking part in seminars as well as showcasing more of their works. Ahwesh’s animated Verily! The Blackest Sea, the Falling Sky is approached down a long dark tunnel in the Ice House, and presents the viewer with two screens joined together in a ‘V’ shape. The musical soundtrack corresponds to both films, which are identical in length and can be watched either together or separately. I watch each in turn, and appreciate how they complement each other in their modern concerns about migration, nature, and environmental threat. These are very different in both feel, subject matter, and form to her earlier works I had seen previously in The Maltings as part of her retrospective, and I don’t feel the same unease. Scenes in Martina’s Playhouse, and most of the explicitly pornographic The Colour of Love left me questioning my reaction, and then discussing prudishness with an equally disturbed festival-goer on the bench outside after the screening.
Konfessions of a Klabautermann is Pandhal’s animated exhibition, scored by him rapping on issues of race, colonial history, class, and political resistance. Housed in the Gymnasium, the visitor is first greeted with a warning that this is suitable for over-18’s only, before diving into a super-saturated world of riotous colour and equally bold statements. I sense there is more than a little bit of humour in his polemic poetry, and enjoy the X-rated language in a way that I found difficult with Ahwesh’s images. Complementing the video are three nearly life-sized two-dimensional figures of Indian men, each grappling with a snake, in a reimagining of seaside cut-outs.
Each experience is completely different, and either leads me to a place I hadn’t expected, or raises questions within me. There are ten of these film exhibitions to be found in the town, and I’m impressed with the set-up of each one. Simple things like chairs, decent lighting, even the type of screen that’s been chosen has been done thoughtfully and with care. Unfortunately I have to admit that this wasn’t the case for me with the live exhibitions. Maybe it has to do with understanding live performance from my own personal perspective as a musician and not an artist, but I felt that what was otherwise a very strong programme was let down by the live events. Hardeep Pandhal’s live set on Friday night took place in the Gymnasium, where it appeared that no consideration had been taken towards lighting or atmosphere. Standing around in a semi-circle, bottles clutched in our hands, the audience shuffled awkwardly under the full glow of harsh lighting until, towards the end of the set, someone killed a few lights and we could relax.
The other performances I attended were also not quite what I had been expecting, and while the sonic atmosphere created by Áine O’Dwyer and Graham Lambkin in Berwick Parish Church would work well for me as an experimental film soundtrack, I found myself questioning their performance more than enjoying it. The use of the church as a space from which to create sound was intriguing and found its fans amongst some of the viewers, but for me the content, which included spinning a cymbal on the floor while tossing pebbles, just didn’t capture me. Another event, in which artist Sholto Dobie inflates a giant plastic bag to become a kind of improvised bagpipe, is let down by the noise of the air compressor next door. After these three events I decide to miss the last one, and take a walk around town instead, discovering a bookshop rammed with curiosities, and a miniature building first built as a ladies’ loo. Back in my comfort zone, you could argue.
The Uzbekistani Legend
Returning to the film programme, and Friday evening starts with another strand of the festival, ‘Uzbek Rhapsody’, and the first of three films to be shown by veteran director Ali Khamraev. Man Follows Birds is a visually stunning 1975 film set in his native Uzbekistan, which follows the plight of a young man orphaned after the death of his alcoholic father. This film is the highlight of the festival for me, and leaves me looking forward to his other screenings. The beauty of the scenery, costumes, as well as the women – the boy’s mother who has died giving birth to him is played by Khamraev’s wife, an actress and ballerina – is set against a tragic backdrop of violence, misfortune, and human survival. When Khamraev himself takes the stage to thunderous applause, he regales us with stories of mixing vodka and beer, and of the time he saw Charlie Chaplin. While the programmer tries in vain to steer him back to filmmaking, the rest of us are happy to hear his anecdotes and soak up the infectious joy he obviously feels in being here, and in having the chance to show his films in the UK.
The final major strand, ‘Berwick New Cinema’ is part of the competition programme, and includes eight screenings, of which two are feature films. Drawn from all over the world, they are a disparate mix, and range from a film created out of found footage from a never-released Philippine feature called People Power Bombshell: The Diary of Vietnam Rose, which blends the boundaries between documentary and fiction, to a strong showing of shorts. My personal favourite is High Cities of Bone, in which a Cape Verdean rap singer leaves the Lisbon housing project he’s been relocated to, and takes refuge in the jungle spreading out from the valley below it. His memory seems to have been lost along with the loss of his former home, so that he doesn’t recognize the daughter who visits him, or remember the events of his previous life.
The Rest of the Fest
My discoveries not yet over, I’m pleasantly surprised to find out that BFMAF even has its own fringe festival, On the Fringe, housed in a building that’s been taken over completely as a gallery space for its artists. Now in its sixth year, they also host screenings in a car park after the main features have ended. As I walk through the exhibitions I take delight in each new space that I encounter – each is curated considerately, from film installations to sculpture and photography.
My final revelation about BFMAF is just how good karaoke can be on a Saturday night. Held in the Brown Bear Inn – the festival hub – it’s the official party for festival attendees, volunteers, and staff. While the local population of Berwick may not have come out in great numbers (aside from Margaret Salmon’s Mm, a documentary on local speedway racing team the Berwick Bandits, there hasn’t been a large local turnout) we’re guaranteed to mingle here. And we do, from festival director to visiting filmmakers, to local lasses celebrating a birthday. Waving homemade banners and singing out of tune. There’s fun to be had in Berwick, and I’ve tried to sample as much as I can. I might just have to come back next year.
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