Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival: 2018 Report

From a celebration of Super8 to a tribute to Jan Švankmajer, we look back at the highlights from this year's Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 15 May 2018

Film festivals come in all shapes and sizes. Behemoths like Berlin and Toronto spread tendrils throughout their cities, leaving festival-goers overwhelmed as they scurry around dozens of venues but never scratch the surface of the overflowing programmes. Others are so bijou that they feel like you’re watching movies in a protective bubble; they’re warm and cosy but have little to no impact on the wider world. With Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival, you get the best of both. Situated in Hawick, a modest-sized town in the Scottish Borders, Alchemy has grown over its last eight editions to feel integrated with its community while remaining intimate and welcoming.

Achieving this balance hasn’t been plain sailing. Speaking at the Your Festival Your Community conference a few days before this year’s edition of Alchemy kicked off, the festival’s founder and artistic director Richard Ashrowan explained that if, in 2010, he’d asked someone in Hawick, “Would they like a experimental artist film festival in town?”, he’d have been shot down. “Universally they’d have said, ‘Not only do we not want it, we actively don’t like the idea of that,’” he says. “I think that would have been the response. But in subsequent years we’ve managed to embed a really challenging and radical programme into our community.”

Embed is the perfect word. On the night we arrive in Hawick for our first visit to the festival, we're whisked up along with a gaggle of curious festival punters on a guided tour of a dozen moving image installations scattered throughout the town centre in unusual locations. The majority of these pop-ups are in long disused spaces along the High Street, including a former tax office, an old camping gear store and the empty back rooms of the town’s library, as well as the gorgeous old Peter Scott knitwear factory, which closed in 2016. It’s the perfect twilight introduction to a town we're going to get to know quite well over the next few days, and an introduction to the festival that’s trying to reach into its community and to people who might not necessarily think artist moving image is for them. 

Tablemouth, Katharine Fry

Moving Image Installations and Young Talent at Alchemy

The most successful of these installations are the ones that speak to their venue. The disquieting Tablemouth, from Katharine Fry, is the electrifying standout. The two-channel looping video features the artist as she attempts to chow down on a small wooden side-table, biting on its table top and swallowing one of its legs. She appears to be doing all this in an attic crawl space. Tablemouth would be disturbing enough in a conventional black box gallery, but the choice of venue and the modifications done to the space create something truly nightmarish. Situated in the basement of a quaint little gallery, the room’s floor has been raised so that even Janette Krankie would have to stoop to enter. The claustrophobic room and Fry’s disturbing visuals work in horrible harmony.

Other films were powerful enough to work with a more standard presentation. Jacques Perconte’s Twenty Nine Minutes at Sea, for example, was so overwhelming it transcended the shabby office space in which it was projected. Initially showing an overhead shot of an expanse of sea, the digital image slowly distorts and bleeds together until the video begins to look like a Manet oil painting, with the colour red ominously creeping into the frame.

Another watery triumph was Julie Brook’s Firestack. The power of the sea is also the focus of this mesmerizing piece showing the firestack of the title, a bonfire enclosed in a meter-high circle of stones, being consumed by waves as the tide comes in on a beach as the sun sets. The 30-minute film plays like a fatalistic thriller: you know how it must end but hold out hope that the flame won’t be snuffed out by the incessant creep of mother nature.

While most artists were content with a single screen, FR@GILE – the most playful of Alchemy’s installations – used myriad. Designed by the Young Alchemy Moving Image Makers, a group whose 10-to-16-year-old members all hail from the Borders area, the piece was concerned with self-expression, miscommunication and the shifting ways in which we interact in the digital age. Artists Amelie Berry and Lucka Best provided a lively introduction to the artwork, with Berry also featuring in the show’s most eye-catching piece, a stack of monitors which combine to show a life-sized image of the artist striking various gestures and expressions, which become obfuscated by the monitors glitches and ambiguous when her face is obscured by a cardboard box.

Three talented youngsters from the Borders (Rhian Deakon, Yarrow Frost and Lily McKenzie) were also behind the curation of Reality Makes You Sleep, Dreams Keep You Awake, one of the most rewarding programmes in the main film slate. Opening film Jellyfish from ECA student Megan McHugh was a beautiful paean to an abandoned lido in her home town in South Cumbria, with new footage of the abandoned pool combined with archive clips, found footage and a dreamy voiceover from an unreliable narrator reminiscing about her halcyon days.

The new film from 15-year-old San Francisco-based filmmaker Emma Penaz Eisner – the evocatively titled There’s More Than One Way to Skin a Man – screened in the same programme and proved a timely study in male aggression, as well as a white hot condemnation of her country’s current President. Tommy Becker’s video poem/music video called Catastrophe & Convenience, which begins with a breathless young man reading off his ridiculous to-do list, was another witty addition to this sharply curated programme.

Jan Švankmajer

Alchemy isn’t all new talent. Most of Saturday was given over to a celebration of the great Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer, who’s been making his distinctive brand of nightmarish cinema since the early 60s. The first programme in tribute to the 83-year-old filmmaker took the form of four of his finest short films followed by a fascinating discussion between Švankmajer scholars Michael Richards, Peter Hames and Louise S Milne.

The craft and wit of masterpieces like Dimensions of Dialogue and Jabberwocky is undeniable. Švankmajer’s ability to take banal objects of everyday life and turn them into mischievous, sentient creatures is still thrilling decades after these films were made, but this programme also reminds us that his artistry goes well beyond animation. We were particularly delighted to be introduced to his evocative 1982 short Down to the Cellar. Centred on a young girl sent to fetch potatoes from her apartment building’s dingy basement, it a reminder that Švankmajer is as fine at manipulating performances from his live action cast as he is from inanimate objects.

Since his debut feature film Alice (1988), his heady take on the Lewis Carroll text, feature-length has been Švankmajer’s prefered medium, and his latest film Insects made its UK premiere at Alchemy. It’s a film that works on three levels. The first is the reality within the film, which follows a ridiculous troupe of no-hope amateur actors who’re attempting to stage Karel and Josef Capek’s 1922 satire The Insect Play, which follows a menagerie of anthropomorphised insects. The second layer is the vivid imaginations of the actors, who begin to actually believe they are the creepy-crawlies they’re playing, which is visualised with the help of some of Švankmajer’s stop motion animation techniques.

The third is the kicker: a fourth wall-breaking behind-the-scenes documentary showing Švankmajer and his crew shooting the film and its various loopy effects. The result is a scrappy delight, and we hope this maestro of the surreal reneges on his plans to make this his final film. As seen in the behind-the-scenes footage, Švankmajer is clearly still full of energy – and most importantly, his imagination is as sprightly as ever.

Video Essays and New Films at Alchemy

These Švankmajer tributes sandwiched the best contemporary film we saw at Alchemy: Daniel Cockburn’s The Argument (with Annotations). The film seemingly begins as a smug essay film splicing together scenes from a myriad of familiar works – The Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, Terence Davies’ The Long Day Closes, Steve Martin comedy The Man with Two Brains – to make some very spurious arguments about the nature of metaphor in cinema. Just when you think your eyes can't roll any further back into your head something wonderful happens, and we start to follow the woman, a septuagenarian professor, who’s made this essay film.

Now taking the form of an indie drama, we’re with the filmmaker on her daily routine – doing errands, having dinner with her husband – but she can’t shake her essay film from her head. Written notes appear on screen as the filmmaker begins to refine her theories and question the accuracy of some of the points she has made. It’s at once a sly critique on the nature of using film images out of context to proves certain intellectual ideas while also being a subtle examination of memory and aging. After seeing The Argument, we kind of wish all essay films had a similar second half, with the likes of Adam Curtis and Jean-Luc Godard forced to reassess their intellectual leaps.

Something similar would have been useful to accompany The Rare Event, the latest collaboration between Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, which played in a double bill with Cockburn’s film. It centres around a gathering of intellectuals as they discuss dense, impenetrable theory that relates to the idea of resistants. Their conversation may actually be gobbledygook, but it’s certainly difficult to follow as the Bens’ roving camera seems more interested in a man wearing a green leotard who’s inexplicably roaming around the Parisian studio in which the high-brow conversations are taking place. The green man’s body becomes even more disruptive when at intervals it’s transformed into a green-screen canvas for rudimentary animations of geometric shapes. It’s a real head-scratcher, but we think we liked it.

Simpler pleasures are to be found in Bea Haut’s Drag. A gorgeous gem shot on black and white 16mm film, it shows the filmmaker tying a rope to an old sofa that’s been dumped on her street, which is then dragged down the road by a truck with Haut standing on top of it like she’s surfing. Stunningly simple, it has the same comic rhythms and disregard for personal safety as the films of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

Drag, Bea Haut

Drag screened alongside Swiss filmmaker Aurèle Ferrier’s knockout Transitions, another deceptively simple but stunningly effective work. Taking the form of a series of forward-moving tracking shots, Ferrier’s camera glides menacingly and stealthily. We begin by moving slowly through a barren desert, but with each edit we seem to be moving closer to an urban centre. Roads appear, then houses, neighbourhoods, and finally a downtown strip in Las Vegas, but the landscape remains as eerily free of human activity as the early tracking shots in the desert. Has the Nevada casino town and its surrounding suburbs been abandoned, is the human race extinct? The camera – perhaps an alien visitor expecting the detritus of Earth’s remains – seems unmoved by the apocalyptic mood and continues to move forward, unperturbed.

Expanded Cinema and One-Off Events at Alchemy

After dark, Alchemy gives over to its Expanded Cinema events. On Friday night, the town’s Auld Baths was the venue for a celebration of Super8 film, with several artists displaying the performative potential of the format. We loved the films of Dutch artists Jaap Pieters, who’s been nicknamed the ‘Eyes of Amsterdam’. Most of his shorts, which are confined to the three minute duration of a Super8 reel, take the form of little street dramas shot around his hometown. Providing a droll commentary, Pieters sets up the simple scenes, which usually involve various eccentrics he observes from his apartment window. Poetic and absurd, it was impossible not to smile throughout his presentation.

More unnerving was Draft for a Scenario, a thrilling performance from Canadian filmmaker Kyle Whitehead in which he edits a Super8 film live, frantically cutting and splicing the film before it feeds through the projector. If watching Whitehead trying to keep ahead of the film loop wasn’t stressful enough, the film he’s editing is a speeded-up tracking shot rushing through a industrial building, with a screeching electronic score that’s also being created live via a synthesizer that’s programmed to create sound based on the light coming from the projector, meaning that as the film is edited, the sound is also recomposed. The results were jaw-dropping.

Cowards Bend the Knee

Another Expanded Cinema highlight was Alchemy’s screening of Guy Maddin’s 2003 film Cowards Bend the Knee with a mint fresh score from Glasgow-based Polish artist Ela Orleans. The film itself is a delight. Supposedly one of Maddin’s most personal works, it follows “Guy Maddin”, a star hockey player whose life becomes undone shortly after he takes his girlfriend to a backstreet abortionist and picks up a another girl midway through the procedure. Channeling the stuttering editing of Soviet montage and splicinging it with the gothic melodrama of German Expressionism, it’s a wonderfully goofy riff on The Hands of Orlac by way of a macabre soap opera. Orleans’ score, a dreamlike combination of synth and strings, proved a perfect accompaniment, enriching Maddin’s voyeuristic lark with added darkness and melancholy.

The festival came to a close with Alchemy's now traditional Film Walk, which sees a few dozen experimental film fans, as well as many of the staff from Alchemy’s production team, spend their Bank Holiday Monday making a pilgrimage through the Scottish Border’s rolling hillsides, with the promise of a screening at the end of the hike. This year’s closing film was particularly unmissable: a 16mm presentation of 1974 film Text of Light, a rarely screened formal investigation of light and colour from the preeminent genius of American experimental filmmaking, Stan Brakhage.

The screening location was Fatlips Castle, a four story tower atop the Minto Crags that looks like it could be the enchanted home of a princess in need of rescuing. The 16th century structure became a surreal screening room for Brakhage’s landmark work, in which he photographs light and the mesmerising effects it creates when shone through a crystal ashtray. As the light perculates, moves and changes colour, the abstract shapes begin to conjure up all sorts of images: faces, cityscapes, landscapes. Chats with some of my fellow audience members after the screening suggested the film worked as a kind of moving image Rorschach test. Many told The Skinny they saw the seascapes of JMW Turner, while we're convinced it contained the hellscapes of John Martin.

“Light, emanating outward, creates the world,” said Lily Ashmore before the screening, reading out a statement from her father Richard Ashrowan, Alchemy’s director, who couldn't make the Film Walk due to an injury that had left him limping the previous day. Cinema does something similar, and when it’s presented with as much passion from a festival like Alchemy who deeply cares about the medium, there’s no world we’d rather be in.

Alchemy Film & Movie Image Festival ran 3-7 May