Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival returns

Ahead of the 11th Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, we catch up with the festival's co-directors to hear what they've been up to during lockdown and how this year's programme has embraced the circular nature of the COVID-era

Article by Jamie Dunn | 28 Apr 2021
  • In Vivo - Karel Doing

If life was a moving image, it would be an epic narrative film unfolding over time. The last 12 months, however, have hardly felt linear. They’ve been more akin to a looping video installation, our lives endlessly repeating with no fixed beginning, middle or end. Not everyone has been standing still though, and Alchemy Film & Arts have been particularly productive and forward-looking.

Back in April last year, they became one of the first film festivals to retool their event for the COVID-era with Alchemy Live. Then in October, they kicked off their Continue Watching project, a vibrant virtual film programme that featured an array of regular online screenings complete with additions like artist Q&As, roundtable discussions and newly commissioned writing.

During the pandemic, this Hawick-based arts organisation has also been running Outwith, a series of filmmaking workshops and events specifically for young people based in the Borders. And at the end of April, they’re back with the 11th edition of the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. “We just started doing more and more things,” says Michael Pattison, Alchemy’s co-director, when we catch up with him on Zoom. “I feel like the pandemic slowed things down across the board but accelerated loads of conversations that we were beginning to have already.”

These conversations haven’t just been about innovations to the programme and delivering events during a pandemic, but questions around the general responsibilities of putting on a moving image festival in 2021. “I don't know how much it will come through in the programme, but we've been reassessing everything,” says Rachael Disbury, Alchemy’s other co-director. “Practically that manifests in revised policies, both publicly and internally. We’ve totally revised artists fees and material things like that, but there have also been more internal, ethical conversations.”

“Things that were always underpinning what we did,” adds Pattison, “without us necessarily having the time or resources to properly invest in them due to the intense resource drain that is putting on an in-person festival.”

Access and Adjustment

Some of these changes are in terms of access. Every single one of the 171 films in the programme this year, as well as the live Q&As and discussions, will be captioned to open the festival out to the deaf and hard of hearing community. A selection of the programme will also be audio described for blind and partially sighted audience members.

There’ll also be no talk of Scottish, UK or world premieres this year. “We no longer want to contribute to a system where the scarcity of a screening has capital,” says Pattison, “because for us, the key thing has always been the curation. The idea that if you see a film once you don't need to see it again, or that a film doesn't change outside of the context that you will place it in, that thinking, I think, is colonialist. We're trying to disrupt that.”

It’s refreshing to hear some positives come out of the COVID crisis. After the stress of being one of the first festivals forced to scrap their plans and deliver an online event, Alchemy seems to be embracing some of the advantages brought on by these new modes of working. “What's been nice,” says Disbury, “particularly having only one screening a month [with the Continue Watching project], it has allowed us to work a bit slower and actually have things like commissioned texts and longer Q&As and build actual relationships with artists rather than just push them through the festival machine.” These monthly screenings have also kept fees in the sector when exhibition opportunities have been scarce elsewhere.

When we speak to Pattison and Disbury, their new programme has just been announced. “I’m now literally midway through posting on Twitter our full schedule,” says Pattison. Unlike last year’s emergency event, which took place barely a month after the whole country went into lockdown and meant adapting elements of their IRL programme to be live-streamed instead, this year’s festival has been fully conceived to take place virtually. This extra time to prepare comes with its own stresses, as Pattison explains.

“Although the arts sector, if not the world, is drained by everything that's happened, they've also adjusted and normalised to the state of things," Pattison says. "A year ago everyone was in an emergency and acknowledging the fact that there was an emergency, whereas now I think all the talk of crisis and emergencies seems to have subsided, even though it continues. So this is still, for us, emergency mode, it's just we've had a longer time to prepare for it, which is what, I suppose, generates the pressure.”

Alchemy's opening event, A=A

Emergency mode or not, it’s clear from the programme that Disbury and Pattison have adapted and built on the success of last year’s ad hoc festival and subsequent events like their ongoing Continue Watching series. Disbury explains that many of the themes that have emerged this year are crystalised in the festival’s opening event, A=A, a discussion examining questions of repetition, duration and looping in artists’ moving image. “We've tried to embrace that kind of surreal, 'we thought this was only going to be once' feeling,” she says. “And not just in terms of Alchemy. You can apply that to everything, especially as we're in this March/April period now, which has this kind of physical memory of when everything shut down last year.”

Disbury is also mindful, though, that the context is very different from last year too. “Last time around people were just in lockdown, everyone was furloughed and Alchemy was able to cultivate a bit of a community. We're hoping it will again, but we're aware that nothing can be the same as it was last year.”

That theme is very much at the heart of A=A, which is presented in partnership with the Stuart Croft Foundation. “[A=A] is partly inspired by the circular storytelling that Stuart Croft was invested in as an alternative means of producing films and generating narratives,” explains Pattison. “We’ll be exploring ways in which artists' moving image might anticipate the present moment’s crises in terms of the same things happening again and being the same but kind of not the same. And we’ll be asking how our understanding of this crises change as a result of an engagement with this kind of work.”

NEW TAB: Cyclical video, new artworks

There are other non-time based elements to be found in the festival’s NEW TAB sidebar, which is described as a “curated parenthetic space for unstructured engagements”. Here you’ll find A Thing That Holds Something Else, an exhibition programme featuring ten video works confined to cyclical states. “While last year everything was live-streamed – and much of the programme is again this year – we wanted to create an alternative, unstructured time-space,” explains Disbury. “So we’ll have ten installations that are going to be on loop and can be accessed at any time, and we're going to encourage people to return to them throughout the festival.”

Repetition and the notion of history repeating itself will also be heavily evoked in this year’s Alchemy keynote by Marxist historian Vijay Prashad, which will be delivered in two parts. “We can't really return to the past,” says Pattison. “We cannot really return to a pre-COVID world because things have irrevocably changed across the globe, so this wrongheaded idea that people can move forward and proceed with the way things are as if the pandemic can sort of be overcome and broke through will be explored by Prashad.”

We’re also intrigued by Intervals, the second element of NEW TAB. It takes the form of six newly commissioned artworks by artists like Ania Bas, Jamie Crewe and Harry Josephine Giles, which will be designed to disrupt the programme, either as an interruption, invitation or provocation. Interestingly for a festival dedicated to the moving image, the one thing these mint-fresh works cannot be is moving image.

“Basically these are an invitation and a commission to interrupt and provoke and to compliment the programme,” says Disbury. “The idea was that these are non-moving image works that interrupt the programme, and audiences are encouraged to engage in between watching screenings. Some are text-based, some are image-based, some will invite people to go for a walk, so they're kind of activating. I guess we were trying to find different ways for people to engage in film and arts without necessarily always sitting down watching.”

Pattison, whose background is as a film critic, explains that he also hopes these pieces will perhaps work as criticism too: “We were thinking, ‘how to include criticism in the programme without it necessarily needing to be published in a critical magazine that only other critics read?’ That wasn't explicitly articulated to the artists who we commissioned, but it certainly underpinned the ethos going into the festival, because we like how commissioned texts can really enhance and draw out the programmes, and be complemented by artworks that in themselves are sort of critical because they're interventive and disruptive.”

In addition to these elements reacting to the notions of repetition and being caught in a COVID time-loop, the heart of the festival will be, as ever, four days of film screenings and talks, which will be free and screened live. The fact that they've kept so many of the screenings live this year came as something of a shock to Pattison and Disbury, who imagined this year’s event would eschew live-streaming for a fully on-demand platform, like most festivals have chosen to do – more for their sanity than anything else.

“After the drama (trauma?) of last year's Alchemy Live, we decided that, if we had to do it online again, we can't do it the way we did,” says Disbury. “It was just too intense for us in terms of everything being live-streamed.” Reading the various evaluation forms that last years attendees filled in soon changed things though. “In all the feedback, what really seemed to ring for people was the communal viewing thanks to the livestream element. So we went into our big festival meeting thinking, ‘this has to be on-demand, we cannot do this live again, we just can't do that.’ And then we came out saying ‘No, we need to do it live.’"

“Yes,” adds Pattison. “The uniqueness of last year's festival, what made it a success for the majority of our audiences, seems to be the fact that it was live. So we went full circle.”

You can join Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival live, on-demand or on loop from 29 April to 3 May. For the full programme details, head to