Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival returns in-person

As Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival returns, its directors tell us to expect a more focused festival with community, collaboration and local filmmaking at its heart

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 29 Apr 2022
  • Notes from a Low Orbit

The team at Alchemy Film & Arts are waiting for something terrible to happen. I’m speaking to the Hawick-based cultural organisation’s directors, Rachael Disbury and Michael Pattison, on the run-up to them presenting the first in-person Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival since 2019, and they’re both kinda miffed as to why they’re not feeling stressed yet.

“This is the first year Alchemy has done an in-person festival with a team that's been working year-round,” explains Disbury. “And because of that, it's proven quite smooth. Our installation coordinator, Walt [Holland], who's been with the festival the longest, he's the one who's been saying, 'Why is everything so calm?' Which is quite nice, I guess. But you don't trust it, because everything is still so hectic globally, we're still waiting for things to explode, so I guess we're still in the kind of war-like response of the last two years.”

Hopefully any chaos that does crop up will be of the onscreen variety. The Skinny is certainly excited to be back in Hawick for the festival again, although Disbury and Pattison suggest that the event will feel very different this year, with the forced in-person hiatus giving the team the space to rethink and remodel. “With the pandemic of the last two years, we kind of took an opportunity to go back to basics and experiment, and actually reallocate resources,” says Disbury.

This reallocation includes things like investing in every screening being captioned, but also more fundamental changes to the nature of the festival. “We've really stripped back the number of venues," she says, "and we've taken a few things out of the programme so we can focus on fewer events and screenings. We are still in a pandemic, so wanted to limit how much we're actually doing because of that, but it’s also, I guess, a response to the culture of the [film festival] sector, in terms of its continual overproduction. So we've stripped things back and hopefully are doing them better.”

Local filmmaking: Turning Hawick into Film Town

A cursory browse of the brochure suggests one of these changes is a focus on more local filmmaking, with fewer international works in the programme and a ramping up of experimental film and moving image from Scotland and the Borders in particular. “I don't think it was a conscious decision to make the festival more local,” says Pattison. “It's more a consequence of feeding our year-round programme of work into the festival.”

One of these year-round projects is Film Town. Launched in 2019, it’s an ambitious grassroots filmmaking initiative that includes filmmaking workshops in Hawick that give local people the opportunities to make their own work that speaks directly to their own community. Pattison says: “When we launched Film Town, we said: 'It's all well and good delivering an internationally renowned five-day event in Hawick, but what happens for the other 360 days of the year?' I think what makes us unique as a film festival is that we don't stop. The festival is just one event that we leverage to showcase experimental film. For the rest of the year, we're working closely with communities.”

Artist residencies

Another of Alchemy’s community endeavours is The Teviot, the Flag and the Rich, Rich Soil, which consists of artist residencies, film commissions and community engagement projects that speak to the cultural identities of Hawick and the past, present and future of the town and its surrounding area.

“Kate Montserrat's keynote is part of [The Teviot, the Flag and the Rich, Rich Soil],” says Pattison. “As is Mark Lyken's new feature, Notes from a Low Orbit, and we've got loads of things threaded through the festival as a result of that programme. So it wasn't like, ‘How can we make the festival more local, as a conscious decision?’ It was like, ‘How can we integrate an event into this year-round organisational workflow?’”

Moving Image Exhibitions

While Alchemy hasn't taken place in-person for two years, they did still put out vibrant and hugely popular online editions, even during the first waves of the pandemic when many larger organisations chose to cancel altogether. One thing they couldn’t recreate online, however, was their extensive exhibition programme, which sees unusual spaces and disused venues throughout Hawick transformed into moving image installations.

Disbury explains that the exhibition strand is back, with spaces this year including a textile museum (Borders Textile Towerhouse) and more casual spaces within The Heart of Hawick, Alchemy’s main screening venue. “The exhibitions are the most well-attended part of the festival – a lot of people only attend those, just through being curious and walking in off the street and so on," she says. "But we made the decision, I think in 2019, that an exhibition doesn't always necessarily work if we’re just bringing in a complete work that's already been made somewhere else, and sort of placed in Hawick. It works [with] screenings, but we wanted to try something else in terms of starting up a residency programme, which also began in the summer in 2019, after the last in-person festival. So now we have had four or five artists actually developing work in Hawick, with Hawick communities.”

As well as giving people from Hawick work that directly addresses their milieu, there will also be the novelty of seeing films featuring their friends and neighbours. “We thought that simply by having people in them that people know and see every day would give the exhibitions a thematic link but also be another reason to come along," says Disbury. "We're acknowledging that there are still barriers to going to arts cinemas and into fine art spaces for people, so we’re trying to use everyday spaces and not necessarily present an alternative, but present a variety of ways to access this festival. So you don't need to come to everything, but hopefully – to use a cliche – there is something for everyone.”

The Skinny is looking forward to sampling this new-look Alchemy and taking in the charms of Hawick this weekend. Watch this space for our festival report next week.

Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, 28 Apr-2 May