Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival 2018: Preview

Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival returns to Hawick with a lively programme that includes the new collaboration between Ben Rivers and Ben Russell and the reportedly final film from the great Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer

Preview by Jamie Dunn | 03 Apr 2018

If one were planning to set up an international festival of experimental moving image, a modest-sized town over 50 miles from the nearest urban population wouldn’t be the obvious choice of location. But that’s exactly what filmmaker Richard Ashrowan did in 2010 when he started Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival in Hawick, in the Scottish Borders.

Speaking to Creative Scotland last year, Ashrowan reminisced on how he was inspired to found the festival while travelling to a screening of one of his films at an event abroad. “There was a distinct moment at the European Media Art Festival in Germany when I had the thought, 'Why am I here in Germany? Why can’t something like this happen in Scotland?'” he recalls. The reason for choosing Hawick as the location was twofold: first, it was convenient as he lives nearby; second, he liked the perverse idea of staging an ambitious international festival of avant-garde film in a more rural setting. “It’s a kind of provocation to the prevailing urban-centrism in terms of culture,” says Ashrowan.

Eight years later the festival is thriving. Alchemy’s eighth edition takes place next month (3-7 May), bringing a typically diverse programme to Scotland. The festival opens with Canadian artist Mike Hoolboom’s curious sounding biopic Aftermath (4 May, 4pm). Described as a quartet of hauntologies in the form of audiovisual graffiti, the four-part film repurposes archival texts to narrate moments from the lives of four artists from various disciplines – Fats Waller, Jackson Pollock, Janieta Eyre and Frida Kahlo.

UK filmmakers Ben Rivers and his American namesake Ben Russell are stalwarts of the avant-garde film scene and no strangers to Alchemy, with their collaboration A Spell to Ward Off Darkness screening at the festival in 2014. The pair are back conspiring with new film The Rare Event (5 May, 4pm), which looks like another hypnotic and playful experiment.

Working in their preferred 16mm, the film initially looks like it’s capturing a three-day philosophical discussion in a Paris recording studio between some great thinkers, including Jean-Luc Nancy, Étienne Balibar and Hans-Ulrich Obrist. The first clue this isn’t a straight-up doc comes in the form of a man dressed head to toe in green lycra, who’s nonchalantly mingling among the luminaries, while the Bens’ roving camera seems as interested in the textures of their subjects’ clothes and gestures they make as the actual content of the debate.

Having missed its world premiere in Glasgow last September, we’re also keen to catch Alchemy’s screening of Guy Maddin’s dizzyingly eccentric 2003 film Cowards Bend the Knee (6 May, 7.45pm) along with the brand-new live score from Polish composer Ela Orleans. This screening will also include the world premiere of Orleans’ film Apparition, a kaleidoscopic short inspired by portrayals of biblical femme fatale Salome in music, film and art.

Other highlights look to be the world premiere of Skye-based artist Julie Brook’s Firestack, an immersive installation documenting a fire stack on the Isle of Lewis becoming gradually overcome by the tides, and the European premiere of Toronto filmmaker Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof’s Relics of Lumen, which brings together 5,000 photos from Ryerson University in Toronto and NASA’s collections to create an immersive collage of humankind’s 20th century achievements.

There are also some short group programmes that look essential, including a touring programme of 16mm experimental films curated by Ann Arbor Film Festival and an evening celebrating the resurgence of Super 8 as a medium, following an upsurge in artists embracing the visceral, performative potential of the format. And another must-see is Insect, the reported swansong of the legendary Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer, whose influence spreads from David Lynch to recent Oscar-winner Guillermo del Toro.

The above is just a taste of the wide-ranging programme of 130 film screenings, 12 film installations and filmmaker symposiums coming to Hawick for five days this summer. This Borders town may not be the easiest place to get to in Scotland, but this lively and welcoming festival make a trip there worth the effort.

Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival, Hawick, various venues, 3-7 May; full programme at