Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival 2019 preview

One of the UK’s most adventurous moving image festivals enters its 15th year, trailing a constellation of lush cine-poetry, sensorial encounters with the natural world and a nocturnal lullaby from Lav Diaz

Feature by Sam Kenyon | 29 Aug 2019
  • Cemetery

Lovers of artists' moving image and experimental cinema will be looking towards Berwick-upon-Tweed next month as the border town's annual showcase of film, installation, performance and talks returns with a sparkling programme. The festival opens with Carlos Casas’ Cemetery, a film about the final journey of a dying elephant that stalks the outermost boundaries of nature documentary, adventure stories and experimental film. Developed over ten years, the film maps the visual, spatial and sonic topography of the jungle, inviting the viewer into a world of cinematic and spiritual myth-making that explores themes of extinction, sanctuary and interspecies communication.

The weekend-long programme is staged in amongst some of the historic sites of Berwick-upon-Tweed, and much of it is infused with a playful curiosity about the specificity of place and the interplay between human, non-human, worldly and otherworldly experience. There is even a strand of activity inspired by the “ritualistic genealogy of artistic expression” in Southeast Asia, and traditions of performances as offerings to gods and spirits, rather than human observers.

Animistic Apparatus: All-night screenings, eco-walks and exhibitions

The Animistic Apparatus strand begins with an early morning Ecology Walk through Berwick, and features installation works from Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Tanatchai Bandasak that channel the invisible energies and latent histories contained within landscapes in Northeast Thailand and the highlands of Laos. In the town’s old jail cells, Railtrack Songmaps is a collaborative audio-visual exhibition by Lucy Davis built around a sound assemblage of voice and birdsong recorded at Tanglin Halt, a historic, soon-to-be-redeveloped quarter of urban Singapore currently home to 105 species of birds.

George Clark’s multimedia archival project Double Ghosts explores the cinematic and political phantoms arising from an unfinished film by Chilean filmmaker Raúl Ruiz. And the rupturing of past into present that characterises Filipino director Lav Diaz’s work will be whispered into the darkness in a special open-air screening of A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery, running from midnight to sunrise at Berwick quayside.

Diaz will attend the festival and also presents in the New Cinema section with The Halt – a phantasmagoric sci-fi set in a Manila plunged into eternal darkness – alongside new films from Narimane Mari and Juan Rodrigáñez.

Fantastika & Essential Cinema strands

Audiences are beckoned further down the rabbit hole with Fantastika, a strand of sensuous cinematic fairytales, folktales and fables with echoes of Sergei Parajanov and Jack Smith. The Folk Legends and Fairytale Shorts screenings feature an eclectic selection of strange and experimental films spanning ethnographic documentary and psychedelic animation. Niki de Saint Phalle’s rarely-screened feature Un rêve plus long que la nuit is paired with Mari Terashima’s Hatsukoi for an adults-only evening of feminist erotica. Female sexuality is also the subject Aleksey Fedorchenko’s vibrant and tender Celestial Wives of the Meadow Mari, a Decameron-esque romp set among the Finno-Ugric ethnic community sometimes referred to as "the last authentic pagans in Europe".

Russian language cinema and the aesthetics of the absurd appear again in a retrospective of Ukrainian filmmaker Kira Muratova (1934-2018). Described as “arguably the most variable, cacophonous and sardonic of the (post-) Soviet auteurs”, her body of work is formally radical and thematically transgressive. From her debut film in 1961 to her final feature in 2012, she mapped the changing social landscapes of the Soviet Union, embracing wildness, irreverence and satire.

Much of the Essential Cinema strand is in direct conversation with Muratova’s exuberant commitment to the transformative potential of experimentation. Not least Militant Desire, a screening and lecture on underground, queer cinema icon Lionel Soukaz; Broken Clocks, a ‘selectrospective’ of Julia Feyrer’s 16m films; and a screening of Christian Ghazi’s classic of political cinema, A Hundred Faces for a Single Day.

And among the most exciting contemporary work showcased this year is O’ Pierrot, an exhibition from New Flesh residency artist Tanoa Sasraku-Ansah examining the historical presentation of Blackness in costume via a theatrical retelling of Kenneth Anger’s avant-garde, queer fairytale Rabbit’s Moon.

Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival 2019, various venues, 19-22 Sep; day passes £14, weekend passes £40