Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th March 2017

Saturday begins with disappointment as I’m told I’ve left it far too late to obtain tickets for artist and filmmaker Rachel Maclean’s new film It’s What’s Inside That Counts.  I was pretty swift at jabbing my finger at the pulse at both Edinburgh Film Festival and the Fringe last year, so I’m annoyed at myself at being behind the curve.  Happily, there is an installation of Maclean’s work at Hawick Museum so I head along.  I’m the only one in the Scott Gallery so I get to peruse the prints on the wall at my leisure while the finishes its loop so I can watch from the beginning.

The prints are from a few years back and address the place of Scotland in the Union in the run-up to the Independence referendum.  Maclean’s caustic bubblegum style really instantly draws the eye; all acid colours and classic Scottish snark.  A Shrek-like Nessie is attacked by a gold club-wielding suit in St George’s Cross face-painted while a damsel in a dress made from a Rangers shirt looks on in dismay.  The fairy tale depiction makes icons of modern Scotland look faintly ridiculous.  The installation itself, The Lion and the Unicorn from 2012 also address the then speculative Indy Ref and features Maclean in outlandish, elaborate costume playing a preening lion, avuncular unicorn and some alternate reality, Cosplay Elizabeth I.  She lip syncs flawlessly to clips of our current monarch, Jeremy Paxman, Alex Salmond (remember him?), and David Cameron (remember him?) as she examines the state of the nation in brutally sardonic fashion, I’m even more regretful that I’m missing out on her new film.

I have an hour or so free so I spend it taking in a few more of the installations.  Local artist Jessie Growden makes interesting use of reversed film in her installation Swings and Roundabouts at the Catholic Church Hall.  At the Crown Buildings, Zöe Irvine and Pernille Spence‘s House Arrest: Domestic Actions 1-11 works as a subtle critique of the traditional idea of a woman’s place in the home.  A knife is aggressively sharpened; eggs are broken into a bowl one by one until they’re squirming out on to the table cloth; a raw chicken freezes on a kitchen table.  It’s quietly arresting, the silence in the room allowing each sound to really permeate.

I head along to the Heart of Hawick, where I’ve agreed to a four hour volunteer stint on the welcome desk.  While festival coordinator Emily seems to be performing a thousand tasks simultaneously – checking other volunteers are at their correct spots, firing off countless emails, and sorting numbers for the filmmakers’ evening dinner for example – I sip coffee, say hello to anyone who wanders in, and hand out the occasional festival pass, brochure or town map to anyone who needs one.  One of these people turns out to be Zöe Irvine, co-creator of the House Arrest installation.  I say hello to some people who I’ve met over the previous few days, such as artists Pierre-Luc Vaillancourt, Nazare Soares and the members of Screen Bandita, along with Laura the community engagement coordinator who’s seemingly everywhere at once during the weekend.  It’s a very pleasant way to pass an afternoon.

In the evening it’s back to the Old Baths for some more ‘Expanded Cinema’.  There are two pieces being shown; New Museum of Mankind by Anja Dornieden and Juan David Gonzalez Monroy, and M..H by Gäelle Rouard.  Both are less kinetic than Screen Bandita’s work, in which the act of projection is part of the piece, but both really dial up the sense of unease. Perhaps I’ve seen too many horror films in which terrible things are found in old reels of film, but there is a strong sense of ambient dread seeping from the screen. As with Friday evening’s screening, any meaning I can grasp is fleeting, and the two pieces converge into one singular coagulated lump of pure feeling; bypassing cerebral connection almost entirely.

I’m almost glad when it’s all over, and someone suggests, ”Spoons?’, causing the now Pavlovian exodus to the pub.  Once settled with a pint I discover I’m sitting next to none other than Rachel Maclean.  She’s very chatty and I ask her about her art and Scottish independence among other things.  Also present is Ela Orleans, who is the composer of the music from The Tower, an experimental opera screening on Sunday as the last feature film of the festival.  Kicking out time arrives all too soon and we’re shooed outside by an understandably exasperated bar person.  It’s a little sad, as it’s my last full evening here, albeit a really great one to go out on.

I round off my weekend the next day by obtaining a ticket for The Tower, and it ends my Alchemy on a high.  Set in what looks like a community centre in Warsaw, Poland, it depicts the attempts by the local residents to build a huge tower from sugar.  It’s a satire on communal Utopianism and how it can easily drift towards totalitarianism.  It just happens to do it through the medium of opera.  The music is strangely electronic and industrial, not what you would expect for voices utilising a multi-octave range.  It reminds me in some ways of Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark in its use of music.  The story itself is played with the same deadpan, absurdist tone Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos utilises in his films such as Dogtooth and The Lobster, with more than a hint of Luis Buñuel’s scabrous, surrealist take on social interaction.  We never see the tower itself, merely drop in at intervals on the committee as they reports on the progress, or lack thereof.  I liked it very much.  As much as certain influences were visible, it felt entirely unique.  Ela Orleans was present for a Q&A afterwards along with writer and director Karolina Breguła via Skype.  I resolved to try and track down some more of her work, as she really does have a distinctive voice.

With that, it was time to head back to the capital.  There is very little around quite like the Alchemy Festival and it is a little rough gem among the increasing commercialisation of other events.  I did however, feel concerned during the weekend that local engagement was perhaps lacking.  Every event is packed with other filmmakers and the festival volunteers.  Perhaps it was because I spent the my time moving in those circles, but I didn’t see many Hawick faces.  This is certainly not down to a lack of efforts by the organisers, who have done a tremendous job increasing the size of the festival over seven years.  For anyone looking for something a little bit different in a compact, cosy environment, the Alchemy Festival comes highly recommend. Watch this space for next year.