Thursday 2nd & Friday 3rd March 2017
The Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival descends on the Borders town of Hawick like a small-scale version of the Edinburgh Fringe. Although a town not unused to tourism, it’s nevertheless rare that practically every room of every hotel and B&B finds itself occupied at once. The change of atmosphere is almost chewy as shops left empty and shuttered by the devastating economic downturn are requisitioned as mini-galleries; church halls and council buildings re-purposed to house installations. As a Hawick native who has learned a new appreciation for the place after living elsewhere for many years, it’s heartening to feel a static crackle of anticipation in the air. As a gluttonously omnivorous consumer of film and media in all its forms, I’m intrigued by the challenging nature and dizzying variety of the work on show.
My introduction to the seventh staging of the festival begins as I intercept a group coming to the end of a tour of the various installations dotted around the town. They are en route to the Alchemy Festival building for the opening drinks reception and I tag along. Base camp is soon bursting at the seams with visiting filmmakers, artists, local volunteers and curious passersby. Besides making new friends and greeting some familiar faces, there is also the opportunity to get acquainted with two of the installations. Parlor Walls by Webb-Ellis is a work projected onto three screens, each showing the same scenes, but in different order and from varying camera angles. Apparently taking Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a basis from which to explore alienation, we see a man floating in a stream, and two figures spin a rope across a river. It is at this point I begin to be concerned that my analytical faculties will flounder as the works on show operate un-moored from conventional narrative.
Thankfully I feel on more secure ground with Thought Broadcasting by Nick Jordan. Using found objects, video and diagrams, the installation is about paranoia and surveillance. The use of obsolete equipment and the jittery camera footage gives the piece a very Cold War sensibility. Chatting with Nick, I’m struck by the idea that those diagnosed as schizophrenics are aghast at the idea of their thoughts being monitored. Now we voluntarily splash our every thought on social media in the hope that someone actually is paying attention (I am aware of the irony as I type this). It’s certainly an evocative piece.
After more chat and several drinks, many of us decamp to the local Wetherspoons. This will form the inevitable conclusion to each night over the weekend. Over several glasses of wine I talk to some of the festival volunteers and witness an impromptu tango break out among some of the visiting filmmakers. This is not a standard evening at this establishment, though it bodes well for an interesting weekend.
Friday begins later than intended thanks to the lingering talons of the red wine, but I finally venture out to Trinity Church Hall with my father, who is himself volunteering at the festival. This venue is home to an installation showcasing the work of the Moving Image Makers Collective, a local group of filmmakers. My father knows several of the members so was interested in seeing their work. Each lasts around five minutes and the styles range from the simple and direct, focussed on the composition; to abstract and impressionistic. Several are fascinated by the effect of footage playing in reverse. I particularly like Yarn by Kerry Jones. Ostensibly a hugely magnified landscape of fibres, it nods towards Hawick’s celebrated textile legacy, and has a neat Birdman-esque score of jazz drumming.
After this I procure a ticket for the first feature film screening at the festival, Henry Coombes‘ Seat in Shadow. There are background hints of Death in Venice and explicit references to Derek Jarman in the story of Albert, an ageing painter and psychotherapist who begins to fall for Ben, a young client. Co-written by Coombes and its star David Sillars, it’s a distinctive work that walks the boundary between narrative convention and experimental visuals. It has elements of a coming-of-age tale, as well as being elegiac for the lost youth of Albert and his hippie ideals. It’s let down by some arch dialogue and some stilted delivery, particularly from Jonathan Leslie as Ben, but it remains a compelling watch.
I later catch up with David Sillars who laments somewhat that Seat in Shadow has been lumped lazily into the genre of LGBT films. I can sympathise with this. One of the strongest aspects of the film is that the sexuality depicted is incidental. Ben’s homosexuality is not at the root of his visits to Albert. While many films depict a young man or woman coming to terms with his sexuality, Ben’s sexual identity is already established and not an apparent issue for him. The more films that deal with sexuality in this way, the better.
Next is the enticing prospect of Future Ruins at The Old Baths. One of three pieces screening, or being performed to be more accurate, under the banner of ‘Expanded Cinema‘, it is the work of inter-continental collective Screen Bandita. The venue is tricked out with an arcane array of screens, old projectors and record players, along with drums and a guitar. Consisting of found footage of degraded 8mm and 16mm film, slides and other visual effects, it’s a work whose meaning remains out of reach. I opt instead to let it wash over me, and I begin to appreciate how the whir of the projectors and the skittering drums work with the glitches and tears on the old film in an unsettling way. The guitar adds a shimmering post-rock wash. Afterwards I chat briefly to Screen Bandita member Lydia Beilby about the piece, and discover that she is a face familiar to those who regularly attend Edinburgh Filmhouse.
As with the previous evening a large group of us decamp to Wetherspoons. David Sillars is present, as are the members of Screen Bandita. Also a few pints in are artists Pierre-Luc Vaillancourt and Nazare Soares. Pierre-Luc’s installation Ruins Rider is showing in the Crown Buildings, and is apparently too intense for my Dad. Nazare is exhibiting the hypnotic, shamanic Omen at the old Peter Scott mill. Both are friendly and engaging. Before long it’s 1am and kicking out time. The thought is of getting to do it all over again the next day is a nice one.