5-6/5/22 (Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival 2022: a love letter)

I think I’d better declare that I’m pretty biased about Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival before I start writing this. I’ll just say it. I Love Alchemy. Alchemy is the reason I’m a filmmaker. It’s been around since 2010, and I got involved in 2014 when they ran their first series of community workshops. Under the direction of Richard Ashrowan, then Rachael Disbury and Michael Pattison, Alchemy Film & Arts has seen me as Volunteer, Administrator, Marketing manager and Artist in residence as well as many other complicated and simple roles around whatever’s happening and who’s around and what needs to get done. This time around, I get to add a new lanyard to my collection: Guest.

The 2022 festival was like a long awaited, wonderful blow-out (in the best possible way). It’s been three years since the last in-real-life festival, and I had not realised how much I’d missed the extravaganza of experimental film, big art thoughts, long conversations, great food and new and old friends. Fuelled with a full Scottish Breakfast each day, plus Heart of Hawick’s coffee, I for the first time ever, saw every auditorium programme. And yes, I think I want to talk about them all. Find a comfy seat. Now.

I arrived on the Monday before the festival, to help the capable Walt, technician and magician of installation and Raspberry Pis. Supplied with a beautiful blue (Organic, vegan approved) T-shirt bearing the words EMBRACE THE STRANGE, I carried things and climbed up ladders and attached blackout to the windows of Hawick’s Textile Towerhouse, awaiting the installation of Leah Millar’s earthy body. Coming back sometime on the Saturday, in a half-hour between screenings and conversations, the space had been transformed in my absence to a quiet dark place with two 16mm projections, with gorgeous overlaid (how do they do that?) images of female forms and the border hills. They’re strong and poetic and when I go back outside I look at the hills nearby and feel an urge to go and lie down in the landscape, giant and naked and alive.

Things get started officially on the Thursday. The welcome desk has moved to the mezzanine of the cafe at Heart of Hawick, which gives a cozy, private zone for festival goers, but I do kind of miss the chaotic clash of locals and film folk that, okay, probably caused a few headaches.
I pick up my tickets for the day, and go to do my last volunteer shift before screenings begin proper. I’m based in Unit 4, which is run by Jules, who uses the space as a bookshop, art gallery, gift shop, and screening venue. For Alchemy ’22, it’s an exhibition of photographs from the last few years of community projects, as well as the project library for Read More (There’s a set of books I picked out as artist in residence in the library, which you can learn about here). It’s a large but cozy space with sofas and that wonderful safe feeling that having books in a room has. Jules makes everyone feel welcome and looked after and offers fascinating conversation.

The first two auditorium screenings of the festival are a focus on Akosua Adoma Owusu‘s work, which was new to me, and a shorts programme titled Reframing The Archive. It was quite an intense start to the weekend. Owousu’s Me Broni Ba really stood out to me, as something that’s very everyday, and maybe has an ambivalent view but was so full of intimacy and care in its rituals of Black womens’ haircare. Reluctantly Queer was a heartbreaking, beautifully shot portrait that’s also stayed with me. Reframing the Archive started with a traumatic short, This is a Chilean Citizen by Sebastián Arriagada which sets the mood for an intense emotional programme with thoughtful observational scenes from Ana Elena Tejera‘s A Love Song in Spanish that seed a careful hope for moments of wonder within a programme that needed some twenty four content warnings.

Before dinner, I catch up with Jade Montserrat, who’s just delivered the festival’s keynote. I consulted with Jade on the local textiles industry while she was in residency with Alchemy, and her keynote and accompanying exhibition was a culmination of research and collaboration with the town. Focussing on remembering the legacies of Frederick Douglass and Thomas Jenkins, two Black people vital to Hawick’s history who have been overlooked. Jenkins, Scotland’s first Black schoolteacher has also been memorialised by local mosaic artist, Joy Parker recently. Jade led the audience in a meditative breathing exercise of gratitude, and took us through her research. The auditorium was united in a positive hope for remembering and thanking and exploring how we can memorialise and organise and create our own rituals around the Black histories of the town of Hawick that could so easily have been forgotten.

Dinner was cocktails (Pineapple?) and veggie haggis, neeps and tatties at the Gretel, just off the high street, that would be beside the river if it weren’t for the building site around the flood protection scheme. It’s directly opposite a space Alchemy used to use as office, which turned out to be a theme as guest dinners went on.

On Friday morning I find Toby Tatum in the hotel dining room. We seem to be the only Alchemists here so far, and each enjoy cooked breakfasts. Toby’s work has screened at a few editions of Alchemy, most memorably for me in 2018, with Lost Gardens shown as a large-screened installation that could be escaped to and into, the reverberating soundtrack making the body feel it. You can watch Lost Gardens here. His film was in the second programme of the day, so I’ll skip forward to that and go back later.
The title Our Shape Apparently appeals to me but doesn’t give much away about its content. From chats I had with some of the programming team, Jonathan Ali, Marius Hrdy, Kerry Jones and Rhea Storr (Rhea wasn’t at the festival, but the rest were), The curation for this year was a collaborative process, where some ownership was loosely taken of programmes, but suggestions were made, and videos and films passed around between the team to come to selections for screenings that work as a whole.
Favourites from Our Shape Apparently include Autojektor‘s opening Basilisk in an almost sepia frenetic woodland. In under a minute, the opening fizzle of this set a feeling of outdoor energy to the next 72 and a bit minutes.
Carlos Nahuel Cerutti‘s Vivant, Rae-Yen Song‘s Wūûū Wūûū and Abi LewisMuttsnek pop out of the programme in short animated pops that Remind me of Kerry Jones‘ own work, often using bitesize vignettes and colourful animation to hit hard with meaning. Toby Tatum doesn’t disappoint with The Visitation, which over 10 minutes in an assembled, inferno-like landscape with Abi Fry‘s haunting sound. I think I start to hallucinate, as creatures with teeth and angry eyes start to appear, and Toby tells me later they weren’t in the film. I may have to go back and double check. George Finlay Ramsay‘s 16mm Castrocene Paints a picture of a post-human world populated by some kind of beaver creature, and I’m feeling a bit obsessed with the image of a tongue probing its way out of lichen.

All This Pain and Power was guest curated by Gary Varro; founder and artistic director of Queer City Cinema, who I didn’t manage to chat to but can offer a red squirrel spotting session to next time he’s in Hawick. Highlights in this for me were Amber Bemak and Angelo Madsen Minax’s Two Sons and a River of Blood, which considers trans bodies, as the work of Minax’s I’ve seen does also, in a sexually explicit but also incredibly caring way. There’s a sense of familial love and hope that spoke to me in The Two Eddies and I feel kind of fuzzy inside that it’s continued here. Fluid Bound by Rob Fatal was a beautiful bodily conversation, of fluidity and connection and intimacy. Colourful bodies containing universes of stars make me wonder at the connection of our selves and the universe, while gender is dissolved and unknowable.

Julia Parks‘ spotlight programme shared four of her recent works. She’s just arrived in Hawick as Alchemy’s new artist in residence, and it was lovely to see a preview of her work and to get a feel for what new work might come out of her time in the town. Her focus on industries such as coal in Cumbria, and the activism and community that circulate around this makes me really excited to see how she’ll look at this Borders town that has so many opportunities to really look at a piece of it in detail.

The last shorts programme of the day was This Meeting is Being Recorded. Apt to the anxiety many of us are still suffering from around not another zoom meeting, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this programme, despite having managed to avoid living mostly through my webcam entirely since 2020. All of the works in here surprised me by taking a different, but still connected take on the idea. The question of recording literally in Real Time by Sasha Pirker but then intimately with a close family member in Kathryn Attrill‘s Hiding Places as well as the hidden resistance described in Hope Strickland‘s If I Could Name You Myself (I Would Hold You Forever) contrasting the recorded-ness we expect with memory and legacy through plants and poetry.

I’m going to be naming a (black, Hebridean) sheep after Sonya Dyer‘s Andromeda, after the Q&A with her and Jareh Das. The sheep have to have names starting with A, as it’s the farm’s first year of having the breed. I’m getting sidetracked.
Part of a bigger series of work, Andromeda is a sci-fi dance film of wonderful mysterious rhythms and a Black woman’s performance through Somerset House in London. Through the Q&A she discussed the influences of greek mythology (Andromeda was Black, but almost always depicted as white), and Star Trek’s Lieutenant Uhura, who inspires a sense of ambivalence from the film’s main character. It was fantastic to take a dive into the work, and the audience with its questions really got into the heart of the ideas and thoughts around how ambivalence is surprisingly powerful.

So at this point I’m halfway through the festival, and want to write about so much more! I’m going to take a little break and do some drawing… maybe.

Ok so

Saturday started with Deviant, a short 16mm (real 16mm, not digitised!) film by Emily Beaney. The film was made working with the Endo Warriors group, women who campaign for better services, treatment, and understanding of Endometriosis. Views of a craggy shoreline with women clambering through the landscape, smashing shells with rocks are heard talking about their experiences of the condition. There’s a sense of solidarity and care through the women in the film, coming together and supporting one another.

Shorts programmes resume for the next three screenings of the day. I hadn’t planned to write up everything I saw, being basically everything, but I’ve kind of started so I’d better finish.

Choice of Weapon
Favourites from here include Heather AndrewsIn Erms of Clay, Nina DaviesExpress Yourself On the Battlefield as well as the painful Balm (Steps to Unforgetting) by Jade Blackstock. Saul Pankhurst‘s thoughtful portrait of a person living with Parkinsons in Unknown Hand added to my growing feeling of care over the festival.

Where We’re at and Where We’re From
This programme leapt back into the explicit political theme running around the festival. My distaste for Priti Patel was kindled into a roaring hatred in just over 3 minutes by Charles Newland‘s Erode and Lin Li‘s short and strong Vestiges of Home delicately considered memory and loss of a home that it might not be possible – or desirable to return to, while many people from Hong Kong are moving to the UK and the future of the place is unsure.

Building a Fort
I think this was my favourite set of shorts. It was a very joyful set of shorts, interspersed with the serious and important, through Helen McCrorie‘s We Know a Better Word Than Happy, and its simplicity of children playing in the muddy outdoors, cinematographised (it’s a word I’m sure) on gorgeous 35mm by Margaret Salmon and Regina Mosch‘s edited in-camera Searching for Shore, giving a brief look at play keeping addiction at bay. In Freddie Leyden‘s Nude Me / Under the Skin the powerful rich colours of the Black body within in a neo-gothic London mansion and the visibility of this is beautiful and hopeful, stained glass and rhythm brought out by a sure feeling of the performer, Enam Gbewonyo‘s clear playfulnesss of personality. Other joys in here were basically the rest of the programme, especially Chloe Charlton‘s Memories of the Shoreline, Josh Weissbach‘s A Landscape to be Invented and Jen Martin‘s The Divine Isle.

The Saturday night of the festival in recent years has always been difficult to get tickets to, with many special guests, and a feature that’s usually more accessible to a general audience than the experimental film crowd. With this in mind, I bought my ticket about three weeks beforehand, and held onto my printed-at-home sheet like a talisman as we got closer to Mark Lyken‘s Notes From a Low Orbit.
I was very excited to see this film, and being in Hawick for a few days beforehand, I was getting even more so. Hawick is a strange place. It’s got a huge diversity of interests and opinions, like any other small town, but there’s something else to it, that combination of all these small town uniquenesses, that doesn’t just mean the Common Riding, and the Rugby, but all the things that everyone does, the scrabble club, the dog walkers, the locals with accents almost indecipherable and the first generation immigrants new to the place. Lyken’s film captures two days in the life of the town, but no, not in a corny way like that. There’s no narration, no explanation, it’s just Hawick as it was, while the filmmaker was present… mostly. Staged scenes pepper the work, leaving me unsure enough to ask how many hours he had to wait for somebody to come stop in front of the No Parking sign, after watching the saxhorn band play as they walked the old Waverley train line. From a start of morning mist, at one of the best landmarks in town (there was no sign of Ken the Horse, which, while it’s important, was kind of noted by its absence to locals, thereby in my mind becoming part of the film anyway. And to be honest, you’ll see it if you visit, you’ve not missed much) – The transmitter thingy on the Miller’s – the nearest hill to the town, frequented by dog walkers and filmmakers at all times of year. I find it refreshing, that a film made during Covid-19 restrictions didn’t feel like it was, didn’t feel like something locked in and wearing a mask, despite the abundance of mask-wearers in the film. It was open and welcoming and expansive and most of all, funny.
Who knew, that a dog, standing still and getting its legs shaved (this world is new to me) would turn, at that exact moment, and just stare at the audience, a look of resignedness in its droopy eyes. The horse in a field, suddenly cut to faces us down, and makes the “town of the horse” really consider for a moment, what it is that ties this very human place to a very more-than-human species. Who’s really in charge here? Mark himself is at Ying’s, having acupuncture and cupping, and every time she asks, ‘are you okay?’ his ‘yeah’ sets us all off in giggles again.

I must add a mention in here to the wonderful Miwa Nagato Apthorp and Sean Dowd’s cover of Robert Wyatt’s Sea Song which you can listen to here and I really recommend you do. Miwa is also Alchemy’s musician in residence for the Dandelion project happening over this summer.
I’m so full of gladness that Mark’s made his own portrait of the town, and has done it with Alchemy, bringing so many parts of the place together with its strands of programme reaching out year-round to reach almost everyone here. Notes From a Low Orbit is warm and kind and fair and caring, and I think, from the audience’s reaction, the town thought so too.

Saturday night, there’s conversation, and beer, and so much joy I only get back to my hotel room when the pub shuts, and I remember I want my cooked breakfast at 8.

Sunday morning I miraculously don’t have a hangover! This is a relief, and I stop by to say morning to Kerry Jones, whose Moving Images Cinema Caravan is parked in the carpark beside the cinema. There’s been a programme of shorts from mostly local filmmakers in there showing over the weekend, including one of my own, I’m Not From Here, which I made as artist in residence with Alchemy last year. I didn’t manage to see the whole programme in there, but the caravan itself is going to be touring various festivals this summer, so watch this space!

The final day is four shorts programmes,

Valleys without Mountains
This is also on my favourite programme list. The intense watch, In and Out a Window by Richard Tuohy seemed to expand to fill the centre of the programme, with a flickering window, that when being on the verge of overuse, miraculously changed and moved to another plane somehow. Yoni Bentovim’s Space / Commodities brings an analogue coloured hue to modern airport-like venues, marketing stands and children’s cartoon characters, before switching to a large dog, lying down in a wasteland somewhere unknown, switching the visual and the perceptions of the locations of Tel Aviv. Toby Parker ReesThe Great Dog, Pan offers a black and white locked-down view of a woman’s relationship with her dog, and speaks directly to us, a shift in perspective from being the person with a camera to being the dog itself. April Lin‘s now I close my eyes the world I see is so beautiful shifts from real-life footage of projections on their own head, to a world in Second Life, with a far away family member. Shift, Shift, Shift. The end of this complex programmes Forest Coal Pit, (directed by Sion Marshall-Waters and produced by Jessica Wheeler) a warm portrait of two Welsh farmers (initially with an ambiguous relationship – we’re not sure if they’re brothers or lovers, but love is there either way) and their way of life; shot on super8, the intimacy of their home and their landscape of sheep and old cars on farmland is a wonderfully heartwarming conclusion to the first screening of the morning.

Body Moves
I found this programme a difficult watch, as the opening film of Annie Crabtree’s, Tell me, how do I feel really spoke to the audience about a female (but not specifically female, I think) experience of care in a medical setting. I was impressed at how the non-specificness of it, in a very different way to Deviant gave a very universal feel to the work.

Out and About
This was a programme of films made by the participants in one of Alchemy’s community programmes, Outwith, coordinated by Tom Swift. Just what I needed after the serious and hard-hitting Body Moves, the 11 shorts were refreshing and varied, and the audience for these was so joyful, we applauded after every film. I feel like I’m not supposed to have favourites here, but favourites anyway included River Uhing‘s Along the Waters, Amelie Berry‘s Everyday Everted (Starring Esmeé Babineaux), Angus Bradley’s Artificial Dreams and Lewis Teckkam‘s Mind Full.

An Image is a Landscape brought the festival to a close, with a 16mm programme curated by Lydia Beilby originally intended for the 2020 festival but postponed, as 16mm doesn’t work over the internet (apparently). It was worth the wait. Starting with Malena Szlam‘s Lunar Almanac the magic of physical film projection shone out to an audience of friends. Barbara Hammer‘s Double Strength was my first experience of her work on 16mm, and it was glorious! The subversive image of woman, being in love, talking frankly about their relationship, climbing a tree, was powerful and energising. Margaret Salmon‘s I You Me Us drew out questions of intimacy and relationship further and Andrés Barón‘s Printed Sunset slipped around a sense of queer intimacy and a question of dominance.

Next up: Pizza party Unit Four with Tempest beer, need I say more? I daren’t do a word count at this stage! This last bit’s short, okay? Okay.

The word I kept coming back to, time and time again throughout the festival was care. The care taken in the curation, in the content warnings, in the decisions on vegetarian and vegan foods offered at guest meals. The care of organic t-shirts for volunteers.
The care in spotlighting and celebrating Black and global majority artists, LGBTQ+ artists, and work reporting on many current conflicts and histories that should be being talked about more.
The care in making a quiet outdoor space available at Unit 4, and room to breathe out there.
The care of the hospitality and the glorious cooked breakfasts at the Elm House (did I mention the breakfasts?).
The care of the sensory hub on the second floor, a refuge to play and relax in, to watch super8 community film, that’s all joy and sunshine.
The care of paying artists screening fees.

The care of it being a non-competitive festival (as Alchemy has been from the start), creating a solidarity between artists and no awkward feelings.

The care in not listing premiere statuses, purposefully removing the festival from tricky arguments that are barely even relevant in artists’ moving image and focussing on the films themselves.

The care from all the staff working incredibly hard in a stressful (believe me, I know) environment, and all the volunteers and visitors and everyone, for watching out for each other in a really intense weekend after most of us have spent a lot of time away from crowded rooms.
The care from Michael, in his humour and humanity and encyclopaedic knowledge of film that filled the festival and I swear he got a laugh at every single screening.
The care from Rachael especially, who when I had an unexpectedly strong emotional reaction to a film, found me a quiet space to be in and talked with me and listened, before heading off to conduct a considered and thoughtful Q&A with absolutely no signs of stress (seriously how does she do it?). She came to check on me later on. We had some good chats. Thanks Rachael ❤️

To learn more about Alchemy, go here
I’d put more links, but I’m sure you know how to use Duck Duck Go.

I promise Alchemy didn’t pay me to write nice things, I just love them, and If I was going to write up notes anyway why not send them out on the blog thing?

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