2/5/23 (Alchemical Dreamscape)

Hello! This feels a bit soon to publish a response to Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival 2023, but I NEEDED to write it, so I thought I’d better share it. I’ve been living on Instagram since the festival ended to make the feeling last. The thing below pulls out some of my favourite things from Alchemy ’23 (with footnotes!), but honestly everything was amazing, wonderful, full of care and joy and love for experimental film and the the communities within and around it. Huge, huge gratitude to all of the Alchemy team for their work in making another amazing festival, and for programming my work, looking after me and making me feel safe when I was getting nervous pre-screening! Love you all ❤️

When I arrive in town I check into my B&B room and take a nap. The semi-submerged room I find myself in is cold and cave-like. The double bed rests under an arch, and I bow my head to approach the pillow. Above the headboard is a small window, its sill at ground level. There is grass and dandelions and sweet wrappers in my view.

I don’t think I’m tired, but some force pulls me to lie down, fully clothed, under the floral duvet. My eyes shut, and I rest, half-awake half asleep. A friend phones and I answer, speak, respond. I leave him satisfied with answers but will not remember what we talked about. I turn onto my side. Firm pillows support my neck. My left hand between my thighs. I think I sleep. I might dream. I see myself getting up, feet touching carpet, head bowed and moving towards a red light, a door, a set of stairs, leading upwards. Close my dreaming eyes. Try again. The lampshade is upside-down and pink, not red. I reach the steps, is this real?

Start again. One eye open. Curved ceiling arches over like a vault. I slowly understand that I’m asleep. In a kind of lucid dream. Try again. Move my arms, my legs, lift my head. Step onto…

No. Try again. One eye open, red lamp wrong way up. I can’t move.

Shit. Fuck! Why can’t I move? I shout, flail my limbs in my mind and they touch nothing. Red light. Heavy ceiling. Am I locked in? Is this it? Am I… is this… how I exist now? 

I scream. Fight. Panic. Then from one open eye, what could be reality returns. Pain in my fingers trapped by a denim seam, Cold in my toes. Slowly, slowly my body and my soul re-harmonise. The room solidifies. The door returns. I exit the bed. The room. The building. Emerge newly-born into Hawick. Walk, staggering in my mind along the high street towards the cinema. 

What follows is the thirteenth edition of Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival; either the best fever-dream I’ve ever experienced, or the sharpest-sharp cutting-edge of art and culture in Scotland.

Bodies. Human, more-than human, other than human, fill my dreaming mind.

I start with the exhibitions. Close my eyes and float away down the river and its stories and undercurrents and histories.[1] Feel visceral uncomfortable power of a familial relationship changed and altered by the physical intimate intensities of care. Be vulnerable. Be afraid.[2]

Later. The Kelso Ladies’ rugby team brings tears to my eyes. The simple representation of women, local women, playing the sport that’s almost synonymous with an imaginary, idealised, youthful, intelligent and muscular, virile man makes pride and envy rise in me.[3]

The evening is food, company, drink and connection. We leave when the pub closes, sharing gossip, comparing notes. Someone whistles, we cringe and shudder together at the audio intrusion.

The morning begins with a sigh. Then another sigh, and another a breath, a seascape expressed hilariously and viscerally. The fourth shortest film in the festival unites the audience for a handful of moments. In, Out, don’t think too hard about the air, the water, the view.[4]

A community of young people, one of many communities that comes into focus in the dream, travels by white limousine with one wing-mirror to a woodland. They live and move on screen in the primal ways it seems they were made to do. Sounds leave the mouths of babes and speak truth, demonstrate a different way of existing.[5] Strands of reality are shared, facilitated by four former strangers from a Scottish town. Simultaneous perspectives are brought together to make a quintuple vision experience of a place through bodily movement, joy, friendship and labour.[6]

A beloved friend stands barefoot before us all and shares her honest, beautiful music, the stories that made it be.[7] Then the sweaty loud exuberance of dancing and joy and physical trust and consent. A ritualistic experience, a cultural phenomenon, a chaotic peak of bodily connection in solidarity and friendship. 

Morning arrives and a small bruise marks my upper arm. It’s the ceilidh equivalent of a nightclub stamp or a temporary tattoo.

Objects move by seldom-seen humans, a year of living sculpture; structure releases deep knowledge of a place and its people.[8] I cry, again, after 18 minutes 20 seconds of the same woman’s face. Visible before, but spotlighted now, moments of grace and beauty. Time shrinks and I’m more sure I know her, have always known her.[9] A face dissolves and deconstructs, through digital and physical means, distorts, filters, changed before us alarming dangerous and oddly tender.[10] A rotting whale carcass disturbs then normalises, amongst testimony on other whales; experience, place, survival and death, physical and psychological.[11] A graffiti artist paints a pattern I can’t read, before it’s covered over, her hands hold cans and his use the distance of a roller.[12]

A charming man speaks eloquently of his cousin, about mourning and grief and trauma, about growing up watching Black people be killed on screen. He transforms in the dark into a corpse on the ground, before shuddering back to life to remove the killing instrument and makes a dance I don’t have the words for. He catches his breath and we are all quiet. Gratitude for his sharing is all we can express. Somehow everything has happened in the dark of the cinema before the film starts. This film doesn’t begin, but it’s a film anyway. The Black body on screen, the Black body before us…[13]

Something I’ve observed fragments and ingredients of comes together. Hands make, work, join, share, and absolve one another. Creatures dead and alive move and touch and exist. Moths climb sleepy over careful hands like pet hamsters. A man sits upon a horse in a river and flag tangles around his head. The ritual starts to make sense to me, clarity in simplified action.[14]

An unanticipated rush of pride and excitement comes upon me. Joy of sharing the things I care about, obsess over, invest time and experience in. My voice is strong and bold and knows what to say, how to say it. I am an artist, a filmmaker, a comedian, a musician, an athlete, a photographer. My body tries to trick me, trembling hands and feet lie, or don’t. Nervousness and excitement are the same thing.[15]

I laugh so much I struggle to stop at a mother’s unfiltered, brutally honest feedback, energy nervously spilling over from the morning. Currents of water push and pull a story and the filmmakers costumed self.[16]

Seven episodes in an hour of films bring love and longing and lust and separation together. Intimacy and violence play sticky and bright[17]; texture and motion bring tantalising hypnagogic kisses to my battered retinas.[18]

We gather and laugh and puzzle and sing and compete (it’s not a competition…) and eat and drink and commune. The night is blurry and full of loud strangers and caring new friends.

Sleepy and slightly hungover, the hypnopompic state persists into the day again. I wait in the shade, pay with coins to take a journey. Alight with a spring in my yellow Doc Martens.

Spring has arrived while we were in the cinema. Beech leaves with their baby hairs stroke my skin, tiny jagged triangles of birch leaves shudder. A young deer, a buck, travels alongside me up the slope. He stops to look at me and I say hello, ask if I can come with him. He bounces away invitingly, but I can’t keep up.

Native Burrs cling to me as I pass and I tell my friends, send them a photo with the last of my phone’s battery. Gorse flowers yellow and forget-me-nots blue. Bees circle my feet. Sand martens fill the sky as I climb to a gate, approach the Ale Water. 

I remove my boots, my socks, roll up my jeans and paddle. Grass clippings float on the water’s surface and I hear a saw buzz.

The water soaks me to my knees. I crawl under a fence, pull my luggage after me. Barefoot feels good. 

I converse with a blackbird. He sings, I whistle back. Rhythm, pitch, sound. 

Later, I am in the woods. Returned home. Walking the path. A commotion comes from above. ‘Oi you!’ it yells ‘Fuck off!’, ‘Get out of my woods’. A cone is thrust violently from the spruce, lands by my feet. Their ginger tail whips and winds then pauses to stare down on me, the intimidating batman-mask silhouette of the ears of a red squirrel. I suppose I had better leave. Staccato cries fade behind me.

I sit and write compulsively, feverish, wonder if when I wake up in the morning, if I’ll still be in this dream or another, new one. Touch my pen to my lips to make sure I can feel it and I think I’m sure I can.

[1] Natasha Thembiso Ruwona, What is Held (Between Waters)

[2] Emily Beaney, Risky Bodies

[3] Jules Horne, Rebel Cello

[4] Duncan Cowles, Sighscape

[5] Webb-Ellis, This Place is a Message

[6] Elina Bry, Walking to Connect

[7] Miwa Nagato-Apthorp

[8] Yoni Bentovim, Expired

[9] Anthony Ing, Jill Uncredited

[10] Autojector, Robyn

[11] Laura Ohio, Hello, Whale

[12] Mark Lyken and Allana James, Waiting for the Buff to Rub Me Out

[13] Maxime Jean-Baptiste, To Yield

[14] Julia Parks: Focus (The Wool Aliens, Tell me about the Burryman, Burnfoot Grows, All Flesh is Grass)

[15] Jessie Growden: Focus

[16] George Finlay Ramsay – Family Fugue

[17] Lou Lou Sainsbury – Descending Notes

[18] William Hong-xiao Wei – Embers From Yesterday, Aflame

Jessie x

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