It seems oddly appropriate that an experimental film festival called Alchemy should be thriving in the Scottish Borders town of Hawick.
Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival | Rating: **** | Hawick, various venues
Drawing to a close yesterday with the premiere of Ettrick – French filmmaker Jacques Perconte’s impressionistic portrait of the land, industry and community surrounding the nearby Ettrick forest – the four-day festival has grown in scope since creative director Richard Ashrowan began it six years ago.
Ashrowan, an artist in his own right who relocated to the Borders from London in the early 2000s, has been on a mission to overturn the perception that experimental art can only be exhibited and appreciated in urban centres like London and Glasgow. The programme of 124 films – most of which were screened in art centre The Heart of Hawick’s 110-seat cinema – also seemed pretty well attended by visiting filmmakers and the public alike.
But what was also striking was the way in which the festival’s dedication to showcasing form-challenging work chimed thematically with a town that has itself been reckoning with its own need for regeneration since the decline of the knitwear industry.
Given the last time I went to the movies in Hawick was as a kid to see a pop-up screening of Rocky IV in the town hall (the cinema closed down in the mid-1980s), it was also somewhat surreal to be back in that same space on Saturday night to see Gaëlle Rouard, a French artist who manipulates sound, 16mm film stock and the projector itself to create live cinematic works that figuratively and literally break free from the confines of the screen. If the overall effect of her piece, No Name, was slightly diminished by the limitations of the venue, it was still an intriguing example of the way film can be disassembled and re-assembled into something new.
That idea ran through a lot of the work and also through many of the discussions about the nature and purpose of artist filmmaking. During the afternoon-long filmmaker symposium that launched the festival on Thursday, Bryan Konefsky, artistic director of the New Mexico-based Experiments in Cinema festival, talked entertainingly about the alchemical magic of film existing in what he called the “gutter space”: the area between the frames in a reel of film. It was a nice image that spoke to the idea of transforming meaning by cutting and editing film and playing around with the format. But it also raised a question about where that space exists in the digital age when there’s no literal space between the frames.
In some respects that question was answered by the work of American artist Leighton Pierce, who uses long-exposure digital photography to create swirling, semi-abstract films that interrogate our relationship with time. Pierce was on hand to screen his latest film, White Ash, alongside early works and some works-in-progress. It was radical stuff. The way he uses his camera to draw attention to tangible objects in the real world while composing images that slip in and out of abstract states make it seem as if he’s painting with film.
There were plenty of other artists experimenting with the distorting effects of digital film. The aforementioned Ettrick used pixilated glitches to make transitional links between the landscape and the textile industry. Guli Silberstein’s excellent Cut Out, meanwhile, took a YouTube-sourced video of a young girl involved in some form of direct action protest and isolated the subject using an algorithm that slowly revealed the full context of the clip. As the perspective widened, what looked initially like a film about the oppressive nature of media gradually became a film about the way media can liberate and protect people in dangerous situations.
There was some powerful documentary work as well, reflective of both the increasing artfulness of the format as a whole and the willingness of audiences to watch more conceptual work. To this end, Sasha Litvintseva’s short doc Exile Exotic was a highlight, a personal look at the repetitious nature of history and how proponents of a dominant ideology always fight to eradicate the immediate past.
Messing with the past was also the subject of the festival’s most brain-bending film, Casper Stracke’s feature-length time/OUT OF JOINT, an entertainingly dense inquiry into the concept of time reversal and whether it will ever be possible. The answer’s obviously no, but in many ways time/OUT OF JOINT summed up this year’s festival: drawing attention to film’s unique ability to shatter temporal restrictions and reveal new things about the world around us.