By Rebecca Naughten
Between 23 – 27 September, the 11th Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival took place in the coastal town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, on the English-Scottish border. One of the festival’s distinctive characteristics is the emphasis on artist filmmakers, which this year included two Artists in Focus – Seamus Harahan (recently shortlisted for this year’s Jarman Award, an award inspired by the visionary filmmaker Derek Jarman) and Deimantas Narkevi?ius – and specially commissioned works from the likes of Berwick’s current artist-in-residence, Paul Rooney. The artists’ installations make full use of a range of historical buildings – from medieval fortifications to eighteenth century prison cells and underground ice houses – meaning that the festival is woven into the fabric of the town for the duration, encouraging festival-goers to stray from the cinema and explore the surroundings.
The 2015 edition – the inaugural programme of new festival director Peter Taylor (previously at International Film Festival Rotterdam) – took the theme of ‘Fact or Fiction’. In the festival booklet, Taylor elaborates on the intentions behind this theme: ‘Fact or Fiction is about investigating the spaces captured in the grey areas between fact and fantasy, documentary and narrative, propaganda and journalism. Awkward and ambiguous, sometimes uncomfortable, it’s about asking questions and experiencing processes, getting to the real essence of the art of cinema’. This nebulous theme proved to be fertile territory, manifesting itself in different guises across both installations and films, and creating a sense of coherence within what was a diverse and eclectic programme.
One interpretation of the theme was shared by several of the retrospective screenings – specifically Salam Cinema (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1995) and Vampir Cuadecuc (Pere Portabella, 1970) – and the use of filmmaking as a form (i.e. the construction of a film is rendered visible) as a method of questioning the lines between ‘reality’ and something manufactured (or fictional) continued elsewhere. Among the installations, Pacho Velez’s The Reagan Shorts (2015) undercuts and exposes the carefully choreographed and scripted nature of ‘reality’ as embodied by the former President of the United States, either via unexpected interventions (an impolitic remark from a member of the public or the unannounced arrival of Reagan’s dog during an interview) or by taking an expanded view beyond the edges of the intended frame. The fabricated presentation of Reagan as a public figure is revealed through footage of a camera crew setting up, and introductions being made, before an incredibly stilted TV interview (which was presumably edited into a more acceptable puff piece for broadcast at the time) or the way Reagan completely ‘switches off’ – his interest in the Christmas Tree that he has ceremoniously just turned on, and the attendant crowd of watching children, entirely dissipating – when the live broadcast cameras stop rolling and men step forward to remove his microphone. The three short films that formed the installation are the result of the director’s research for an upcoming feature film, The Reagan Years 1981-89.
Within the shorts included in the Berwick New Cinema strand (which sought to highlight innovative and genre-pushing new filmmakers), Deborah Stratman’s Hacked Circuit (2014) – in which foley artist Gregg Barbanell replicates the sound from the sequence in The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) where surveillance expert Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) wrecks his own apartment in search of hidden recording device – is a multilayered excavation of film sound and its use in creating onscreen worlds. In one take the camera travels in a loop around a city block and through the recording studio (this movement is the circuit of the title), with the sound initially building to ominous effect through the combination of David Shire’s score for the original film and the sound of (unseen, at this stage) violent actions. Once the camera enters the recording studio we witness the foley artist (usually an intentionally invisible component of filmmaking) using a range of props and matching his movements with Hackman’s in order to recreate the sound for Coppola’s film. The repetition of movement and its associated sound is both an original source and a recreation of a fictionalised event at the same time – where do ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ begin and end? Hacked Circuit is dedicated to Walter Murch and Edward Snowden, a neat encapsulation of the interrelation between filmmaking and surveillance – and the latter was another of the recurring motifs across the programme, featuring in the Fucking Finland anthology (Seamus Harahan, 2015 – commissioned by the festival) and Lost High Street (Paul Rooney, 2008), among others.
Arguably the other notable feature of Berwick as a film festival is the space that they give to short films, both in the form of the artist installations and a dedicated shorts section within the main programme. The festival’s short film competition returned for the third consecutive year, this time presided over by a jury consisting of curator Fatos Üstek and filmmakers Beatrice Gibson and Salomé Lamas: the £750 prize was won by Consider the Belvedere (Julia Feyrer and Tamara Henderson, 2015). However not only were shorts given additional space within the ‘Berwick New Cinema’ strand, but midlength titles were also accommodated within that collection. Such films often fall between the gaps due to their unconventional (or awkward) running times, but the filmmakers chosen by Berwick demonstrated that the form can be perfectly tailored to the story they wish to tell – two particular standouts were Marko Grba Singh’s Abdul & Hamza (2015), a timely and humane docufiction about two Somali immigrants at the Serbian border, and Daphné Hérétakis’s diary/essay film about crisis, inertia and revolution in contemporary Greece, Archipels, granites dénudés (2014). Both of the films revealed filmmakers who are willing to experiment with film form but also interested in engaging with, and intervening in, the world around them – a combination that marks them out as names to watch for in the future.