Berwick 5 Magic Pentacle
Deborah Stratman, Vever (for Barbara), 2019. Courtesy the artist

On a southwest corner of the town hall, carved into eighteenth century sandstone, a horizontal line is almost bisected by three converging arrows. This mark appears discretely throughout Berwick-upon-Tweed. A distinctly runic, maybe pagan, hieroglyphic, it convenes with another community or another time. The symbol is in fact an Ordinance Survey benchmark, a node in a vast, though no longer maintained, network of marks that measure elevation in the UK. Obsolescence transforms the mark, it’s no longer for us.

Through a sprawling programme of screenings and exhibitions The 15th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival asks how we communicate when language is forgotten, insufficient or gone: across time, across species, across psychic realms.

Berwick 1
Photo: Marcus Jack





Opening the Berwick New Cinema Competition, Deborah Stratman’s Vever (for Barbara) (2019) ties together three generations of women at the helm of experimental filmmaking—Stratman, Hammer, Deren—through an interweaving of orphaned images, text and audio. Footage shot by Hammer at the end of a motorcycle trip in Guatemala, 1975, is overlaid with Deren’s meditation on adversity and failure from Haiti, 1953. Deeply self-reflective, both sources negotiate complicity within the colonial programme of the West, paralleled by the ethnocentricity of filmmaking practice. The eponymous vever are drawn symbols found in Haitian Voodoo which invoke the Loa, figures of the astral forces and intermediaries between humanity and a distant Supreme Creator. Like a vever, Stratman’s film is a communicative device deployed to reach across realms, brokering compassionate relations with departed influences.

This year’s Artist in Profile, Marwa Arsanios teases out the habits and philosophies of two women’s communities in Who is afraid of ideology? (2019). Living in the mountainous regions of Iraqi Kurdistan and Northern Syria—largely beyond the control or capacity of the nation state—these autonomous societies embrace instinctive forms of sharing that make use of a surprisingly fertile terrain. The state, a voice tells us, legitimises itself by severing the human from nature­; self-defence comes from nature. A hand turns pages in a binder of medicinal plant specimens, carefully instructing on the properties of each. Maps, sketches and satellite imagery lay out plans for precarious architectures.

The fearsome ideology of the title refers to the turn towards a non-ideological liberal feminism that developed in the 1990s—largely emanating from bourgeois, Western thought—which centred the individual’s rights at the expense of structural social reformation. Arsanios’s new work is then also a proposal for reorganisation, one that feels premodern in its rejection of one-to-one, dialogical feminism, celebrating instead the radical, emancipatory effects that come from a communion with all things: they sing songs to the mountains, not about the mountains. [2]

Marwa Arsanios, Who is afraid of ideology?, 2019. Courtesy the artist and mor charpentier

Deprioritisation of the individual, and of the dialogical relations that imagines, is also the method of Animistic Apparatus, a constellation-like curatorial project organised by May Adadol Ingawanij that occupies a number of Berwick’s subterranean caverns and ex-military architectures. Animism perceives agency in all things, constructing experience within a rhizomatic web of influences and messages. We can activate the belief as a capacious politics of ecological resistance, one which principally refuses the monoculture—exemplified by the aggressive agricultural practices of palm oil plantations which eradicate biodiversity, but perhaps equally present in the dominance of Western approaches to viewing cinema. Animistic Apparatus takes the Southeast Asian phenomenon of ritualistic film projection, a practice of screening for a non-human audience of spirits, animals or deities, to situate recent moving image practices in and with the volatility of the world.

Located outside of the town’s mediaeval walls, Lav Diaz’s A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (2016) exceeds 8 hours in length and ran through the night. This material quality makes conventional Western viewing—linear, narrative, uninterrupted—an impossibility. In the translucent beam of the projector, however, non-human players revelled: bats, moths and other nocturnal sprites. In Tanatchai Bandasak’s Central Region (2019), projected in an earthy, damp space under the weight of Coxon’s Tower, images of standing stones in Sam Neua, Laos, superimpose as murky dawn light sharpens into day. The transposition of spectres from locations depicted to locations exhibited continues in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Fireworks (Archives) (2014), installed in an ice house and former WWII air raid shelter, where audio of the titular explosives ricochets, dredging up violent histories of twentieth century imperialism.

Berwick3 Bookcover05
Bambitchell (Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell), Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, 2019. Courtesy the artists

Elsewhere, communication with non-human subjects is narrativised in artistic duo Bambitchell’s Bugs and Beasts Before the Law (2019). The video recounts a five-part history of absurd legal cases involving the persecution of non-human, sometimes inanimate defendants in the irreverent setting of the Town Hall Old Gaol courtroom. Under the principle of lex talionis—an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth—a sow from Falaise, France, was trialled, mutilated and hanged for murder of children in 1386. Pigs are particularly liable to diabolical possession. [3] In Brazil, 1713, an ecclesiastic trial of termites accused of destroying a monastery determined that their occupation of the land predated that of the friars, and as such termites and friars were ordered to cohabitate, dividing the property into east and west. Through analogue, digital and animation techniques, Bambitchell’s work drifts over tromp l’oeilvistas, stagey recreations and sites of legal reckoning accompanied by campy, occasionally choral sound design by Richy Carey. With tongue firmly in cheek, the work might be a parable for animistic equity, a thought experiment in the ramifications of mass personification.

Animism, however, is not a directive to humanise or enlighten, as a belief it instead emphasises the contingency of all things, demoting the individual to the position of onlooker, eavesdropping on the forces of history, ecology, spirituality. In another year of global crises, the festival nimbly celebrates this collectivism, offering the forum—transhistorical, interspecies, mutable—as a model of communication to supersede the faltering dialogue. There are no great orators here, only a choir, singing and listening.


Marcus Jack is a curator and writer based in Glasgow. He is founder of Transit Arts, an organisation for the exhibition of artists’ moving image, a Research Associate at LUX Scotland, coordinator of the Margaret Tait 100, and is currently undertaking an AHRC-funded PhD looking at the history of artists’ moving image in Scotland.


[1] Deborah Stratman, Vever (for Barbara) (United States/Guatemala, 2019, 12 mins).

[2] Marwa Arsanios, Who is afraid of ideology? (Lebanon/Kurdistan/Syria, 2019, 54 mins).

[3] Bambitchell (Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell), Bugs and Beasts Before the Law (Canada/Germany, 2019, 33 mins).