First I forgot how to watch, how to really look at a thing.
Like most people I know, I have spent a large part of the last few months in a sort of suspended quasi delirium, a multimedia plain of hyper-consumptive distraction, some fresh hell! By which I mean I have been locked-down in a state of half dress and toast crumbs, drifting listless, marooned and skimming, flitting, fidgeting, getting itchy, occasionally screaming, sometimes crying, feeling both transcendent and deeply floored in equal measure.
It was with a sort of stingy-eyed stumble, that I arrived digitally at Alchemy Film Festival Live, determined, as the festival’s new maxim declared, to ‘Act as if nothing has changed, proceed as if everything has’, in other words, to think contradiction. Politics was in the air, it was 1 May, which always fills me with naive but hopeful thoughts of revolution, and I had marxist philosophers on my mind. No more so than Herbert Marcuse, the surprising sexy grandfather of 60s counter culture, who pertinently observed that the world ‘contradicts itself’ and our inability to ‘think this contradiction’ is a condition of our containment by the state.
The festival led me tenderly from my cave, with a programme entitled Ghost Dwellings that started, thematically at least, from home, bringing together films with a sensitive and striking visual beauty, ruminating on loss, memory, family and domesticity, on what remains or hangs around. These expressions were clear and captivating in One Off by Sophie Theodore-Pierce and Vincent Guilbert’s Of Her Kingdom. The former a sumptuous HD piece that deftly layered images as if they were memories floating up from a barely suppressed unconscious, to tell a tale of what is inexplicably just there, an inherited family trauma contorting across time. Of Her Kingdom in contrast, a quiet 8mm work, explores what is absent and becoming absent, a pensive lament that felt almost suffocatingly relatable. This film led neatly to the crepuscular visions of Karen Russo’s 16 mm film Junkerhouse, shot in masterful B&W psychedelic delirium that drags the viewer around the warren like residence of architect Karl Junker. A man who made his house his life’s work, cocooning himself within a maze of elaborate wood carvings that extend across all floors and corners, with the intricacy of a spider’s web on LSD.
Alongside all of its screenings Alchemy has produced some imaginative, useful introductory texts and interviews. The texts accompanying Ghost Dwellings however, seem to simplify the complexities of the films into narrowed characterisations, works are described aesthetically as shadowy or ethereal, or ‘having a ghostly timbre’ (One Off) or ‘being a haunted house film’ (Junkerhouse). Ghost stories are always more than ‘ghostly’, perhaps I felt so aggrieved by this simplification because we are living in a time of ghosts, uncannily hanging around a perpetual wake for our ‘former lives’, facilitated in part by the twilight eulogising in the culture of lockdown, but convened with callous and murderous intent by the jolly old carry on dying Blitz spirit simulation, engendered by project email@example.com.
The second thing I forgot was how to sit in one place. I forgot how to really just be.
The next few screenings concerned rites and rituals, process and materiality. Build Me A Dream and Still Processing were each scattered with fascinating films, notably Gaia Mama by Laura Bouza, Derek Jenkins’ The Shouting Flower and Searching for Beauty In Student Loan Debt or at Least the Envelopes in Which it Comes by Nicky Tavares.
As these films played out my attention wandered and the dissonance between the online happening and the actual experience of attending a film festival grew. It started with the relative joy of doing things you would never do at a normal screening, but I always do when watching films at home. I drew, I made a cup of tea, I switched to my phone and took the films into the toilet, messaged friends, called my partner, slipped the films into my pocket, walked my dogs in the rain and filmed dandelions when the films where about dandelions, and flowing water when they where about student debt. There was something liberating in these moments, allowing films to run into life and back again.
Alchemy decided they would screen films once and in order, at set times, and with no pause function or repeat, in an attempt to try and replicate the important temporal linearity of the ‘screening’ as an event. The result however was inevitably fragmented through choice or technological disruption. Without context, the rites and rituals of cinema space, viewing a film festival online inevitably changes our essential experience of watching and understanding the medium. Something that Alchemy could do nothing to resolve despite best attempts, including, a gesture at normality, an online chat room that opened pre and post screening to discuss the films.
The works in Build Me A Dream and Still Processing were a poignant reminder that the cinema is a symbolic place that creates a unique psychological space. In the dusk of the cinema you are together and yet alone in contemplation, conscious of emotions rising like mist from those around you. I have even on some rare occasions sat in a cinema and suddenly felt its revolutionary potential, feeling ideas grip a crowd, much like they must have done when the celluloid visions scared world powers into retaliation and control of the medium.
In contrast, perched on the toilet seat with one hand on a bottle of Domestos and the other on an iPhone screen, I am both crushingly alone and entirely networked and connected as messages arrive, memes are flouted and phone calls are inappropriately taken. I am a consumer on my sad throne choosing when and where I give my attention, and the festival is simply one of many competing media. The difference between a symbolic mode alive in the ancient idea of the festival and a purely consumerist one couldn’t be more stark, you start to simply only watch what you ‘like’ within a programme, what you want to consume, and there is a diminished chance for encounter and for boredom, I’d argue another of the most important rites of cinema.
Digitisation is a significant problem for all film festivals in our current present and Alchemy, which has over the years flown the flag for analogue and expanded cinema within its programme, and to whom a sense of place and context in Hawick is of central importance. But a wider and more present danger lurks from a funder’s perspective: a digital festival is cheaper, more widely accessible and is efficient. Feedback and audience data pool from IP’s and chat rooms without the inconvenience of viewers: if implemented in a certain way a festival could actually increase revenue by moving online. To put it simply, broadcasting is perceived as ‘better’ than screening, your data is more valuable than your body, it fits smoothly into the age of distraction and commodity, but the digital space denies us the revolutionary potential of being and togetherness, it’s really a hard place to build a community.
On Saturday and Sunday my work interceded, I moved from the consumerist—watching what I like, to pragmatist—watching what I can. I manage to time my lunch and tune in for Morgan Quaintance’s South which is a sensational expressionist vision of life that says more than I ever could in description, and will likely be screened plenty of times in the coming year. I also luckily caught the irrepressibly vivacious work Zombies by D.R.C musician/director Baloji, a collection of interlinked exquisitely crafted music videos that ear and eye wormed me in equal measure. I honestly defy you not to whistle this tune.
I watch the Seeing Comes Before Words programme on my slow cycle home pausing in the shade of some park trees to watch Duncan Marquiss’ film Mirror Test. In the shadow of Corona Virus everything seems to have gained an extra layer of meaning as if we are desperately grasping for antidotes to the perceived purposelessness of our days. But might we in-fact look back on the past few months as some of the most significant in our lives, might this contradiction—the solidarity we find in isolated confinement, turn out to be a defining moment in an as yet unrealised act of political agency.
These thoughts, hastily jotted down, were provoked by the subtle movements of Marquiss’ film, a blue-eyed jackdaw jumps inquisitively around what turns out to be the home of two former citizens of the German Democratic Republic. In a melodious tone Kirstin and Stephan talk to Marquiss about their lives in the GDR and about a cohabiting jackdaw Jakie, through which a series of delicate associations form, inextricably linking the couple’s experience of the social isolation and extreme surveillance in the GDR and the way that they now live alongside and understand the subjectivities of another species. The ‘mirror test’ was engendered to prove an animal’s ability to be self aware: Marquiss’ film however reminds us that this self awareness isn’t simply recognising an image of ourselves, but instead the longer road of how we come to terms with living among others.
Thirdly I forgot about what was happening, and started searching for escape.
On Sunday there were films that pointed to a way out. Sebastian Wiedemann’s Obatala Film, a film of Yorba ritual that transports the viewer into cosmic cinematography where we live experiences both through and as images. Followed by Justine Abitol’s Chant at Dusk, a film exploring the transformative potential of cinema, childhood and nature, that seemed to be about happiness and turned out to actually be a visceral muddy sort of joy. I shut the laptop screen hot on my lap and grabbed my coat and claimed my hour of the outdoors, feeling somehow changed and a little more free.
Alchemy’s programme is diverse and novel with a political bend that can’t help but flex around extraordinary political times. The striking relevancy of much of the programme through this distortion pays homage to adroit programming that enviably achieves that tricky balance of being both representative and transformative. Like a great film, a good film festival can be a magnifying lens through which we can see squinting seconds of clarity, sometimes in unexpected and adjacent ways. That is to say, a good festival thinks contradiction, it changes nothing, and it changes everything.
Alexander Storey-Gordon is an artist based in Glasgow.
Alchemy Film & Arts is a cultural organisation invested in film as a means of generating discussion, strengthening community, and stimulating creative thought. It brings the highest quality experimental film to Hawick and the Scottish Borders, celebrating artistic excellence through a diverse range of year-round events – including exhibitions, commissions, residencies and an internationally renowned annual film festival.
The following films are available to view online:
- Herbert Marcuse, interview extract One Dimensional Man, 1964
- Priti Patal twitter government announcement, credit unknown graphic designer
- Angela Davis and Herbert Marcuse speaking at UC Berkeley, CBS Eyewitness News report, 1969
- Diagram illustration of Plato’s Cave
- Slide taken from the published work of Swiss pharmacologist Peter N. Witt who studied the effect of psychoactive drugs on spiders web formation
- The Four Stage Strategy, extract from Yes Minster, 1986
- Pocket, Alexander Storey-Gordon, May 1st 2020
- Grass, fly, rain, Alexander Storey-Gordon, May 1st 2020
- Dandelions, grass, rain, dog, Alexander Storey-Gordon, May 1st 2020
- Blossom, water, curb, shoe, Alexander Storey-Gordon, May 1st 2020
- Domestos Fresh Advert ‘Dom Cleans Up’ directed by Gerry Anderson, 1991
- Tech Boy finds Media scene, American Gods season 2 ep.2 , based on Neil Gaiman’s novel of the same name, 2019
- Very excitable man describes his concept for body hub dot com (defunct), The Many Potential Uses for Body Labs’ 3D Body Models, 2015
- We Shall Overcome (Version #02), Berlin, Pete Seeger, DDR (GDR), 1967