Alchemy 2023 copy
Festival installation shot for ‘Cultivate!’ Photo: Ben Nicholson

It is hard to overstate the degree to which this year’s Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, now in its 13th edition, is rooted in the surroundings of its Scottish Borders location and the town of Hawick. Over several years, the festival has undergone what feels like a quietly radical transition in the way it approaches its position within the physical and cultural landscape. Festivals, whether dedicated to film or otherwise, can often feel dropped into place as a discrete object, as though the town or city it takes place in is little more than a rear-projected backdrop. The work of Alchemy directors Rachael Disbury and Michael Pattison has created the sense that this festival has grown from the place—through a series of artists’ residencies, a year-round engagement with local communities via the ongoing project The Teviot, the Flag and the Rich, Rich Soil, and an evident determination for the organisation to be a platform for local artists and art.

Alchemy’s selection of moving image installations, which accompanies the main cinematic programme of the festival, has always been a visible way in which the festival extends beyond their doors of their main venue, Heart of Hawick. Being typically placed in a variety of spaces, creating a tangible connection between festival and town, this year’s programme of installations seemed to revolve around work made in, around, and about Alchemy’s home—and exploring the concept of ‘home’ more broadly.

Natasha Thembiso Ruwona’s what is held (between waters) is a film inspired by the River Teviot, which runs through Hawick. Connecting the river itself with the journey of salmon along its course, Ruwona further explores notions of memory held by water and the colonial implications of such notions, which were also the subject of her performance that opened Alchemy in 2021. Here, her video piece is situated a few minutes’ walk from the Teviot and just a stone’s throw from its tributary, the Slitrig Water. Combining watery imagery with musical vibrations and a ranging voiceover, the film itself is half hidden behind a draped gauze, slightly reflecting and refracting the visuals behind it. As Ruwona’s words meditate on the power of water, the exhibition creates a sensation of being pulled into the Teviot’s calming embrace.

Work like 7 x 7 and Belonging both highlight collective efforts made in the town and the wider region. 7 x 7 was produced in collaboration with seven primary schools in Hawick in February this year. Each school was assigned a single hour during which its pupils would use tablets to film what was occurring within its busy walls. Several hundred clips were then pared down into a single channel film that consisted of seven short sequences of split-screen action evoking the events of a typical school day. The effect of rewatching the film after it loops back to the beginning, is striking—while we’re watching the same sequences again, the sheer volume of clips mean that each day feels similar but different. Belonging is also a work utilising multiple concurrent images, though this time they are arranged into an octagonal pattern on the floor. Made by Hadrian Creatives and artist Kadea Santi, the work explores the myriad perspectives of people who have experienced racism and prejudice of differing strains. A sensory system placed on each edge cues a different monologue when spectators pass by it and makes them louder the closer the person stands—this has the effect of drawing poignant individual stories from the wider milieu of voices, reminding us of the individuals behind the categories.

In the Hadrian Creatives’ work they assert that the idea of ‘belonging’ isn’t always about where a person is born ‘but rather where you choose to be’. This theme plays nicely into City of Homes by Marta Adamowicz and Robert Motyka. The outcome of a residency with Art27 Scotland, in which they worked closely with Polish communities in based in Scotland, the piece is a melange of lino cut animations and personal testimonies about the sense of a ‘home’ and whether it can be attributed to specific buildings, certain geographic areas, or is perhaps more something one carries with them. It’s a beautiful rending of the disorientating effect of migration but also the sense of belonging that can develop. It felt particularly potent in the way it was projected against the patina of the old wall in Hawick’s Textile Towerhouse; the breaking down of a nostalgia for a physical space saw the interviewees newfound viewpoints literally projected onto aged Scottish stonework in the country they had chosen to settle.

All of these themes were equally evident in a number of the short films that were presented on the big screen across the course of the festival weekend. Elina Bry’s wonderful Walking to Connect is a portrait of walking as practice, in which a group of people with experience of substance dependency use the cameras on their phones to more closely observe and commune with the natural world in and around Greenock. Irineu Destourelle’s Monster’s Walk in Ten Chapters imagines a new fairytale in the vein of George MacDonald told against the backdrop of Huntly, Aberdeenshire. In Julia Parks’ Burnfoot Grows, Alchemy’s 2022 artist in residence documents the revitalising work being done by volunteers and staff at the eponymous community garden.

Parks’ work with several nearby communities was evident across the four films she presented in a solo screening at the festival, but equally it shone through in her exhibition Cultivate! which was made in conjunction with a group of young people from Hawick. The result of a series of analogue filmmaking workshops, the final exhibition was a tactile experience, with film strips dangling from the ceiling and being projected onto the walls, while hanging frames and lenses provided various interruptions through which the viewer could change their perception. It is a work brimming with energy and a genuine testament to the artistic spirit Alchemy is tenderly encouraging in the borders.

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Ben Nicholson is a writer and curator specialising in film and artists’ moving image. He is the founder of ALT/KINO.

[Note] ‘Ignorant Rock, Sentimental layer’ is a quote shamelessly pilfered from Chris Paul Daniels and Anton Kaldal Ágústsson’s beautiful film steinrunnin (petrified) which also screened as part of the festival.