Alternative Economies still 01
Alternative Economies, Rehana Zaman, video still, 2021, courtesy Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival

In attempt at self-empowerment and to embrace a return to doing things in the physical, I attend Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival this year, and for the first time, alone. I catch the 7:something am train on Saturday morning and am sitting across the aisle from a person who is not wearing a face mask, who scoffs and shoots me a derisive glance when the crackly conductor announces that face masks and social distancing are mandatory where possible. Trying hard to limit deep breathing for the rest of the journey I wade through the third chapter of Checkout 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett. I fold down a corner of page 122 so as not to forget the following: ‘it’s such a relief to feel you are made of much more than just yourself, that you are only a rind really, a rind you should take care of yet mustn’t get too attached to, that you mustn’t be afraid to let melt away now and then.’ [1]

On arrival at The Maltings, I recognise the member of staff standing at the front desk and am handed an accreditation pack that I don’t think I registered for but gladly accept, noticing the free and very nice notebook. There are also some free seeds too to create your own ‘desk garden’. A friend tells me later that they’re just grass seeds and I imagine myself trimming my future little desk lawn lovingly with a pair of baby nail scissors in between sending emails and aimlessly trawling Instagram. Not knowing where I was supposed to go next, and not wanting to ask, I walk in and out of the building a few times before spotting two hungover friends double fisting soft drinks on the approach and promptly follow them down into the cinema.

I watch the first programme of the day that includes Ane Hjort Guttu’s Manifesto (2021), a film that presents the struggles of a covert art school in Bergen, one that exists within a newly purpose-built monolithic art academy building that fails to serve the educational and social needs of both the staff and students. They decide to self-organise, devising their own policies and courses (run by both faculty and students) and the administrative staff favouring a DIY scheduling system rather than the academic digital one, in order to bypass and exist within the bureaucracy of the institution. They elect the cleaner to also be the rector in favour of a more horizontal method of working, a championing of equal opportunity rather than hierarchical professionalism. Within its initial presentation at Hordaland Kunstsenter in Bergen, the film was projected on the back of the clandestine mobile kitchen unit that features in the footage itself, built by the staff and students in response to the lack of spaces to make food, eat and be together. One of the characters wryly comments, ‘the only possible relation to academia today is a criminal one’.

The next day I listen to an in-conversation podcast with BFMAF programmer Herb Shellenberger where Guttu discusses the move from old European art schools to the international, standardised ‘neoliberal architecture’ of new academic buildings, where the goal of the architect is proposed to integrate the idea that ‘everyone is responsible for everyone else and also themselves’ through increased control mechanisms and surveillance. [2] This is antithetical of what Guttu, an art teacher herself, maintains that art school should be—a space between the old and new that is grounded in the actual needs and desires of the students and staff themselves. Art school, she states, should be a place where experimentation, freedom and individual character are championed and nourished, where you can make mistakes without being perceived.

Shellenberger calls to mind the rebrand and rebuild of his alma mater Central Saint Martin’s at Kings Cross as it became subsumed into the University of the Arts London behemoth and indeed it reminds me very much of my own and the recent construction of the Reid Building (named after previous Director, Shona Reid) at The Glasgow School of Art. Designed by Stephen Holl and built in 2014, the Reid Building is an open plan iceberg with wide zig-zagging staircases and piercing light tunnels, aka ‘driven voids’ designed to allow people and ideas to reverberate through the building, encouraging what Holl terms ‘creative abrasion’. [3] The result is an all pervasive, highly disruptive din creating a forced ‘social’ space that is decidedly more abrasive than creative. In Guttu’s art school, there is similarly no visual or creative privacy and the students and staff have (in this case quite literally) become performers within their own educational setting.

It took me a while to realise that Manifesto was fictional. It was probably the moment where one of the characters introduces a wool class that absurdly and hilariously is open to ‘everyone in the world’ and which isn’t permissible by the school ‘but no one has noticed yet’. The uncanny presentation is so knowingly close to the actual experience of studying in art school across Europe today that instead it feels like some kind of auto-theoretical docudrama. Indeed, while watching Manifesto at The Maltings there was a near constant low-level murmur of recognition throughout the audience, presumably mostly art school or similar graduates who like myself emitted coughs of laughter and winces through gritted teeth. Despite its cynical and droll tone, Manifesto is uplifting in its dream-like quality (which is at times Charlie Kaufman-esque) [4], and its desire to dream of alternative educational methods—even the most outrageous ones. As Guttu attests, ‘it’s fiction but it’s also real, fiction could be real, another world is possible *she laughs*’.

Alternatives to capital and different networks of exchange are central to Rehana Zaman’s Alternative Economics (2021). Through parallel conversations with a botanist Rasheeqa Ahmad and a financial regulator Rachel Bardinger, moments of connection and mutuality are explored from a non-transactional position, where Zaman allows each voice to speak and be individual. Visually, Zaman employs direct animation where bright ink pours across the film strip creating a joyous rhythm, a space to disappear and slip around the conversations that Zaman presents. She speaks about the importance of reengaging with a breadth of visual and creative language that doesn’t reproduce but actively refuses the racial and social tropes she is expected to perform as a woman of colour, where the personal or relational might not be evident or explicitly disclosed but is present. The Alice Coltrane ‘Gospel Trane’ cover by Brandee Younger and Dezron Douglas that features throughout Alternative Economics similarly affords us our own open space, her typical cascading harp gifting the viewer reflective moments. Zaman creates a tincture from mushrooms, discussing the healing properties of alternative medicines with Rasheeqa Ahmad. Close ups of hands decocting flowers and grinding ingredients, and the ASMR dripping of rich amber liquids and pouring of natural honey provide a delicious and gentle repose. The resulting tincture is given away freely, outside of a transactional economy to community-led actions in solidarity with asylum seekers at Napier Barracks.

The film opens and is permeated with voices of cryptocurrency experts and theorists discussing such peer-to-peer and consensus rule-making technologies, such as Shermin Voshmgir, a Cryptoeconomics researcher and the founder of BlockchainHub in Berlin. One voice suggests that blockchain is a pyramid scheme, another that it is ‘moving from a pyramid to a network’, that cryptocurrency will bring us to a radical economic utopia. Again, with a focus on language, Zaman observes how cryptocurrency markets itself within the language of liberation and resistance. There can categorically be no freedom under capitalism, no equality in a society that uses currency or operates within a hierarchical economic structure. [5] Rachel Bardinger acknowledges its legitimate aims of horizontality, transparency and democracy­—she’s ‘sure there’s something in it—while emphasising the importance for blockchain research to be managed by governance experts and ethical consultants. She notes how the language of cryptocurrency is often geared towards the poorest in society offered the fake promise of freedom from authoritarian neoliberalism. Throughout we see clips of the Disney character Scrooge McDuck as a Scottish imperialist capitalist figure counting coins, having a money-crazed breakdown and devising an economy with bottlecaps. Scrooge McDuck implements the new economy in Tralla La, a fictional land based on the Hunza River Valley in Pakistan and conceived by writer Carl Banks in 1953 after reading an article in National Geographic.

In a recent podcast on David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, during a discussion about de-commodifying money and Universal Basic Income, Grace Blakeley argues in favour of Universal Basic Services. [6] UBS proposes the collective ownership of free transport and education, a national food service and health service. Rather than engaging in the money economy which subjects us to exploitation and oppression, and forces us to view our lives and successes in monetary terms, Blakeley suggests imagining a new welfare state without money: one that encourages togetherness, shared responsibility and compassion.

‘Actually, the remarkable thing about the statement “one has to pay one’s debts” is that even according to standard economic theory, it isn’t true.’ [7] Graeber’s words resonate within Jordan Lord’s meta documentary-style Shared Resources (2021) which asks us what we owe each other emotionally and financially as parents and children, while discussing the economic system of debt experienced by his father both as a former debt collector and current debtor after the loss of their home in Hurricane Katrina. Lord weaves a meta conversation between documentary as a style and the material of the documentary, alongside a comparison between a subject’s position within the economic system of debt and a subject’s position within documentary. How a documentary creates a record of a subject is likened to the creation of a story, an account, from which the interviewer-as-debt-collector extracts the subject’s information such as their values and knowledge. Lord asks, ‘how does a life become information?’

Half way through the film we see images of the family home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, covered in mold and mud. Lord describes his childhood bedroom while acknowledging the limits of words to explain what is and isn’t there, the emotional and financial weight of the images which I imagine could have been the images used for the family’s insurance claim. The framing of the documentary shifts at this point, we are aware that the family is being documented but now the footage appears to us as evidence, as an account to be recalled on later, as the family do throughout the film. Footage is recalled and re-recalled, commentated on and recounted repeatedly as if to determine its validity.

Lord’s exemplary attention to access is both highly sensitive and rigorous, through the use of integrated captioning, sound description and audio description. As well as increasing the accessibility of the film to more audiences, Lord employs these measures in an attempt to give his protagonists the autonomy that the documentary style typically negates, where the documentary film maker ‘offload[s] the risk of making a film onto those who appear in it.’ Indeed, we hear his father repeatedly expressing his upset at how Lord is portraying both parents within his previous footage, i.e. his father lazing around while Lord’s mother does the housework. We also hear the voiceover of his mother describing the documentary footage we are seeing—including the especially heart-breaking close-up footage of her own face at the end—and witness scenes of Jordan discussing the footage with both his parents. Lord gives them space to speak about how they are presented and appear on camera as well as the reasons for which, i.e. Lord’s father’s illness and worsening eyesight after exposure to Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. In these moments, Lord attempts to return their autonomy that has been disrupted both as subjects of a documentary and of the debt system.

While undertaking this attempt to recompense them both for his scrutiny, Lord undertakes an amount of ‘risk management’, the term also used by Lord’s father to describe his work as a debt collector, as he attempts to employ a Catch Agreement in lieu of a traditional contract. The Catch Agreement, rather than securing the filmmaker’s investment and shirking responsibility to the subjects of the film, strengthens the bind between Lord as filmmaker and his family as subject. Rather than legally binding, the contract highlights the family’s interrelatedness, how what we believe we owe each other and what we expect from each other isn’t always explicit. Their debt to each other is built on the precarity of love and trust. At the close of the film, Lord explains that debt is a kind of prophecy which follows the logic ‘“I owe you” to “I will always love you” which runs continuously back to “I will always owe you”’. Where ‘I’ and ‘You’ can never be the same and this difference cannot be framed and only felt in absence ‘through each other’.


In the weeks surrounding BFMAF, Boris Johnson has proposed a 1.25 percentage point increase in National Insurance contributions resulting in a £12 billion-a-year tax increase to help fund social care and an NHS currently buckling under the pressure of the government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. [8] This move comes after a 2019 election promise from Johnson that neither Income Tax nor National Insurance would be raised. Since this promise we have also seen the announcement of a significant cut in Universal Credit that will decrease the income of 1.7 million people who are unable to work alongside the end of the national furlough scheme next month. Both devastating decisions demonstrate a belief from the government that those in dire need of these benefits are able to (and want to) get back to a pre-pandemic ‘normal’, one that benefitted the able-bodied, socially privileged and wealthy most. On Monday we saw Alexandria Ocasio Cortez grace the Met Gala wearing a dress that bore the slogan ‘Tax the Rich’. Say what you will on Twitter about this (and I’m not even going to entertain discussing Cara Delavigne or Carolyn Maloney’s costumes) but it got a lot of us talking about socialism and capitalism, fuelled petty arguments about Mark Fisher [9] and–furthered by the police abolitionists protesting outside the Met Gala–brought a vital economic discussion into one of the most internationally renowned art museums today, the domain of those who actively lobby against it.

On the train on my way back from Berwick Upon Tweed, I read Peter Taylor’s introduction in the BFMAF brochure. He talks about the universal struggles of the last year and a half, and the overwhelming idea that people will be reading the brochure having already watched some of this year’s programme. I feel it, the overwhelm. Sitting in a cinema, wearing a mask not knowing whether to social distance, feeling comforted but saddened but very much understanding of the empty seats. The festival is smaller but out of necessity, refusing the pressure to programme excessively or inordinately (as evermore recently favoured by arts festivals) and instead paying filmmakers and artists more fairly, as evidenced in the move to rename the Berwick New Cinema Competition, the Berwick New Cinema Awards, where the prize is now shared equally across all awardees. Taylor emphasises that the festival has always been about solidarity with filmmakers, and so it has been vital to question ‘what solidarity might mean in 2021’. [10] Indeed, this year solidarity reverberates throughout the programme, through talks, workshops and events, beyond the films detailed above. Compassion, collectivity and intimacy are centred, celebrated and held.


Caitlin Merrett King is a programmer and writer based in Glasgow.

Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival continues online until 30 September 2021.

For further discussion on solidarity, precarity and asymmetry in film programming, see this excellent conversation between BFMAF Director Peter Taylor, Head of Programming Jemma Desai and writer and programmer Abby Sun on NOTES, an open-for-comment Google Doc.


[1] Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett, 2021, London: Jonathan Cape, p. 122
[7] Debt: The First 5,000 Years, David Graeber, 2011, London: Melville House, p.11