Emerging from a quartet of shorts at the ninth Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival (BFMAF, 25-29 September), I remarked to a pal that I would be both pleased and surprised if, in the coming days, I saw a better film than one of the four I had just seen. I was half-right. Thomas Popakul’s Ziegenort is a 19-minute animation in which a teenage lad braves growing pains in the dull fishing village where he lives. Though programme notes refer to its protagonist as “Fish Boy” and as “half boy, half fish”, the film’s strength are the more subtle riffs on inter-gender and inter-species fluidity – adolescence and sexual discovery as body horrors to live through. A minimal colour scheme is enlivened by Popakul’s simple decision not to make the shadowy tones black but rather a dirtier tinge of purple. A climactic swim with a bed of eels takes the skin-crawling vibe to its logical conclusion.
I was also half-wrong. An installation on loop in one of Berwick Town Hall’s Prison Cells, Mountain in Shadow, by Galician filmmaker and recent Locarno prizewinner Lois Patiño, was overall the strongest work on display at BFMAF. Depicting figures skiing down an icy mountain, this monochrome delight was projected onto the unevenly textured wall of a chilly former gaol chamber, adding a weird and fitting stereoscopy to the imagery while renewing a space that the public might not otherwise wish to visit. Built in 1761, the particular cell in question was designed for high-risk prisoners; Patiño’s contemplative register – a welcome remove from the more trite tendency for installations to employ time-lapse effects – entraps its human silhouettes, who at once seem alone and together.
Solitude and togetherness have ongoing tussles at a festival, of course – especially for a critic, whose profession rests on the ability to articulate a private experience of a public space. This tension was nowhere more apparent than in Berwick’s Bankhill Ice House, host this year to Kelly Richardson’s installation The Last Frontier. Stepping into this nearly pitch-black arena, you would likely be taken aback (once your eyes adjusted to the dark) upon the belated realisation that you were sharing the space with others. Richardson’s latest work, a brooding moving image of an earth-like globe shimmering in a somehow beautiful death-agony, was looped so as to disguise its own beginning and end. The low-frequency drone that rumbled through the interior helped overwhelm any audible presence of other human beings. I could have stayed in there all day; I was glad to get out.
Built in the early eighteenth century, the Bankhill Ice House stored the ice used to preserve the salmon Berwick exported southward, northward and overseas – and did so until the third decade of last century. Among the region’s trade routes was Norway, a nation amply represented at BFMAF this year, most notably in the form of Study for Composition X, by Norwegian-born Sidsel Christensen. Exhibited in the gallery space inside Berwick Gymnasium (a 1901 extension to the early-eighteenth century barracks that housed the border town’s garrison), Christensen’s work presented two televisions alongside one another, on which unfolded video footage of the artist’s public performance earlier this year, in which she hung inside a hoop in various positions from the Royal Tweed Bridge.
Though the fixed-camera imagery on one screen was immediately iconic, Christensen’s rather abstract engagement with landscape was curiously demystified by more free-flowing footage on the other, and the resulting effect was disappointing. Elsewhere in the same installation, though, an earlier work that responded to the Norwegian coast in similar fashion, was much more compelling – in its imagery, and in the way it projected two screens opposite one another so that you couldn’t get too close without your own shadow obscuring the view.
An ostensibly slighter work, from Christensen’s fellow Norwegian Elle Sofe Henriksen, proved so infectiously charming that I meandered my way back for a second encounter. A mere five minutes in length, The Yoiking Hand presents three traditional Sámi yoikers (singers) from Sápmi, a trans-border cultural region that spans no less than four nations close to the Arctic Circle. More specifically, Henriksen’s film is about the apparently unique way in which yoikers move their hands while singing – a subtle variable that to this ignoramus didn’t appear to change from one song to the next, something that made the whole thing as amusing as it was fascinating. In-film accompaniment from Norwegian jazz flutist Patrick Shaw Iversen added to the The Yoiking Hand’s considerable energy as it intoxicated the small confines of the ominously named ‘Black Hole’, a cell that held drunks and disorderlies in Berwick’s Main Guard – a garrison building built in the mid-eighteenth century.
If the ‘Black Hole’ functioned today as it had in the 1740s, it would still be a far less effective sobering device than those unfenced ramparts found nearby. I mercifully came upon these sheer drops on a crisp afternoon and in full sobriety; imbibed after sundown, it’d require a brave brand of merriment indeed to stroll by these vertiginous, never-finished relics of an Elizabethan reign in decline. The views are fine, but don’t look down – and please do take note of which way the wind is blowing.
Back in the cosy confines of Berwick’s Maltings Theatre and Cinema, though, the belly-churns induced by the ramparts continued by way of Kauwboy (2012), Boudewijn Koole’s deftly handled coming-of-ager. Programmed by Berwick’s Open Door Film Club – and introduced by two of its prodigiously eloquent young members – this Kes-like drama replaces Loach and Hines’ economic hardship with motherlessness. A dime-a-dozen plot seems at first to work against it, but Koole’s control of emotional shifts is spot-on, and the performances are all excellent: Rick Lens as ten-year-old Jojo, Loek Peters as his musician-cum-security guard dad, and… a baby jackdaw, which sadly goes uncredited.
1st October, 2013