for Tribune: report from the (S8) film festival, A Coruña

Published on: August 2nd, 2016

Alpha Centauri and pals

The medium of film, it’s often remarked, allows us to see through other people’s eyes for an hour or two; experimental cinema, while it tends to be more fleeting, can often offer much more privileged perspectives. The “other” eyes through which the avant-garde moving image is filtered may well be extremely “other” indeed—even super-human, super-natural.

Experimental cinema from the past six decades may simulate the bizarre ocular arrangements of Zaphod Beeblebrox from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (two heads, two right eyes), benign alien Alpha Centauri from Pertwee-era Dr Who (vast orb in middle of bulbous bonce), James Xavier from Roger Corman’s X: The Man With The X-Ray Eyes (self-explanatory) or the heat-vision world experienced by John McTiernan’s Predator. And sometimes, all of them at once.

Predator

Existing in a phantom-zone far beyond the commercial mainstream, experimental cinema often finds itself ghettoised even at those film-festivals nominally receptive to adventurous fare—tucked away in shorts-programmes and timidly-publicised sidebars. This makes the continued existence of events like (S8) in the Spanish port of A Coruña all the more remarkable and valuable.

Held in this likeably rough-edged far corner of Europe every June since 2010 and organised under the auspices of the Galician Cinematheque (A Coruña was for over a century the capital of the semi-autonomous north-western province), (S8)—officially subtitled the ‘Mostra de Cinema Periférico’ or “display of peripheral cinema”—is now established as a vibrant symposium-cum-showcase interrogating and promoting the more marginal manifestations of the artistic moving-image.

It focuses particularly short works (usually less than 20 minutes), and displays a defiant preference for projecting celluloid wherever possible—on Super 8mm (hence the name), 16mm and 35mm—while acknowledging practitioners who for aesthetic or practical reasons operate within the digital realm.

But while it’s now the norm for independent directors of narrative or documentary features to work digitally, the analogue format remains the preferred mode for the majority of their avant-garde counterparts. An excellent example of this is Canada’s 32-year-old Stephen Broomer, subject of a mini-retrospective at this year’s (S8)—along with veterans William Raban, Saul Levine and Nicky Hamlyn (most avant-garde doyens do tend to be white blokes).

Broomer’s prolific output exploits the tactile qualities and saturated colours afforded by 16mm; he’s at heart a miniaturist whose excels on smaller “canvases” in terms of projected-image size and duration alike: his praxis reaches ecstatic apogees in Wastewater (2012) and Snakegrass (2014), running just 77 and 68 seconds respectively.

Snakegrass

Snakegrass is a reverie of haunting simplicity: via multiple exposures, the camera meanders along a verdant path bordered by the eponymous plant, accompanied by ethereal American guitarist John Fahey plucking out ‘St Patrick’s Hymn’. The arrangement dates back to 1869, but the hymn itself is centuries older; Snakegrass likewise feels something beamed in from the pre-industrial epoch of Wat Tyler and company.

Wastewater is a wilder, more confrontational experience, its frenziedly distorted visuals providing shattered glimpses of a processing-plant. Once again, it’s the choice of soundtrack that compels and spellbinds, via a sepulchrally ponderous piece of music which carries echoes of the Bach compositions found at particularly transcendent junctures of Tarkovsky’s masterpieces.

The fact that Broomer’s chefs d’oeuvre run for seconds rather than hours should not in any way diminish the scale of their quiet achievement. And while both Wastewater and Snakegrass can be experienced (after a bastardised fashion) online via Vimeo, it goes without saying that there’s no matching the effect of seeing them in a darkened room, on a screen, with an audience, via celluloid.

Barely known even by hardcore cinephiles, Broomer is just the kind of “hidden” auteur who enjoys a kind of rockstar-status at the parallel pocket universe that is (S8). It’s truly an “edgy” affair on multiple levels: a little precarious in terms of finance (the Galician Cinematheque seems to be experiencing “death by a thousand cuts”); of relatively “niche” appeal in a primarily industrial, blue-collar city (all screenings and events are free of charge); committed to probing the ambitious and challenging fringes of the cinematic medium.

And while A Coruña may be a long way (spiritually and geographically) from cosmopolitan hubs of well-funded bohemian experimenta like Paris, Berlin and Vienna, it’s in many ways an ideal location for audiences to experience jarring and challenging journeys to the frontiers of creativity.

AC....... Go!

Regarded as the very edge of the world in Roman times—Cape Finisterre is only a couple of dozen miles away down the road—this extremity of Galicia, with its rugged coastlines jutting out into the Atlantic, retains an exhilarating sense of being out on the wind-blown fringe of the continent. “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking too much room,” as the hipster adage goes, and the 250,000 folk of A Coruña—whose chief tourist-magnet is the Tower of Hercules, the world’s oldest lighthouse—can’t be faulted on such a criterion.

This is a densely-packed little city with an unpretentious, democratic air—nearly every part of the centre feels residential, upper working / lower-middle class, with no sign of slums and very little that’s visibly too upmarket either. It’s inescapably maritime, outward-looking settlement, the spot from which the ill-fated Armada sailed in 1588. In such olden times it was known to British seafarers simply as ‘The Groyne’—then later as ‘Corunna’, best known for a crucial battle against the French during the Peninsular War of 1809. That skirmish was immortalised in Charles Wolfe’s 1817 poem ‘The Burial of Sir John Moore After Corunna’, much-quoted during the British Empire’s swaggering expansionist heydays.

The hero of the hour was a Glaswegian whose innovative approach to training and camp-design, plus his emphasis on humane treatment both of his troops and of the captured enemy alike, marked him out as a forward-thinking experimenter. He might well have revelled in the (S8) ethos; after all, as American independent maverick Kenneth Anger once noted, avant-garde was originally “a military term for soldiers who are sacrificed, who die for the risks they take going first.”

NOT a drum was heard, not a funeral note, As his corse to the rampart we hurried; Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot O'er the grave where our hero we buried. We buried him darkly at dead of night, 5 The sods with our bayonets turning, By the struggling moonbeam's misty light And the lanthorn dimly burning. No useless coffin enclosed his breast, Not in sheet or in shroud we wound him; 10 But he lay like a warrior taking his rest With his martial cloak around him. Few and short were the prayers we said, And we spoke not a word of sorrow; But we steadfastly gazed on the face that was dead, 15 And we bitterly thought of the morrow. We thought, as we hollow'd his narrow bed And smooth'd down his lonely pillow, That the foe and the stranger would tread o'er his head, And we far away on the billow! 20 Lightly they'll talk of the spirit that 's gone, And o'er his cold ashes upbraid him— But little he'll reck, if they let him sleep on In the grave where a Briton has laid him. But half of our heavy task was done 25 When the clock struck the hour for retiring; And we heard the distant and random gun That the foe was sullenly firing. Slowly and sadly we laid him down, From the field of his fame fresh and gory; 30 We carved not a line, and we raised not a stone, But we left him alone with his glory.

Neil Young
13th July 2016—for Tribune magazine
online 2nd August