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Back in April 2020, in the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, when Alchemy Film & Moving Image Festival realised that they couldn’t proceed with their typically convivial in-person event in the town of Hawick in the Scottish borders, the organisers decided to pivot at short notice to a free global streaming edition.
Of course, they weren’t the only ones then to assume the switch would be a one-off – but one year later and their second online festival took place across the May Day bank holiday weekend (29 April–3 May). And so it was that the programmes took the opportunity to reflect on the past year – for many, one defined by a sense of stasis – by curating a programme that in various ways engaged with notions of repetition, cycles, loops, constraints and catastrophes.
This theme was laid out in the opening keynote lecture from Marxist historian Vijay Prashad, whose own starting point was philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s conception that “absolute repetition is only a fiction”: even in the formula A = A, Prashad argues, the second A is different purely by dint of it being second.
Expanding his address to consider our present sociopolitical situation, Prashad pointed to how the pandemic had revealed the crisis of underlying power structures – and framed the role of the artist as being a “dislocator of settled consciousness”. Both Alchemy’s programming, and many of its films themselves, seemed to flow directly from his remarks.
The idea of the pandemic revealing underlying anguish is quite explicitly echoed in Margaux Guillemard’s The Last Name of John Cage. Taking as its basis Cage’s infamous composition 4’33”, in which no instruments are played and ambient sound is considered to be the music, the film explores the sudden quieting of the world in early 2020. In Guillemard’s piece, that lack of societal noise leaves the film’s narrator trapped in their own home and in their own head, allowing past trauma to come bubbling to the surface. Social isolation begets emotional isolation in a quietly affecting act of intimate revelation.
Histories personal and social recurred and resurfaced in a number of films. Ufuoma Essi’s Bodies in Dissent combines celluloid footage of dance and movement by Black performers across both archival and original, contemporary footage, the one echoing the other such that a cultural history seems to be being passed down through the flesh. The image displays the full width of the celluloid, complete with the preceding and following frames visible at the screen edge, further emphasising the sense of a shifting, non-specific temporal aspect in which past, present and future overlap.
Richard Fung’s Sea in the Blood, in a focus programme on the filmmaker’s work, also uses the personal, physical and archival to explore the more broadly political. Ruminating on living with loved ones’ illnesses – thalassemia in the case of his sister Nan, AIDS in the case of his partner Tim – through home movies and letters, it branches out to intersect with Trinidad and Tobago’s independence from Britain and the AIDS crisis, lending a private story universal impact.
Surviving You, Always by Morgan Quaintance, and Promised Lands by Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, also juxtapose personal and societal narratives and official accounts to challenge common perception. Quaintance contrasts the opinions of celebrity scientists on the effects of psychedelic drugs, quoted on the film’s soundtrack, with his own experience, written in text laid over a backdrop of grainy black and white images of urban spaces, seemingly pulled directly from Quaintance’s memory.
Wolukau-Wanambwa similarly uses on-screen text to counteract received wisdom about utopian settlement projects in East Africa, drawing attention to the ways in which local and global narratives can calcify in collective consciousness when unchallenged. In both films, the contrapuntal play of voiceover and subtitles worked to unsettle the fixed consciousness of the viewer.
The festival itself took a similar tack, hosting on its website a set of discrete spaces in which work could be encountered in different and interesting ways. Alongside the live streaming programme there were a series of programmes focused on individual artists – Baff Akoto, Dagie Brundert, Emily Jacir, Jason Moyes, belit sağ and The Crumple Zone, alongside Richard Fung. A section called New Tab included two differentiated areas: one presenting a set of new written, drawn and audio commissions intended to disrupt the flow of the moving image work elsewhere, the other a series of looped works that could be clicked between and observed together, creating an online approximation of an open exhibition space.
When Prashad returned at the end of the festival to repeat his keynote lecture – in the spirit of A = A – it felt as if the festival had, both in form and content, fully embraced his call to challenge existing systems and inspire new thoughts, connections and directions.
Sight & Sound June 2021
In our current issue, Mark Kermode and Prano Bailey–Bond talk Censor and the 80s British censorship massacre. Read if you dare! Plus the history of ‘video nasties’, Kelly Reichardt on First Cow, Suzanne Lindon’s Spring Blossom, the sprawling brilliance of Robert Altman’s Nashville, and vintage Jack Nicholson. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy