Xuanlin Tham

Dancing and different ways of seeing at Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival

In the Scottish borders, this bold independent film festival champions new ways of seeing, with a 2024 focus on the work of Palestinian artist Noor Abed.

“As an experimental film festival, we’re all about the tension between structure-” Alchemy Film and Arts co-director Michael Pattison announced on stage, pausing, “-and chaos.” Laughter filled the room; gathered in the town hall of Hawick, a Scottish Borders town just about equidistant from Edinburgh to the north and Newcastle to the south, we were eagerly waiting for the festival’s ceilidh to begin. I’ve lived in Scotland for nearly six years but had yet to attend my first ceilidh (shock, horror!), so all I knew was 1) be prepared for lots of shouted instructions. 2) it’s going to get faster and faster. 3) Your feet are going to hurt a lot afterwards.

What better place to address the ceilidh-shaped gap on my ‘living in Scotland’ CV than the fourteenth edition of Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival? In a room with a smattering of well-practised locals, the majority of folk were filmmakers and artists hailing from all over the world. A filmmaker from the Netherlands, messaging a friend, nudged me to ask, “How do you spell ‘ceilidh’?” Half an hour later, returning dazzled from the dance floor, she said, “I think I need to start this in the Netherlands.” Stamping, shouting, swapping partners, looking very confused, and looking very proud (in the rare instance where I got the steps right), I linked arms and spun with filmmakers whose work I’d just seen and loved and filmmakers whose work would blow me away the very next day, while yet another filmmaker took a video of us on my phone – landscape, like a dad.

The next morning, after the ceilidh had ossified my legs into bricks, I hobbled up the stairs of Heart of Hawick’s cinema once again, feeling nothing short of overjoyed. Alchemy is one of the most internationally acclaimed experimental film and moving image festivals in Europe, and experiencing it in person, you soon understand why. It is truly a filmmaker’s festival – not at all in an exclusionary sense, but in the sense that an overflowing and communally nourished love for the medium is palpable everywhere you look: in the filmmakers who were just on stage for Q&As becoming enraptured audiences for the next screening; in how the festival’s vibrantly international programming and deep embeddedness in the landscape of Hawick enrich each other mutually; in the beautifully curated dialogue between the short films inhabiting the screen. Introductions to screenings were brief, allowing the curatorial magic of each programme’s thoughtful, dynamic juxtaposition to speak for itself.

Though I truly left every screening feeling electrified, perhaps my favourite programme was ‘Lands of Make Believe’. These films interrogated the abstraction, violence, and erasure enacted by mythology: from the Floridian, humid televangelism of Sarah Ballard’s Heat Spells or the re-narration of BP’s colonial exploitation of Iran in Nariman Massoumi’s Pouring Water on Troubled Oil, to the Greek nymph Daphne’s sublimation into a laurel tree in Catriona Gallagher’s Daphne was a torso ending in leaves. Shot on 16mm and processed in a solution made from bay leaves, Daphne’s metamorphosis imbibed into this film’s very chemistry.

With about four or five programmes a day, Alchemy’s schedule is full, but not overwhelming. Gaps between screenings lend themselves to the enjoyment of a delicious mixed mezze plate and pita bread at Damascus Drum, the gorgeous secondhand bookshop café just around the corner, or a gander through Hawick’s charity-shop-filled high street, rumoured to be blessed by the knitwear gods (though I sadly came away empty-handed). You can even take a stroll up the hills to give some local horses a friendly rub on the nose. I cannot stress enough how enriched a film festival is by its proximity to non-human kin and beautiful green space.

What I adored even more than the horses, however, was the time to enjoy Alchemy’s eight moving-image exhibitions, all located within a minute or two’s walking distance of the main festival venue, if not just upstairs from the cinema: which is where I fell in love with Lilan Yang’s Everything Comes Full Circle, a 16mm Bolex film revisiting the landscapes and iconography of Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. In front of a plexiglass screen suspended in mid-air like an apparition or some kind of portal, we sat on the floor: gently cocooned in the light of the film, its tender score, and the sound of the projector. Yang’s film, inkjet-printed onto transparent film so that the image slowly, permanently deteriorates with every loop of the projection, felt like a physical embodiment of both the impermanence of recollection and the emotional longevity of memory. It was one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen.

At Alchemy, films spanned worlds, approaches, and forms. An 86-second-long, heavy metal-soundtracked collage of analogue reels of trans pornography (filmmaker Autojektor’s CLOSET WITCH) sat happily alongside a quiet and reflective documentation of one of Livingston’s first council housing estates being slowly demolished (Rachel McBrinn’s Are you going my way?). A short film programme is by nature a dialogical one since films are placed in the most proximate conversation with each other there can be. But at Alchemy, there was something uniquely expansive about this explicit acknowledgement, nurtured further by each post-screening Q&A, of the commonality between such incredibly different works of filmmaking: where all are needed, all are welcome, all seek truth in the belly of the moving image, all look towards the same sun on earth.

This year, the festival’s focus artist was Palestinian filmmaker Noor Abed, whose trilogy of works at the festival weaved, mesmeric, between folklore, performance, and documentary – forging archives of resistance, ritual, and refusal, and contesting the violent regime of erasure and dispossession that pulses eerily just out of frame. We should not live in a world where Alchemy is one of the few outlying film festivals to stand vocally in solidarity with the Palestinian people and carve out space to celebrate Palestinian artists this year, but nevertheless, we do; and so the opportunity to watch Abed’s beautifully haunting films thus felt even more vital. Alchemy’s co-directors described this year’s programme as “critical films, disruptive acts: interventions … made in a spirit of speculation, generosity and resistance.”

As the world reels from multiple crises, not least Israel’s ongoing genocide of Palestinians after more than 75 years of apartheid and occupation, to be critical and disruptive is an act of care, and one that the experimental film is well-poised to undertake – a temporal, emotional interruption that demands us to remember we can, and must, stop the killing machine. The films we watched all fundamentally demanded us to challenge what has been normalised, to estrange ourselves from the status quo in one way or another, to collectively think back to history, forward to hope, and through the “quagmire of the present”, to borrow José Esteban Muñoz’s perennially relevant words.

I found myself lingering on the title of the festival, ‘alchemy’, and just how apt it felt: some unlikely collision and exchange of breath, substance, movement, and energy that brings forth the new and unexpected, naming the unnameable. The alchemy of audiences breaking into applause every single time a member of the team introduced the festival by name before a screening; the alchemy of such an inimitably beautiful and fiercely caring film festival that, “it makes you want to become an experimental filmmaker just so you get the chance to attend”, to quote filmmaker Autojektor; the alchemy between chaos and structure, an invitation to make chaos so that oppressive structures may collapse. As our shuttle bus pulled away on the final morning, and the wonderful members of the festival team sang a Hawick song to us as we waved goodbye, I think I caught a glimpse of something invaluable that weekend at Alchemy: that another world is possible, in some ways already here and being imagined, and that together, we can and must bring it to life.

Published 31 May 2024

Tags: Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival

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