If ever there was a town worthy of being used as the backdrop for a big screen historical epic, Berwick-upon-Tweed is tailor-made for such a venture. As it is, the Northumbrian hamlet that is currently the northern-most town in England currently plays host to something far more adventurous.
For the last fifteen years, Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival has brought together local and international film-maker and moving image artists to showcase their work in a unique environment. While this year’s four-day smorgasbord of screenings, performances, exhibitions and discussion may not formally form part of Scotland’s festival calendar, both its close proximity to Scotland and radical programme make it more than worth crossing both geographical and psychological borders to enjoy its expansive international programme.
“I love the idea of the edge being the centre,” says the festival’s current artistic director, Peter Taylor. “It’s the thing I’m most excited by, and the thing I’m most informed by. A lot of cinema history, and a lot of artists work that we show, comes from a place that doesn’t fit in with an accepted canon of film. I really want to involve artists who come to their work from traditions other than western European ones, and I want Berwick to showcase points of view which up until now, at least, haven’t been documented.”
With this in mind, highlights of this year’s programme include a major overview of the work of Kira Muratova, the Ukrainian film director who died in 2018 after directing some twenty-two films over almost forty years. There might have been more if Muratova’s off-kilter style hadn’t fallen foul of the Soviet authorities, who prevented her from working due to a style that didn’t fit in with social-realist orthodoxies. Actor Tilda Swinton is known to be a fan of Muratova’s work, as is director Mark Cousins, and the Berwick screenings of films including Brief Encounters and The Long Farewell are a rare opportunity to see her work.
As Taylor point out, “Muratova didn’t get the attention she deserved in the European press, but she was really a titan of Soviet cinema.”
Other strands of this year’s Berwick Film and Media Arts festival include screenings of work by Marwa Arsanios, including the Beirut-based film-maker’s documentary, Who is Afraid of Ideology?, which focuses on two radical women’s movements in the middle east. Fantastika will bring together a selection of works inspired by folk tales, while Animastic Apparatus will see artists Lucy Davis, Chris Chong Chan Fui and Tantchai Bandasak focus on artistic ritual in South-East Asia.
All of which fits in with Taylor’s philosophy of an international festival of less obvious works than some festivals might screen running alongside a seam of new and developing work. The latter comes through the Berwick New Cinema Competition and Berwick New Cinema Features, while an ongoing series of artists’ residencies, which have previously featured Turner Prize winner Charlotte Prodger, is run in collaboration with Berwick Visual Arts. Local film clubs and societies too are active supporters of the festival.
“Living in Berwick,” says Taylor, “it’s hard sometimes to see the impact of your work, and that also makes things slightly terrifying, so this is all really encouraging.”
Founded in 2005 by artists Huw Davies and Marcus Coates, who were both living in Berwick at the time, Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival’s unique position was used as an asset. It acknowledged its geographical position from the off, with the first festival dubbed Crossing Borders. In 2014, the year of the Scottish independence referendum, this was followed up by calling the festival Border Crossing. Taylor took up his tenure five years ago, taking over from Melanie Iredale, who joined Sheffield Doc/Fest as deputy director. Taylor had spent fifteen years in Rotterdam, where he programmed film for the city’s radical art space, WORM.
“It was one of the things that really excited me about coming to Berwick,” he says. “Before then, I was programming artists’ films in Rotterdam, which is a much bigger city, so the possibility of going something similar but much more intimate in a small town was really appealing.
“Often at film festivals, film makers can get lost, because the event is so big they can’t find each other, but here there are only ever two things being screened simultaneously. At other festivals there’d be about fifteen. So we’re not trying to be like Cannes or anything like that. It’s about being able to see some very special things in a very special place.”
Berwick-upon-Tweed’s population of just 12,000 can afford to do things their own way.
“There’s definitely a spirit of independence here,” says Taylor. “People here define themselves as Berwickians rather than anything else, although I also that sometimes we do under-estimate small towns. You really feel the stresses and strains of living in contemporary society, and that’s quite close to the surface, but because Berwick is literally the last town in England – not the first – people feel that, and I hope we can acknowledge and address that in our programming.
“We’re also working all year round with school and community groups, and we want to develop that so that side of things as a better resource for local people, as well as making it a space and a place that can allow artists to spend time here and potentially develop work together. In that sense, Berwick is a town full of brilliant possibilities in every way.”
Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival runs from September 19-22. Full details can be found at www.bfmaf.org.
The Herald, September 14th 2019