Central Region exhibited at Berwick (photo courtesy Tanatchai Bandasak’s website)

The Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival is one of the UK’s leading events for experimental film and video art, taking place in England’s northernmost town as autumn descends. Alongside a competition showcasing new short work, it also boasts installations, seminars, workshops, retrospectives, and curated programs that aim to inspire conversation and contemplation long after the audience has filed out.

A strand at this year’s festival, which ran September 19 through 22, was Animistic Apparatus, part of an ongoing project by May Adadol Ingawanij, a writer, curator, and professor of cinematic arts at the University of Westminster. Taking inspiration from ritualistic practices in Southeast Asia in which films are projected for spirits, the project reimagines screen media as offerings to nonhuman audiences, and explores questions around what this would mean for creators and curators. In its iteration at Berwick, this involved live performances, site-specific installations, seminars, an all-night screening, as well as walks, workshops, and workouts devised by the Tapei-based collective lololol (Sheryl Cheung and Xiao Lin).

From Camera Trap (courtesy Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival)

One of the most enjoyable things about the festival is its installations, placed around the town, often in spaces that are not otherwise open to the public. This was particularly effective in the case of films in the Animistic Apparatus program, such as Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Fireworks (Archives), Tanatchai Bandasak’s Central Region, and Chris Chong Chan Fui’s Camera Trap, which were all screened in subterranean spaces that suited their subjects. Camera Trap’s space, a cold dark room beneath a tower of the old town walls, was especially effective. The film juxtaposes two stop-motion animations of animals separated by a century: confined creatures given freedom to move by Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, and pictures of rainforest wildlife caught on hidden cameras that have been animated by the filmmaker. The smell of earth in the pitch black enhanced the ambiance of the piece, with the spectral infrared animals warily eyeing the audience. 

Besides eye-catching events like a dusk-til-dawn showing of Lav Diaz’s 485-minute epic A Lullaby to the Sorrowful Mystery (projected as an offering to Berwick), it was in several morning seminars that Animistic Apparatus was most thought-provoking. Artists and curators discussed their work and its inspirations and implications with audience members and other artists. Dialogues around nonhuman agency in particular were fascinating to encounter, and spoke to the wider festival program in interesting ways.

From Bugs and Beasts Before the Law (courtesy Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival)

Bambitchell’s (Sharlene Bamboat and Alexis Mitchell) Bugs and Beasts Before the Law, for instance, is an essaystic dive into the history and legacy of “animal trials” in medieval Europe. It recounts various now-baffling true stories about nonhuman defendants, such as a sow, a colony of termites, and a cartwheel (which spun off its axle and killed someone as it barreled down the street), that were tried and even punished for crimes. From the apparent absurdity of the premise, Bambitchell draw out more uncomfortable legacies of seemingly ridiculous practices, implicating film in the history of animal abuse via Thomas Edison’s 1903 short Electrocuting an Elephant (which is exactly what it sounds like). More alarmingly, they draw parallels to the medieval demonization of other groups, such as “witches,” “Saracens,” and “sodomites.”

Other films throughout the program trod similar thematic paths. Tanoa Sasraku’s O’ Pierrot uses surreal pantomime and traditional clown iconography to challenge established white British sensibilities and the agency of queer nonwhite actors within it. Receiver, by Jenny Brady, is a multivalent exploration of how we communicate that’s entwined with d/Deaf history. It pivots from crossed phone lines to crossword puzzles, and keeps returning to reenactments of lip-reading lessons given to children when the teaching of sign language was banned in schools. Through these intersecting frequencies it interrogates the histories and current politics of how we speak and (are allowed to) listen. Ironically, but pertinently, Receiver operates in powerful dialogue with much that was memorable at this year’s festival. In all corners of the judiciously curated program, questions were asked about who is allowed to make films and video art, and which audiences are permitted to consume them — human or otherwise.

The 15th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival ran September 19 through September 22.

Ben Nicholson is a freelance critic and curator based in London. He is the editor of ALT/KINO, and his writing can be found in Sight & Sound and Notebook.