A day at The Berwick Film Festival

One of our writer's has the exciting opportunity to cover the Berwick Film Festival!

Phoebe Clark
20th March 2024
Image Source: Phoebe Clark
Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival is an internationally renowned celebration of contemporary cinema and experimental moving image art that celebrated its 19th edition this year, showcasing artists from all over the world who are exploring issues from unappreciated and silenced perspectives. Berwick, a quaint town scattered with beautiful book shops, great charity shops, and, very importantly, ye olde sweet shop, is a short train from Newcastle. There were festival signs and volunteers to direct, making it very easy to navigate the area. 

A variety of films were scheduled throughout the day. We chose Louis and Languages/History of the Present. These films explored memory, trauma, and how history enters and exists in the body. They both use archival sounds to create an overwhelming and evocative soundscape exploring the complex relationship between language, experience, and emotional trauma. Louis and Languages, by Aurélien Froment, is inspired by Louis Wolfson’s autobiography, an American who wrote everything in French because he couldn’t bear to hear his native language, English. The soundscape has a fragmented narrative in different languages, made up of archival sounds. This is accompanied by subtitles and separatory sub-headings that remind us of the importance of the languages used. The visual element of the film is comprised of recorded minuscule, preserved internal organs, bones, and organic matter, within Edinburgh Universities’ archive, investigating the construction of internal experience through the interplay of light and colour. 

Image Source: Phoebe Clark

History of the Present, by Margaret Salmon and Maria Fusco, is an exploration of the collective trauma within the bodies of Belfast people after the troubles. The overwhelming sensory soundscape includes an experimental operatic singer improvising in response to recordings of tanks, helicopters, and other weaponised machinery, emanating from her mouth and throat, creating a jarring start to the film. Another aspect of the opera that the filmmakers utilise is the libretto, using text to explain and explore lived experiences of people, pushing the microcosmic lexicon of trauma through the script. The distorted amalgamated soundscape is combined with blurry and warped detail shots of mundanity, from people wandering the streets to frosted glass separating us from threatening figures and violence shot on 35mm film which allows a nostalgic relationship to light and the temporal history of place. Although this was not an easy or comfortable watch, it successfully conveyed an encompassing exploration of trauma in the body. 

Malqueridas, by Tana Gilbert, was the third picture we watched, translating to ‘those who don’t receive the love they deserve’ exploring diasporic aspects of motherhood of women imprisoned in Chile. The entire film is comprised of footage from prohibited camera phones that the prisoners concealed, over the many years of their sentences, the danger of which we are aware of throughout the film. The footage was previously lost to the digital ether and therefore the stories and lives of the women were being erased, the film is an act of preservation and respect for these women. It is an emotionally charged exploration of intimacy, motherhood, and relationships as it opens with videos and pictures of one woman’s baby living with her in prison, and we follow the story as he gets taken from her at two, and lives his life separated from her, and then being taken into foster care.

We are constantly reminded of a sense of time and space stretching endlessly between mother and child, distilling their separation. Importantly, the reason for their imprisonment is never mentioned, instead focusing on their realities, which allows the viewer to see them as people from an empathetic perspective. As well as the relationship between mother and child, the film also explores aspects of intimacy between the convicts, from romance to pseudo-mothering roles, that stand in for the lack of familial companionship. Throughout the film, the relative domesticity and mundanity of the prison are juxtaposed with the brutal and distressing realities of life in incarceration, meaning the viewer can’t relax into the experience, just as the women can never relax, for fear of being caught with contraband cameras. The film was an incredible watch and brought me to tears through the power and pathos of their stories.

Image Source: Phoebe Clark

After the screening, Gilbert discussed the film and there were opportunities to ask questions. The idea began when a photo of a mother and child, which is the first shot of the film, came up on her personal Facebook in 2017, posted from within the prison walls. The film then came from discussions with the women within the prisons, combining their experiences and stories into one main narrative that structures the footage and audio. She mentioned how most of the women’s sentences were drug trafficking, relying on it for their household’s main source of income, bringing a political and class angle to the film.

Acting as a bridge of hope in these communities, Gilbert talked about how when these women were freed from their sentence, they joined the production team of the film as scriptwriters and producers gaining consent from everyone featured, and is therefore a social project not just an appropriating art form. I asked her if they had had any conflict with the Chilean authorities, because of the prohibited nature of the footage, and she expanded on how they were not allowed to have a screening within the prison for the women still serving their sentences. As of January 2024, it is illegal to film or produce images within Chilean prisons, making this film even more enigmatic and also creating many more obvious legal hurdles for another film to be produced. 

The Film festival was a culturally and artistically enriching and engaging day, advocating voices that have been systematically ignored and silenced and I would highly recommend a visit next year for its 20th anniversary!  

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