Festival Profile | Mutuality

Conal McStravick considers activist histories and communities of care at the 17th Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival.

Cat & Éiméar McClay, a body is a body is a body, 2021, Video; film still courtesy of the artists and BFMAF. Cat & Éiméar McClay, a body is a body is a body, 2021, Video; film still courtesy of the artists and BFMAF.

The Berwick Film & Media Art Festival (BFMAF) was established in 2005 by filmmaker Huw Davies and artist Marcus Coates in the Northumberland town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. BFMAF is funded by Arts Council England, BFI, local and county councils, and supported by a host of academic, project and programme partners including Newcastle and St. Andrews Universities, feminist film distributor, Cinenova and the National Film Archive of India.

The unique location of Berwick – an ancient garrison town on the English-Scottish border, bounded by the River Tweed and the North Sea coast – makes this a beneficent setting for a twenty-first-century UK film festival. The festival’s many exhibitions and events take full advantage of the unique built heritage, landscape, seaward aspect, and atmosphere of the town, drawing in inquisitive and informed audiences from across the UK and internationally (online).

Now in its 17th year, under Festival Director, Belfast-born Peter Taylor, BFMAF has continued to win plaudits as a bellwether event in the reception and re-evaluation of new and classic cinema, and experimental and artist’s moving image. Notably, since the festival began, the UK has seen seismic changes: the financial crisis and austerity economics, the Scottish referendum, an ongoing refugee crisis, Brexit, then COVID. Yet, as history races to the present, Berwick is positioned not only to explore what film has to say, but what a festival can achieve as film, media practices and audiences continue to transform, regrouping post-COVID, to bear witness to recent events and to stake a claim in shaping future debates.

Taylor says: “The most exciting thing for me is witnessing how BFMAF has been shaped by the people involved with it. Especially how artists’ and filmmakers’ work can touch us so deeply. The conversations and friendships, the knowledge and experiences that bring work into being, come alive at a festival. This unfolds long beyond any single event itself. It changes us. And there’s a non-linear inter-relatedness that I would never be able to trace.” 

In a collaborative curatorial spirit associate programmers including Christina Demetriou, Alice Miller, Myriam Mouflih, and Herb Shellenberger, foreground feminist, LGBTQ+, indigenous, POC and global majority filmmakers and artists. Jemma Desai, formerly of BFI, joins this year as Head of Programming. This year’s theme of ‘Mutuality’ cites decolonial and social justice approaches to festival-making as a means of creative collaboration and solidarity work. 

Festival strands include the Berwick New Cinema Award, Filmmakers in Focus, Propositions, Essential Cinema, Work in Progress and Young People’s Programme, an online exhibition programme, online interviews and events representing the breadth of past and present film and media arts practices that nurture future talent. 

Previous winners of Berwick New Cinema include UK and international filmmakers Onyeka Igwe, Julia Feyrer & Tamara Henderson, Callum Hill, Sky Hopinka and Camilo Restrepo. A new, shared award showcases UK and international filmmakers including Sophia Al-Maria, Camara Taylor, Jordan Lord, Fern Silva, Salad Hilowle, Ane Hjort Guttu, Fox Maxy, Carlos Maria Romero, Adam Lewis Jacob, Suneil Sanzgiri, Abdessamad El Montassir, Tim Leyendekker, Amalia Ulman, Rehana Zaman and the Irish-duo, Cat and Éiméar McClay.

A live format returned this year after 2020’s online-only festival. Numbers were restricted and media art exhibitions limited to online commissions. Even so, the festival has returned with a renewed commitment to the broader social and political movements catalysed in the wake of the pandemic: the global Black Lives Matter protests and the re-consolidation of decades of anti-racist, climate justice, indigenous rights and worker’s rights activism, re-forged through post-COVID politics, clearly seen in the responses of filmmakers, artists and programmers.

In the New Cinema Award, Adam Lewis Jacob’s brilliant film, Idrish (2021), is a timely tale of trade union, anti-racist activism and movement building that centres on Muhammad Idrish, the Birmingham-based immigration activist who faced-down deportation during Thatcher’s Britain. Natural Resources (2021) by Jordan Lord is an exemplary portrait of the reversed fortunes of white middle-class America, namely the filmmaker’s family, filmed over five years whilst Lord’s father, a former bank debt manager, struggles with chronic illness, redundancy, and bankruptcy. Rehana Zaman’s Alternative Economies (2021) brings joy and insight to visualising alternatives to capitalism through conversations held during lockdown about cryptocurrencies and healing through herbalism, whilst re-watching and decoding Disney cartoon capitalism with her son. For Jacob, past and present anti-deportation protests whip up archive video and sound into a rallying cry against racialised injustice and the ongoing UK Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’. Lord and Raman explore filmmaking that offers alternatives to extraction, exploitation and capitalist capture, accumulation, and debt – in the process re-performing and embodying knowledge as liberatory and mutual social relations. 

A body is a body is a body (2021) is an immersive, auto-fiction-inspired, animated video by Irish-duo, Cat and Éiméar McClay, that refigures childhood memories of being twins and queer in Celtic Tiger-era Irish Catholic culture. Skin as landscape and Gothic church boudoirs become ritual theatres and pagan pyres, whilst bedtime prayers pre-figure same-sex awakenings as Catholic, queer, and occult corollaries. Flooding and fire reimagine eco-feminist futures, and how bodies, skin and rituals connect or cleanse, as modes of collective catharsis and liberation from patriarchy.

Past BFMAF resident artists included Margaret Salmon, Charlotte Prodger and Lucy Clout. Recent online commissions have showcased Zinzi Minott and Irish artist, Renèe Helèna Browne. For 2021, BFMAF features Black trans archive artist, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s When Amongst Our Own and BERWICKWORLD showcasing the healing justice work of Seema Mattu – artists at the fore of a recent interactive turn in role-player inspired works. 

In the Focus programme, the films of Indian collective SPS Community Media, Cambodian production collective, Anti-Archive, and the Vietnamese filmmaker, Nguyn Trinh Thi, profile collective production methods in South and South-East Asia. Nguyn’s How to Improve the World (2021), uses storytelling, ritual, and music to resist the Western lens of constructing narrative through capturing images, centring sound and indigenous co-presence to talk about how we live together. The Essential Cinema Cinenova showcase, Back Inside Ourselves – programmed in response to S. Pearl Sharp’s recently restored and wonderful, Back Inside Herself (1984) – adds to archive retrospectives in recent years on Steve Reinke and Peggy Ahwesh. This featured poetry and film contributions from Tako Taal, Rhiana Bonterre, Ufuoma Essi, Sarah Lasoye and Jamila Prowse, re-connecting an intergenerational, transatlantic dialogue within Black Feminism, past, present and future.

Taylor concludes that such a shared future is: “one-hundred percent work in progress”, adding: “We learn a little, we lose a little, we make mistakes, we try again. I’ve been very conscious how festivals can be greater than the sum of their parts. The sums need to add up better. Literally and metaphorically.”

The 17th edition of Berwick Film and Media Art Festival ran from 10 to 12 September 2021 (and from 10 to 30 September online)


Conal McStravick is an artist, curator, writer and researcher based in London.