If one were to name the film towns upon the Scottish artistic landscape, the likely first names would be Edinburgh and Glasgow. Home to the big festivals and the decision makers, these are culture capitals. Yet down in Hawick a pure ‘film town’ is being metaphorically constructed, thanks to the work of progressive film charity Alchemy Film and Arts.
Established in 2010 by video artist Richard Ashrowan, the organisation has spent a decade using the advantages of the Borders’ community spirit and semi-rural surroundings to build a local identity around experimental film, exhibition, training, and partnerships. Hawick’s flagship film festival, the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, returns for its 11th installment at the end of April, meaning the 14,000 strong industrial town, so long known for cashmere, mills, and folk chasing large oval balls, is becoming a proper stop on the culture tour.
A small-town setting possesses benefits in the digital age. For those unable to reach Hawick, online is a viable option, although Scottish and international audiences alike – some introduced to Alchemy when it presented Scotland’s 2017 Venice Biennale entry – have proven themselves willing to travel for a unique festival location.
Meanwhile, Alchemy is surrounded by a community ethos that encourages collaboration. Come festival time (in non-pandemic years), a dozen sites in the town morph into makeshift cinemas. Alchemy’s digital resources are now being made available to elevate local digital competency: plans are afoot to integrate film education into the curriculum of Hawick’s local primary schools. Additionally, necessity is the mother of invention, catalysing innovation in Scotland’s rural arts groups.
‘Arts organisations in rural communities are tasked with the same challenges as organisations in cities, but they are more immediate,’ says Rachael Disbury, Alchemy’s Co-Director. ‘In rural areas you have to face them, come up with alternative strategies, and come up with creative ways to address access. In the creative arts scene in Scotland, I think a lot of rural organisations are leading the way. That has been seen in a year like this where suddenly everyone has adopted methods we were already using, like Zoom communication.’
That pioneering thrust came to the fore last year when Alchemy’s was one of the first festivals to move online because of lockdown restrictions. Labelled ‘the canary in the coal mine’, results soon made it evident that the little bird lived: the 6,000 in-person event visits of previous festivals transformed into 15,000 online guests, garnered alongside positive feedback and viewers’ photographs illustrating how they were watching within their domestic spaces. Part of that success was certainly because Alchemy enjoys a niche market as one of the globe’s experimental film festivals, and being free to view certainly does no harm. Yet it was also vindication of a bold decision to maintain the festival’s quest for a live Hawick community atmosphere.
‘We were, and remain, one of the only festivals whose programme is mostly live,’ explains Rachael about the COVID-era UK film exhibition sector. ‘We had a lot of good feedback around being able to generate a communal viewing experience and that community feel, and we really invested in hospitality and relationships – I think having it live has really helped that.’
In the spirit of sharing, Alchemy duly uploaded a ‘how to’ guide for use by festivals that followed in its wake. That Alchemy itself is online again a full calendar year later is mildly surreal, as is the notion that it must adapt its own advice because, as Rachael notes, the context and novelty of last spring was a unique moment; subsequent evolved attitudes towards online festivals means replication would not suffice.
However, the 2021 programme – which is again free to view – may be the strongest in the festival’s history, with at least five live one hour programmes a day, each followed by a live Q&A. This totals to over 170 films, garnered from 1,200 submissions. Again, the majority of the festival is live, although on demand programmes will put seven specific artists in focus, including Emily Jacir, Baff Akoto, and Richard Fung.
Further ideas of what audiences can expect at the experimental film festival include: six newly commissioned ‘non-film’ pieces that combine text, image and sound; a Karel Doing phytography (plant-based film-making) feature; artist in residence, Natasha Ruwona, presenting a new piece on the Scottish Black Atlantic; and opening and closing symposiums by Marxist intellectual Vijay Prashad.
Audience participation is encouraged via chat boxes that complement the Q&As, and an unstructured space entitled ‘New Tab’ has also been introduced this year for anyone who simply wishes to enjoy independent interaction. To aid access, captioning by Matchbox Cineclub and audio descriptions by VocalEyes are also on hand.
Whilst the festival’s imagination, artists and audience are broad, the five days are also a showcase for some of the organisation’s year-round local work. Films made in the south of Scotland will receive special focus this year, and amongst the programme – of which around 35% is Scottish – is a film mentored by Alchemy, created by Borders Additional Needs Group (BANG). Similarly, works by a member of Moving Image Makers Collective – another Borders partner – will also be in focus. On top of that, seven 16-25 year olds have curated a programme which will be shown alongside the established names, and Alchemy’s own film-making academy, Outwith, will be guided through festival operations across the duration
These collaborations hint towards one final advantage Alchemy possesses within the cultural calendar: although its 2021 festival lasts for five days, ‘film town’ is a year-round project, meaning those who are inspired need not wait to participate. Having secured regular funding from Creative Scotland since 2018, the Outwith academy sits beside the Sitdown artist interview series, monthly Continue Watching screenings programme, and a smorgasbord of community projects.
An injection of £145,000 from the new Culture Collective relief fund from Creative Scotland, designed to rebuild creativity and the arts community, will also be put to use this summer. This fits directly into Alchemy’s hope for Hawick.
‘That is what we mean by ‘film town’: really investing in the potential of film across all facets of life and society,’ says Rachael.
Rachael will not be drawn on whether Hawick is yet superior to Kelso, but if Alchemy’s work continues to flourish, the town will find itself beside the major cities on the Scottish film map, and arguably sit as a better representation of a predominantly rural and small town nation. Such success can only be positive for Hawick and the Borders. It may even help address the only problem Rachael can identify with her new home community:
‘I do wish we had a train station.’
Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival 2021 runs from 29th April till 3rd May