The picturesque wonders of Berwick-upon-Tweed trespassed into the liminal space of memory and virtuality this year as the 16th edition of Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival took place entirely online. Situated off the grid of the film industry, outside the purviews of social and cultural centers in the UK and breaking with more mainstream-oriented attitudes towards cultural work—which, broadly speaking, has been disregarded by current crisis politics—an attendee-driven festival like BFMAF lives off the physical exchange between artists, curators, and audiences to remain vibrant and relevant. This year, BFMAF expanded their regular weekender to almost a month of films, discussions, and readings online. By choosing to decompress time and extend viewing access, BFMAF offered a dynamic engagement with their lineup.
A most thrilling encounter was the showcase of Ayo Akingbade’s work in the “Filmmakers in Focus” strand of the program. In Akingbade’s films, past and present intertwine. Her trilogy No News Today examines a triptych of ever-present urban tensions in London: housing, gentrification, and regeneration. In Tower XYZ (2016) the narration repeats a mantric choral, “Let’s get rid of the ghetto, let’s get rid of the ghetto, let’s get rid of the ghetto,” over images of African textiles, tower blocks, and a concrete playground. Its pure colloquial poetry echoes across different subjectivities suffering under profit-oriented city planning. Street 66 (2018) is an ode to housing activist Theodora Boatemah, whose work was essential in fighting for the regeneration of Angell Town Estate in Brixton, South London. Here, Akingbade narrates sweepingly between archival footage and present-day interviews with Boatemah’s accomplices and residents of the estate, meditating upon the potential of grassroots organizing against the dislocation and marginalization of working-class communities symptomatic of gentrification. Dear Babylon (2019) finds Akingbade exploring the tension between the factual and the fictional. In it, a group of art students gathers in a housing estate in East London. They discuss the fictitious AC30 Housing Bill putting the tenants under threat, and plan to raise awareness by making a film about it. By mixing this fictional blueprint with factual interviews of tower block tenants’ experiences, Akingbade negotiates modes of resistance and investigates the possibilities of community activism.
So They Say (2019) explores the legacy of the Newham Monitoring Project, an anti-racist organization supporting Black and Asian communities with legal aid against growing police racism and the rise of right-wing groups like the British National Front in the 1970s. We see protest pamphlets and learn about racist incidents, unlawful arrests and white-on-Black violence. Stressing the necessity of campaigns for broader awareness, the assembly of bodies, as Judith Butler puts it, is itself a prevailing theme in Akingbade’s work. The archival elements melt into contemporary images of the area, while her 16mm footage facilitates visual vibrations between past and present. Through telling the rare history of the NMP and its impact upon the area, Akingbade emphasizes the film equally as a historical document and as a call for continued action.
In A Is for Artist (2018), Akingbade looks at her own artistic origins. We see her in a flat flicking through a stack of photographs. The black and white images register family events such as a graduation and wedding, as well as external shots of buildings. Scattered around the table are identity cards, a driver’s license, and a snippet of 35mm film. Akingbade’s gaze offers speculations about a process of memory and mirroring life events. The materiality of 16mm analog film offers her self-confessed slow work ethics: the planning and shot calculation necessitated by celluloid confer pace and energy upon her choice of images.
To the light-footed falsetto of Derrick Harriott’s reggae hymn “The Loser,” a woman walks through a field of lavender in Claudette’s Star (2019), dedicated to visual artist Claudette Johnson. “What makes a good painting?” Akingbade examines the imperfect while championing the “naïve expressions, the quality of feel that you can’t explain” of an art object. We see her looking at Johnson’s Trilogy of Black female figures, negotiating the gaze and posture between them on one level while also connecting with the outside viewer’s gaze in the gallery on the other. Later, Claudette’s Star’s protagonists talk about their personal engagement with art and literature, including discussions of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, a book on flowers introduced into British horticulture, and Enrique Martinez Celaya’s On Art and Mindfulness. The film places encounters with art works at its center and consequently speaks to the tension between proximity and distance in engaging with them.
Showing in BFMAF’s “Propositions” section—a hybrid of conversations and online screenings—Tiffany Sia’s 29-minute film Never Rest/Unrest documents the ongoing Hong Kong protests against the imposition of a new extradition law in the summer of 2019. The law is seen as the last step towards China defacto controlling the harbor city, essentially meaning China could expand on its legal and political prosecution of any dissenting voices at will. Here, Hong Kong-born Sia focuses on the processes of everyday life within the protests against the law. A formal decision becomes apparent from the outset: Sia shoots on a handheld mobile device and not with professional equipment. Furthermore, she consciously decides to use an aspect ratio that seeks to juxtapose power relations and through this simple reorientation immediately opens a gate to mediate oppression. The established ratio of power, of government information and Hollywood narrative, comes across palpably in the 16:9 landscape, be it on subway screens or public squares; Sia’s inverted 9:16 portrait subverts this power structure and thus opens a portal into another world, offering a space of negotiable distance to register the events. Confronting the reductive siren call of the news media, with its concocting of complicated information into easily accessible images and narratives, Sia draws her attention to the situation in the streets and the ordinary moments during the protests. Be it an everyday ferry ride, the burning of rights written on paper as a symbolic curse to the authorities, lasers pointed at police drones to prevent detection and surveillance, or the police’s formalized announcement to the crowd before the discharge of teargas juxtaposed with a person getting a haircut surrounded by the action: in Never Rest/Unrest, Sia interrogates an intimacy with the frictions of reality. Sia uses this strategy to counter, as Hito Steyerl puts it, the “fetish value of high-resolution” footage to reveal “the dirt and grit” of the protest. We see the non-aestheticized lens, the pre- and
Sia’s images never offer anything usable by the state; rather, she purposefully leaves its protagonists masked, covered, or otherwise obscured. On the one hand, she achieves this anonymity through filming protesters from afar or abstracting them through surreal Dutch tilts. On the other hand, the content of the shots never includes any kind of violence or active engagement with the police. Nor do they point towards any particular event on a timeline. In short, Sia challenges the state while protecting her subjects. To evade the panopticon—Foucault’s notion that power, although less and less visible physically, remains present through surveillance and systems of social control—Sia constructs opacity. Therewith she creates, as she calls it, an “unfuckable text, a barrier of facts.” In her strategic nihilism, Sia is less a spectator than a witness, or as associate programmer Herb Shellenberger notes in his cover essay: “In these ways, the artist shadowboxes with the spectre of state terror through a strategy of plausible deniability.”
Decoding the images in Never Rest/Unrest is challenging. Sia purposely withholds subtitles and in doing so deliberately leaves multiple paths of engagement with the film open, allowing it to translate differently between audiences who read Cantonese and those who do not. In a scene illustrating this subjective ambiguity, the audience sees a broken mooring rope beaten back into shape, its components woven to tie strongly again, its function restored. But this also serves as a sparking metaphor about the construction and compression of time. Here, Sia applies opacity as a filter of redaction, weaving strands to examine the textural processes of the protests. Through her counter-spectacular approach to narrative and process-oriented observations, her film resists the conventions of traditional news reporting and examines a new form of timeliness away from commonplace notions of past, present, and future.
Both Akingbade and Sia’s works show different methodologies of activism and negotiating time. Akingbade seeks to draw from history and the archive. Her use of found footage paired with fictional elements brings light to her protagonists and makes their voices heard. She creates a web situating the past within the present and so gives emphasis to the structures manifest across history to meditate upon latter day struggles. Sia, on the other hand, uses opacity as a tool for resistance, subverting the hybridity of time by stressing the banal, effectively challenging state-led obfuscation by its own means.