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  • Writer's pictureLaurence Boag-Matthews

SFF 2023 DAY 2

The second day of Scarborough Film Festival brought us an array of joyful, subversive, and beautiful shorts about environment and identity starting with a collection of Carribean Stories followed by the Queer Shorts: Liquid Thoughts selection shown at the Woodend Gallery. In the evening we returned to our homestead at the Stephen Joseph Theatre to enjoy the recent Ken Loach directed The Old Oak which was excitingly accompanied by a Q&A discussion with the film’s lead actor Dave Turner.

Caribbean Stories

We began the day with a selection of Caribbean based short films curated from the Caribbean International Film Festival by Denyce Blackman to coincide with the themes of coastal and community.

The films both individually and perhaps even more so when viewed together, are intensely focused on the community and uniqueness of cultural practices on their respective islands. Felt but Never Glimpsed uses poetic language layered over sweeping visuals of the Bahamas to concentrate on finding beauty in the everyday. Quotes such as ‘life's rhythm dictated by sun and sea’ are particularly impactful alongside the wider selection within the festival as a whole. Clavia Aaliyah McClain challenges the usual outsider’s perspective on the Bahamas as an extraordinary place that we may visit as tourists, seeking to connect people through their everyday interactions with the environment. The landscape of Martinique, however, is presented as anything but mundane. In Behind God’s Back nature is immediately introduced as a clear and present danger to its inhabitants. The filmmaker paints a portrait of the island as complex: Mount Pelée - an active volcano - looms above the island, threatening to engulf the residents in pyroclastic flows, however, the volcano doesn’t simply threaten the island with sudden death but in its wake enriches the soil, the minerals present in the eruption and in the soil following brings the promise of good crops. The film also explores how the community itself is entwined with their environment - one speaker discusses how there is a ‘paradoxical relationship between people and the volcano’, how people may be ‘psychologically structured by their environment’, The psyche of Martiniqe’s inhabitants is tightly tied to colonial history, the shadow of slavery like the shadow of the volcano looms over them. The strength of the residents to reside in their environment imbues the whole film, strength as a theme is picked up many times throughout - the island is referred to as ‘an environment that carries strength within it’, the residents ‘have to be strong to live there’. This is true in multiple ways, on one hand it requires immense courage to live in the shadow of an active volcano, furthermore the existence of ‘Martinicians’ as a national identity doesn’t technically exist - the inhabitants of Martinique are counted as french citizens which grants them political and legal rights in France. Some interviewees and inhabitants are returners, the ability to freely move to and live in France can be seen as an alluring choice and returning to the island after living a vastly different lifestyle must be an adjustment that demands a great deal of strength.

A theme of objects and the way they become entwined with the rituals and traditions of everyday life is represented most strongly in two of the films presented, with the Moko Jumbie tradition in Stick is Life and the centrality of bicycles to life in Cuba in Bicycle Island. The representation of the residents' discussions of their connection to the stilts and to their bicycles is so layered and meaningful. Stick is Life blends the islanders testimony with footage of the stick walking, archival footage, and music represents the joyful experience of stilt walking and how it is more than an activity, a way of enriching the social and providing spaces for the community to come together. In this film the Moko Jumbies are shown coming together in a Jab Circle for the first time and celebrating how they ‘are all one’ despite the various differences between the groups spread across the island. Bicycle Island shows us the complex layers in the bicycle culture in Cuba, the experience of cycling as the bicycle becoming a part of oneself and the practice as a way of expanding ones possibilities and expectations. Though it doesn’t shy away from involving discussions of the political and how it must affect every aspect of life in the country, the filmmaker focuses on the culture of cycling and how the USA’s economic control over Cuba has affected the cycling culture over time. The discussion of the interrelation between the political and the personal is an important theme central to many of the films on show throughout the festival, presented through different lenses and various perspectives.

The use of music to evoke feeling and convey tone in the viewer is an important element of all of these shorts. Homecoming, taken from the filmmaker’s audio visual album, uses music to convey his relationship to Jamaica and how he interacts with it as a home state to which he is returning. In contrast to some of the other shorts which focus on those who stayed despite many of their peers leaving their islands, this compact short explores the experience of returning. Bicycle Island also uses music to great impact - the Ensemble Interactivo de La Habana create music with bicycle parts to accompany the film, which highlights the versatility and complexity of bicycle culture on the island. Stick is Life is also concerned with music as a driving force to bring people together and find joy. The practice of the Moko Jumbies is entwined with music, near the end of the film we follow one Jumbie as he races to get his stilts on as fast as he can, driven by hearing the music he is about to join.

Queer Shorts: Liquid Thoughts

For the next event we descended upon the Woodend Gallery to take in Martha Cattell’s hand selected queer themed shorts. These shorts straddled a range of genres from animation to documentary but were tied tightly together by the themes of queerness and water. Queer joy and beauty in the margins was a centrally important aspect. Eden explores a trans woman’s evolution with cold water swimming that she intitially started in order to regain the fertility of her sperm but has grown into a daily ritual that she yearns for. Further to Eden; A Float, Pools, and Ripples most prominently centre on queer joy and its radical possibilities through water and swimming. A Float is imbued at every level with pure energy and joy, from the style and movement of the animation to the dream scenarios the protagonist displays we get a glimpse at the possibilities for an imagined future. Barbara Hammer’s Pools engages with the place of the pool as an architectural space designed by the first woman to graduate in architecture from the School of Beaux-Arts in Paris, and engages with the space bodily, being allowed to transgress the usual restrictions on swimming in the pools, as well as cinematically - Hammer’s hand painting of the film creates something new from her footage of the pools. Dylan Mitro’s project Ripples is committed showcasing Trans Joy in cinema, and this film shows the joy in the natural world with its characters escaping the urban space and taking to the beach. The film engages with the sometimes difficult work it can take to claim one's happiness and joy, it pays homage to the ability and necessity of the queer community to create their own new spaces of radical joy outside of the status quo.

Radical possibilities are encapsulated by the use of the mediums of film and animation across this collection of shorts. Hunting for Hockney and Wave combine live action with animation to show the natural world while using animation which creates a sense of distance from the characters and their stories. The two are more melancholy explorations of queer identity and grief that focus on the central characters' detachment from their situations and identities and combine the two mediums to convey their themes very effectively. Upwards Tide also experiments with its medium, using analogue film and blending footage of Scottish and Austrian landscapes with silhouetted bodies to create a magnetic visual poem. Finally, Swim explores the way swimming and being in water can anonymise and lead to connection. The encounters between the two characters are genuine and sweet, leading to a devastating betrayal. The short doesn’t focus on Sid’s pain in the light of this, rather suggesting his strength and the way true self expression and being seen by others can feel like jumping in at the deep end. It is not Sid that we return to at the end of the film but Luke waiting at the pool disappointed that Sid will not return due to his inability to accept him in public.

The Old Oak

The Old Oak once again situates us in a coastal community, and focuses on the questions of change and continuity as new inhabitants arrive and interact with the community they encounter. Ken Loach’s film focuses more directly on the political through its exploration of a particular community. The film portrays ways in which both individually and on a community level, people are impacted by governmental and policy changes and shows how collective acknowledgement of common struggle through the community have a the capacity to challenge mechanisms of power, but also how such mechanisms of power work to divide and conquer, community can also operate as systems of ingrouping and outgrouping that harbour and exacerbate tensions that ultimately obscure the goals of collective action.

The film’s focus on the refugee crisis and the identification of our main character TJ, a layered and sensitive performance from Dave Turner, with the refugees’ struggles and pain on a personal level is refreshing. The titular pub’s regulars are perhaps the closest we come to encountering villainy in the story, however their racism and prejudice against the newly transplanted immigrants is portrayed in a manner that shows them to be vicious and cowardly but also as victims of the same systems of oppression. Questions of superiority on the axes of gender, race, and class are raised by their interactions, through their portrayal Loach reveals the ways in which individuals will cling to any scrap of power and influence they feel they possess even as it is clearly illusory, and pales in comparison to the vibrant renewal of the community that is being built between the refugees and other inhabitants of the town through the events at The Old Oak.

Following the screening, Liz Boag hosted a discussion with Dave Turner that focused heavily on his experiences working on the film. We received many insights into Ken Loach’s process and Turner’s personal experience of filming. Loach’s use of non actors within his film manages to achieve a realism in the performances, and his choice to shoot in sequence which is very rare in filmmaking, allows a natural progression of character as the actor matures into the character as the film progresses. The going is clearly not entirely smooth sailing, however. Turner touched on the difficulty of handling serious imposter syndrome and anxiety at the beginning of the process, as well as the difficulty of receiving scripts only a night in advance of filming, another anachronistic element of Loach’s process. While Turner discussed that working on the film was ‘life altering’, his experience on I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You, and The Old Oak, and best actor win at Valladolid International Film Festival ultimately haven’t convinced him to take on acting as a full time profession. His discussion of the kindness and compassion of the cast and crew was lovely to hear, and this warmth radiating from the production is conveyed clearly in the film itself. The authenticity of the people behind the performances and the reality of the setting are huge elements of The Old Oak, and Turner touched on the elements of the actors’ real lives that match up to details present in the film. Turner spoke powerfully on his experience with audiences’ reactions to the portrayal of suicidal ideation, and clearly takes pride in the hopeful power of the films ending, diverging from Loach’s more downbeat offerings within the unofficial trilogy of his recent films (I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You, The Old Oak). The themes of the radical possibilities of collective action and finding joy in the community unites many of the works shown so far in the festival and we look forward to seeing further connections that may be made over the rest of the weekend.

This feature wrapped up the expansive themes present throughout the day’s programme, bringing us back to the North of England after a busy day that covered universal themes of community and struggle from perspectives across the world and across binaries. These films centre the interconnectivity of our political and personal identities and offer possibilities for how we can act through our communities and as individuals.

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