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Instruments of Liberation: Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival 2024

By Ruairí McCann

Still from Dau:añcut (Moving Along Image). Courtesy of Adam Piron. People standing in front of a Native American dwelling.

Still from Dau:añcut (Moving Along Image). Courtesy of Adam Piron

The question of how to build a more open and equitable film festival is an old and still pressing concern. Ideally, there will be a plurality of answers and the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival may be one of them. Its 2024 edition, which ran 7–10 March, felt like a festival whose program was not only deeply engaged with larger political struggles, but also open and malleable in a way that many festivals claim but rarely enact in the relations underpinning the screenings.

Located in the small town of Berwick-upon-Tweed, just a few miles from the Scottish-English border on the English side, but with a distinct identity forged by years of being passed back and forth many times between the two countries. The festival, like the neighboring Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, has been positioned as an alternative experience and organization for many years. In existence since 2005, it is self-defined as “the UK festival of new cinema”. In practice, this vague descriptor sweeps in a wide range, including old and new, fiction and documentary, experimental work, and films that would fit relatively neatly within more-narrative-based art cinema and genre, but which also push and pull at those boundaries. It’s a fruitfully broad canvas for a national film scene where the programming of formally and politically radical filmmaking in conversation with each other is a rarity. This curatorial flexibility was matched by an unforced casualness, with the festival taking place in a small number of nearby venues and the presence of filmmakers and guests with no work in the program but have returned nonetheless.

Its program of 49 films plus many filmmaker talks was organized into various sections. The stalwarts are the New Cinema Awards, a competition section with no discernible hierarchy between short, medium, and feature-length works and which, since 2021, awards every film instead of pitting them against each other and a jury; the retrospective Essential Cinema section; and Propositions, curated programs or single screenings built around specific themes. In the festival booklet and on opening night, festival director Peter Taylor stated that “collective liberation” was one of this year’s overarching themes. This was, in part, in response to the genocide in Gaza and the decades-long question of Palestine—and filmmakers, festival staff, and attendees repeated these political commitments toward Palestine at many introductions and Q&As. One of the filmmakers in focus was Gazan artist Basma al-Sharif, with a near-complete retrospective of her moving image work and an excellent open discussion with the artist. There was also a demonstration at the town hall, organized by local protestors and Film Workers for Palestine and attended by festival visitors and all of Berwick’s programmers.

Though the scope and aim of the selection was internationalist, there is one significant change this year, as the festival attempts to increasingly include the people and culture of Berwick and the Borders. This includes the Burr of Berwick, a storefront converted into a meeting, exhibition, and event space open to all for the entirety of the festival and which will remain open throughout the year. It featured a freely accessible selection of the festival’s previous programs alongside locally made films, as well as installations. One example was a series of shorts made by local schoolchildren in response to Yuri Norstein’s masterwork of Soviet animation, Hedgehog in the Fog (1975). Its regular Morning Meetings included semi-casual talks between invited filmmakers, curators, and locals. All in all, it seemed like a strong if tentative step towards addressing the gaps that can easily form between a festival and its place of residence.

Dau:añcut (Moving Along Image)

The practice of curating exhibitions within the town center has long been a key part of the festival’s approach, with the main street of Marygate home to a wide range of works on loop, for free, tucked between shops and cafes. These works are also held on the same playing field as works shown in cinemas, in line with the festival’s non-hierarchical approach. It’s where some of this year’s best selections could be seen, including Adam Piron’s Dau:añcut (Moving Along Image).

A short work presented on a blown-up smartphone screen, the tipping point in its dense, freewheeling but cogent reflection on blurred lines between exploitation and solidarity, online and through colonial appropriation of indigenous culture and images, is a strange piece of happenstance. Piron’s cousin Aunkoha, a member of the Kiowa tribe, was scrolling for tattoo inspiration when he came across a Ukrainian soldier sporting a shoulder piece of the face of Piron’s and Aunkoha’s kóñ or elder relative—Aunkoha’s late grandfather, Vernon Tsoodle—in full headdress, sourced from an image that nobody in the family knew was public. On a call with Aukonha, while scrolling through a myriad of different sites and images, Piron contextualizes this unexpected connection to the news that Ukrainian artillery officers will be trained at Fort Sill, an army base in Oklahoma built in 1869 during the Indian Wars to fight the Kiowa and Apache and facilitate westward expansion. 

The film is a work of appropriation about appropriation, with the linchpin in the whirlwind of found footage being a recurring, ad hoc recording of an event at the Fort Sill for the Kiowa Black Leggings Warrior Society culminating in the blessing of a Kiowa-class helicopter. Piron picks out this clip as a microcosm of the US military’s ability to control native Americans by adopting their identities, culture and individuals as their own symbols, ‘lore’ and manpower—natives serve at a higher rate than any other racialized group.

Piron’s incorporation of videos of Fort Sill from TikTok was unplanned, an alternative to the near-insurmountable challenge of getting permission to film inside the base, and yet it offers a subversively cracked, undisciplined representation of the military. In a sense the videos, showing day-to-day activities in and around the base, shot by soldiers and their partners, are no less jingoistic than the ceremony, but their polyphonic, bottom-up, rather than officially sanctioned, creation; the informality mixed with performativity, and the prosaic nature of many of these vignettes—such as troops mindlessly dropkicking each other out of sheer boredom—disrupt the notion that the martial life is a somber vocation or filled with non-stop superhuman bravado. 

Piron asks Aunkoha how he thinks their kóñ, a proud Kiowa and decorated veteran, would feel about this Ukrainian soldier going into combat with his image. Aunkoha is unsure but thinks that he might be proud that it’s someone fighting for their homeland. By the end of the film, with all its blitz of joined dots and icons linking  American imperial power’s claimed stake in the outcome of the war in Ukraine, and therefore also in the projection of Ukrainian resistance, with the looting of the imaginative existence of the peoples it suppressed in order to set its foundations, that sense of uncertainty prevails. 


Images forbidden by the state, and yet exist stubbornly and unpredictably, significantly shaped not only the construction and insights of Piron’s film but also the feature-length New Cinema selection Malqueridas. The film’s raison d’etre and entire visual composition are videos and photos taken by women within Chile’s prison system, where recording devices are banned. In 2017, director Tana Gilbert first came across these illicit expressions of personhood on Facebook, where the women were posting these videos to maintain a connection, however mediated through virtual spaces, with their families. What followed was a three-year process of visiting and interviewing inmates and then several more years working on the film with a number of women whose footage and testimonies were not only incorporated into the film but were involved in various writing and production roles. 

For the film is not just a curated stockpile of these smuggled images. They’re organized through an element of fiction, a voiceover narration told by a composite character charting over a decade of her sentence, her separation from her children, the inequities of incarceration, and relationships, sexual, romantic and familial, that she forms with her fellow inmates. This narrative could have easily been too reductive but it rarely feels imposed. The images illustrate but they also exist, often mysteriously, on their own terms. In Malqueridas, Gilbert has created a moving time capsule of these many assertive acts of personal and political imagination through a digital plane. 

A Stone's Throw

Another striking film in the New Cinema Awards selection was Razan AlSalah's mid-length work A Stone's Throw, which traces the lines of power that run in, through and around Palestine, baring and dissolving them. This astute work of colonial history and chopped-and-screwed media critique is also a deeply personal, family tale. The film’s central figure and window onto a web of blood and oil-soaked power relations is AlSalah's older relative, Lofti. A native and resident of Haifa until displaced by the Nakba, like a great many of his dislocated countrymen he made a hard living as a laborer on Zirku, a small, uninhabited Gulf island and a despoiled cash cow milked by the United Arab Emirates major oil refinery.

Like the prisons of Chile and Fort Sill, it's illegal to film there, but AlSalah circumvents vents this by using Google Earth to visualize this topography of power, where land is not a tactile, three-dimensional object or a constellation of relations in which plants, animals, and people take root, grow, and intermingle. Instead, it’s flattened, denuded pixels, to be scourged and translated into hard currency and influence on the backs of the masses but not to their benefit. AlSalah interpolates this revealing and occluding visualization of this node of power and oppression with a wider historical view–such as Zirku’s antecedent, the Haifa-Lydda pipeline, an artery of empire owned by the British, guarded and maintained by Zionist militias and Jordanian elites, which in the 1930s was a frequent target of Palestinian resistance. 

The defoliating viewpoint of power is intercut and undercut, resisted from without and within, by human presence. Lofti, seen through recurring 16mm images of him walking the Beirut seafront, guides us through both the geopolitics and his own story through calm, steady, and moving narration. Occasionally he is joined by a poetic chorus of the damned and dislocated; Google reviews of Zirku written by employees which accumulate, in voice and text, in torrents of loneliness, homesickness, and anger. 

The subversive bending and jerry-rigging of those image modes that stand in for hegemony stretches from the satellite view down to uncanny Zirku Oil Refinery-produced videos advertising their conversation efforts and advocating workplace safety, and so covering up their hand in ecological destruction and endemic worker accidents and death. AlSalah also feeds in a more hand-crafted counter-aesthetic with the use of a deindustrialized format like 16mm. Facilitated by the surreptitiousness of a small gauge camera, she films the border wall separating South Lebanon and North Palestine. This imposed, concrete limit is overwhelming not only in its height and impenetrability but also its sheer ahistoricity that covers a state structure that has redirected the course of millions of lives, past and present. The revolutionary murals that occasionally appear, and AlSalah’s act of linking them to a wider, historical anti-imperialist analysis, puncture the veil. 

In certain other moments, AlSalah incorporates phytogram shots made from seaweed gathered in Beirut. They give a filmic bioluminescence in contrast to the bare lifelessness of the more official images but also further develop this presence of the sea as full of life, emancipatory, and unbounded. Lofti’s last memory of Haifa was of the Mediterranean, and AlSalah’s use of maritime images and sounds to cap the film is a powerful reminder that the sea is far older than the first empire and will long outlive the last.