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“Reject the Labels”: Berwick’s Peter Taylor Discusses the Festival’s Recent Evolution

By Andrew Northrop

Photograph of a group of people standing on stage. One white man is holding a microphone and smiling at the audience.

Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival 2024. Image credit: Amelia Read. Courtesy of Berwick

Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival takes place in Berwick-upon-Tweed, the most northerly town in England, resting near the border to Scotland and where the River Tweed meets the sea. The festival places site-specific installations within this setting and has risen to prominence in a way that many festivals outside of cities struggle to achieve, attracting audiences from across the United Kingdom. In past editions, it spotlighted international filmmakers, including Peggy Ahwesh, Sky Hopinka, Shireen Seno, John Torres, and this year, Basma al-Sharif.

At the same time, the festival has maintained what works about its scale—no more than two screenings happening concurrently and more intimate, involved talks and events—which contrasts with the fast pace of industry programs at other festivals. Its smallness has allowed it to maintain a degree of autonomy, with the pandemic acting as a catalyst for rethinking the payment and administrative models many festivals are beholden to, increasing payment for artists and staff, and holding related discussions in its 2021 edition. 

With those changes implemented for several editions, Documentary caught up with Festival Director Peter Taylor during the 2024 edition to discuss how film festivals can foster more equitable ways of working, the challenges of year-to-year organizing, and how the festival’s focus inclusion of exhibits, wider visual arts culture, and expanded programming helps to highlight the changing paradigms of documentary filmmaking. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: It’d be nice to hear about the original establishment of the festival in 2005, especially as it’s grown from a relatively small-town festival to something with international draw. As I understand it, it was established by several artists?

PETER TAYLOR: Yes, Marcus Coates, who co-founded the festival, did a Gymnasium Gallery Arts Fellowship here. The Gymnasium is an English Heritage site right by the barracks here, and they had established an annual residency. There was also the Berwick Ramparts project, and artists like Dan Graham and Tacita Dean came here—her lighthouse film Disappearance at Sea (1996) was made here. Those projects really captured an idea of the potential in Berwick, of having site-specific installations.

The festival’s other co-founder Huw Davies, alongside Marcus and others, had shown work at the European Media Arts Festival (to whom we probably owe the name) as well as Oberhausen and other places. They were inspired by the possibility of showing work in a space that was open in terms of what was considered cinema. Quite unusually, there was substantial regional funding, and the first festival was like a 10-day blowout. Our board member Matt Stokes was on the tech team and he was saying how they’d turn up to the exhibition venues like Bank Hill Ice House and realize there was no electricity! They programmed thematically as well, so you’d have loose themes like “Crossing Borders” and “The World is a Stage” but it was more or less the same form [as today’s festival].

D: You joined the festival in 2015. What was that like, coming in with the exhibition side well established, and getting a feel for what you could achieve?

PT: I was aware of the festival from doing research as a programmer at IFFR, and watching stuff that was coming in from the UK, and it became clear they had these exhibitions and the visual arts focus. The first day on the job, I went to Huw who was still really involved as chair, and he showed me the spreadsheets [laugh]. I think in the job advert it’d been like, “You’ll lead a staff team,” and when I landed it was like, “Yeah their contracts ended some time ago, and you’ll need to raise three-quarters of the budget in 9 months” and the theme had already been set—“Fact or Fiction”! But it was very productive, having tight parameters. I hadn’t had such responsibilities before, but the scale of things here was such that I could get a good handle on it. I was really excited by the possibilities of making a festival in this kind of rural town.

And it really motivated me to think about the things that we—and I as well—had taken for granted at festivals and question them, whilst being excited about these expansive possibilities within the festival’s smallness. One of the continuing causes here is to make choices, and better choices, that allow for the optimum presentation of filmmakers’ work, and also working conditions for staff within the kind of contexts and the resources that we have, and taking risks to involve people and create work. One of the big things this year is that with our programmers, we now have year-round positions for three people, and it feels like a small revolution in a way, just to have these standard working conditions for this creative practice that is so central to the festival’s work.

D: In 2021, the festival made the decision to rethink payments for filmmakers and changed the New Cinema Competition to the New Cinema Awards to create more parity. How do you think about those decisions in terms of how they might create a guide and have a knock-on effect elsewhere?

PT: We’re a relatively small festival that’s important to people, so there’s been this ongoing thinking process, including around the language of things. We had the competition program, and competitions are one of those things that are a central tenant of most film festivals, and about 10 years ago it was an excuse amongst some festivals not to pay well. But for 98% of people, whose films might not have a distribution deal or a TV deal, those rationales don’t quite matter. A lot of the time we’re working directly with filmmakers, so everything that we can do and all the resources that we can bring in and then redistribute are meaningful.

With the competition, I always had an unease with it, and we were paying small screening fees but only really like £50 for a short and maybe £100 for a feature. We put so much care in the program because it felt the films were all equal. So the categories of lengths of work—shorts, features, exhibitions—weren’t necessarily a good organizing principle. We tried to break down those hierarchies, by giving every film its own page in our festival catalog, for instance.

During the pandemic, when we had a board meeting where it became clear we were going online, we really had to decide what to do with our resources. We felt like we could keep the whole team working, and just really redistribute the money that we might have spent on physical aspects of the festival. We only ever had small prizes like £1000, and I know that was beneficial to those who received it, alongside the accolade and critical appreciation. But, we worked out that we could instead pay each filmmaker £400 [by turning the competition into the awards]. And then after the pandemic it was about making sure we could fund travel and accommodation costs too, through a combination of fundraising and slightly reducing the number of titles screened.

I hope other festivals and organizers will follow. It’s difficult to describe sometimes, but I think festivals thrive on scarcity in some ways, with premieres etc, and there’s less opacity on working conditions. I’m thankful for past programming jobs, but it’s so individualized in terms of work and payment. And there have been appalling situations even at the highest of levels—Berlinale, Locarno a few years ago, at Rotterdam, also Sheffield. But I’m glad there are more people finding solidarity and it’s good that people are speaking up. Organizations can be transparent about their recruitment and selection processes. We’re so dependent on filmmakers’ work.

D: Perhaps why some of these discussions around labor came up sooner at Berwick is because of the expanded programming. I’m thinking about Emilia Beatriz offering a grief tea she’d used to develop some of the 16mm film in barrunto (2024) in a talk this year, after which we got to see the film. Or inviting the Animistic Apparatus project in 2019, where audiences were not only watching works but taking part in wider conversations about production and ways of watching. That’s been a staple of the festival, and perhaps that informed some of those wider conversations…

PT: Yeah, it’s really about creative processes and practice. That’s evolved over the years and been informed by a lot of different people, with filmmakers’ input, and by thinking about possibilities. One of the wonderful things is that the program is relatively compact. In a way, you don’t need to lead people so much through it.

All those thinking processes, involving people, and the conversations with filmmakers, really inform the way the festival itself develops and all the organizational things. In the objectives in our business plan, one of our aims is to embody a work-in-progress mentality. And that’s not to let ourselves off the hook for things, but to think about trying to address structural inequalities, racisms, and the injustices within our work, just because we really need to. And we deserve no credit whatsoever, because it’s work that must be done and is always ongoing.

D: Documentary as a form has had paradigm shifts, too. Works in this edition employ broader techniques of nonfiction, e.g., The Buriti Flower (dir. João Salaviza and Renée Nader Messora, 2023), works from Palestine, and Basma al-Sharif’s works, because reconstructions and other elements are necessary to creating such work. How do you approach documentary work currently, especially in the context of sharing works like Basma’s at such a significant moment?

PT: I've been so inspired by documentary festivals, and the openness and transformation in some ways of festivals like FIDMarseille and CPH:DOX. And I think taking a very humble and curious approach to things is useful. I really feel the challenge as a programmer and festival organizer to always understand the paradigms, and then push them. Sometimes there’s a naïve understanding of things and traditions, and sometimes you have to accept the challenges when they come. I always think primarily that I have a programmer’s brain and want to speak about work, but to speak together about everything, to really learn from each other in all the ways we can. 

It’s still inspiring when people reject the labels they’re handed. Jonas Mekas and “experimental film” for instance. He said he knew exactly what he was doing, and experiments should be left to scientists! The more difficult work of course is to find the words we need. In 2016 and with “experimental film” on her mind,  Amy Fung—who was Artistic Director of Images Festival Toronto at the time—coined the term “entitled aesthetics.” It was a critique of artists and curators who regurgitate canonical aesthetics and practices from decades ago, while the world burns. How can we redefine “non-fiction”? Verité and cinema of the real sound too lofty. Perhaps we can leave all of these terms behind. We need cinema with agency that’s fully alive to the present. Bill Ayers wrote in his Weather Underground memoir Fugitive Days that “memory is a motherfucker.” We should take it as a given that narrators will always be unreliable.

Basma al-Sharif’s work may not be documentary in a classical sense. But it is, in as far as any film is, a registration, composition, and replay of texts, images, and sound projected into another time and space when viewed in the cinema. Ouroboros (2017) places Palestine at the center of the world. It longs for a time when Gaza’s ancient landscapes can have a present and future as untroubled as other landscapes that have portrayed it: a thirteenth-century castle in Brittany, or Matera in Italy, which stood in for Palestine in Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). 

Similarly, Kamal Aljafari’s UNDR (2024) surveys Palestine’s landscapes via archival footage. The archives become the stand-in, showing ancient towns where children play and people working untroubled in the surrounding fields. Aljafari and al-Sharif question what it means for us, as a civilization, in this present day to be witnesses of a wilful extermination of a population. At the very least, they ask that we remain interconnected and do not avert our gaze from violence.

A theater full of attendees. One man wearing a denim jacket is holding a microphone and leaning forward in his seat.
Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival 2024. Image credit: Amelia Read. Courtesy of Berwick


Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival runs annually in early March.

Andrew Northrop is a film journalist based in London, UK. His writing and interviews have appeared in MUBI Notebook, BOMB Magazine, Senses of Cinema, Hyperallergic, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, and more.