Of Tugs & Tides: Jersey’s Branchage Film Festival 2010 In Review

Once again, Luke Turner and David Moats cross the wind-whipped seas to the Branchage International Film Festival, where they starred in a post-apocalyptic film with Ian Svenonius, climbed two forts, and examined the dark heart of the Berlusconi regime

There are not many festivals where, over the course of four days, you move from documentary film screening to fortification, from righteous gig from Chrome Hoof to a ‘happening’ (with none of the unfortunate connotations of that word) curated by Ian Svenonius on a rock far out to sea, to a strange Q&A involving the myth-making mind of Gruff Rhys and then Russian animation soundtracked by his a pair of his Welsh countrymen, and finally to a tug boat that falls with the tide as a film is projected onto it – but such is the Branchage Film Festival, held not too far away on the island of Jersey.

This is the second year that the Quietus has boarded a Condor Ferry and sailed across the English Channel for Branchage. With the 2009 festival such a revelation after years of dealing with oft-dubious musical jamborees, and British Sea Power’s Man of Aran soundtrack so sublime, could 2010 compare?

Thursday. September 23 2010

Luke says: It certainly helps that sometime Quietus scribe Tim Burrows has managed to wangle one of Jersey’s many forts for us to stay in for the first two nights on the Island. La Crête Fort is sited on a promontory on Jersey’s north coast. Surrounded by water on three sides and featuring fortification works that date from the Napoleonic, Victorian, and German occupation era, La Crête is one of many forts dotted around the island that can be used for holidays or fishing trips. Bo Ningen, here to soundtrack the anime of Tatsuo Sato, are being put up in one so basic that its little more than a cannonball proof tent. Some strange bunker mentality overtakes the Quietus, and we manage to consume a weekend’s supply of wine while sat in a gun emplacement. When night falls and the wind starts to whip the waves that surrounds us, we retire inside to a room carved out of the old defensive ditch to watch The Stooges: Doghouse, a new work by jovial and bearded filmmaker Nick Abrahams, who we met at Branchage 2010 when he was here to show Depeche Mode fan film Posters Came From The Walls. It’d be a shame to give too much away as the Doghouse isn’t quite finished, but it involves a camp and amusing firsthand account of the nefarious antics of Iggy and co, dancing canines, and some nice middle-aged ladies from the north.

Friday, September 23rd 2010

Luke says: You’re never overly punished for your indulgences in Jersey: a couple of hours of early morning fishing from a slippery rock as the tide rises is enough to clear the worst duty free red wine can do. And so to Skeletons. This dark comedy is exactly the sort of film that British cinema should be renowned for: eccentric without being quirky, its humour naturalistic, and characters possessed of a wry depth. The story of two men who wander the countryside, travelling from job to job to psychically (and literally) exposing the contents of their clients’ closets, Skeletons has a curious kinship with The Third Policeman, Flann O’Brien’s superlative novel. That’s not to mention Jason Isaac’s excellent performance as the boss of the psychic reading operation, nor his jacket and moustache, both fiendishly well cut. After that, we retire to the 19th Century Belgian Spiegeltent (wood, ornate mirrors) to appear on Billy Jam’s broadcast to WMFU in Old Jersey. Other guests include Ian Svenonius, a potato farmer and 14-year-old Isaac Evans who last year wowed us with simple songs played on an acoustic guitar, and a voice up there with Joanna Newsom and Karen O. A year later, Evans has recruited a band and gone electric and, with covers of the likes of ‘Teenage Kicks’ alongside sturdy original material, there’s nary a cry of "Judas" to be heard.

Luke Says: As night falls, All Saints Church becomes a gateway to a similarly disrupted sense of reality. Kicking off the first of the Festival’s soundtrack events, The Oscillation perform tingling-tongue psychedelia to the accompaniment of one Mr James Hands, who uses overhead projectors, bottles of ink, and filmed footage to create kaleidoscopic images on the chapel roof. On the screen in front of the altar are flat spheres, like planets of dense liquid boiling, or endoscopes deep inside a human body. Regular readers of this organ will be pleased to learn that The Oscillation are in a similar vein to our old favourites Teeth Of The Sea: drawn-out UK Cosmic, and a cleansing of Jersey’s Third Eye.

David says: Japanese metal troupe Bo Ningen are equally well received with their soundtrack to the baffling animation Cat Soup. The mostly wordless film centres on a pair of manga-eyed felines. It lulls us with Hello Kitty sweetness before plunging the protagonists into an apocalyptic nightmare, replete with lots of severed limbs and animal cruelty. One young lad in the front row tugs his mothers’ sleeve excitedly saying "did you see that!?" while his little sister cries "ewwwww is that blood?" and hides under her jacket. The soundtrack swerves from mysterious melodies to noise freakouts – perfectly matching the emotional range of the story.

David says: After scarfing down some magnificent fish & chips from Hector’s Fish Bar, we proceed to the Spiegeltent for Chrome Hoof and Filthy Dukes DJ set. The previous day, due to some unforeseen ferry trouble, press officer Chris Bell found himself tooling around the island in search of a Fender Rhodes for the band – only three of which exist on the island, and only one of which was for hire. It seems as if all strata of Jersey are represented here, from local youths in casual attire to the upper classes in their finest party wear. As the seven-strong, space-monks descend on the stage, the kids surge to the dance floor chanting "Hoooooooooof!!"

The band’s white-hot crucible of disco-funk, metal, prog, space-rock (and do I detect a hint of Jesus Lizard?) provoked moshing, headbanging and skanking – sometimes in the same song. One bejeweled and pashmina-sporting lady by the bar at the back, though, muttered ‘what is this awful racket?’ The kids in the front start swinging the numerous mini-disco balls and stroking bassist Leo Smee’s impressive chest hair. Not your quintessential Branchage fayre but a resounding success none the less.

Saturday, September 24th

Luke says: At Friday night’s party, Ian Svenonius had been an unmistakable presence. Black hair, sharp attire, springing up from behind the mirrors of the Spiegeltent. He’s at Branchage for a… well, no-one seems to know. Is it a reading from his Pyschic Soviet book? Something musical? Whatever it is, it had been supposed to take place on Les Ecrehous, a tide-whipped reef halfway between Jersey and Normandy, but weather conditions had made this too dangerous. Instead, a 1950s coach takes us around the coach to a no-less dangerous stretch of sand and rocks where tides come in so fast the unwary will meet a watery demise. Guided by three locals, we walk a mile out to the18th century Seymour Tower, built to ward off the island-grabbing attentions of the French.

Ian Svenonius had turned up in a shiny pair of black Oxfords, and has to borrow some wellies off a fisherman. He trudges along, clasping sheaves of paper in a FedEx envelope. Once we arrive at the gun platform of the tower that is entirely surrounded by water at high tide, Svenonius explains that he has created a new paradigm in film making; cinema for the post-apocalypse. What he means is that he’s written two performance pieces… and I volunteer to be a character in one, thinking that this would mean nothing more taxing than reading from a script. Oh fool. I am to play the part of the ‘singer’ in a ‘band’, composing ‘songs’ at Svenonius’ behest as his narrators – two alien anthropologists in a UFO orbiting the earth – examine myths of rock & roll. Svenonius gives me titles – Break Out, The Island – which I have to turn into instant cues to improvise lyrics. It’s terrifying but enormous fun and even if there was a passing resemblance to The Fall in what was concocted, to have Gruff Rhys declare your lyrics "amazing" on the coach home is quite a feeling… and one which probably has a lot to do with the very issues of worth/ego that Svenonius was seeking to question.

As the tide rushes in around Jersey, we make our way to another church for the animation strand of this year’s festival. 2009 Icelandic group Amiina played along to the pioneering cut-out animation of Lotte Reiniger. This year, Euros Childs and Richard James accompany films by Russian animator Yuri Nordstein. As explained in the introduction, Norstein’s work is not widely known, though he’s oft cited as a favourite of directors and producers in animation and film. It’s surely time that his films become more widely known – a unique method of painting on layers of glass give these films a warmth and depth that could never be recreated with computers. That’s not to mention that Russian folk tales are rich source material that are excellently translated to the moving image by Nordstein – the pipe-smoking, cutlass-wielding cockerel in The Fox And The Hare is a perfect piece of interpretation.

After that, it’s up the road to Jersey Arts Centre for Seperado, Gruff Rhys’ brilliant film about his quest for the Welsh ex patriot population, and in particular the singer Rene Griffiths, who was briefly a Welsh TV star in the 1970s. Far more interesting than the standard musician road story, Separado Gruff spins a yarn as he explores a “romantic notion of a Welsh utopia in the desert”, playing gigs in the unlikeliest of places. The sight of Gruff in his sci-fi helmet, singing into a collapsible cup to make a distorted racket to an audience of bemused South American pensionsers and a mannequin dressed in Eistedford regalia is almost as bizarre as the following, rambling Q&A with Ian Svenonius.

Sunday, September 25th

Luke says: Today, thanks to the kindness of a Jerseyman called Jerome Therese, myself and Mr Burrows are taken across the sea to the rocks and islets of Ecrehous, halfway between Jersey and France. Therefore, I’d better leave the films to Mr Moats.

David says: Throughout the festival, free programmes of shorts are screened in hotels, small cinemas and even a sushi bar. I head over to the Palme D’Or for the Experimental strand. I’m just in time to catch the suitably trippy video for The Oscillation’s ‘Future Echo.’

We also see a kaleidoscopic dance with toy soldiers, a mysterious and beautifully photographed film called By Hook about an encounter between a fishmonger and a mermaid, and one of our favourites from the London Short Film Festival, The Persistent Resistance of Vision.

David says: Videocracy, which documents the celebrity-obsessed culture underlying Berlusconi’s media-political empire, is crazier than anything Baudrillard could have dreamt, yet conveyed at a human and personal scale. We meet the impish, cherubic Lele Mora who, like some kind of deity, selects and transforms everyday people into wealthy drones. Mora lives in an all white house and has a Mussolini march as a ringtone. His ‘bad boy’ foil is Corona who blackmails the same celebrities by photographing embarrassing moments that don’t connect with their outward projections. After a stint in jail, Corona becomes himself a celebrity with a t-shirt and fragrance line but no discernable talent or product (other than himself).

But the people we meet are not mere dupes. They are all aware that they are playing a game and wilfully construct their vapid personas – patched together from existing celebrities. They understand that television is power, and their ability to manipulate surface appearances their route to it. But ultimately they don’t see anything beyond the ultimate goal of wealth and sex, since they are all living in a fantasy land sprung from Silvio’s bulbous head. The worrying prospect is that this society might be our future or maybe even our present.

David says: Seeing seminal Russian propaganda film Battleship Potemkin again, one has to marvel at how crisp the images are. The film is full of striking close ups of gnarled faces and strained expressions not obscured by the garish makeup of the earlier silent era. The montage techniques and pacing are of course far ahead of its time. French electronic duo Zombie Zombie’s score, performed on a tugboat in St. Helier Docks, is also resolutely modern, with retro synths and drones accompanied by energetic drumming which has the entire crowd bobbing along in spite of the cold. The massacre at the Odessa Steps, probably the most (over) analysed sequence in all of film, is given a grotesque edge with a deathly march, while the dramatic conclusion builds to a deafening volume as the maelstrom echoes around the bay. You can’t get this kind of tension with the more conservative Cinematic Orchestra-style soundtracks.

And with that, Branchage is over. As ever with such festivals, there’s all the things that you wish you’d seen but time (and in Jersey’s case, tides) meant you miss. So that’d be Scanner’s soundtrack to the Magic Lantern show, Went The Day Well, Our Daily Bread, an ‘immersive sound walk’ and so on and so forth. Still, there’s always 2011…

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