Flatpack is set in the heart of two contrasting areas of England’s second city – the prosperous business district, Colmore Row, and the city’s historical centre Digbeth, predominantly characterised by its decaying industrial buildings and emergence as a thriving centre for the arts. And Flatpack’s location is symbolic of the Festival’s split personality. Archive footage juxtaposed with cutting edge films make this eclectic festival an intriguing event in the UK film calendar and one that reaches an unusually broad audience.
Now in its eighth year, Birmingham’s principal film festival championed over 100 events during its eleven days, embracing shorts, animation, documentaries and a family-orientated films. The event continues to encompass an extensive range of visual, performance and musical arts, along with this year’s exploratory theme of technology, in collaboration with Birmingham University’s School of Neuroscience. Many films in the festival selection push the boundaries between film and fine art, with Pete Ashton’s informative short film about Selfies, Typologies of Hypernetworked Vernacular Self-Portraiture, seamlessly blending these two creative mediums.
The dominant strand of this year’s Festival – our relationship with water and its history on film – elicited both local and global flavours. At the archive event Rough Seas and Unquiet Waters, guest speaker Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film at the BFI, described the relationship between early filmmakers’ and water, saying “there’s something about water that makes a film feel real”. In the early days of filmmaking, when the first moving images of a train made cinema-goers leap from their seats in fear, the realism offered by water was tantalising for both filmmakers and audiences alike. Opening with the very first images of the sea caught on film (Rough Sea at Dover, 1895), before moving on to an early travelogue about England’s fishing industry, egg gatherers at Flamborough Head and Peter Greenaway’s experimental film, Water Wrackets, Dixon’s selection of films captured the mysterious nature of water on film and its sensory power.
Each year Flatpack’s commitment to showing archive footage offers many films that are usually hidden from view a chance to shine, and it secured this year’s festival its headline premiere, The Great Flood, Bill Morrison’s re-working of footage from 1927 when the Mississippi burst its banks. This year’s festival was also home to the UK premiere of Alexandre Rockwell’s 60-minute film Little Feet, a black-and-white wonder about the journey of two children returning their goldfish to the sea after the death of their mother.
This theme of ocean journeys was echoed by local filmmaker Andy Howlett in his short film Digbeth Delights. Screening as part of The Magic Cinema, a Birmingham based film project that champions DIY filmmaking and makes the most of the freedoms gained from working without a budget – Digbeth Delights explores the changing urban landscape as Howlett attempts to find Birmingham’s formative river that is now masked from public view. Witty and sharp, Howlett draws attention to the quirks of heritage in poignant observations (the location of Birmingham’s first settlement is now marked by a baffling memorial to JFK), before the film shifts into an obscure twist on post-apocalyptic horror.
Flatpack’s support of local filmmakers extends from its ‘open reel’ events into its eclectic mix of professional shorts in the Festival’s Pick and Mix programme. Included in this year’s lineup was Birmingham filmmaker Chris Keenan’s short film, Over Toast, commissioned by poetry organisation Apples And Snakes to commemorate the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. Keenan said he felt “lucky to have been paired with Debris Stevenson”, a performance poet he described as being on a “steep trajectory”, and their metaphorical work intricately examines mother-daughter relationships. Another film by local directors Alan Dolhasz and Ed Lawes uses clips of everyday street life – roadworks, buses, people talking on mobile phones and smoking – to make a statement about the condition of society. Shot in just a single day, Progress works as a snapshot of time and a question mark over urban living.
As it strives to establish itself on the world stage, Flatpack also finds room for plenty of new films from further afield. The nostalgic yet curiously surreal work of Rob Parrish and his Next To Heaven web series fitted neatly into The Magic Cinema event, while Pick and Mix showcased the best short films from hundreds of global entries. Here, Marianna Mørkøre & Rannvá Káradóttir’s haunting film from the Faroe Islands, Karmok, stood out as the selection’s most atmospheric short. Captured on haunting black and white film, two figures perform unexpected choreography against a misty mountain backdrop while a dark, Burial-esque score is the eerie short’s finishing touch.
Other noteworthy shorts included Elli Vuorinen’s hand-drawn Finnish animation Sock Skewer Street 8, a weird and imaginative tale about the universe and mysterious tiny socks. This year’s Pick and Mix films were certainly an intoxicating and diverse assortment. Hope Tucker’s Handful Of Dust – a short film about above-ground nuclear tests and their devastating effects on the cast and crew of John Wayne’s 1954 film, The Conquerer, that were filming downwind at the time – feels akin to a gallery installation, while Lucy Kendra’s five minute gem, Flash, simmers with hopefulness in its exploration of one man’s relationship with Parkinson’s disease.
With this veritable soup of creative films and re-worked archive footage, Flatpack asserts itself as the place to discover emerging talent and international treasures, attracting a varied audience that defies simple categorisation. Mirroring the revitalisation of its Digbeth homeland, which is emerging from the ruins of de-industrialisation in a surge of vintage nostalgia, street art and bohemian creativity, so too the rebranded Flatpack Film Festival rises out of the city to claim a well-deserved place in the national festival scene.