Friday, 10 August 2012

Interview with Rebecca Shatwell, Director of the AV Festival, about AV 2012

Rebecca Shatwell in discussion with Ben Rivers after the screening of Two Years at Sea at the
Star & Shadow Cinema, during the Slow Cinema Weekend, AV Festival 2012
 (Photo by Michael Pattison)
The AV Festival 2012 took place in March 2012 in the North East of England, in the UK. That year, it held its most adventurous edition to date as it run for an entire month, and that it held 22 exhibitions, 34 films screenings, 15 concerts, 6 walks, and a 744-hour continuous online radio (you can see the whole programme here
In January 2012, I talked to festival director Rebecca Shatwell about the film programme, but also about her curatorial work for the music and exhibition programme, and in general about her experience as a festival director.

The theme for this year’s festival is “slow”. Why did you pick this theme?
There were various reasons for it. We always select a theme that isn’t just art industry-speak, and that might have a wider relevance to issues in contemporary society. At the moment, in journalism and popular culture, people talk not having enough time to be in the moment or to really experience artwork. So I wanted respond to that, and also I was very aware that this festival was going to take place in 2012, so I wanted to make some creative response to the Olympics without alluding to it so directly.
A lot of the way artists work with technology now is about making things quicker. For example, in cinema, the speed of Hollywood films is increasing, with very fast editing techniques. I don’t think that all art that’s slow is good, but I think that there’s a lot of durational work that demands a different attention from audiences, and that if you want to go on a journey with it, it really can really change your life and be transformative. You’re transported outside of your routine, you forget your worries and you’re in a different space.
The film programme of the AV cuts across between “artist film” (generally shown in galleries), and “traditional” feature films (shown in cinemas) – was it important to you to programme both types of films?
My background is from the visual art, more than film, and I don’t really make a division in terms of the different types of contemporary culture. I think that it’s a shame that the different ways of producing films (artist film and traditional film are not funded by the same authorities, and obviously artists make work in a different way to filmmakers) eventually affects how these films are brought to audiences.
Artist films are shown in galleries only, and commercial films are shown in the cinema, but that’s an artificial distinction. There’s a perception that artist films can’t be seen by people who go to a cinema and see a mainstream film. I think there are cross-overs between all these films and that people can relate to both types of film.
Also there are lots of blurry divisions: a lot of artists are now making feature films, and I don’t just means films like Shame by Steve McQueen. There are artist filmmakers that are making feature films within their own parameters and controlling it a lot more. So the festival actually has 3 feature films that are made by artists. I’ve made a point not to call them “feature films made by artists” - they are in the feature film programme. The films are Ben Rivers’ Two Years at sea, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbours, Ken Russell’s Let Each one go Where he may.
Because of commercial pressure, some cinemas are fearful of showing artist work. But I think that that narrows down audiences’ choice before they are given a chance to experience a wider variety, and there are just different ways of presenting artist films to audiences so that people aren’t afraid by the lack of narrative in work, and just take a risk with it.
How did you pick the films? Most of the films that you have programmed are from the 2000s, while “slow cinema” is traced to a few decades ago…
It was a very difficult process. In the early stages, I was very keen to present a historical perspective on slow cinema, starting from the 1960s onwards. For the feature films, we would have shown Bresson and Antonioni, and in terms of artist films, it would have been Andy Warhol, Chantal Akerman, Michael Snow or Hollis Frampton. I was keen to reflect the fact that this is not a new phenomenon.
But then one of the difficulties was that it was too many films. I do find it criminal that Chantal Akerman isn’t in the programme – there are so many directors that should be there. But at the end of the day, I decided to focus on films that people wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else. Obviously watching a film on DVD and on 35mm is not the same, but at the end of the day, I thought that maybe we should look at films that aren’t distributed, and that was really the starting point to the slow cinema weekend. Lav Diaz’s and Fred Keleman’s  films - they are not easily distributed, and unless you go to film festivals, you can’t see them.
So what do you think about the slow cinema movement? And about the fact that some people say that it’s a new “festival trend”, that it’s a new “conventional” style?
[There’s been a massive debate among film critics since 2010 about this, about the existence or the growth, or not, of “slow” films since the 2000s, about what the term would mean, about whether this category is relevant, and about whether film critics and festival programmers might have bought into “slow cinema” too easily without being critical enough]
It’s difficult, and like with any kind of new movement or trend, one has to be wary of it. But personally, I’m almost more interested in individual filmmakers and in their own development, and in making sure that their work is shown. Although obviously, contextualising work in critical writing is very important, and some really important questions have been asked in the slow cinema discussion of the last 2 years.
Also, I was interested in the fact that, apart from being “slow”, a lot of sub-themes or commonalities cut across between the films. For example James Benning and Sharon Lockhart – they have collaborated previously, and they have a clear vocabulary, exclusively focussed on a single shot, almost static takes of American landscape. There is a whole conversation on the American landscape, the change in normal ecology, the change in urban landscapes in America in that period.
Also some of the sub-themes within the festival programme are around architecture, decays and architectural landscapes. For example in Colossal Youth, Pedro Costa has made films on the collapse of a housing complex in Lisbon. And Still Life is about the decay of a certain area in China, which was submerged as part of a dam project.
I don’t think that all slow films are about the landscape, nature or change, but there’s definitely a thread there. Certain techniques in cinema, like the long-take and time lapse, can actually help to convey certain stories and certain themes.
There’s also some alternative political films, and different ways of depicting ethnography, so Ben Russell’s Let Each One go Where He May, and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Lung Neaw Visits His Neighbours both have a documentary style, in the way that they are following people in their own indigenous environment for a few days or weeks, almost as a journey. In a lot of slow films there is a sense of a journey, and the road movie comes up quite a lot, so I don’t know if that’s just because road movies are durational in their nature as well.
If people see more than one of these films, there is going to be emotional relevance and meaning that go from film to film, and they will get different ways of seeing the world. Definitely for me, after watching several Pedro Costa films, watching Albert Serra’s films, watching the Lisandro Alonso films, a couple of weeks watching  those films, you just start thinking about your daily routine in a different way and how you look at things.
The festival is there to kind of question and to explore, and the reason why I wanted to bring in filmmakers over is to have a dialogue with them. The reason why we’re showing a lot of films is to communicate that slow cinema isn’t a particular genre or a particular thing, it cuts across different types of filmmaking, different techniques, and we want to question whether these films are part of the slow cinema movement or not.
The festival is based in the North East – is this important to you?
For me that’s really important. I think it’s really important to work where you live, and live where you work.
The North East is not really seen as being at the forefront of avant-garde art - you could be working in bigger cities like London or Berlin…
I know, but for me that’s part of the challenge, because I’m interested in how festivals can help develop audiences for work that’s more experimental. A festival can be more risk-taking than a venue that has to put on stuff year-round. I play across different spaces, and I can encourage audiences to take a particular route. When you programme a festival, you’re curating / marketing / designing something to make it easy for people to take a risk, so maybe you show an installation at an establishment like Baltic but you also encourage people to see something else at the same time.
So for me a festival in somewhere like the North East, I think there’s actually a lot more opportunity to be experimental and to be broad in the way you think about it, because you are genuinely bringing work to a place that doesn’t normally see this sort of work. I don’t know what a festival like AV would look like if it was in London or in Berlin, where, for example with the BFI in London, maybe you can see films more regularly. So for me I’m interested in the response, I do feel very strongly about the responsibility to bring work like this to a region like the North East where there is curiosity and an appetite. I don’t think that international festivals only need to happen in the main metropolises. I think it is a bigger challenge, but I think it’s really important to take that challenge, otherwise experimental work is even more segregated just to happen in areas of the country that has a population that can deal with it.
Also, we do have a lot of people who come from outside the region, and I love the fact that if the festival brings 20% of people from outside the region into the region, then , if you work in events and you talk to people, you’re being introduced to new people, and hopefully new collaborations can start and new things happen, so that’s interesting as well, the social side of the festival.

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