The Boutique Festival Experience
Now in its fourth year, Jersey’s annual Film Festival opened in September 2011. Director, Xanthe Hamilton, told us what to expect that year.
The last few years have seen a host of vibrant new film festivals spring up; offering alternative delights to their big-industry counterparts. These smaller festivals thrive on a boutique selection of films, art, music and unusual settings, and generally create a dynamic and intimate atmosphere. Branchage Film Festival is one such festival. Established in 2008 and based on the charming island of Jersey off the coast of France, events stretch across the island from St Helier to the harbour and include art installations and live music. The Founder and Director of Branchage, Xanthe Hamilton, speaks to Aesthetica about the fourth edition of Branchage, the bespoke nature of the festival and the changing expectations of film festivals.
What motivated you to establish Branchage festival?
I’d been touring a few festivals with my own short films and I visited True/False in Missouri, USA. It was the most perfect film festival in the world. I thought a festival like this could work in my home-town in Jersey – a similar sized community, slightly out of the way but bursting with ideas and good spirit. Then completely out of the blue someone got in touch with me to see if I’d run a festival in Jersey. I guess some things are just meant to be.
How has the festival developed over the years?
We seem to have struck on a formula that people like – special events that are unique experiences, new commissions and unusual activities, site-specific programming, a relaxed atmosphere, personal touches and a home-grown feel – and each year the festival gains more and more friends and supporters. Behind the scenes we are working hard to make sure we improve the infrastructure. In the beginning, having never run a festival before, we were relying on common sense and guess work; these days there’s more time to spend on the detail, and the detail is what people tend to remember.
Branchage is notorious for its live soundtracks. What do you think a live soundtrack offers to a film?
When it works, a live soundtrack adds another dimension and heightens the experience of viewing a film. A live soundtrack can create a new audience for a film that may have been “lost” into obscurity. Many live soundtracks we’ve had at Branchage accompany silent films – British Sea Power created new music to the 1934 docu-drama Man of Aran about a remote Irish fishing community; Amiina created beautiful sounds to the silent fairytale animations of Lotte Reiniger; and Zombie Zombie brought the classic Eisenstein film Battleship Potemkin to life in a spectacular outdoor harbour setting on a tug boat in front of 300 people. These films wouldn’t necessarily get straight cinema screenings now, but that live music element brings in bigger audiences who want to experience the visual and musical spectacle. And with Bo Ningen, they chose an obscure, but amazing Japanese animation from recent years called Cat Soup, bringing something to audiences that they would never have seen otherwise.
The Spiegeltent is the centre of the festival. Can you tell us a bit about this unique venue and what it brings to the festival?
I always wanted Branchage to have a lively hub where people could come together and hang out; a focal point for everything festival related, but something extra special that could also double up for parties and networking sessions. Spiegeltents were built a century ago in Belgium as gorgeous touring venues, all dark wood, stained glass, velvet and mirrors. Branchage is about alternative venues, and with the Spiegeltent we have created our own alternative venue right at the heart of Jersey. It comes to the Island by sea and seems to appear overnight on the front in St Helier, heralding the start of Branchage, but once you’re inside it feels like a structure that has been standing for centuries. Over the years, the Spiegeltent has become synonymous with Branchage, and it radiates a special atmosphere through the whole festival.
Jersey has an interesting history and an idiosyncratic charm. How does the location influence the content and style of Branchage?
Tradition is alive and well on the island and it is steeped in folklore and memories. This is echoed by Branchage’s use of old buildings such as churches, barns and parish halls for some of our screenings. Medieval castles built to defend the island from marauding French invaders provide inspiration for atmospheric film screenings and spectacular projections, while the island’s underground Nazi-built tunnel system (the Jersey War Tunnels) makes a fascinating venue for an interactive theatre installation. Jersey’s also just idyllic, with its country lanes and picturesque villages; in some ways the pace of life is a lot slower. The look and feel of the festival has been influenced by all these aspects over the years, drawing from a rural aesthetic. Even the name Branchage is actually a Jersey-French (Jèrriais) word relating to the annual trimming of country hedges – an old Jersey tradition that’s still part of Jersey law today.
Fritz Stolberg is creating an installation using film from the Jersey archives. What’s the history of film in Jersey and how has the industry changed?
Jersey’s film archive contains a wealth of amateur footage on 8mm and 16mm film, documenting the Nazi Occupation of World War II and the post-war holiday years of the 1950s and 1960s. Fritz Stolberg’s archival project will collect personal footage together too, to build up a picture of the island, filmed by islanders. Unfortunately, the Channel Islands don’t have a film industry as such, despite great filming locations across the islands and plenty of talent. Films such as The Others (starring Nicole Kidman) and The Devil’s Rock have stories set in the Channel Islands but were not filmed there. But things are changing. There are now tax breaks and local businesses have invested in recent films such as The King’s Speech. Since Branchage began there have been a number of shorts and documentaries made by local filmmakers: Jersey born filmmaker Rebecca Coley directed her debut feature Imaginary Summer here.
What are the highlights of the festival and who should we look out for?
We’re excited by some up-and-coming breakthrough artists who are creating new music and film works to premiere at the festival. Post-electronica outfit Teeth Of The Sea are making a live soundtrack and visual remix of Neil Marshall’s Doomsday, and songwriter and harpist Serafina Steer is creating a score to animations by her brother, Sam Steer. Watch out for Daniel Barrow, who recently won the Sobey Art Award (Canada’s equivalent of the Turner Prize) who’s flying over from Montreal to perform Every Time I See Your Picture I Cry – a live “manual animation.” The final hurrah will be a screening of The Great White Silence in Jersey’s magnificent Opera House. Simon Fisher Turner (long-time collaborator of Derek Jarman) will be performing the new soundtrack that he has created to the 1924 footage of Captain Scott’s ill-fated final Antarctic expedition. It makes for a breathtaking visual and aural event.
You work a lot with artists to create installations and experiences for the festival. What are you developing this year?
It is important for festivals to create new experiences for audiences and crossing over into other art forms keeps the vibrancy of the festival going. Branchage is very much rooted in film, but alongside traditional cinema exhibition, it’s interesting to show more gallery based video-work, such as Ben Rivers’ Slow Action. New technology features in our bigger scale installations too, from building-sized digital-mapping projections (created by Seeper and Flat-e) to the 8-speaker outdoor sound-art installation, Variable 4, which creates music from changes in the weather. There’s a greater crossover between art forms than there used to be, and at Branchage we whole heartedly believe in this.
Branchage ran from 22 – 25 September 2011. www.branchagefestival.com.