It may only be in its third year but the UK's small and fast growing Branchage Film Festival has already become a guaranteed fun four days that's unlike most other film festivals out there. With an idyllic location in the quaint town of St. Helier on the small island of Jersey in the UK's Channel Islands (off the coast of France), this year's Branchage Film Festival (September 23-26th) offered a richly diverse program that included documentaries, features, animation, and shorts, plus some classic films presented in entirely new ways. In addition to its picture-perfect & historic location, what sets Branchage apart from most other festivals is how it nicely weaves a wealth of live music (as both opening acts to films and/or its soundtrack) into its program. Equally important is how it magically transformed so many of its film screenings by taking them out of the stereotypical cinemas & screening rooms and onto screens in site specific locations in St Helier and around the historic island.
At last year's festival, which was the first time I attended, unique screening locations included Castle at Gorey (picture above) and the German War Tunnels (closer to France than England, the Channel Islands, including neighboring Guernsey, were the only parts of Britain occupied by the Nazis). There were also screenings in churches, something that was repeated this year with such films as Tatsuo Sato's Japanese anime Cat Soup, which was screened in All Saints Church (a functional church on loan at no coast from the Methodists). Japanese psych-metal group Bo Ningen replaced the original score of this gory 2001 animation with an amazing new score that went from quiet, soothing hushes to crazy wild n'loud screeching guitar and vocals. This year's other novel locations included the screening of Superman at a dam and The Battleship Potemkin on the deck of a tugboat in the St. Helier Harbour with an ever engaging live soundtrack provided by French electronic duo Zombie Zombie, who, as Branchage creative director Xanthe Hamilton told me with a delighted chuckle,"had sailed in from France to do their set." Truly this is a special kind of film festival.
Bo Ningen play live improvised soundtrack to Cat Soup at All Saints Church, Branchage 2010
Hamilton said that she and Branchage's program director Philip Ilson are always looking for new ideas and spend a lot of time attending other festivals for inspiration, including Missouri's True/False Film Festival. "We include films that we spot at other festivals that we enjoy," she said. "A lot of the filmmakers here are ones I met at other film festivals." Many of the films screened this year were documentaries about musicians, including Gainsbourg (the bio-pic about French singer/songwriter Serge Gainsbourg), Out On His Own: Gilbert O'Sullivan, & the Doors documentary When You're Strange. Documentaries account for a good chunk of the films screened at every Branchage and this year included excellent docs like the British made American: The Bill Hicks Story about the late great comedian told via a combination of old found film & video footage and a 3-D photomontage in which the camera swoops in and out of old photo stills There was also Out Of The Ashes, about the unlikely tale of the Afghanistan national cricket team's rise from obscurity to fame.
Along with Battleship Potemkin and the Japanese anime, other films that featured live soundtrack accompaniment included Austrian director Nicolaus Geyrhalter's wordless documentary on modern day food production with an improvised soundtrack by French beatboxer/multi-instrumentalist Pevin Kinel, and classic Russian animation shorts by Yuri Norstein with live guitar music by Euros Childs & Richard James (founders of Welsh band Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci), which took place in the old Town Church in the center of St Helier. UK experimental artist Scanner provided a live soundtrack to Damer Waddington's Magic Lantern Slide Show -- a slide presentation of retro images of old Jersey. As well as live soundtrack accompaniment to films plus artists opening for or playing between films (including guitarist/singer Jersey Bob and emcee Just Muz ), there were more films with music as their subject, including the funny short animated Girls Guide To Muso Boyfriends by Kate Jessop.
Excerpt from "Girls Guide To Muso Boyfriends" UK 2010 by Kate Jessop
A few days ago I caught up with the lead programmer for the festival, Philip Ilson, to ask him how he felt about this year's festival and its unique screening locations, such as the tugboat and the dam. Whether the locations or the films are chosen first "changes with each event," he said. "In all 3 years of Branchage, we've known we have venues like the War Tunnels, Gorey Castle, and churches for our use, so we look for specific films and events to go into those. This is why we didn't use the War Tunnels this year, as there was nothing immediately suitable for that space. The churches are a bit more 'loose' in terms of what we want to screen, as long as it's something magical or fairytale, like the Yuri Norstein animations. We knew we were going to do the Norstein live music event with Euros Childs & Ricahrd James, but we didn't know this would be placed in the Town Church. The Dam was always on the agenda for 2010, and we had a big extravaganza planned, which in the end we couldn't afford (hope to do it in 2011), so we had to come up with an alternative, and Superman was suggested, as it has a dam scene."
Ilson said that in the case of Zombie Zombie doing the soundtrack for Battleship Potemkin that he and Hamilton had seen the French duo do the same soundtrack at the BFI in London. "It wasn't immediate that we were going to take it for Branchage, but Xanthe came up with the tugboat idea. She knew the boat owners and fitting this specific event onto the boat suddenly meant that it made sense doing it in Branchage, and in the end was one of the Festival highlights this year," he said of the 1925 silent film that closed out the festival on a perfect note.
Ilson said there is no one way of making the live soundtracked accompaniment happen. "Last year, I'd found Lotte Reiniger's work first, and Amiina were the first people we approached and it made sense to use them.
Amiina chose the two films from Reiniger's catalogue. This year, to follow up with a similar classic animation event, decided on those specific two Norstein films. I'd actually approached a couple of big names to do the soundtrack, but they were unavailable," he said. "But in the end we went with Euros Childs & Richard James from Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. We met with Bo Ningen in London, and they had a whole list of films I'd never heard of that they wanted to soundtrack. I researched the titles, and Cat Soup seemed the best option, as it was 30 minutes and strangely surreal and fun. I know Scanner from a few years ago, and had told him about the Festival when I first got involved. The magic lantern idea came from an event he was planning to do in Yorkshire with magic lanterns, but didn't happen, so I did some research on Jersey magic lanterns, and found out about Mrs. Waddington, and it all fell into place. Zombie Zombie, like British Sea Power with Man Of Aran last year, had already been touring their Battleship Potemkin soundtrack."
Ilson, who lives in London, where he is director of the London Short Film Festival and short film programmer for the BFI London Film Festival, said that this year's festival was the clearly the best one to date. "Also, there was a vibe back in London that people really know Branchage now, and I've been asked a couple of times if passes are going on sale soon (for 2011), which is a first. People trust the Festival, like a Glastonbury, where they will buy tickets without knowing the programme."