Writer Beth Exley / Photographer Dinosaur Kilby – Eastside Projects
I feel a little awkward arriving at Eastside Projects for the ‘Earthly Bodies’ Birmingham Critical Film Forum screening. I’m pretty early and haven’t been to many film screenings before, so I’m not entirely sure what to expect.
Birmingham Critical Film Forum is a relatively new endeavour which is being supported by the Stuart Croft Foundation Curatorial Award. The project aims to help disseminate and develop the work of artists using film and moving images in the West Midlands.
April 14’s screening is the first of four film screenings planned, and according to the programme it aims to bring together feminist, multi-vocal, and ecological film-making practices. As a side note, the program has been printed by the Holodeck and is gorgeous – I’m definitely going to be holding onto this after the event finishes.
The gallery space is delightful at Eastside Projects. It’s a warehouse that is currently filled by a straw, cardboard, and (I think) burlap construction that seems to evoke a prehistoric settlement. I later find out this is a project by Emii Alrai entitled The Courtship of Giants. I clock huge cheese plants growing out of industrial barrels and neon lights overhead – there’s lots to take in whilst I wait for the screening to start.
Taking my seat, more people start filing in, it seems like the typical arty Digbeth crowd, there’s lots of interesting coats and cool haircuts about. I exchange smiles with a few other solo attendees, and begin to feel at ease.
Once most of the seats are filled, Jessica Piette, a Birmingham based curator responsible for tonight’s programme, provides an overview of the themes, artists, and films involved. The aforementioned neon lights are turned off, and Watershed, a 2020 piece by South African artist Linda Stupart is projected onto the wall.
A figure wrapped in fabric scraps that obscures their head wades into Birmingham’s River Cole, whilst the artist’s voice instructs me to be aware of the spit in my mouth. I’m immediately confused and intrigued, a feeling that sticks with me throughout the 11-minute piece. Every time I think I know what’s going on, the piece changes tone, from an acapella cover of a Black Sabbath song, to an intense spoken word piece, to the ambient sounds of the river itself.
The voice of the piece is hard to pin down, but ambiguity is clearly Stupart’s aim. The river becomes a body to be mapped and fiction is mixed with science and history to create a surreal and haunting film.
As Watershed finishes, Unctuous Between Fingers (2019) begins to play. This 15-minute short by Bryony Gillard uses an archive of pressed seaweeds collected by 19th-century women and held by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery as its starting point.
It has striking visuals – including one shot of pressed seaweed that reminds me of an anatomical heart – merged with short sections of spoken word and synth music. There are obvious parallels between the first two films; the water, and human interactions are a mutual central feature, but Unctuous feels far calmer and slightly more tangible.
As Shireen Seno’s 2021 work To Pick a Flower starts, I am immediately grasped by its stripped back display of historic photographs accompanied by a simple narration. The piece explores the relationship between humans and nature in the Philippines during the late colonial period, particularly in the lumber industry.
Maybe it’s just my inner history nerd speaking, but I am completely engrossed and feel like I’m learning a lot about the topic. I even write down a list of things I want to read more about after the film.
With the start of the fourth and final film, Seeds (2016) by Philippa Ndisi-Herrmann, I start to get quite sad that the evening is coming to a close.
As the shortest piece of the night, Seeds also manages to pack the biggest punch. A visual poem that explores the balance of life and death, good and bad, and the interconnectedness of this world, in a mere 4-minutes. Seeds is truly moving.
And, among a group of strong contenders in ‘Earthly Bodies’, which all speak wonderfully to the theme of feminist ecological film making, it stands out as my favourite.
For more information about the artists and their work please see:
Jessica Piette: www.jessicapiette.com/Earthly-Bodies
Linda Stupart: www.remembertheliquidground.rca.ac.uk/artists/linda-stupart
Bryony Gillard: www.unctuousbetweenfingers.co.uk/
Shireen Seno: www.vimeo.com/629308301
Philippa Ndishi-Herrmann: www.philippandisiherrmann.com
You can also check out Birmingham Critical Film Forum, via @birminghamcriticalfilmforum on Instagram (only) to keep up to date with the project, and find out about their upcoming screenings.