Writers Beth Exley, Emily Doyle & Rachel Westwood/Photographers Katja Ogrin, Emily Doyle & Hassan Ul-Haq
Flatpack Festival is an annual multi-day event that aims to celebrate film in all its form, as well as the intersection between cinema and other kinds of art. Scattered amongst many venues in Birmingham – from the MAC, to Mockingbird, to The Electric – Flatpack is a vibrant cultural event that has something for everybody.
The mobile arts organisation, founded in the early 2000s, has sought to bring together like-minded people, create unforgettable events, and give local artists and filmmakers a vital opportunity to debut and promote their work to new audiences.
This 2022 edition was the first in-person program delivered by Flatpack in three years, and they truly are back with a bang. The program (which by the way is beautifully designed) is full to the brim of exciting and eclectic screenings, performances, and experiences, and is a real testimony to the excellent curatorial approach of the team behind the festival.
ICHI Anime Show (19 May)
At The Printmakers Arms, instrument maker and one-man-band ICHI is showcasing his latest project. You hear him before you see him, teetering in on stilts while playing a harmonica. One of those stilts doubles as a makeshift shamisen, which he later uses to play a song about a mosquito.
ICHI’s performance this evening is split into two sets – the first, a series of short songs on topics as wide ranging as “animals”, “my favourite Chinese restaurant in Japan”, and “a bathroom” – the latter was mostly toothbrushing.
He performs with a clownish sensibility on his host of homemade instruments. Towards the end of this set he sets aside what appears to be a oud with a slinky attached to the back and proceeds to pour a jug of water into the steelpan he’s been playing. It’s deadpan, absurd, and joyous.
ICHI’s second set is a new commission created for Flatpack. He screens a selection of Japanese experimental animated short films from the 60s, 70s, and 80s and performs his new soundtracks live.
Osamu Tezuka’s ‘Jumping’ is accompanied by the bouncing of an exercise ball, while Yoji Kuri’s ‘Love’ is given a new vocal soundtrack with slapstick minimalism.
These works have the tinge of nuclear threat that you’d expect from post-war Japan, and it makes for a much more unsettling set than the first.
Tattered Earth (20 May)
The room is full to the brim with diverse characters in fancy dress and what looks like an explosion of Tat’s signature gags. Piles and piles of charity shop items, namely, Birmingham’s biggest collection of Sideways DVDs, strange-looking vintage kids games, and of course a huge papier-mâché creation of Tat’s head dangling precariously from the ceiling.
“Are you ready?” is heard over a microphone and Tat and his characters enter in WWE-style, setting the perfect tone for the rest of the show.
It’s a pantomime atmosphere at its finest: as the performance begins, audience members are already jeering back at him, interacting at any given opportunity. Overshadowing the stage is a huge projector screen that cycles through a series of clips about the life of Tat, featuring, to my delight, appearances from some Birmingham favourites such as Ruth from Ruth and The Ark, Joe Lycett, and Dion Kitson to name but a few.
The most poignant moment of the introduction is when a ‘Young Tat’ appears on screen sporting a huge brown moustache which quickly elicits raucous laughter from the crowd.
The loosely threaded storyline focused on the antagonists (well established in previous shows) called ‘Lux’ and his plastics. However, this isn’t where the show excelled; the real enjoyment to be had was in watching the performers interact with members of the audience.
Be it responding abruptly to a heckle or calling out a certain Birmingham Review journalist for making them nervous by taking notes on her phone. Certainly not making that mistake again. Pen and paper it is.
Latenight Tales with Cecil Morris (May 20-21)
At the Mockingbird on Saturday night, Cecil Morris presents a double feature of Latenight Tales as part of Flatpack’s new Wonderland project.
Garry Stewart from Recognize Black Heritage Culture organisation hosts the evening, opening with an inspiring Q&A. Morris, a DJ and entrepreneur, tells the audience how he set up a regular late-night slot at the Elite Cinema on Soho Road back in the 1970s to combat the dearth of Black representation in film.
How he discovered Steel Pulse. How he set up his pirate broadcasting operation PCRL and spent twenty years fighting to keep it on the airwaves. When the authorities finally caught up to him and sentenced him to months of community service, he enjoyed it so much that he carried on volunteering with the day centre afterwards.
Morris is magnetic. His story is one of inventiveness, mutual aid, and ultimately a love for cinema. After the talk, he’s curated a typically inventive double bill of Blacula (1972) and, The Dragon, The Hero (1979). Due to the limited films available, back in the Elite Cinema days he’d usually screen one piece of Black cinema followed by one martial arts flick.
With Morris’ reggae selections playing in the interval, Stewart quips that it’s like being back at the Elite, “only with a lot less ganja smoke”.
AIDS on Film: Silverlake Life – The View From Here – Q&A from director, Peter Friedman, and Peter Tatchell (21 May)
I had never heard of Silverlake Life (1993) before looking through the Flatpack programme, however, the phrase ‘AIDS on film’ stood out to me amongst the events as being quite different in tone.
As someone with a keen interest in queer history and particularly in the AIDS epidemic, I decide I should go along. In screen-one of the Mockingbird Cinema, I encounter a deeply sad and harrowing piece of film.
Looking around as the credits roll, it is clear everyone else in here has experienced the same thing – there is not a dry eye in sight.
Silverlake Life was filmed by American director Tom Joslin as a video diary during the last few months of his life as he succumbed to AIDS. It details his beautiful long-term relationship with Mark Rossi, an actor also suffering from AIDS, their life, his medical treatments, and ultimately his death and its immediate aftermath.
Silverlake Life was then finished and edited by his friend and student, Peter Friedman, months after his death.
Friedman talks in the Q&A about how Tom believed in ‘in your face’ film making, and that is the perfect way to describe Silverlake Life.
It shows AIDS in raw and horrifying detail. I would say this film is essential viewing (although I must provide a large content warning as I say this) due to its importance in queer history and its unflinching portrayal of this massive part of global history
Earwig Screening at Mockingbird Cinema (21 May)
Reclining on one of the sofa seats in Mockingbird’s second screen room, I am very excited for Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Earwig (2021) to begin. We have just been given an introduction by a member of the flatpack team who described it as a ‘body horror nightmare’ which sounds incredibly up my street. I’ve got my popcorn and Dr. Pepper ready and I’m ready for a few screams.
We’re twenty-minutes in and I realise there has not been a single line of dialogue.
Maybe this is too slow a burn for someone with my tiktok addled attention span…
On hearing a description of this film, it sounds like it should be amazing – a strange man who must maintain a little girl’s teeth made of ice? Sign me up. But ultimately, the lack of any discernible narrative or plot made this very difficult for me to enjoy.
Aesthetically it was gorgeous, and the sound design was brilliant, but I think overall, this just kind of went over my head and I’m left feeling confused and dissatisfied as the credits roll.
Although I appreciate the fact Flatpack highlighted this work by a female, French director, it just wasn’t my cup of tea.
Bioinspiration at Flatpack Hub (22 May)
The set up in the flatpack hub for Bioinspiration is very intriguing; there’s a few tables at the far end of the room that take me back to my A Level biology classes. There’s beakers, test tubes, seaweeds, shells, and what looks like microscopes.
To the left, there’s a synth and a record player and then two large projection screens. I’m excited for what I’m about to see.
Chemist Zoe Schnapps, artist Laura Spark and musician Jonathan Hering start their work and I’m immediately taken by it. Schnapps and Spark move cameras around the science equipment, blending close-up visuals of a sea urchin shell, into what I think was snakeskin, and then into seaweed, making a moving natural collage of texture in front of our eyes.
Whilst we watch this on the screen, Hering begins playing the synth inspired by what he sees. I’m reminded of fractal theory by the way droplets in water look like bacteria, and the shells look like mountain formations from an aerial view.
After about half an hour of this mesmerising, sensuous experience, the audience gets to participate in the experimentation. From the children to an elderly couple, everyone excitedly approaches the front.
And I leave feeling connected to nature and inspired by the world we inhabit.
Queen of Hearts: Audrey Flack (22 May)
For my final flatpack event I am back at Mockingbird in the larger screen one. As a long-term fan of photorealist painter Audrey Flack, I was very excited to hear that a couple of her works were being exhibited at Birmingham’s own Ikon earlier in the year.
This excitement was furthered when I saw Queen of Hearts (2020) was being screened at Flatpack.
Having been made shortly before the pandemic and repeated lockdowns, Queen of Hearts has not really had the reception the creators hoped for. The film documents Flack’s life story, artistic process, motherhood, relationships with other artists, and her return to painting after thirty years of not touching a canvas.
It’s a lovely and heart-warming piece that shines light upon an often forgotten and neglected, but significant and influential modernist artist. The way it highlights the specific difficulties of being a woman working within the art world and how her gender impacted her reputation is particularly strong.
Flatpack’s decision to include this documentary in the line-up was a great moment of collaboration between the festival and Ikon. It’s also great to see a female artist, who should be remembered as a pioneer of photorealism, get her dues during her lifetime.
For more from Flatpack Festival and the films they had on offer go to: www.flatpackfestival.org.uk