Still from The Yes Men

Abandon Normal Devices

23-27 September 2009

Various venues, Liverpool

AND website

The first Abandon Normal Devices festival, with its mix of screenings, media art and workshops, successfully established AND as an event with a strong social-political context, albeit not to the extent that a specific ‘mission statement’ was evident. This meant that the festival programme featured filmmakers and artists of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, reflecting not only the geo-political concerns of the creative community, but also offering an insight into their methods of aligning topical subject matter with their own aesthetic sensibilities. Held at various venues in Liverpool’s cultural quarter, but mostly located at FACT (Foundation for Art & Creative Technology), AND demonstrated how developments in both the technology and distribution avenues available to filmmakers have enabled their ideologies to reach a receptive audience.

Two distinctly different filmmaking personalities played key roles in AND, with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and The Yes Men offering alternative methods of political engagement. Weerasethakul, the Thai director best known in the UK for his spellbinding features Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century, premiered Primitive, a video installation project that was commissioned by FACT in partnership with Haus der Kunst and Animate Projects. Located in Nabua, a region of Thailand that was occupied by the military in the 1960s and where communist suspects were tortured, Primitive echoes the current political climate of Weerasethakul’s homeland, where new cases of ‘enforced disappearances’ began to emerge in 2008. While the softly-spoken Weerasethakul was a low-key figure even when attending the opening night of his exhibition, The Yes Men proved to be masters of modern media by generating feverish discussion during the first two days of AND without actually being present. The conversation revolved around the recent arrest of Yes Men co-founder Andy Bichlbaum while he was pulling a stunt in New York. Although he had made headlines earlier in the week by distributing fake copies of The New York Post to increase awareness of climate change, Bichlbaum was taken into custody on an altogether less exciting charge: arranging a gathering of more than 50 people without a parade permit. The Yes Men obviously have their legal representation on speed dial and Bichlbaum was released within 24 hours with all charges dropped. Bichlbaum’s partner in agitprop, Mike Bonanno, delivered the AND workshop on How to Be a Yes Man and, as this festival strand also included a Yes Men exhibition at John Moore’s University, not to mention a screening of the amusing if somewhat self-congratulatory The Yes Men Fix the World, it could have been cynically viewed as a thinly-veiled Yes Men recruitment drive if the political anarchists were not so self-deprecating in their pursuit of corporate satire.

In terms of screenings, the major coup was the UK premiere of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, an intentionally uncomfortable comedy that won the Special Jury Prize at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. A hybrid of the mumblecore movement and the more commercial ‘bromance’ genre, Humpday deals with the relationship between two recently reunited friends – one a married suburbanite, the other a bohemian backpacker – and how the dynamics between them subtly shift when they decide to make a gay porn film, despite both being of heterosexual persuasion. The loose plot builds to what is, quite literally, an anti-climax, with the ensuing awkwardness leading to laughs and longueurs in equal measure. The audience response to the Korean drama Breathless was easier to gauge, with this account of the burgeoning relationship between a thuggish debt collector and a troubled high school girl leaving most viewers shaken by its unflinching depiction of domestic violence and its refusal to offer any conventional catharsis. This tour de force by writer-director-star Yang Ik-joon is seemingly straightforward in terms of message and execution, yet its moments of dark humour and insights into familial tension make for a morally perplexing experience. Almost as emotionally gruelling was Katalin Varga, a Transylvania-set revenge tale in which a rural housewife ventures into civilisation to kill the men who raped her 10 years earlier. An intense performance by Hilda Péter in the title role and a haunting use of landscape ensure that Peter Strickland’s debut feature subverts the expectations associated with the rape-revenge genre.

However, the film that perhaps best exemplified the ethos of AND, in terms of engaging the social-political conscience in a manner that is thoughtful rather than judgemental, was Lucy Raven’s China Town, a fascinating documentary project comprised of 7,000 photographs that have been edited together to chronicle the global production of copper from the mines of Nevada to the smelters of China. By methodically capturing this process, China Town touches on such topics as globalisation and nationalism, but leaves the audience to consider the consequences of such industrial activity. The second AND festival will be held in Manchester in 2010, and should prove to be an equally interesting event if the organisers continue to balance issues with innovation.

John Berra

Read our article on Jamie King and Peter Mann’s Dark Fibre, which premiered at AND, in the autumn 09 issue of Electric Sheep. The focus is on religious extremes on film from Christic masochism to satanic cruelty with articles on biblical hillbilly nightmare White Lightnin’, Jesus Christ Saviour, a documentary on Klaus Kinski’s disastrous New Testament stage play, and divine subversives Alejandro Jodorowsky and Kenneth Anger. Plus: Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, political animation and louche mariachi rockabilly Dan Sartain picks his top films!