For 11 days in March and April, Flatpack Festival returned to the former industrial spaces of Birmingham, tucked behind the Bull Ring crowds and the hum of traffic passing the coach station. The Easter weekend was an unseasonably cold one as disparate figures formed an orderly queue for Brummies, Boozers and Bruisers: an event promising ‘kebabs and a scuffle’. The venue was an unlikely place for a fight – a small independent art gallery with mugs laid out for coffee and a guestbook to sign – but nevertheless the brawling was soon underway via a slideshow of photographs and news reports. Visual depictions of underground culture were brought together by Ray O’Donnell, a forceful speaker on the history of gangs around Digbeth, an area of the city that hosts the majority of Flatpack’s events. A gang member in his youth, Ray gave an impassioned insight into the mentality, organisation and social circumstances that lead to the emergence of gangs. After digressive tales of stripping copper wiring from disused buildings and of razor blades hidden in Teddy Boys’ lapels, the presentation broadened out into a discussion about the current situation in Birmingham and parallels with American cities. The talk was typical of what I have come to expect of Flatpack after six years of attending the festival. Its events are lively and thoughtful, and they have an elusive quality of unpredictability. Each year, the programming falls into similar categories – there are weird, rare shorts and animations, music documentaries, children’s screenings, walking tours and academic presentations, various explorations of early cinema techniques – but the choices avoid staleness or familiarity, in part because they are driven by Birmingham itself: the city’s problems and triumphs, and its communities and culture.
Another event built around Digbeth – but a far cry from the topic of gang violence – was a screening of animated shorts by Te Wei at Cherish House, a residential home for elderly members of the local Chinese community. Watching with the home’s residents provided another perspective to these beautiful films, which were striking demonstrations in the charm of hand-drawn animation. The first film, The Conceited General (1956), had a similar aesthetic to Western animations from the same period; in effect, we could have been watching a Disney feature from the 1950s. The corpulent body of the General was wonderfully observed as he tried to emulate the movements of an exotic dancing girl, or failed to lift heavy dumbbells. But it was the two later films – Where is Mama? (1960) and The Cowboy’s Flute (1963) – that really stood out. Influenced by Chinese ink drawings by the artist Qi Baishi, Te Wei’s minimal brushstrokes conveyed complex rhythms and subtle characterisation. In Where is Momma?, a group of tadpoles, drawn as simple silhouettes, search for their mother, mistaking a host of animals for their ‘Mama’. Through the skill of Te Wei’s animation, the basic black shapes assume a range of emotions, from excitement to fear and happiness, their tails wriggling or bodies gliding smoothly. The Cowboy’s Flute displayed finer brushwork, but retained the same attention to detail and movement: the buffalo was half-drawn to express its submergence in water, while abstract green and yellow shapes delicately morphed to suggest leaves and butterflies.
Te Wei’s ability to communicate through minimal brushstrokes was mirrored by the Polish poster artists at the centre of a lecture by Daniel Bird, which took place in another Digbeth venue, the Custard Factory Theatre. The talk explained the historical context that gave rise to Poland’s rich graphic art tradition and presented the audience with some potent examples of posters, which sprang up from a culture that turned a poverty of means into a striking aesthetic. There was a wonderful poster for Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962), with the three protagonists crudely drawn as piranha-like fish. By making it difficult to ascertain which fish represented which character, the artist emphasised the triangular dynamics central to the psychological drama of the film. Daniel Bird explained how a specific style began to develop in Poland, despite the artists working individually. The palette was restricted due to printing costs. Posters were produced by the most basic of means: by painting, cutting or tearing. Bold hues were used to provide flashes of colour on anonymous, grey buildings. The potency of the resulting artwork was visible in the examples illustrating Daniel’s talk, and also in a small exhibition of posters hanging in the festival cafe. Opposite these works by Barbara Baranowska was another small exhibition of posters, flyers and programmes from the archives of the Birmingham Arts Lab, this year’s patron saint of Flatpack. It’s easy to understand why this arts organisation appealed to the festival’s organisers: its community-focused, experimental approach perfectly mirrors what their own programming does so well.
I mostly packed my days at this year’s Flatpack with Birmingham-related activities, but a couple of events that really stuck with me were screenings of two recent documentaries: The Echo of Astroboy’s Footsteps (2011), a portrait of the Japanese sound artist, Matsuo Ohno, and Only the Young (2012), a film that follows three teenage Christian skateboarders, Kevin, Garrison and Skye, growing up in Canyon County, California. The description of the latter doesn’t give much sense of the lyricism achieved by Elizabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, the two CalArts film students who made Only the Young. There is a soulful beauty to the cinematography, as Kevin and Garrison swerve on their skateboards, juxtaposed with two birds of prey soaring on thermal streams. There are lots of shots of abandoned places – a disused water slide or an empty house – and gorgeous, wide panoramas. There is one particularly uplifting sequence that shows Garrison and Skye messing around with an abandoned shopping trolley, which reminded me of the tracking shots of French New Wave classics, a technique infused with youth and freedom. The trust forged between the directors and their subjects resulted in intensely intimate moments that were funny and poignant; the filmmakers let the teenagers speak for themselves, resulting in a raw mixture of tumultuous emotion and insightful wisdom. Masanori Tominaga’s The Echo of Astroboy’s Footsteps was less focused on beautifully-composed shots, but it had a similarly languid feel as it conjured up a rounded portrait of Matsuo Ohno. The structure of the film highlighted the gulf between the myth and reality of a famously elusive artistic figure, as interviews with former colleagues finally gave way to time with Ohno himself. It was an inspiring and complex portrait that revealed a humble man, devoted to experimenting with sound and spending his time with residents in a home for disabled adults.
Flatpack is full of treasures, whether events that are directly linked to the city in some way, or films, like these documentaries, which come from all corners of the world, but share the same quality of unpredictability. I’m already looking forward to the next festival in 2014.