Get to know: Alchemy Film and Arts

Back in 2010, Alchemy Film & Arts Festival was created as a collaborative project between Alchemy Film & Arts, Heart of Hawick, and Creative Arts Business Network (CABN). Filmmaker and artist Dr Richard Ashrowan developed the project with a clear vision: to bring artists' moving image and experimental film to the Scottish Borders. 

"Really, I wanted to start a festival that in many ways challenged the urban centrism of culture, particularly with moving image art," Ashrowan explains.

"It's very often the case that you only see major international names in galleries in Edinburgh and Glasgow. When I moved to the Scottish Borders, which was 15 years ago, I really struggled to find a culture that I could connect with and really see very high quality art.

"In part, it was a provocation due to that urban centrism," he adds, "and in other ways it was about making something happen in a specific locality that really needed cultural provision of some kind."

Alchemy's always had this really peculiar and interesting model of being locally rooted, but really reaching out nationally, and especially internationally.- Richard Ashrowan, Alchemy Film & Arts

When we meet with Ashrowan in Hawick, Alchemy is mid-way through the delivery of its eighth programme. As it stands, the festival is an internationally-recognised hub for experimental film and moving image, which is a testament to how much the organisation has grown since its inception.

"The early days were interesting," he says, "because you really have to learn as you go along. There's no one model for film festivals and how they operate. I didn't have any experience in running a film festival, I just wanted to do it.

"My specialism is that I'm a filmmaker, so that motivation was there. I really wanted to create a platform for others working in the same domain. At that time, there was really nothing in Scotland that showed artists' moving image to the level that I wanted to do myself."


Locality and inclusivity

Through a long-running partnership with the Heart of Hawick, Alchemy established a centre for their screenings. "This provision was the catalyst for making the project happen," he says, and to this day, the venue remains a solid base for the festival's many activities. Now, the festival is run as a partnership project between Alchemy Film & Arts and Heart of Hawick.

Hawick itself plays a central role in the festival. "It's a really perfect place for this kind of film festival," Ashrowan explains, "because it becomes a kind of community. People come together here, and there no green room or hierarchy. We really try and open out our art form and make it inclusive for everybody.

"That's not lip service to a language of inclusivity. It's always been part of the mission: to make artist film less exclusive, to bring down the barriers for people to participate and enjoy it. I think we've got quite a successful model at doing that."

International thinking: The Biennale and beyond

Though its roots are firmly local, the festival also has a strong international reach.

"The reality is that we now have a film festival that is internationally recognised and is nationally important, and we're doing that in a town like Hawick. To have made that happen, and to really achieve that level of recognition, I think it just quite an astonishing achievement.

"It was very gratifying also that we've been able to do significant international projects outside of the film festival itself. Last year, we were curating the Venice Biennale [through Scotland + Venice] presenting the artist Rachel Maclean. That was an incredibly successful show, and an enormously high profile international opportunity for us.

"Nowadays when I got to film festivals, it doesn't seem to matter where I go - whether it's in the States or recently in Rotterdam - I very rarely meet a filmmaker who hasn't heard of our name already. And the fact that we can now attract major name international artists is great. People want to be part of what we're doing here."

Regular funding

As one of the new Regularly Funded Organisations for 2018-21, Alchemy has big plans.

"Achieving Regular Funding is going to make a major difference to the way that we operate," Ashrowan explains. "For two to three years running, up to getting the Regular Funding, we've been developing various year-round activities.

"We now have an exhibition programme which operates on Hawick's High Street, we've done various elements of touring programmes, and we've done a residency programme. We've also done various film commissions.

"But all of these have always been very ad hoc, so when we've been applying for money, we get some project-based money from somewhere - not always from Creative Scotland - we've just been able to do that project. Then that project finishes, and we're on to the next round of project applications.

"With Regular Funding, for the first time, we can plan for three years in advance," he explains. "That means on a very simple, prosaic level that I can have a conversation with a filmmaker today about a project coming to the festival or presenting an exhibition in two or three years. We weren't able to do that before.

"When the status of the artist that you're working with is higher, they tend to be busier. That ability to plan is really important."

Strength and development

In addition to planning, Regular Funding will help the organisation to develop its worker base.

"It also means that we can build a better team," he says. "That's important, because often our projects require freelance workers, and being in a place like the Scottish Borders, there isn't always the pool of people with good experience. Now, we are going to be able to develop that, and to develop local people into the roles that are necessary for the running of the festival."

As for the future, the organisation is looking to focus on "embedding Alchemy into the fabric of the Scottish Borders and into the local community."

"I'd really like to get a permanent exhibition space. At the moment, we're going from empty shops to warehouses, running our exhibitions programme. I'd really like to establish a permanent base, and to root our activities more in the community."

But what makes Alchemy special is its ability to think locally and globally at once. "Alchemy's always had this really peculiar and interesting model of being locally rooted, but really reaching out nationally, and especially internationally. We'll continue to develop that."

Alchemy is one of Creative Scotland's Regularly Funded Organisations for 2018-21.

This article was published on 01 Jun 2018