< Back to Blog

An Outrageous Pilgrim’s Progress

Shona Thomson is a freelance film festival programmer/producer currently working with Falkirk Community Trust to produce the fifth Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema taking place in March 2015 in Bo’ness. We offered her a bursary to attend Branchage Festival on Jersey in September and this is what she had to say about it… 

“Branchage is back!” The mantra resonated in a host of unusual pop-up cinema venues across the island of Jersey over five days in September 2014.

I had admired Branchage Festival from afar when it hit the film festival circuit in 2008. The team developed its own niche for commissioning spectacular site-specific film and live music events and enticing some of London’s biggest names to the Bailliwick of Jersey. A particular influence on my wilder curatorial ambitions is still the incredible Battle of Branchage 3D mapping project. By 2011, Little White Lies magazine branded Branchage as “the naughty little sister of Cannes”. After a decision in 2012 to step back from the full island festival and focus on a two-year collaboration with Radio 1 DJ and Bestival founder Rob Da Bank, Branchage Festival was indeed back in September 2014 and I knew it was time to experience it for myself.

Branchage (pronounced bron-kahj) is a local Norman French dialect word for the ancient island tradition of cutting back hedgerows encroaching on highways and footpaths. It’s more than a bad pun to say that the Festival was going back to its roots for the 2014 homecoming. A characteristically smart pre-Festival marketing campaign and opening night introductions by the team placed the emphasis firmly on being part of the Jersey community, discovering the island’s secrets, and a hip do-it-yourself approach to creating your own Branchage experience. See this year’s trailers on the Festival homepage.

For the fifth birthday of Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema we’re looking to extend the programme and increase the number of venues we’re filling with silent film and live music. Branchage was not short of ambition in this regard and I planned to visit as many of the 25 Jersey venues hosting 70 events as I could in five days. Other than Cineworld St Helier and Jersey Museum, all the venues were non-cinema spaces. I found myself welcomed by tireless festival volunteers in parish halls, churches, tents, pubs, galleries, WWII bunkers and a swim centre. I was watching a Russian electronic music documentary whilst sitting on Victorian gothic pews in St Aubin-on-the-Hill Church, and hearing about once-lost Peter Sellers films in the Spiegeltent shipped over as a centrepiece of the Branchage encampment of street food vendors in a public park.

I was struck by the effort required to ensure a cinema experience at each venue, particularly with so few cinemas usually available to locals who made up the majority of the Festival audience. The blazing late September sun was a challenge – not always an issue in Bo’ness in March but as a festival grows to screening during the day and scheduling events in parallel, planning the audience experience requires as much attention to detail as preparing a permanent venue. I’ll be examining effective communication between core staff, frontline volunteers, and partner venues as HippFest 2015 preparations progress. 

Of course, I wasn’t always watching movies in these spaces. Festival organisers Nina Hervé and Chris Bell had no fear in striking out past the silver screen: wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson’s Nature Disco shimmied up against Sir Peter Blake’s newest pop culture exhibition. For me the stars of the innovative guest curation strand were the Radiophonic Workshop as they talked about the 40 years of wonderfully weird music and sound effects they produced for BBC productions, including famously ‘Doctor Who’. More than just reminiscing they performed two outstanding scores: with Liverpool band Stealing Sheep for 1973 psychedelic masterpiece ‘La Planète Sauvage’; and for the stunning closing night finale of a new 3D mapping illumination of the Napoleonic St Aubin’s Fort. Needless to say, I have the Workshop’s number…

The Festival team certainly used its star-studded address book to bring Branchage home this year (designer agnès b. was the other guest curator). As Festival founder, Xanthe Hamilton instructs in her 2014 brochure intro: “You can plunge into your isle and co-populate, meet and greet your great peers and humble pioneers and outrageous pilgrims.” I suppose I came under the “outrageous pilgrim” category and the opportunity to share knowledge, stories and networks with other film festival specialists on staff and in attendance was invaluable to me.

Will Branchage happen again next year? As with most of us, the funding decisions will tell but it feels like a re-growth has begun and it’s encouraging to know community is at the heart of film festivals from north to south.

For a fuller analysis of the programme, I would urge you to look at writer and Cork Film Festival programmer, Colm McAuliffe’s piece about Branchage for The Quietus.

Sign up to receive our enewsletter to keep up to date with all the latest news and events. Sign up to our newsletter