Flatpack Unpacked: Alex King discovers pandemics, parties and plasticine

The last time Birmingham found its way onto the cinematic map was in 1970, for all the wrong reasons with Cliff Richard’s Take Me High. More famous for its spaghetti junctions, cinema is not something people think about when they think of Birmingham. But courtesy of Flatpack Festival, for one week in late March that all changed.

To launch the festival cinema’s faithful gathered together for an an extended period of worship at the altar of the 1927 classic Sunrise. Arguably the greatest silent film ever made, it was screened with a live orchestral accompaniment in St. Martin’s Church in the Bull Ring. Without exaggeration I can honestly say that the evening was the single greatest cinematic experience of my entire life. Great films deserve to be shown in fitting surroundings. The beautiful black and white print shining out from the eery darkness of a Victorian gothic church truly was a sight to behold. Your average local coke-stained and popcorn-strewn multiplex this was not.

Unlike major festivals that seem so beholden to stars, glitz, gossip and red carpets that the films often seem to take a back seat, Flatpack’s focus is firmly on film. It reminds us of the diversity of the film medium. Other festivals would have you believe that the limits of cinema end and begin with the 90-minute feature. Flatpack’s definition of film is so expansive it takes in just about anything that can project a moving image on to the screen. Lanterna Magicka took us back to where cinema began; with early optical toys such as the magic lantern and zoetrope. Julien Maire’s Demi-Pas gave us a modern reinvention of the magic lantern show by using modified slide projectors with laser-cut ektachromes containing tiny objects, motors and electronic devices.

Shorts made up the bulk of Flatpack’s programming and the variety and inventiveness on offer was staggering. Given the huge range of material not every single one would have appealed to everyone. However the considerably large amount of invention and imagination had gone into every one of the films I saw over the week made me appreciate every one. A highlight was Javier Chillon’s Die Schneider Krankheit. A spoof newsreel from the 1950s about a virus spread across the world after a space probe containing a chimpanzee crashes in West Germany, it captures perfectly the dark, clunky feel of old newsreels yet every single shot is created through original footage. The scene where an innocent 50s nuclear family sit around the television all wearing sinister WWII gas-masks while the narrator explains how “normal family life” has continued despite the epidemic is one of the most chilling things I have ever seen on film.

Flatpack’s animation programme also proved that the possibilities within the medium are greater than we ever tend to think. Puppets, pens, paper, paint and plasticine, no material seemed to be left out of the pallet that Flatpack’s animators drew from when creating their awesome selection of animated shorts.

Kanizsa Hill for example used old newspapers, pens, ink and paints to create a living and breathing collage that struck me with its beautiful hand-made feel.

Teabreak used a clever mix of animation and live action to make us feel for the plight of… err, teabags. Seeing the slow and excruciatingly painful death of his friend as he is thrown into boiling water, one teabag takes a stand and exacts his brutal revenge on a teabag murdering human. Tea-fiends take note.

In a similar vein, Bubblewrap brought bubbles to life in order to witness their painful demise at the hands of bored humans. Practically every animated short on offer exhibited a fresh new animation style I had never seen before, and even the traditional mediums like the clay-mation of Debt were given new life through inventive ideas.

Without doubt my favourite short of the whole festival was Divers. A simple premise, this computer animated wonder had a team of red swimsuitted divers leaping from a diving board high up in the clouds, falling through the sky in a synchronised formation and finally plunging into water miles below. The three minute descent had me captivated by its beauty.

Saturday night was taken over by feature films and the most impressive was Double Take. An odd homage to Hitchcock and his television show Alfred Hitchcock Presents… that ran from 1956 to 1963 the film was composed primarily of archive footage from this period. Loosely based around the premise of Hitchcock encountering an older double of himself while filming The Birds, the film managed to tie Hitchcock’s story to the narrative of the Cold War and the promulgation of fear into American society at the time. Not the easiest film to understand, but if anything it left me with fact that Alfred Hitchcock is perhaps one of the coolest people ever to have lived.

Cinema-going is often seen as a solitary pursuit, but Flatpack seems to challenge that, turning film into a highly social affair. A Plasticine Party offered a chance to unwind after a hard day sitting about watching immensely cool films. It invited it guests to get involved in making their own plasticine creations. Cue an hour of silence as I and my girlfriend sat on the floor surrounded by scores of equally eager guests all attempting to outdo one-another’s plasticine masterpieces. This sense of getting involved sums up what Flatpack is all about about. Last edition Boar film tried and failed to come up with a definition of the festival, but maybe it’s this: Flatpack-get involved and see what you make of it.

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