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Kim Knowles
Point Line Plane, Simon Payne

Point Line Plane, Simon Payne

APEngine talks to Kim Knowles, about how she first got interested in the avant-garde, her Diversions project, and her programming for Edinburgh Film Festival’s Black Box.

How did your film education start?

My early film education was quite shocking. Those people that go, “Oh yes, my parents took me to the cinema when I was six and the first film I saw was Tarkovsky’s something or other.” Probably the first films I got interested in were Alien and Terminator, and they’re still films that I think quite a lot of. Even when I went to University to do film I was still quite oblivious about more experimental works. The focus was on things like authorship, so I was learning about people like Martin Scorsese. I found it really shocking that we never had any classes in avant-garde cinema.

So, it’s not as if I grew up immersed in film and that I had a wonderful film education at university – I’m not saying that I didn’t have a good education but it wasn’t very broad. It wasn’t until I was doing my masters – an MSc in European Film Studies at Edinburgh – that I got to see non-narrative works. Even then we just had one week on avant-garde cinema, and then even the term was quite obscure for me. I didn’t even know what it entailed and we had just a short screening, maybe 20 minutes of 1920s avant-garde film.

It started with Hans Richter and I thought, “My god, what is this?” I wasn’t impressed at all, and then when we got to René Clair’s Entr’acte’, and I thought, “Oh, ok, this is quite interesting.” It’s been an inspirational film for me ever since.

Had you not seen anything like that before?

I’d seen Un Chien Andalou when I was at college doing my National Diploma and I wasn’t sure what to think because there was no context to it really. I think our tutors deliberately tried to provoke us.

So, they showed us Wild at Heart at nine o’clock on a Monday morning. And Un Chien Adalou on another Monday morning. So, we all had really bad reactions to those films!

I always think it’s odd funny to teach things like Wild at Heart and Scorsese – Ridley Scott, even – without reference to the avant-garde, because all those directors know all that avant-garde stuff and are influenced by it.

Absolutely. This is a big question. Let’s be honest, most universities are focusing on the thing that’s popular at the time. It’s all about world cinema, trans-national cinema, digital media.

So, you don’t really get the old focus on French cinema, Spanish cinema. And when I look at film courses I really have to dig around to find the experimental avant-garde stuff and it’s usually just a token week in a course somewhere.

There’s not really any dedication to that area in the UK.

I think it works the other way round too – lots of art education avoids discussion of cinema and even avant-garde cinema. But places like the University of East London with Michael O’Pray, and Al Rees at the RCA…

But those are people working in art schools not in universities. It’s hard to incorporate the avant-garde into the university context. When I first started teaching film studies, a student said, “Well, I don’t see the point of avant-garde film, I think film could do quite well without it.”

Well of course, not having a point is sometimes the point of avant-garde film…!

I just said it was a stupid thing to say – I didn’t word it any nicer than that, but he was very adamant that film was pointless, it didn’t add anything to film and it was pointless studying it. “Why should we have to look at that crap?”
It’s all supply and demand, isn’t it? If there isn’t a demand for those kind of courses, then what’s the point in offering them. Then at the same time, if you don’t offer them then people don’t get to know about it and don’t know they’re interested in it.

Back to the beginning, you saw those 20s avant-garde films…

It’s all very romantic isn’t it!? It’s true, you know, I’m not fluffing it up, that’s how it happened!

It’s good to fall in love like that, I think.

Well, I just decided that that was it, that that was what I would write on. I wrote an essay on those films and then I wrote my masters dissertation on 20s avant-garde film and then I wrote my PhD on Man Ray. I was very stuck in that 1920s period for a while, but you can’t do anything else when you’re doing a PhD. I remember saying to myself, “When I finish this damn PhD, I’m going to work on contemporary film.”

My knowledge of 1920s and the avant-garde and modernism was very solid but my knowledge of how that then fed into contemporary experimental film was still limited and I knew it. I’d seen the odd film by Sharits and Brakhage but I didn’t really know how they fitted into the history of experimental film and contemporary developments. Also, in Edinburgh, opportunities for getting education oneself in experimental cinema were a bit limited. So, it wasn’t for that reason, but I went to live in Paris while I was writing my PhD. I was going to stay there for about seven months and I ended up staying for just under five years. And that was where I got my education in experimental film history.

Where did you go to get that education?

In Paris you don’t have to look very far. You’ve got the Centre Pompidou, the Cinémathèque and then I would see screenings by places like Cinédoc, the old Filmmakers’ Co-op.

Chasing Waves, Paul O'Donoghue

Chasing Waves, Paul O'Donoghue

Then I discovered Light Cone, which Yann Beauvais set up. And I’d met Pip Chodorov in Edinburgh, and then I realised that Pip was this, kind of, god like figure in experimental film. I thought, “Okay, I need to know that guy.”

There are so many godlike figures!

But Pip is the centre. He’s everywhere! He is Jonas Mekas’ right hand man and wherever Mekas is, Pip is. And Pip set up Re:Voir, the video distribution label, and co-founder of the lab L’Abominable with Nicolas Rey.

I started going to all these screenings and then it all started fitting together. I remember going to see Pip in the shop he’d set up- it was called the Film Gallery Paris where they sell books and DVDs on experimental film.

I remember asking him, “How do I get to know what’s going on in contemporary film, experimental film? How do you know what’s coming out?” He said, “You just have to keep your eyes open and go to film festivals.”

Then I went back to Edinburgh and got quite depressed because, “Well now, how am I going to see all of this stuff?” I kept organising trips back to Paris – every time there was a screening I’d go back to Paris for the weekend. I’d always wanted to set up a film festival but it was always this thing in my mind of, god, I’d like to do that but it’ll never happen.

Then I had the opportunity to do it because there was a grant that I could apply for while I was teaching – it was a part time temporary position, but that post enabled me to apply for this big chunk of money. I got that and I got a chunk from Scottish Screen and some other chunks. Suddenly I had all this money.

Was that for Diversions?

Yes, and money is power, isn’t it? If you’ve got money then you can start asking people, you can start getting people to come to you rather than you, sort of, hovering around them. Then I invited over all the people I was interested in.

The main reason for doing it was because there was nothing in Edinburgh. I wanted to create something there. I was frustrated when I came back because I’d gone away not really knowing that much about the area and I came back with this massive knowledge, and I wanted to do something with it.

Those agencies that were supporting you – how much persuading did they need?

Not that much – it was a gaping hole in the market, wasn’t it? And I already had quite a good relationship with Filmhouse in Edinburgh. I was proposing a structure that would be a festival but also historical.

What wanted to do was to create something that give a sense of experimental film history. I was completely blown away in the first year actually because I had no idea what I was doing. Because I didn’t have any idea I just worked with the resources that I had and the resources were the money and the people.

So, I’d already made contact with a French filmmaker Frédérique Devaux, who’s someone I respect quite a lot, and she signed up, Pip signed up, and Peter Rose, an American filmmaker who I’d started working on a bit, and Al Rees and David Curtis. Brad Butler, Karen Mirza and Nicky Hamlyn also helped to put together a programme of new British works.

All those people came on board as guest curators. I think I only put together one of the programmes myself, which was on films from New York – the rest were suggested by other people and I’d work with them. It was a success – most screenings sold out. It was so much more than I’d expected.

How did Black Box start?

At the same time actually. When I came back from Paris I was on a mission and I was going to make myself a spokeswoman for experimental cinema; I was going to be a missionary!

What about having a separate experimental section? For many years – some time back – London Film Festival had an experimental film section, and a video art section – and I remember talking to Sandra Hebron about whether that work should be integrated into the festival, which of course is an useful, desirable thing but unless you privilege the work in some sense…

This year I had two feature films – Perestroika by Sarah Turner, and Mike Hollboom’s Mark. And those films would’ve actually worked in the main programme. But this is experimental work, and I think you need to contextualise it. But at the same time if you tell a people this is experimental work, then they’ll be hesitant about going to see it.

Perestroika, Sarah Turner

Perestroika, Sarah Turner

What was your approach to Black Box… because Diversions was a broader discussion of ideas, different curatorial approaches. In Black Box you’re programming rather than curating…

They’re very different. Diversions is based on guest curators who bring in their own perspective, so, I don’t do very much in terms of selecting the films. I coordinate the programme and bring those people together. But Black Box is something I personally curate. The first time I did it, in 2008, there were maybe 40 submissions, so it didn’t take very long, and I suggested two screenings. And they did one. And it was quite different to what my vision of it would have been. So really I was only a kind of consultant. The next year, as I’d done my ‘apprenticeship’ they said, “Take it, do something with it.” And so I started pushing for some kind of identity.

And I said three programmes is the minimum and I want two feature slots as well.

Hannah McGill, the Festival’s artistic director, and Diane Henderson, deputy artistic director, have been very supportive, and Diane has been quite instrumental in allowing me to do what I want to do.

So, what is your taste? How do you judge?

Lots of filmmakers are really flattered and quite surprised that I’ve chosen their film because they haven’t managed to get it into other festivals. And some submissions are from filmmakers that are just emerging and just starting to play with the medium, but maybe haven’t really found their style, but that’s a reason to programme their work.

I was about to say I don’t have any selection criteria but I do. There are certain interests and obsessions that I constantly fall back on, in spite of myself.

You’ve talked a lot about avant-garde – there are continuing traditions that are being explored, aren’t there?

That is one of the driving forces behind it.

How strict are you?

This gets into very problematic territory. I chaired a panel discussion recently in Edinburgh, about this issue of experimental and artists’ films, and whether there is a divide between a filmmaker and an artist making films.

I thought it was just me being quite picky about categories but it is a real issue. I’d say about half the films submitted – we have something like 250 submissions in total – for Black Box are artist films, and films that are really not made for a cinema context. So one of the things that I look for is a film that is in some way engaging with a cinematic experience. It’s temporal and it’s spatial.

We have to write a report on all the films we review, and I find myself often saying, “This would work really well in a gallery context.”

This raises important issues of where you exhibit, where you experience, and how you experience film, and the role of the moving image in the gallery space. Some films really work with the immersiveness of the cinema, other films work with that very, kind of, distanced viewing where you can walk in and walk out.

But I think it’s hard to define what that is because it’s not necessarily about structure and form and beginning and end. When I was a child, you paid for your ticket and you went in and started watching the film – even with Carry On films I remember going in and seeing the last 20 minutes and then seeing the film from the beginning, then then leaving when you reached the point you’d arrived.

This is a mode of film viewing now that I really don’t agree with. That’s what the surrealists used to do, isn’t it? Just throwing you in at any old time, which worked then but perhaps not now.

But I’m not saying that this work would only work in cinema, or this work would only work in a gallery – there are films that cross over and those are often the ones that are really interesting. I think Simon Payne’s work, for example, is really important in terms of what it’s doing in terms of colour, form, and also from a historical perspective because in a way it’s referencing those very early films by Richter, Eggeling, Ruttman. And Sharits – that flicker effect relies on an immersive context; it works very much with your senses. But I can see that working in a gallery context as well. Obviously I preferred to see it in a cinema!

Does Black Box have to define itself against the rest of the festival or…

It does that without me even wanting to or not wanting to because Edinburgh is traditionally a festival that showcased independent and experimental film and it’s got that reputation. I think in the past few years or decades it’s shifted – it’s interested in much more popular forms of filmmaking. But everyone at the festival, everyone at the top, acknowledges that to have a good well respected festival you have to have different sections. So, you can have the films that are going to draw people in but then you also have to cater to different tastes.

There is the animation section, there’s the documentary section, there’s the shorts, but Black Box still sits outside of all that. One of the things that I’ve tried to make clear is that there is an experimental community every bit as much as there is an animation community or a short film community.

A problem can be that the clearer the identity of that section becomes, the more removed it becomes from the festival itself.

A Thousand Scapes, Martijn van Boven

A Thousand Scapes, Martijn van Boven

Is it popular?

Perestroika sold out before the Festival opened, which was amazing, but Black Box is always a bit unpredictable. Perestroika had more visibility in the brochure – literally – because it was to the left of the calendar.

So, first of all when the brochure falls open, it falls open on that page. Also, when you go to look at the calendar of events you start with that and then, you know, your eye is drawn naturally to ‘Perestroika’. It’s quite simple but also really relevant.

But also it has narrative structure which draws people in, and the subject matter was very interesting for people. It has to overlap then, I’m realising, with more popular interests.

It’s back to criteria of selecting work, isn’t it? It’s not just whether something is in an avant-garde tradition; it’s what else is interesting, what else is, for a contemporary audience, interesting about this work…

That’s easier to do with a longform work but with shorts it’s much harder. Programmes of shorts have to be shorter – a programme of 80 minutes can be quite exhausting.

It’s easy to predict who the audience is going to be for Diversions but it’s harder to say who the audience would be for Black Box. And you have to think about this when putting together the programmes – making them thematic.

This year I had one that was about nature, partly because that might be something people can relate to.

And the most popular one was called Time Travel – an idea of time and of travel in their broadest sense – travelling through time, travelling through history, also, jumping time frames.

It’s also about building the audience, not just within the space of the festival. Things become solid over years. And I think this is going to take a while actually to solidify.

Are you doing it again?

Yes. I don’t want to let go of it!

I hope it’s starting to become somewhere people want to show their work. The last time I went to Rotterdam I was surprised that a lot of people heard about Diversions but nobody really thinks of Edinburgh as having an experimental section. I’m constantly getting this, “Oh, I didn’t know that Edinburgh had an experimental section.”

It’s hard work trying to get word out…

I think word is getting out now.

It is?

  1. Matt Hulse says:

    Dear Mr & Mrs A.P. Engine

    I was a participant at Diversions festival and it was just fine. Kim was a most eloquent, elegant and inquisitive host, sporting a bonnie tartan shawl.

    She fails to mention that the event was topped off with a grand haggis supper with many important film makers and friends in attendance.

    It is always a privilege to be present during the early years of a festival.


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