Notes in the Margin: Island living

Jersey's film festival turns cinema-going on its head

Jersey: a channel island famous for its cows, potatoes and wealthy residents. It's not the first place you'd think to go for a film festival. But from 22 - 25 September the Branchage International Film Festival returns, for the fourth time, to the tiny island off the coast of Normandy.

The festival launched in 2008, with the aim of entertaining local audiences as well as drawing visitors from the UK and Europe. This is not the place to come to see the premiere of the latest George Clooney movie, or A-list movie stars gracing a red carpet, but, as if in acknowledgement of its lack of headline-grabbing glamour, Branchage has sought to make its name by offering unusual and often unpredictable cinematic experiences.

In past years, the festival has screened The Battleship Potemkin on a tugboat and Sleep Furiously (a 2009 documentary about a small farming community in Wales) in a barn. The locations offer a welcome change of scene from a popcorn-strewn Odeon. This year, the unconventional offerings include screenings at the island's Opera House, at parish halls, in occupation-era war tunnels and at a castle separated from the mainland by a causeway, which the audience can only get to (or escape from) at low tide.

Without the power (yet) to attract big-ticket premieres, the festival mostly screens recent art-house hits (this year the programme includes Joanna Hogg's Archipelago, and the wonderful French film Of Gods and Men, for example). But it also commissions new work, particularly soundtracks, and the new creations are often as intriguing as their venues. To name a few: a new animation film by Sam Steer will be screened accompanied by his harpist sister performing a newly commissioned score; the artist Fritz Stolberg will show a multi-screen installation consisting of footage from the Jersey archive and old home movies discovered in islanders' lofts; the cellist Gerard Le Feuvre will play a new accompaniment to the 1929 footage shot by Captain Irving Johnson as he sailed around Cape Horn on a square rigger vessel; and the festival will close with a live performance of a soundtrack to The Great White Silence - the footage from Captain Scott's last Antarctic expedition in 1924.

Such unusual, live performances show the imagination of this small, relatively unknown festival. It might lack the showiness of Cannes, or the romance of Venice, but those annual jamborees, with their predictable bank of glossy stars and paparazzi, lack something too: a spirit of adventure and originality that allows an audience to watch a film in an entirely new way. And then walk home at low tide.

To find out more about the festival, visit branchagefestival.com

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle