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

BBC/Chris Christodoulou
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Proms 2016: Violinist Ray Chen was the star of a varied show

The orchestra soaked up his energy in Bruch's first violin concerto to end on a triumphal note. 

Music matters, but so does its execution. This was the lesson of a BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Symphony Chorus programme which combined both a premiere of a composition and a young violinist’s first performance at the Proms. 

The concert, conducted by Sir Andrew Davis, opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy The Tempest, a lesser-known sibling to his Romeo and Juliet overture. The orchestra got off to a fidgety start, with some delayed entries, but fell into line in time for the frenetic chromatic runs that drive the piece. The end, a muted pizzicato, was suitably dramatic. 

Another nature-inspired piece followed – Anthony Payne’s composition for chorus and orchestra, Of Land, Sea and Sky. Payne drew on his memory of watching of white horses appearing to run across water, as well as other visual illusions. At the world premiere, the piece began promisingly. The chorus rolled back and forth slowly over scurrying strings with an eerie singing of “horses”. But the piece seemed to sink in the middle, and not even the curiosity of spoken word verse was enough to get the sinister mood back. 

No doubt much of the audience were drawn to this programme by the promise of Bruch violin concerto no. 1, but it was Ray Chen’s playing that proved to be most magnetic. The young Taiwanese-Australian soloist steered clear of melodrama in favour of a clean and animated sound. More subtle was his attention to the orchestra. The performance moved from furious cadenza to swelling sound, as if all players shared the same chain of thought. Between movements, someone coughed. I hated them. 

Ray Chen in performance. Photo: BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Chen’s playing had many audience members on their feet, and only an encore appeased them. It was his first time at the Proms, but he'll be back. 

The orchestra seemed to retain some of his energy for Vaughan Williams’ Toward the Unknown Region. Composed between 1904 and 1906, this is a setting of lines by the US poet Walt Whitman on death, and the idea of rebirth.

The orchestra and chorus blended beautifully in the delicate, dark opening. By the end, this had transformed into a triumphal arc of sound, in keeping with the joyful optimism of Whitman’s final verse: “We float/In Time and Space.” 

This movement from hesitancy to confident march seemed in many ways to capture the spirit of the concert. The programme had something for everyone. But it was Chen’s commanding performance that defined it.