• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (15/10/2021)

(Reviews of films showing at the 65th BFI London Film Festival - Mothers of the Revolution; Omar Amiralay: Sorrow, Time, Silence; Les Enfants Terribles; Bantú Mama; White Building; Language Lessons; Queen of Glory; Rehana; Hinterland; Leave No Traces; and The Odd-Job Men)


Resplendent in its red carpet glory after lockdown forced last year's event to be an entirely online affair, the BFI London Film Festival returns for a sixty-fifth edition at various venues across the capital between 6-17 October.


Breaking with tradition, rather than try to namecheck everything on the programme, we shall be offering first thoughts on selected titles. Here's a second batch.


MOTHERS OF THE REVOLUTION.


Having received an honourable mention in Harri Shanahan and Siân A. Williams's Rebel Dykes, the courage of the women of Greenham Common is given its full due in New Zealander Briar March's third documentary. Narrated by Glenda Jackson, it explores how government messages about the four-minute warning prompted Karmen Thomas and Ann Pettitt to lead a march from Wales to the Berkshire base where a new class of nuclear missiles was due to be stored.


As the protest became a peace camp, women of all backgrounds came to Embrace the Base to safeguard the future in the face of hostility from the local police and the national media. Using archive footage, interviews, animation and dramatic reconstructions, March not only shows how bonds were forged between women as different as Chris Drake and Rebecca Johnson, but also how the Greenham women connected with Muscovite activist Olga Medvedkov and smuggled her into a meeting with Oleg Kharkhardin and the Kremlin-sanctioned Soviet Peace Committee.


Crisply edited to a soundtrack of Riot grrrl classics, the film also deflects away to examine the effects of nuclear testing on the people of the Marshall Islands around Bikini Atoll. Informative and trenchant without seeking to score points or rewrite history, this is a potent reminder of people power that deserves to reach the widest possible audience.


OMAR AMIRALAY: SORROW, TIME, SILENCE.


Omar Amiralay was Syria's foremost documentarist. Born in Damascus in 1944, he studied at La Fémis in Paris before forging his reputation with the Tabqa Dam trilogy that was comprised of Film Essay on the Euphrates Dam (1970), Everyday Life in a Syrian Village (1974) and A Flood in Baath Country (2003). Among his other significant works were On a Day of Ordinary Violence, My Friend Michel Seurat... (1996), There Are Still So Many Things to Say, A Plate of Sardines (both 1997) and The Man With the Gold Soles (1999).


Those seeking to know more about this important film-maker will have to look elsewhere, however, as Hala Alabdalla is more concerned with presenting the mentor she knew and commemorating the sincerity with which he approached everything from opposing the Assad family to nursing his ailing mother. Basing her candid profile around an extended interview that she recorded just a few months before Amiralay died suddenly in February 2011, this is both a lament that such a staunch advocate of freedom didn't live to see the Arab Spring and an affirmation of the need for cinema to continue being an act of resistance.


LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES.


Although two decades have passed since he left his home village of Keskincik in the southern Turkish province of Hatay, Paris-based director Ahmet Necdet Cupur concedes that his heart has always remained. On a visit in 2018, he finds his family in turmoil, as parents Rifat and Nadire are bent on imposing their will on two of his siblings.


Frustrated at being forced to work long hours as a seamstress at a small factory, the teenage Zeynep has been taking a correspondence course and is determined to continue her education in the regional capital, Antakya. But the socially and religiously conservative Rifat demands her obedience, while Nadire lets slip that she would rather see her dead than allow her to bring shame on the family.


Twentysomething brother Mahmut is equally set on defying the customs by which his parents and the local imam set such store. Since moving to Kuwait to work as a restaurant manager, he has fallen in love and wants to divorce 17 year-old Nezahat, whom he had married two years earlier. Aware that she will be humiliated by the separation and will likely be married off to an older man, Mahmut wants to do the decent thing. But there doesn't seem to be a way in which he can follow his heart and abide by the Koran.


Raising fascinating issues about the extent to which Cupur's presence and camera emboldens Mahmut and Zeynep and entrenches Rifat and Nadire, this is a heartbreaking battle of wills. It's clear where the director's sympathies lie. But a third brother, Cemal (who has also returned home after five years away), cautions his sister that the world is much tougher than it appears from this remote rural backwater near the Syrian border.


Discreetly filmed, deftly edited and dolefully driven by John Gurtler and Jan Miserre's cello-inflected score, the story is updated during two subsequent visits that leaves one wondering whether Cupur will keep the audience in touch with future developments.


BANTÚ MAMA.


Ivan Herrera requires viewers to take a leap of faith in his debut feature, as those the suspension of disbelief is key to its success. Leaving her parrot Coco in her Parisian apartment, languidly elegant French-Cameroonian Emma (Clarisse Albrecht) jets off to the Dominican Republic. No explanation is given for the choice of destination or the timing of her departure. But she seems to tire of being pampered, as she confides to the woman braiding her hair that she has yet to visit the home of her ancestors.


Then, Herrera springs his surprise, as Emma is detained at the airport for trying to smuggle a bag of drugs through customs. While driving to the nearby prison, however, her vehicle is involved in a crash and she is rescued by Santo Domingo street kids Shulo (Arturo Perez), Tina (Scarlett Reyes) and Cuki (Euris Javiel). In return for sanctuary, Emma becomes their protector, as they continue their jailed father's drug business. So, when the time comes for her to be smuggled out of the country, she keeps her promise to Tina to give her baby brother a chance of a better life.


With the poised Clarisse Albrecht just about holding together the far-fetched scenario she co-wrote, this is as much an exercise in mood and style as it is an authentic study of Caribbean poverty, the legacy of the slave trade and the connections within the African diaspora. Scarlett Reyes also impresses as the young girl who already recognises that her life is going to be an unending struggle. Indeed, Herrera has cinematographer Sebastian Cabrera Chelin (whose command of angle and colour is highly impressive) frame a number of Searchers doorway shots to suggest both the narrow options available to the characters and the hope that camels really can pass through the eye of a needle.


WHITE BUILDING.


Having grown up in Phnom Penh's White Building, Cambodian film-maker

Kavich Neang has featured it in a number of shorts and documentaries prior to this feature debut, including Last Night I Saw You Smiling (2019). A rundown landmark with as many stories to tell as the Naked City, it was demolished in 2017 and Neang centres his tripartite scenario (`Blessings', `Spirit House' and `Monsoon') on the disputes between the residents over the amounts of compensation they were prepared to accept in return for their eviction.


Twentysomething Samnang (Piseth Chhun) lives with his parents (Sithan Hout and Sokha Uk) in a cramped apartment, when not tooling around town with his best pals Tol (Sovann Tho) and Ah Kah (Jany Min). They have formed their own dance troupe and perform for tips at various eateries while hoping to make it on to a TV talent show. When Tol's family decides to move to France and Ah Kah finds a girlfriend, however, Samnang is forced to turn his attention to matters closer to home.


He becomes worried about his diabetic father's refusal to see a doctor about a blackening toe and fears that his tendency to put his faith in traditional remedies will end as badly as his strategy of stringing out the negotiations with the developers in the hope that they either chuck in the towel or come up with a bumper payout.


With Jean-Charles Bastion's simmering score helping Douglas Seok's camera capture the atmosphere of the White Building and its environs, this ably played social tract is often as higgledy-piggledy as its setting. Neang opens with a burst of youthful vibrancy that inexorably dissipates as Samnang's options narrow and he is reduced to watching his stubborn father become the architect of his own downfall. A bucolic bookend provides a hint of optimism, but this is a melancholic farewell to a bastion of urban communality whose fight against the forces of globalisation and gentrification was always doomed to fail.


LANGUAGE LESSONS.


Having directed episodes of Mark Duplass's TV series, Room 104, actress Natalie Morales makes her feature bow with this two-hander, which she wrote with her co-star. Made during the pandemic using Zoom, but not actually concerning Covid-19, the narrative is prone to contrivance and mawkishness. But the performers very much turn the awkwardness of the situation to their advantage.


Affluent Oaklander Adam (Duplass) is appalled when husband Will (Desean Kevin Terry) buys his 100 weekly Spanish lessons for his 45th birthday. Peering into his laptop with his lavish home sprawling into the distance, Adam

struggles to hide his bemusement from Cariño (Morales), who declares that she will be joining him every Monday morning for the next two years from her cramped lodgings in Costa Rica. As his regimented schedule involves a session in a temperature-controlled swimming pool, Adam continues the conversation between plunges. But Cariño is used to recalcitrant students and takes his peevish entitlement in her stride.


Even she is flummoxed, however, when Adam reveals at the start of their second lesson that Will has been killed by a passing motorist and that he doesn't know how he is going to cope. She doesn't expect him to return, even though the course has been fully paid in advance. But, speaking in hesitant Spanish, Adam discovers he needs the comfort of a stranger and Cariño agrees to be a confidante, without giving away any details of her own private life.


As the weeks pass, Adam begins to come to terms with his loss and the need to keep going. Cariño tries to focus his mind on grammar, but he prefer the conversational approach and keeps trying to coax her into treating him as a friend rather than just a pupil. Annoyed by his leaping to conclusions when a ruse to conceal a black eye backfires, she maintains her distance until she makes a drunken call on Adam's birthday. But, while he is charmed by this letting down of the guard, he is dismayed to learn than Cariño has been diagnosed with the same breast cancer that killed her mother and grandmother and feels powerless when she cuts off communication after he sends her a plane ticket and invites her to live with him while he pays for her treatment.


No one will be surprised by the denouement, but the majority of viewers would be disappointed if this chatty, but convivial crossing of class and cultural chasms had ended in any other way. The imposed format necessarily limits Morales's directorial choices and cinematographer Jeremy Mackie's angles. But the backdrops add a layer of intrigue to the byplay, which is deftly downplayed in remorseless close-up by the skilled leads. Working better when focusing on tensions rather than chattitudes, this is highly watchable without ever being remotely convincing.


QUEEN OF GLORY.


Ghanaian funeral rites play a prominent part in writer-director Nana Mensah's debut feature, whether in archival cutaways or in the ceremonies that Sarah Obeng (Mensah) is tasked with organising in the Bronx following the sudden death of her mother. These would be onerous in isolation, but Sarah is also having to deal with having her judgmental father, Godwin (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) bunk in her apartment (after he insists on flying in to pay his respects to his estranged wife), and arrange the sale of her mother's Christian bookshop, King of Glory, without its sole employee, facially tattooed ex-convict Pitt (Meeko Gattuso), finding out.


Add into the mix that the Columbia University doctoral student is planning to move to Ohio to be near her mentor and married lover, Lyle (Adam Leon), and it's safe Sarah has a lot on her plate. Unable to confide in anyone about her compartmentalised problems apart from her Russian neighbour, Tanya (Anya Migdal), she sometimes wonders whether being an independent woman is all that it's cracked up to be. Yet, with Godwin complaining about her single status and her weight, her aunties nagging her about placing a meat order and buying funeral favours for the guests, and Lyle proving evasive in her time of need, Sarah comes to find a friend in Pitt, whose school of life pragmatism and unforeseen baking skills make her feel guilty about closing a store that seems important to its infrequent and engagingly eccentric patrons.


Evocatively designed by Austin Ashamole and photographed by Cybel Martin, this droll dramedy has a splendid sense of place that suggests how difficult it can sometimes be to leave behind an immigrant enclave that is both stifling and sustaining. Drawing on her own experiences, Mensah's script and direction present life's messy complexities with precision and a wit that has moments of warmth and wisdom, as well as some more trenchant insights into race and gender and the pitfalls of assimilating solely in order to gain acceptance. Her performance is also impressive, as Sarah keeps adjusting her expectations of other people and herself, while Meeko Gattuso and Anya Migdal standout from a lively ensemble.


REHANA.


A chilly blue pall hangs over the action in Abdullah Mohammad Saad's sophomore feature, perhaps to make it even more difficult for viewers to navigate their way through its moral maze.


Bangladeshi widow Rehana Maryam Noor (Azmeri Haque Badhon) is a qualified doctor who works as an assistant professor at a medical college. When not trying to keep tabs on her young daughter, Emu (Afia Jahin Jaima) - who is often left in the care of her uncle - Rehana has a reputation as a strict disciplinarian.


There's something of a backlash, therefore, when she expels a female student from an examination for smuggling in a crib-covered ruler. Boss Dr Arefin (Kazi Sami Hassan) urges her to turn a blind eye, but Rehana insists it's her duty to protect future patients by ensuring the college produces capable physicians. However, her position is made more difficult when she overhears a commotion in Arefin's office and, when Annie (Afia Tabassum Borno), refuses to press a charge against her tutor, Rehana informs the principal that she was the subject of the sexual assault.


It isn't always easy empathising with a character who is willing to ruin her own life in order to see justice done, especially as Emu will become a victim of Rehana's unflinching quest for justice. But such is the intensity and integrity of

Azmeri Haque Badhon's performance that the audience is drawn into the heart of the claustrophobically labyrinthine college-hospital complex, whose atmosphere is disorientatingly captured by an edgy combination of Tuhin Tamijul's restless camerawork and Saad's jittery editing.


Rooting the ethical dilemmas in an emotive scenario, Saad demands that Rehana's situation is not seen in isolation, but is recognised as a universal problem facing women in all cultures and walks of life. It's an ambitious aim, but this uncompromising and occasionally obfusfactory picture raises several uncomfortable truths in redefining our concept of what heroism entails.


HINTERLAND.


Inspired by painters Ludwig Meidner and Anton Kolig and working in conjunction with set designers Andreas Sobotka and Martin Reiter, digital art director Oleg Prodeus deserves top billing in Stefan Ruzowitzky's post-Grear War whodunit, as the distorted views of a Vienna stripped of its imperial grandeur not only provide a visually striking setting, but they also invoke the spirit of Robert Wiene's Expressionist masterpiece, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).


Returning home on a Danube steamer after two years in a Soviet prisoner of war camp, Peter Perg (Murathan Muslu) doesn't think much of the republic that has replaced the Austro-Hungarian Empire that had been dismantled in the peace treaties that had followed the defeat of the Great Powers and the fall of the Hapsburg monarchy. He is greeted with smug good humour by Superintendent Victor Renner (Marc Limpach), a colleague in the Viennese police force who expects him to return to work once he has settled into his new lodgings. But Perg's mood is not improved by the insinuations of his building concierge, Subotic, (Margarethe Tiesel), that his wife Anna (Miriam Fontaine) had been seeing another man before moving to the countryside to stay with her sister.


Things go from bad to worse when somebody starts bumping off Perg's fellow POWs: Krainer (Timo Wagner), Kovacs (Aaron Friesz), Bauer (Stipe Erceg), Gerster (Trystan Pütter) and Von Starkenberg (Germain Wagner). Moreover, having learned that his own brother perished in the same camp, Renner's left-leaning junior, Paul Severin (Max von der Groeben), is ready to believe that Perg knows more than he is letting on. Only forensics expert Dr Theresa Körner (Liv Lisa Fries) gives Perg a break, as they are paired together on the case.


Several films (including a couple made in Britain in the 1950s) have already used the plotline in which the members of an army unit or the survivors of a POW camp fall victim to a serial killer with an axe to grind. Ruzowitzy and co-writers Robert Buschwenter and Hanno Pinter have little to add to the format and many will deduce their secret early on. Nevertheless, Murathan Muslu gives such an imposing performance as veteran embittered by the nation's disregard of his sacrifice that this action still exerts a considerable grip.


Screen historians will appreciate the way in which Ruzowitzy and cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels attempt to use Carol Reed's The Third Man (1949) as a way of linking such interwar silents as Robert Reinert's Nervern (1919) and Fridrikh Ermler's Fragment of an Empire (1929) with pioneering digitised backdrop experiments like Michael Verhoeven's The Nasty Girl (1990) and Eric Rohmer's The Lady and the Duke (2001). However, the complexities of the polyglot Hapsburg legacy are hardly explored, while the canted angles of the buildings say more about the bowed Austrian sense of self-esteem than anything in the screenplay. More might also have been made of the way in which stay-at-homes like Renner were able to retain their Old Order status, while women were still awaiting full emancipation. But this is an interesting film, with a tense climax in the tower housing the Pummerin Bell at St Stephen's Cathedral.


LEAVE NO TRACES.


Disturbing echoes of the Cinema of Moral Anxiety permeate Jan P. Matuszynski's compelling account of the murder of aspiring Polish poet Grzegorz Przemyk and the efforts of the state, the secret police and the Citizens' Militia to prevent the only eyewitness from testifying. Scripted by Kaja Krawczyk-Wnuk from a book by Cezary Lazarewicz, this 160-minute procedural contains the odd moment of ill-conceived satire. But this is a gut-punching reminder of the easy with patriotism can sleepwalk its way into becoming the bedfellow of tyranny.


Despite martial law recently having been lifted after its imposition to thwart the ambitions of the Solidarity trade union, the Polish security forces are still prepared to throw their weight around in the Warsaw of 1983. Consequently, when newly graduated teenagers Grzegorz Przemyk (Mateusz Górski) and Jurek Popiel (Tomasz Zietek) are caught larking around in Castle Square without identification, they are dragged to the nearest police station. As the son of renowned poet Barbara Przemyk (Sandra Korzeniak), Grzegorz knows his rights. But his cockiness provokes the duty officers, who are encouraged to leave no marks on the body in administering a brutal beating.


When Grzegorz dies of his injuries, Barbara uses her contacts to hide Jurek away, as he is the only person who can identify her son's killers. The funeral conducted by Fr Jerzy Popieluszko (Adam Bobik) squarely points the finger at the authorities and local news reports about the arrest of a couple of drunken junkies are challenged by reports on the BBC and Radio Free Europe.


With police commander Beim (Jerzy Bonczak) refusing to let any of his men be charged, Interior Minister Cleslaw Kiszczak (Robert Wieckiewicz) orders a cover-up and has fixer Stanislaw Kowalczyk (Tomasz Kot) circulate stories that the cries heard from the police station were related to kung-fu moves being used by the detainees. Moreover, paramedic Michal Wysocki (Sebastian Pawlak), is accused of mistreating Grzegorz in a hospital life and coerced into confessing for the good of his family.


A concerted campaign is then launched to persuade card-carrying old soldier Tadeusz Popiel (Jacek Braciak) and his hairdresser wife, Grazyna (Agnieszka Grochowska), to persuade their son into withdrawing his testimony. Their anxiety increases when Grazyna's salon is closed down and Tadeusz is presented with a ruinous tax bill. Furthermore, when letters are found suggesting Jurek had a romantic liaison with Barbara, the prosecutors are quick to threaten her reputation.


Even Prime Minister General Wojciech Jaruzelski (Tomasz Dedek) has his say before the trial. But this caricature sits as uneasily as Aleksandra Konieczna's consciously over-the-top depiction of Prosecutor Wieslawa Bardon, who could be relied upon by the Sluzba Bezpieczenstwa to swing even the least promising cases. Her hectoring of Jurek in the witness box ensures that justice is not done and that Wysocki and his colleague remain the scapegoats. However, Matuszynski clearly intends Tadeusz's remorse at allowing himself to be manipulated into securing the verdict to remind his compatriots of the dangers of listening to hardliners and their threats and promises.


Authentically designed Pawel Jarzebski and photographed on 16mm by Kacper Fertacz with a restraint that is matched by the performances, this is a gruelling reconstruction of grim times that evokes memories of the contemporary works of Andrzej Wajda, Krzysztof Zanussi, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Agnieszka Holland and Ryszard Bugajski, whose Interrogation (1982) keeps popping into the mind during the more harrowing moments.


Matuszynski's documentary background is evident in the tone and style, although he does allow the pace to meander at times, even though a resulting release from the relentless tightening of the grip is welcome. The sheer fact that Jurek is a fictional version of Cezary Filozof suggests that the scars have yet to heal. But one fears that Matuszynski's attempt to draw parallels between the Grzegorz Przemyk's death and recent instances of police brutality such as the murder of George Floyd doesn't quite succeed.


THE ODD-JOB MEN.


Catalan director Neus Ballús has fun playing with the blurred lines between fact and fiction in her third feature. Based on Ballús's recollections of her plumber father's stories, the script written with Montse Ganges and Ana Sanz-Magallón (using the pen name Margarita Melgar) is full of insouciantly incisive comments on race, class, gender, craftsmanship and the state of the nation. For all its acuity, however, this is also innovative and amusing.


After decades of working as a plumber in Barcelona, Pep (Pep Sarrà) is about to retire. Much to the annoyance of Valero (Valero Escolar), who complains that clients tend not to like foreigners, the boss of Instalaciones Losilla (Paqui Becerra) has hired Moroccan Moha (Mohamed Mellali) on a trial basis. As she just happens to be his wife, Valero is forced to show the newcomer the ropes, while gauging his suitability to become Pep's full-time replacement.


At their first port of call, Moha gets distracted by a centenarian who insists on discussing at some length the foods essential for a long life. At the next job, a pair of mischievous sisters, who are bored because they can't use the TV or the computer, hamper Valero's efforts to restore the power. Some time later, Moha manages to lock them out on the balcony of a block of flats. With no choice other than to be sociable, Valero shares his lunch with Moha and bemoans the fact that he is trying to lose weight in order to fit into his best suit for a family wedding.


Moha's flatmates (Hamid Minoucha and Youssef Ouhadi) tease him about his eagerness to assimilate by learning Catalan as well as Spanish. But he takes their joshing in the same good part as he does Valero's bellyaching and constant efforts to sabotage his work. His hopes of winning Valero over are dented when a photographer (Judith Vizcarra Puig) compliments him on his physique and insists on his modelling for her. However, both men are baffled by the psychoanalyst (Alfredo Aloisio) who wants to transform his office into the kind of haven of automation that appals Pep, who thinks the old ways are the best.


Naturally, all ends well, with Moha landng the job and Valero enjoying the wedding, despite being unable to button his jacket. But it remains to be seen whether the insecure Valero will cope without Pep's perfectionist expertise, as he will no longer be able to coast, especially if `hot shot' Moha turns out to be the better handyman. Ballús explore such themes with a lightness of touch that extends to the naturalness of the performances and the blend of improvisation and scripted wit and wisdom.


After two years' of pre-production, real-life odd-jobbers Valero Escolar and Mohamed Mellali prove to be a fine fit, as they refine their double act in the face of everyday frustrations and absurdities and the breaking down of prejudices and assumptions. Ballús perfected this approach during the four years it took to make The Plague (2013) and it allows Anna Molins's camera to noodle around the plumbers like an eavesdropping workmate. If only all docufiction was this acute and accomplished.


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