- David Parkinson
Parky At the Pictures (16/10/2020)
(Part Two of an overview of the 64th BFI London Film Festival)
The BFI deserves a huge amount of credit for curating the 64th London Film Festival. In the current climate. assembling a programme of 50-odd features and dozens of shorts represents a Herculean effort. But what makes LFF 20202 all the more remarkable is the fact that cinemas across the UK will be participating for the first time, while the many virtual premieres and free online events means that this is genuinely the people's film festival.
In past years, the Festivals & Seasons coverage on the BBC website and Empire Online has made no bones about its dislike of the current LFF programme categories. Bur, rather than break down the slate into its geographical components, as in previous years, we shall discuss titles within their allotted strands so that you can Create, Dare, Debate, Journey, Laugh and Love to your heart's content.
A surprise addition was Pedro Almodóvar's first English-language film, The Human Voice. Freely based on a play by Jean Cocteau, this is the Spaniard's first short in 11 years and it has been designed to within an inch of its life by Antxon Gómez for José Luis Alcaine's roving Technicolor camera. There are clues in the Douglas Sirk DVDs that Tilda Swinton packs away during an airpod break up with her lover of four years, who doesn't have the cojones to do the decent thing face to face. But this is a compelling companion piece to Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988), with Swinton giving a vocal masterclass in eye-catching costumes designed by Balenciaga and Sonia Grande.
Produced for the BBC and Amazon Studios, Steve McQueen's Small Axe series seeks to explore the experience of living within London's Caribbean community between the 1960s and 1980s. Harking back to August 1970, Mangrove recalls the 55-day trial that saw nine activists connected to the eponymous Notting Hill restaurant face charges of incitement to riot following a demonstration against police harassment. Given the recent protests on either side of the Atlantic, it's instructive to compare the Black Power advocacy of Frank Crichlow (Shaun Parkes), Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby), Barbara Beese (Rochenda Sandall) and Black Panther leader Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) with the supremacist bigotry uttered by PC Frank Pulley (Sam Spruell) and the establishment contempt exhibited by Judge Edward Clarke (Alex Jennings).
A documentary companion piece comes in the form of Ken Fero's Ultraviolence, which draws on a range of sources to highlight the shameful fact that over 2000 people have died in police custody in this country since 1969. Among the victims are Jean Charles de Menezes and Fero's own classmate, Brian Douglas, who were betrayed by a corrupt system that remains obliviously in place. Czech director Bohdan Sláma examines a case of historical injustice in Shadow Country, which draws on a screenplay it took Ivan Arsenyev 15 years to complete in order to recreate the events that occurred in the Austrian-Czech border town of Tušt, which changed hands three times between the 1938 Munich Agreement and the postwar descent of the Iron Curtain. Photographed in evocative monochrome, this unflinching account focuses particularly on the intertwined fates of the region's Jewish population and the Sudeten Germans who were claimed by the Third Reich and blamed by its foes.
The disputed frontier is all-too-familiar in the debuting Ameen Nayfeh's 200 Meters. which sees Palestinian labourer Mustafa (Ali Suliman) opt to remain in the Occupied Territories because he refuses to obtain an Israeli ID card like his wife, Salwa (Lana Zreik), and their three children. When his Mo Salah-loving son is rushed to hospital after a car accident, however, Mustafa is forced to seek out people smuggler Nader (Nabil Al Raai) after he is turned back at the checkpoint for having an expired permit. However, he soon becomes suspicious of a fellow traveller, Anne (Anna Unterberger), who purports to be a German documentary maker recording the efforts of Kifah (Motaz Malhees) to attend his cousin's wedding. An ill-fated expedition can also be found at the core of 180° Rule, which sees Iranian Farnoosh Samadi makes her feature bow after a series of admired shorts. In defying conservative husband Hamed (Pejman Jamshidi) by leaving Tehran to attend a wedding with her young daughter, schoolteacher Sara (Sahar Dolatshahi) lands herself in a spiral of revelations and lies that impact upon both her marriage and her decision to bend the rules to help a vulnerable student.
Another mother facing tragedy dominates Fernanda Valadez's Identifying Features, as Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) heads north from the landlocked Central Mexican state of Guanajuato to see whether her son shared the fate of his best friend when their bus was ambushed en route to the American border. She's aided in her search of a wilderness patrolled by masked militiamen by Olivia (Ana Laura Rodriguez), who has been searching for her own child for four years, and Miguel (David Illescas), who is about to return home after being deported from the United States. The indomitable woman profiled in Garrett Bradley's Time is no fictional construct. Fox Rich served three years after acting as the getaway driver on the botched robbery that saw husband Rob Richardson sentenced to 60 years without parole. In addition to raising their six sons, Rich has also campaigned against the prison-industrial complex that so mitigates against African-Americans and her home movies punctuate a monochrome documentary that earned Bradley the Best Director prize at Sundance.
A very different side of the black experience is touched upon in Yemi Bamiro's One Man and His Shoes, which scrutinises the sporting and commercial impact of Nike icon Michael Jordan to consider the commodification of African-American culture. Moreover, the debuting documentarist also lays bare the twin fixation with consumerism and celebrity that makes it so easy for the big corporations to manipulate the population and widen the gaps between classes and races in the United States. While in office, Barack Obama proved powerless to do much to rectify this situation. But he did note that Joseph Conrad's `Heart of Darkness' made white people afraid and British-Nigerian poet and activist Femi Nylander heads to Niger n Rob Lemkin's African Apocalypse to discover the extent to which the crimes of Conrad's inspiration, French captain Paul Voulet, still impact in the post-colonial era.
Having impressed on debut with Court (2014), Chaitanya Tamhane returns to LFF with The Disciple, a slow-burning, but compelling drama set in the refined world of the classical raga. Haunted by the failure of his singer father (Kiran Yadnyopavit), 24 year-old Sharad Nerulkar (Aditya Modak) studies under Guruji (Arun Dravid), a veteran performer who was trained by the legendary guru, Maai (Sumitra Bhave). He urges his pupil to focus solely on his art, but Sharad needs to pay his grandmother (Neela Khedkar) for his keep in Mumbai and he works part-time for Kishore (Makarand Mukund), who owns a record label specialising in obscure Hindustani musicians. With its stunning score and readiness to pause and listen in a city that never sleeps, this is a thoughtful meditation on art and commerce and the clash between tradition and progress.
The music is much punchier in Fémis graduate and Bataclan survivor Ismael El Iraki's debut, Zanka Contact, a paean to B movies that turn around the burgeoning romance between washed-up rocker Larsen (Ahmed Hammoud), who has just been turfed out of London for his drug and gambling debts, and Rajae (Khansa Batma), a Casablanca prostitute who is more than capable of taking care of herself, but may need a little extra help with her brutal pimp, Said (Said Bey). A restless spirit also drives Kun (Zhou You), a promising Beijing film student who would much rather jump into his Jeep and tool around Inner Mongolia in Shujun Wei's Striding Into the Wind, an odyssey that has been partially inspired by the director's own footloose experiences.
Shooting started on The Painter and the Thief as soon as Benjamin Ree finished profiling Norway's world chess champion in Magnus (2016). But there's no comparison between the two studies, as Ree plays fast and loose with the documentary rubric in chronicling the relationship that develops between Oslo-based Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova and Karl-Bertil Nordland, the tattooed junkie who stole two of her outsize paintings from an exhibition. Shifting perspective to show both sides of the story (and incorporate insights into Kysilkova's marriage to Øystein Stene), this consciously calculating non-linear treatease [sic] is almost as audacious as the heist that inspired it.
The doyenne of the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop, Delia Derbyshire has sent shivers down the spines of generations of sci-fi fans with her electronic arrangement of Ron Grainer's theme for the enduring TV classic, Doctor Who. But there was much more to this nonconformist soundscaper, as Caroline Catz (who also excels in the title role) reveals in Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes, which dips into the journals discovered in a childhood bedroom and the 267 tapes found in an attic box. Every bit as iconoclastic, David Byrne allies with Spike Lee to produce David Byrne's American Utopia, a record of his 2019 Broadway show that could have been called Stop Making Sense, Too. Filmed from a dizzying array of mobile cameras, this is a rockumentary that takes you into the heart of the action, as Byrne and 11 besuited, but barefoot musicians cavort through 21 numbers from the Talking Heads back catalogue, as well as Byrne's solo albums. There's even time for a heartfelt rendition of Janelle Monáe's protest song, `Hell You Talmbout'.
Dare has always felt the vaguest of LFF's thematic categories and the 2020 contingent does little to make it feel more honed. Up first is Josephine Decker's Shirley, an adaptation of a 2014 Susan Scarf Merrell novel that imagines the process by which Shirley Jackson came to write her second book, Hangsaman. Set in Vermont in the early 1950s, the action centres on the relationship that develops between Jackson (Elisabeth Moss) and Rose (Odessa Young), the wife of Fred (Logan Lerman), the aloof academic who has come to Benningon College to assist Jackson's professor husband, Stanley Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg). Amidst the Who's Afraid ofVirginia Woolf-style arguments between the older couple, however, Jackson enlists Rose in her bid to solve the mystery of missing student, Paula Weldon.
The puzzles are more bizarre in Abel Ferrara's Siberia, his sixth collaboration with Willem Dafoe, which takes its inspiration from Carl Jung's private diary, The Red Book. In addition to doubling as father and brothers, Dafoe also plays Clint, the bartender at a snowbound bar who relives childhood memories and makes some unusual discoveries in both his milieu and his mind, as he explores his fears and fantasies. As he struts his stuff to Del Shannon's `Runaway', think a loopier case of the cabin fever than Jack Nicholson's in Stanley Kubrick's take on Stephen King's The Shining (1980) and toss in encounters with a magician (Simon McBurney), a pregnant Russian woman (Cristina Chiriac), a fruit machine, a maypole and a talking fish.
The unexpected incidents also stack up in Michel Franco's sixth feature, New Order, which he wrote four years ago in seeming anticipation of the growing civil unrest that was spreading worldwide before lockdown. Twentysomething Marianne (Naian González Norvind) is hoping for a nice day when she marries architect Alan (Darío Yazbek). But a protest is taking place beyond the walls of their luxurious home in the Polanco part of Mexico City and only Marianne seems prepared to venture into it when former servant Rolando (Eligio Meléndez) calls to ask the family to help his ailing wife.
A knock on the door also sparks the action in Francisco Márquez's A Common Crime, a treatise on civic responsibility that ruminates on the similarities between police abuses in modern-day Argentina and the notorious disappearances of the 1970s. Sociology professor Cecilia (Elisa Carricajo) is too worried about son Juan (Ciro Coien Pardo) to offer shelter to Kevin (Eliot Otazo), the son of her maid Nebe (Mecha Martínez), and is stricken with grief and guilt when he is found floating in the river. Buenos Aires voiceover artist-cum-chorister Inés (Érica Rivas) is tormented by even more gnawing mental anguish in The Intruder, sophomore Natalia Meta's adaptation of CE Feiling's cult novel, El Mal Menor. Following the pre-credits death of her boyfriend, Inés struggles to cope with the presence of her consoling mother (Cecilia Roth), the flirtation of organ tuner Alberto (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) and the curious discoveries made by her sound engineer, Nelson (Agustín Rittano), which seem to confirm the suspicion of fellow thespian Adele (Mirta Busnelli) that she has been possessed,
The cause of the unsettling action in Fabio and Damiano D'Innocenzo's Bad Tales is more earthbound, as teenagers Dennis (Tommaso di Cola) and Geremia (Justin Korovkin) take leaves from the books of their respective fathers, Bruno (Elio Germano) and Pietro (Max Malatesta), in embarking upon a series of sexual escapades. one of which involves pregnant canteen worker, Vilma (Ileana d'Ambra). While this sophomore outing sets out to disconcert, the debuting Cathy Brady adopts a lower-key approach to Wildfire, a prodigal sibling saga that is made all the more poignant by the fact that 33 year-old Nika McGuigan died from cancer shortly after shooting wrapped. She plays Kelly, who returns unexpectedly to the Catholic neighbourhood in a Northern Irish border town after vanishing two years earlier and leaving sister Laura (Nora-Jane Noone), Aunt Veronica (Kate Dickie) and brother-in-law Sean (Martin McCann) to fear the worst.
Another homecoming informs documentarist Bassam Tariq's fictional bow, Mogul Mowgi, as New York-based rapper Zed (Riz Ahmed) is stricken by a debilitating auto-immune disease following a contretemps with a fan at the start of his first world tour. Returning to the family home in Wembley, Zaheer has to deal with the disapproval of his conservative Muslim father, Bashir (Alyy Khan), the home truths spouted by ex-girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) and the rapid rise of his face-tattooed rival, RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan). Fresh from playing a similar role in Darius Marder's Sounds of Metal (2019). Ahmed (who also co-scripted) examines both the clashing cultures of the British-Pakistani experience and the lingering legacy of Partition, through a track inspired by Urdu poet Saadat Hasan Manto's 1965 story `Toba Tek Singh'.
It just goes to show what critics know. You'd have thought that the one strand of an online festival programme to be immune to the ravages of a global pandemic would be the archive selection. After all, the pictures are already in the can, or at least in an accessible computer database. But, as there are only three Treasures to savour at LFF 64, one is left to presume that restoration has also fallen victim to coronavirus.
Leading the way is The Cheaters, a 1930 silent melodrama that was written, produced and directed by Paulette McDonagh. However, this was very much a family affair, as the art director was Paulette McDonagh, while their sister, Isabel, took the female lead under her stage name, Marie Lorraine. The story turns around Paula Marsh (Lorraine), who lures in suckers for her swindler father, Bill (Arthur Greenaway). He wants revenge on Sydney businessman John Travers (John Faulkner), who has shopped him to the cops and earned him a lengthy jail term. But his scheme is stymied when Paula falls for their mark's son, Lee (Josef Bambach), and starts toying with the idea of going straight.
The story behind the screening of Mohammad Reza Aslani's Chess of the Wind is almost as fascinating as the film itself. Projected to an empty cinema after being shown to largely hostile critics, the saga of a family that falls apart following the death of its matriarch was presumed lost after its anti-Shah sentiments led to it being withdrawn. The homosexual aspect of a drama that sees a paraplegic heiress (Fakhri Khorvash) protected from her avaricious stepfather and nephews by her loyal maid (Shohreh Aghdashloo) resulted in it being banned after the Islamic Revolution. Indeed, the film was long presumed lost. However, a copy, complete with pioneering female composer Sheyda Gharachedagh's score, was found in a Tehran antique shop among a pile of film cans and it has been restored under the auspices of Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project.
Concluding this triptych is renowned theorist Peter Wollen's sole solo feature behind the camera, Friendship's Death (1987). Set against the backdrop of the 1970 Black September War, the action centres on the conversations that world-weary war correspondent Sullivan (Bill Paterson) has with the enigmatic Friendship (Tilda Swinton), who fetches up in the Jordanian capital. Amman, claiming to be an extraterrestrial robot who got lost en route to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Offering cogent, but witty insights into conflict, identity, humanity and artificial intelligence, this unique offering will soon be available in a dual edition from the BFI.