• David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (17/10/2021)

(Reviews of films showing at the 65th BFI London Film Festival - Two Friends; The Dance; Babi Yar. Context; Wood and Water; Users; Holgut; The Sea Ahead; 7 Days; and A Tale of Love and Desire)


So, another BFI London Film Festival draws to a close. The 65th edition has seen the crowds return, but has retained the online presence that kept the event going during lockdown. Let's hope this initiative becomes a permanent feature so that LFF extends beyond the capital to the entire UK - it is a `British' film institute, after all.


The Parky At the Pictures coverage has been a more selective than in previous years. But time has caught up with us and a clutch of seen titles have missed our final overview. Apologies to those that missed out - maybe we can catch them up over time.


TWO FRIENDS.


Prasun Chatterjee makes an affecting debut with this study of friendship in a time of crisis. Set in a remote village India's Murshidabad district and Bangladesh's Rajshahi in the aftermath of the unrest that followed the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodha, the story centres on the friendship between Palash (Asik Shaikh), the son of a Hindu priest, and Safikul (Arif Shaikh), whose parents are Muslim weavers.


Calling each other `dostojee', the eight year-olds live opposite each other and share a private tutor (Anujoy Chattopadhyay), who despairs of Safikul's refusal to apply himself to his studies. He would much rather play football, fly his kite and watch films at a fairground Bioscope. But the mounting tensions between the majority Muslims and minority Hindus prompt Safikul's father (Shankar Dey) to refuse him permission to attend the stage performance at the annual Ramjatra festival.


Worse follows when the boys fall out after Palash damages Safikul's and they don't speak for several days. They make up, however, when Palash uses his school bus money to buy a replacement and they celebrate by going to the river to catch fireflies and fish. Tragically, Palash drowns and his mother (Jayati Chakraborty) refuses to allow Safikul into the house to feed the caterpillar that the boys had been nurturing in a jar.


Preventing the climactic butterfly moment from descending into mawkish melodrama, Chatterjee coaxes wondrously natural performances out of his young leads, as they merrily disregard the fallout of the religious disputes straining relationships around them. Shooting in natural light, first-time cinematographer Tuhin Biswas ably locates the boys in their hardscrabble context, while also celebrating their simple pleasures with an intimacy that makes the accident and its repercussions all the more poignant and potent.


THE DANCE.


Irish documentarist has made a fine impression with Silence (2012), Song of Granite (2017) and Henry Glassie: Field Work (2019). He presents another study of an artist at work in this record of the eight-week rehearsal period in a community hall on the Dingle Peninsula, during which choreographer Michael Keegan-Dolan fashions his new show, MÁM. Worthy of Frederick Wiseman, Colm Hogan and Keith Walsh's camerawork manages to be both discreet and intimate, as it captures the inspired intensity and trusting generosity of a collaboration between the 12 Teac Damsa dancers, concertina maestro Cormac Begley and the European musical collective, s t a r g a z e. Switching between folk and classical, traditional and the avant-garde, the segments evolve through an exchange of ideas that allows Keegan-Dolan's underlying concept to take on a physical and an emotional life of its own.


BABI YAR. CONTEXT.


Following on from The Trial (2018) and State Funeral (2019), Sergei Loznitsa makes an other excursion into the archives for this harrowing account of how 33,771 Jews were murdered in a ravine outside Kiev between 29-30 September 1941. Rather than maintaining a forensic on this specific event, however, Loznitsa places it in context by showing how those Ukrainians who had suffered under Josef Stalin's tyranny welcomed the Nazis as liberators. However, he also highlights how easily they were persuaded to regard the Jews in cities like Lviv (formerly Lemberg) as treacherous Soviet sympathisers.


The wider population's complicity in the hideous crime at Babi Yar is all the more shocking for the scale of the atrocity and the enthusiasm with which the locals lauded the German forces during a victory parade. Compare their effusiveness with the reception accorded to the Red Army that November and the reaction to the public hanging of the 13 men who were deemed guilty of a war crime in a trial where the difference between the evidence given by actress actress Dina Pronicheva (who survived the massacre) and SS private Hans Isenmann (who mechanically avers that he was merely following orders) couldn't be starker.


Making more use of captions and still photographs than in previous documentaries, Loznitsa also quotes at length from Vasily Grossman's devastating contemporary article, `Ukraine Without Jews'. At a time of growing right-wing nationalism, this should serve to remind us that even one life lost to bigotry is too many. But it's the indifference that greeted an act of pitiless slaughter that Loznitsa is keenest to warn us about.


WOOD AND WATER.


Having retired from her job at a Black Forest church, widow Anke (Anke Bak) is looking forward to a holiday at a familiar haunt with her children. Daughter Theresa (Theresa Bak) isn't surprised when her journalist brother Max fails to show up, as three years have passed since he last returned from Hong Kong. He uses the pro-democracy demonstrations as an excuse, but Anke can barely hide her disappointment, especially as the place she had remembered so fondly from the early days of her marriage has changed beyond recognition.


Acting on impulse, Anke flies to Hong Kong and arranges with Max to leave his apartment key with the building concierge. As there's no one on duty, Anke has to share a room in a nearby hotel with an Australian girl (Alexandra Batten), who is due to fly out after an extended, but ultimately unsatisfactory stay. Relieved to gain admittance to Max's flat, Anke goes for lunch with the doorman (Patrick Lo), who promises to take her to the park for a tai-chi session.


While waiting for Max to show up, Anke decides to explore the neighbourhood and watches a demonstration pass along an adjoining street. She also pays a visit to Max's psychiatrist (Patrick Shum) to check that his depression is under control. During another expedition, Anke finds her way into the booth of a fortune teller (Edward Chan), who tells her through an interpreter (Ricky Yeung) that she has too little wood in her life because her children have flown the nest. But he encourages her to seek out water and she smiles when her translator nods at her assertion that he is making it up as he goes along.


Riding the bus with her new friend, Anke discovers that he is a retired teacher who misses his Shanghai-based son and goes on the marches to prevent Hong Kong from losing its character if Beijing succeeds in imposing stricter laws. Sympathising with his plight, she returns home to sleep and misses her son's fleeting visit.


As the film ends, Anke resumes her new existence in the picturesque village that has become her adopted home. She seems to belong, but that is the beauty of son Jonas Bak's debut feature, as he contrasts the tranquil woodland with the high-rise mayhem to show that Anke's cosiness had perhaps detached her from her family and the wider world. Anke Bak's performance is open, natural and receptive, as she seeks the comfort of strangers to put her mental health issues (and those of her son) into perspective.


Romanian cinematographer Alex Grigoras cleaves closely to Anke to reinforce the rural and urban contrast, which is complemented by Brian Eno's deft score. But the tone also owes much to the pace of Bak's editing and Marian Mentrup's sound design, which cocoons Anke whether she is surrounded by vehicles and people or the hushed, sterile space of her son's high-rise domicile.


USERS.


Natalia Almada was awarded a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2012 and this Sundance prizewinner certainly teems with ideas and striking visual images. Yet, as Almada's consciously monotonous narration muses from a seemingly distant future about the mistakes made by the planet's current occupants, it comes to feel as if this is a Google search of a picture rather than a concerted thesis about parenthood, technology, the environment and the meaning of life.


While the soundscape by husband Dave Cerf incorporates snippets played by the Kronos Quartet, brother-in-law Bennett Cerf's digital imagery coaxes viewers into looking anew at everything from waves and trees through emotions and sensations to fingers and faces (the youngest of which belong to Almada's own sons). Yet, while the imagery has the hyper-clarity and on-trend intelligence to match anything by Godfrey Reggio, Ron Fricke or Nikolaus Geyrhalter, the random insights come to seem increasingly superficial and soporific, as the perfectly pertinent questions that Almada endlessly raises are necessarily left unanswered because no amount of transoceanic fiber-optic cable is going to bring back information about things that have yet to transpire.


HOLGUT.


Eight years in the making, Liesbeth De Ceulaer's documentary explores the contrasting relationships that animalkind and humanity have with the landscape and its fragile ego system. Initially, the focus falls on Kyym Skrybykin, as he returns to go on a traditional hunt with his brother Roman on the Siberian tundra he abandoned to live in the city with his mother. Roman has remained to keep the old Yakut hunter-gatherer ways alive and he hopes to show his sibling some wild reinder. But these have become so elusive that even the nomadic herders who make their living from tame herds believe that they will soon be as extinct as the mammoth.


The melting of the permafrost has started to expose the remains of these long-lost creatures and scientist Semyon Grigoriev keeps hunting for bones in the hope of finding a fragment of tissue from which he can extract the DNA needed to clone a new breed of mammoth. His discoveries on the rugged terrain contrast with a dream that Kymm has about making his fortune from finding a tusk. But, as he prepares to leave for home, it's clear that Roman's prospects look as increasingly bleak as those of the wild reindeer and the land on which they once dwelt.


Exploring the part played by humanity in the extinction of animals and the impact that the demise of species has upon polar communities, this meticulously researched snapshot of a vanishing world can only leave audiences feeling bereft. Cinematographer Jonathan Wannyn not only captures an environment in the process of irreversible change, but he also reveals the powerlessness of those seeking up uphold ancient traditions who simply have nowhere else to go.


THE SEA AHEAD.


Having won the Palme d'or for his 2015 short, Waves `98, Lebanese director Ely Dagher returns to his home city of Beirut for this composed study of millennials n a riven society. Arriving back after abandoning her studies in Paris, Jana (Manal Issa) refuses to discuss matters with her protective parents, Wissam (Rabih El Zaher) and Mona (Yara Abou Haidar). Even an inquisitive uncle (Fadi Abi Samra) is given short shrift. But, even though she went to France to get away from Adam (Roger Azar), she can't resist her ex-boyfriend when he returns to the scene.


Complaining that she can no longer see the sea from the family apartment, Jana spends more time with Adam, even though she can tell he is trying to manipulate her. When he demands that they leave the capital together for a new life in the south, Jana stands up for herself in a pugnacious assertion of her rights and takes a taxi, whose driver is about to retire, but hopes that the son taking over the business doesn't get stuck behind the wheel.


Shooting in largely chronological order, Dagher laces this melancholic saga with moments of despair and hope. The spirit of Michelangelo Antonioni can be felt in the way in which he avoids presenting too much clear-cut information, while also using Shadi Chaaban's camera to locate Jana within the cloud-covered physical context of a scarred city that keeps undermining its own attempts to strike out in a new direction. Superbly played by Manal Issa, who is unsettlingly supported by Roger Azar, this is a potent insight into the status of women in a secular, but patriarchal society and a sobering assessment of the ways in which the past keeps impinging on the present and future.


7 DAYS.


Roshan Sethi joins the ranks of LFF 65's feature debutants with this sweet, if somewhat signposted romcom. From the moment that twentysomethings Ravi (Karan Soni) and Rita (Geraldine Viswanathan) meet in March 2020, it's clear that their mothers have been gilding lilies while putting together their profiles on an Indian dating app. Indeed, Rita is all set to bid farewell after a mask-wearing, socially distanced picnic at a dried-up reservoir underwhelms. But she is forced to extend her hospitality when Ravi's hire car booking falls through and he is unable to check into the local hotel because it has closed for the duration of the coronavirus outbreak.


Once back at Rita's apartment, she quickly proves to be anything but a teetotal vegetarian. However, Ravi turns out to be very much the repressed mamma's boy she feared he might be and she spikes his drink with whisky in the hope he might loosen up. Surprised by his insistence on doing stand-up, Rita coaxes Ravi into dancing. But his hangover can't remove the memories of either the purple vibrator on the bathroom sink or the sound of Rita talking dirty on the phone to her married lover (Mark Duplass).


Forced to stay another night, Ravi confides in his mother (Gita Reddy) that everything is going well (just as Rita had done before him). However, he becomes concerned when she fails to return from a lockdown assignation with her beau and is forced to call an ambulance when her persistent cough develops into full-blown Covid-19. Left alone in the apartment, Ravi becomes Zoom-acquainted with Rita's mother (Zenobia Shrof), while also holding telephone conversations with Rita's roommate (Liz Cardenas) and doctor (Jeffrey Self) in the hope of finding out how she is doing.


Her condition worsens and Ravi contemplates the worst. But there was only ever one way that this romcomedic variation on The Odd Couple was going to end. Informally photographed by Jeremy Mackie and breezily played by Geraldine Viswanathan and Karan Soni (who also co-scripted), the storyline contains echoes of Michael Showalter's The Big Sick (2017). But Sethi plays his satirical diasporic cards with a deftness that is matched by the clashes in the couple's characteristics and expectations, as Rita's mother is proved resoundingly wrong in her assertion that Ravi could never possibly love her daughter's real self.


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