Tagged: London Film Festival

London Film Festival 2011 #2: Wuthering Heights (UK 2011)

James Howson as Heathcliff

It’s difficult to know where to begin in relation to Andrea Arnold’s Wuthering Heights; except to say that within minutes I knew whatever else was missing, this version would not leave out the hanging of Isabella’s spaniel. In playing the race card, by casting a two black actors as the younger (Solomon Glave) and older (James Howson) Heathcliff, Arnold has not subsequently backed away from making him and Cathy the elemental creatures of cruelty and obsession that underpins the brutality of Emily Brontë’s imagining. And it is all the richer for that act of faith in realising all the parts that make them compelling protagonists.

From the start, the elements play a vital role visually. Whilst previous British versions have to a greater or lesser extent ‘prettied’ their subjects, this film is distinguished by the real, visceral realisation of how these two characters inhabit the outside better than they do the inside – the sparse moorland scrub is their wordless playground and these are children who grew up in all weathers, knowing the mud, the rain, the gorse and often wearing it on themselves as a second skin. Cathy’s wasting away inside Thrushcross Grange is entirely logical.

If you are able to see the film you won’t need, so I won’t waste time, on lengthy descriptions of its cinematography (focussed on setting you into the middle of the action) and the powerful editing. Those of us who are lucky to live near the Brontës’ Haworth home – and get to walk on those moors – can recognise the bleakness that Arnold and Robbie Ryan (her long time collaborator) have realised in the best kind of visceral filmmaking. The wordlessness is important – in this stripped down imagining (it’s pulling away from the word adaptation) – the kind of characters Arnold has conceived of here would not be given to nineteenth century verbosity and witticism. The supporting players are convincing – Hindley is especially important since the narrative restructuring places more emphasis on the surrogate Cain and Abel rivalry and bitter hatred. (An honourable mention for Nichola Burley who did much with the usually insipid Isabella). The filmic language consistently places you in the perspective of the main character – because this is Heathcliff’s story told from the perspective of the outsider who enters a world and tries to determine to make it his own. All the performances are strong, I think, notably the non-actors/new actors in the two Heathcliffs and young Cathy (Shannon Beer). The moment where Heathcliff (Howson) beats his head against the tree in anguish – a usually uncomfortably theatrical and unconvincing moment certainly in some of the previous British adaptations –is, well, exactly how this man might express his emotions.

A love story, a revenge drama, a story of a rise to power? It encompasses all of these. I loved the stillness that was at the heart of the film – there is no non-diegetic music used during the narrative – a stillness that reminded me of Red Road and how Jackie’s (Kate Dickie) world was silent, alone and contained until Clyde (Tony Curran) introduced noise and chaos. As in that film, and in Fish Tank (which by comparison was a much ‘noisier’ story generally) there is great sophistication in moving sympathy and/or comprehension between the different protagonists – particularly those characters who do not fit typical moulds of heroism or sympathy or (like Clyde, like Heathcliff) act in a way that should deny it. One of the great pleasures of the original novel is how your sympathies shift as you re-read – particularly on getting older – so Arnold’s text promises the richness of rediscovery. It also has an aesthetic I felt was familiar from Andrew Kötting’s work, especially This Filthy Earth – which reminds me of the relevance of the more European novelistic tradition such as found in the novels of Zola. However, Brontë’s original protagonists are figures out of time and society, and her novel comments on the individual and the psychological – not on class or social systems. Andrea Arnold’s interpretation, though, appears to examine those constructions of power and how they dominate even within small societies. Just as Heathcliff enters the torpid village, steeped in adherence to old ways of religion and ownership, so the wider world seeps into this gothic and elemental classic tale through her bold construction of a real outsider.

London Film Festival 2011 #1: Shame (UK 2011)

Living in-between: Brandon (Fassbender) waits in 'Shame'

(NB No intentional spoilers – but this does discuss the film in detail)

A film about sex addiction? Given the way in which cinema can be all about fetishising what we see and the way we see it, Shame represents a bold piece of filmmaking but maybe not as you would think. The early publicity inevitably uses that easy shorthand of sex addiction. The film does more, including (but not exclusively) how it alters the action of looking by the way it is made as well as the content of the piece.

Set in New York and starring McQueen’s muse, Michael Fassbender, it follows a man (Brandon) who has the capacity for seduction and the an obsessive compulsion towards all forms of sexual encounters, ones which do not necessitate the intimacy of a full relationship. The arrival of his sister, Sissy, disrupts his carefully organised and guarded world.

Shot using film, the first composition suggests the same kind of textual depth that McQueen achieved in his first feature, Hunger – visceral in its recreation of place and time and simultaneously calling attention to the beauty of the image. However, this film gives way to a very different aesthetic, with striking blues and whites of the typical WASPish New York apartment joining to create an overriding tone of desaturated flatness. Meanwhile, New York itself glitters in the background in several scenes – a stereotype of its symbolic value as the place of all desires. (Something that will be developed in other ways). Early scenes have some resonance towards American Psycho in their evocation of the emptiness of that highly-paid, corporate existence.

Co-written by McQueen with British TV and film writer, Abi Morgan (very well-known in the U.K., most recently for The Hour and the upcoming Margaret Thatcher story film The Iron Lady) there is (a McQ trademark?) avoidance of dialogue for long sequences – relying on Fassbender’s capacity to move through an extraordinary range of emotions (and the performance’s quality testifies to the way in which McQueen is clearly Fassbender’s muse) – and it avoids trite explanations of background and psychological motivations. (Abi Morgan spoke at a festival event about creating “maximum impact with minimum words”). These could be a form of French New Wave characters – glamorous and attractive at times, inscrutable and dark at others. We experience them from the outside in this dispursive rather than concentrative narrative structure.

The theme of alienation plays through the whole film – the central figure struggles with a fear of intimacy that we are familiar with (a modern parallel with Soderbergh’s Graham in sex, lies and videotape and both films share the awkward interactions and missed connections of floundering associations. However, Soderbergh’s film was very certainly about something – sex and lying. In saying what McQueen’s is about, I think we have to start with the way in which the film embraces the experiential level rather than the simply thematic – which seems contradictory given its anti-realist narrative aesthetics (see the trailer below for some feel of this).

This might explain why the odd critic may have commented on being bored whilst watching – isn’t that maybe the point of some of it? McQueen’s mastery of the visual image subtly but relentlessly removes that traditional screen dynamic for sexual imagery so that the true, achingly banal and despairingly repetitive nature of these transactions is viscerally apparent. This is not necessarily new – there are numerous examples of interrupting the audience’s gaze. American Psycho (to return to the earlier example) chooses to go to parody and excess as its means of subverting the glamour (a technique, of course, that relies heavily on audience reading). However, by blurring focus, altering depth of field, holding long on discomforting close-ups (a face, a back of a neck), McQueen does not so much ‘subvert’ or ‘challenge’ typical spectatorship positions – rather he seems to have started from elsewhere. The striking human-ness of some of the flesh is what immediately stands out, the beautiful ordinariness of a face – compared to the dehumanised, virtual forms populating Brandon’s gaze (sometimes physically present, sometimes on screen). In addition, the emotional punch is helped by the symbolic use of the spaces of the city – the way in which the ‘in-between-ness’ of characters’ lives (the streets, the apartment lobby, the subway) is a powerful metaphor for their inner states (the loneliness of the long-distance porn surfer).

Sure – the alienation of modern living is no new theme. But, as in his first feature, McQueen’s filmmaking doesn’t worry about ‘saying’ something original – he just drops you directly into the melting pot to experience those people’s lives through the medium of an artistically stunning image. The intellectual engagement is fully there once we reflect on our discomfort. Discomfort because – as someone noted in a discussion with Abi Morgan at the festival – this is not a film ‘about’ sex addiction, just as Hunger was not ‘about’ a terrorist. I’m going to finish this idea by going off on a tangent to the choice of Bach’s Goldberg Variations (e.g. the famous Aria) as part of the soundtrack (the sound design is another technical achievement). It uses Glenn Gould’s recording which means the music includes his distinctive hum, well-known as part of the texture of his interpretations. Alongside those clean, baroque melodies (so representative of control and purification) the voice of a driven, obsessive, messy human runs along complementing rather than detracting from the music. Elsewhere, Brandon’s sister, Sissy, sings the blues – using an unexpected classic to do so. So, without being ‘about’ anything or one small section of society (sex addicts) – this film rather shows us how people are complicated, how real intimacy can be so unbearably difficult. Not a new theme you might think. But how I enjoyed the power with which that old tune was revoiced by McQueen, Morgan and the others not least by the depth of feeling those beautiful surface images could create.

LFF #4: Our last day

I could only manage two screenings on the last day and as it was I found it difficult to concentrate. How do professional festival hacks manage it? I was worried that because of my tiredness that I would not do the films justice, especially as both of them were relatively slow-paced. Fortunately I managed to keep alert enough to make the screenings worthwhile.

At first I thought that Zona Sur (South District, Bolivia 2009) was going to develop a narrative similar to that of La nana from Chile. Again we are in an upper middle-class household in a Latin American country. Again there are teenage children and a younger sibling. In the kitchen is a butler/cook named ‘Wilson’ and in the garden a maid named ‘Marcy’. The servants are indigenous people. Wilson calls the teenage son ‘whitey’.

Wilson rests in his room in Zona Sur

But there are differences between the two films. First, this is a very beautiful house, attractively furnished and with a wonderful luxuriant garden. The boy’s bedroom, where he makes love to his beautiful girlfriend, is stuffed with hi-tech TV and video. Second, the beauty of the mise en scène is enhanced by the very deliberate camerawork which uses slow 360° pans around the rooms – and eventually above the house, showing its position high above the Bolivian capital La Paz. This languid (but precise) movement threatened to lull me into torpor, but the detailed look at each character in the household held my attention and eventually I realised that this was a strongly metaphorical story  – seemingly about the decline of the European upper middle-class in the country (and perhaps in Latin America generally?). Yet this is in many ways a sympathetic study. Much depends on the head of the household, the divorced mother – or as she describes herself “the typical Bolivian matriarch”.

I won’t spoil the narrative surprises – suffice to say that the developments are intriguing without being apocalyptic. Bolivia elected its first leader from the Aymara peoples (one of the indigenous groups in the country) in the person of President Evo Morales in 2006. I’m assuming that Winston is meant to be Aymara – certainly he and Marcy are ‘indigenous’. I’d recommend the film and I hope it gets distribution.

The three young friends escape the tedium – and the tension of daily life in Srinagar

Harud (Autumn, India 2010) is a rather sombre but beautifully photographed and directed film from the team of Aamir Bashir (director) and Shanker Raman (cinematographer). They wrote and produced the film together on a tiny budget, only being able to fully finance post-production with support from the Hubert Bals Fund associated with the Rotterdam International Film Festival. This is Bashir’s first film as director. He has a track record as an actor in Hindi Cinema including roles in Peepli Live and A Wednesday, films in which he worked alongside Naseeruddin Shah who also played a part in getting Harud onto the screen.
The setting is Srinagar capital of the state of Jammu Kashmir where unrest over the last twenty years has seen the rise of militancy that has been met by increasing activity from ‘security forces’. The narrative focuses on a family who have already lost the elder of two sons – a tourist photographer who has become one of the ‘disappeared’. The younger son Rafiq decides to try to cross the mountains with a small group into Pakistan to join the struggle but he gets left behind and is brought home by his father, a traffic policeman. The main part of the story then follows Rafiq and two other young men as youths in the city trying to get jobs and ignore the tedium and the tension.

The film is an interesting mix of social realism and metaphor. Raman’s camerawork picks up the Autumn colours and in the interesting and informative Q & A with Bashir that followed the screening, the director explained that he saw the ‘slow decay’ of Autumn as symbolised by the changing colours of the leaf of the chinar (maple) as a metaphor for the slow decay of Kashmiri dreams of peace and economic and social development. Bashir himself left Srinagar in 1990 and he said that he had been profoundly affected by the isolation of the region during the period of economic growth in the rest of India. He uses the moment of the arrival of the mobile phone in the region in 2003 as a focus to emphasise this sense of being ‘left out’ as people clamour for something other Indians have known about for several years. ‘Autumn’ seems like a state of mind rather than a season. The Press Notes tell us that clinical depression is widespread in Srinagar.

Making the film was clearly a struggle – shooting for around 30 days with little help from the military authorities. The script was re-worked to include the Eid festivities at the end of Ramadan which would otherwise affect the shooting possibilities. The cast are mostly non-actors who had attended a workshop arranged by Naseeruddin Shah. He himself had to withdraw from the role of Rafiq’s father and this led to bringing in the Iranian actor Reza Naji. The fact that he doesn’t look like the other characters (and couldn’t speak the language) actually worked in favour of a character who is proud but also withdrawn and ultimately bewildered. Bashir explained that the film was made in Hindi rather than Kashmiri simply because no distribution in India would have been possible in Kashmiri. The film hasn’t yet gone to the Indian Certification Board and questions from the audience expressed worries that it might be cut. As it is, the Hubert Bals support has helped the film get entry in festivals.

I’d like to watch it again with the benefit of the Q7A and Press Notes. I suspect that I would get much more from a second screening – definitely one to look out for if it gets distribution in Europe and/or North America as well as India.

A press pack for the film is available here.

The trailer prepared for Toronto:

LFF #3: Young women – causing trouble or getting what they want?

Day 3 of my LFF visit produced a more varied programme than the first two days. Again I chose three films out of a total of more than 30 screenings across eight screens. The link between them is that they each feature one or more young women who aren’t simply decorative or submissive to men.

I started back in the Vue West End in the largest screen but with only a 70% audience for The Princess of Montpensier (France/Germany 2010) from Bernard Tavernier, the only big name director on my schedule. This has got UK distribution so I hope it is widely shown. It’s a 16th century swashbuckler combining political intrigues with a fascinating love story in an adaptation of a Madame de Lafayette short story. The setting is the struggles of the 1560s between the Catholic Monarchy and the Huguenot Protestant Reform group led by the Comte de Condé. The Comte de Chabannes is fighting for the Reform but gives up the struggle and turns his back on the war after a particularly brutal skirmish. Fate then places him back with his ex-pupil, Phillipe, Prince de Montpensier, whose father has arranged his marriage to Marie (an outstanding Mélanie Thierry). Unfortunately Marie is in love with Henri, Duc de Guise, Philippe’s rival at the French court. Chabannes finds himself torn between loyalty to Philippe and attraction to the ‘brash innocence’ of Marie as he tries to keep his head.

Mélanie Thierry as Marie when she is told by her mother to 'submit' and marry Philippe

The film is sumptuously shot in CinemaScope with glorious scenery – but it is also violent and bloody when necessary. It’s long at 139 mins, but I was enjoyably engaged throughout and I could have taken more. The performances are all good and it is a very skilfully confected film all round. The reviews following its Cannes screening this year were mixed, but I would go with the positive ones which praised the re-invention of the costume drama with realism, wit and intelligence. If you like costume dramas with just the beautiful images and a sense of dreamy romance, be warned. This will make you think.

The French trailer (it’s due out in France on November 3rd) gives you a good idea of the look of the film and hints at the violence. The young woman at the centre may be forced by convention to ‘submit’ to the men in society, but she’s more than capable of behaving as she wants when it comes to provoking love and desire as well as jealousy – though she doesn’t necessarily get what she wants.

The Mascara Band – women who can't be identified for fear of reprisal

Microphone (Egypt 2010) is undoubtedly the film that I have enjoyed most so far. Billed as an independent film about the underground art scene in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, it boasts some wonderful music director and some inventive ideas about telling its story. The director, Ahmad Abdalla, was present for a post-screening Q&A and he proved to be highly enthusiastic with an infectious personality. He explained that initially he had imagined a documentary about a single graffiti artist, but gradually the film just grew and grew. It’s now 120 mins but that represents a cut with much more material still available.Abdalla explained that making it a fiction feature helped it get distribution in Egypt since documentaries have never received a cinema release. (He hopes for 15 prints in Egypt which though still far behind the commercial films on 50 prints is still good for an independent – but the film still has to get past the censors.

Microphone never had a formal script and most of the musicians and artists play versions of themselves. The fictional story concerns Khaled (played by a major star of Egyptian Cinema, Khaled Abol Naga) who has returned to Alexandria after working for seven years in New York as an engineer. His old friend finds him a job in an organisation that manages projects for art and community work in the city. Khaled finds that the city has changed. On the one hand, there is a vibrant underground art scene that he slowly discovers and comes to appreciate very much. On the other, the authorities and other social pressures mean that it is very difficult to organise/promote the scene. The central narrative involves Khaled’s attempt to put on a concert featuring independent music acts, including hip-hop, metal and traditional music. At the same time he tries to communicate with his father and in a scene with his ex-girlfriend (which is chopped up and played intermittently out of sequence) he learns that she is now leaving to do a PhD in London. Khaled says that he will always carry a little bit of sadness with him after he realises that he has lost her.

The film includes many performance scenes as well as skateboarding, graffiti art and an enjoyable narrative strand about a filmschool (in the Jesuit college) in which a film professor tries to explain the difference between documentary and reportage and fiction. There is a useful website and the film’s soundtrack is being prepared for international release. I’m seriously considering buying it. I’ve thought in the past about visiting Alexandria and now I’ve seen the art (and the trams) and heard the music, I think it might be time to give it a go. Perhaps Alexandria could become the next Havana for music lovers?

Samira Maas is Joy

Joy (Netherlands 2010) directed by Mijke de Jong has a strong central performance by Samira Maas, a law student who had never acted before. She flew over to be at the screening and arrived in time to give an equally impressive performance in a Q&A.

The narrative for the film is very slight (and the film is only 78 mins long). Joy was abandoned by her mother as a baby and brought up in care. Now out of the hostel and working in a menial job she has persuaded the local authorities to show her the file on her mother. Will she meet her mother after all these years? If she does how will it affect her relationship with her Serbian boyfriend who invites her to his family celebrations and her relationship with her younger friend from the hostel who is heavily pregnant and wants her to be her birthing partner? Both these relationships with their strong emotional pulls cause cracks in Joy’s otherwise protective carapace. Is she really the hardbitten shoplifter and tough woman of the streets?

I thought at first this was going to be a slice of social realism, but although it does use its subject matter in that mode, the look and feel of the film is more expressionistic with a colour palette of mainly blues and greens and a sense of focusing on a single character who is somehow isolated from her environment. It is shot on HD in ‘Scope which gives it a different feel as well. In her statements after the screening. Samira Maas implied that the director manipulated her into dramatic situations, not so much directing her as forcing her to react to what the script set up. Maas is clearly an intelligent young woman who accepted this treatment in order to produce the required performance without being affected by it. She told us that she is interested in legal work on behalf of children and this no doubt influenced her decision to take the role. The flavour of the film is perhaps available via the trailer. Overall I was impressed by the performance and for this reason I thought that the film was worth seeing. I’m not sure that there was enough in the narrative otherwise but I’m intrigued enough to wonder what the earlier two films in de Jong’s loose trilogy about young women were actually like. All three were also written by women.

Press notes (in English) are available to download here.

The Dutch trailer gives an indication of the style:

LFF #2: What Money Can’t Buy . . .

It’s odd how sometimes randomly selected films sometimes reveal the same underlying theme. Today it was consumerism or, more precisely, the belief in money as the ultimate goal in securing happiness.

Little White Lies (Les petits mouchoirs, France 2010) was the highest profile film I went to see during the festival. After the major success of his thriller Tell No One, an adaptation of Harlen Coblen’s novel, big things were expected of Guillaume Canet’s follow-up. A packed audience in the biggest screen in the Vue West End waited patiently for the screening following late delivery of the print and as far as I could tell from their reaction, enjoyed the film. I overheard some claiming it as great entertainment. I have to differ. There are some beautifully delivered scenes but I found the overall effect unsettling.

The title, I think, is slightly off-beam. ‘Self-delusions’ or ‘Self-obsession’ might more accurately describe the group of Parisian bourgeoisie who take a holiday each year in the Cap Ferret region of South West France. Max (François Cluzet) is a wealthy restauranteur with a private beach house and a settled family. He pays for everything and acts like a feudal lord. Vincent (Benoît Magimel) is a younger osteopath with a young son. His wife Isla, like Max’s wife Véro, is long-suffering. There are three younger members of the group with on/off relationships and, most important, a popular younger member who spends the film in intensive care in hospital in Paris – and exists as a reminder of good times and a source of guilt for the vacationeers. Finally, there is the local man on the coast who acts as the ‘head man’ of the local community invaded by the Parisians.

Shot in CinemaScope, the film is always very watchable (though 139 minutes is stretching it). There are exciting and on one occasion shocking action scenes, broad comedy and moments of tragedy. The film is to my mind an unsettling mixture of a traditional French genre (the bourgeoisie en vacances) with the kind of satirical comedy that critiques the bourgeoisie in the plays of Alan Aykbourn or the films of Mike Leigh (both with their fans in France I think). Personally, I don’t find this funny after a while and I think Canet rather undermines the critique with the dramatic ending. But perhaps my biggest gripe is that the women are not given enough to do in the film and in particular Marion Cotillard, the biggest international name in the film, spends most of her time looking tousled, laughing and crying and smoking dope. This is mainly a film about spoilt, bratty men who don’t know the value of things and, in the case of the lead character, think that having money means that you must show off. It’ll probably be a big hit, but I didn’t like it. Here’s the French trailer (no subs yet) but it reminds me also that Guillaume Canet seems obsessed with American pop and rock music. I’d mistakenly thought that in Tell No One he was referring to US culture for a purpose, but presumably here it is associated with wealthy Parisians?

After Little White Lies it was a relief to turn to a working-class family in Italy. La nostra vita (Our Life, Italy 2010) may be the most successful film that I saw – at least in the sense that it is a melodrama and it made me cry and some scenes were almost unbearable. It seems rather hackneyed to see the film as ‘Loachian’ but it is certainly a scenario that might have been written by Jim Allen or Paul Laverty. However, it might have been even darker in their hands and would certainly have had a more traditional socialist perspective. That was not the aim of the film’s writer-director Daniele Luchetti, as he explained in the Q&A. Instead, he was aiming for something which in some way worked as a general metaphor for Italy’s ills, rather than a specific political critique.

Claudio and his family

The central character, Claudio (played by Emiliano Germano, who shared the Cannes Best Actor award in 2010 for his performance), is a foreman for an unscrupulous developer ‘throwing’ up new blocks of flats on the outskirts of Rome and using what in the UK would be called ‘lump’ labour, but which here comprises mainly immigrant workers without papers. After a terrible family tragedy, Claudio feels compelled to use his work to make some kind of personal statement. He puts his family’s welfare on the line (including his own small children) and attempts to set up as a sub-contractor, taking on a punishing schedule despite lacking the necessary experience to complete the job (which he has ‘won’ mainly by blackmailing his own boss). The narrative involves Claudio’s extended family as well as his neighbours and a number of migrant workers. It is the migrants who explain to Claudio that he only thinks about money – that he tries to solve all his problems with money and that this is the Italian disease. Family is more important than money is one possible moral of the story. The film also includes my favourite line of dialogue (OK, subtitle) for some time. When Claudio compliments his older sister on how good she looks now she is wearing high heels, she replies: “Yeah, heels are like relatives, they give you support but they hurt like hell!” I hope that the Cannes prize helps the film get wider distribution.

The third screening of my day was a documentary running for less than an hour so it was accompanied by a short (14 minute) film. Lezare (For Today) was made in Ethiopia with a narrative based on a folk tale. It is beautifully shot and absolutely heart-breaking. In a village (which could be anywhere in Africa), the day begins and a beggar boy smells fresh bread. He starts to beg for the money to buy himself something to eat, but today is tree-planting day and the schoolteacher offers him a small coin if he will help the villagers in planting tiny saplings. He duly does so, but after the planting, when he returns to the breadshop to buy a loaf, the coin is gone. He lost it planting the trees that the teacher told him will secure the village’s future. He races back to the planting area to look for his coin – you can probably guess what happens. I do hope that this short becomes available for use in schools and sustainability campaigns. It was made on HD by Zelalem Woldemariam who has an impressively designed website. There was some support from American organisations.

The documentary that followed was also devastating, chronicling the effects of the hyperinflation and economic collapse in Zimbabwe (where for a while money couldn’t buy you anything since it was being devalued by inflation even as you searched for something to spend it on). The film was made (at some risk) by an independent filmmaker, Saki Mafundikwa during 2008-9. It does end on an optimistic note with the opposition party sharing power after the elections, but what it has to report is shocking. The film’s title Shungu refers to the resilience of Zimbabwe’s people. They certainly need to be resilient since many are starving, reduced to eating the pulp of wild fruits in a country that once exported food and which boasted Africa’s best education provision.

Shungu is a conventional documentary, ‘authored’ only to the extent that the filmmaker explains what he is doing and why. Sometimes the simple method is the most effective and Mafundikwa has found a cross-section of Zimbabweans who tell their own story (alongside the filmmaker himself who presents the health problems of his own father). There is a large international TV market for documentaries of this length and I hope that this gets bought by BBC/Channel 4 and similar channels in Europe. Ideally the film would interview more people and cover more points of view, but we know so little about what life is like inside Zimbabwe and what is offered here is very welcome..

London Film Festival #1: Family Melodramas

My first festival day comprised three very different family melodramas. Plans for Tomorrow (Planes para mañana, Spain 2010) is the debut feature of Joana Mancias coming after several well-received shorts. The film comes in a now familiar format comprising four interweaving stories each triggered by the same ‘inciting incident’ with the main events occurring over 24 hours. I don’t want to spoil the narrative tension, but you will have seen this before in the scripts by Guillermo Arriaga, especially Amores Perros. This was pointed out to me after the screening. I was thinking more about the films of Kieslowski, Tykwer and Medem, but on reflection these directors are aiming for something more narratively and thematically complex than this modest but engaging film.

Goya Toledo as Inés in Planes para manana

Three of the characters are women of a ‘certain age’. Inés is 39, with a career and an important job when discovers that she is pregnant – much to her long-term partner’s surprise. He doesn’t want a child. Antonia has been married for 20 years but the marriage is not fulfilling and on this day she has an interview for a new job and a phone call from an old lover who is in town and wants to see her. Marian is in a similar marital quandary, but her husband has already provoked a potential split and he has left the apartment, only to violently return when Marian refuses to let him in. Today he makes a scene at the bank where she works as a cashier. Mean while, Marian’s daughter, Mónica and Antonia’s son, Raúl have begun a virtual relationship involving intense exchanges of images and video and webcam dances for each other.

I enjoyed this film a lot and I found all the central characters interesting. The performances are all excellent (the players are all experienced in Spanish film and TV). Cinematography and direction are strong and there are some expressionist touches with blurring of focus etc. There is also a fantasy sequence and strong use of popular music, which I identified as rather soft indie nu-folk/rock, sometimes in English, sometimes in Spanish. I recognised something similar in the French psychodrama Anna M. (2007) but the bands meant nothing to me. I surmise from this that the focus of the film via the music is the teenage couple, though most of the narrative involves their parents’ generation. It may be important that when Monica and Raúl are with their mothers, they are often listening to music or communicating via the computer. Their world may be virtual, but they are ‘connected’ – which is more than the three women are with their partners.

In the bar afterwards I discussed the film with two women. One felt the film was ‘trite’, which always baffles me. It’s a genre film and works via the conventions of certain kinds of dramas. The other was more concerned with what the film ‘means’. I confess that as I reflected on the film, I realised that I’d been rather confused by the timescale and that I may have missed some of the interconnections. Perhaps it doesn’t stand up totally to scrutiny, but nevertheless it is an interesting film with plenty to offer to audiences. I would classify it as melodrama. No specific location was signalled, but I was interested to note that some scenes were shot in Cáceres, Extremadura with some funding support from the region. It opens in Spain next month.

En visits his grandma

Sandcastle (Singapore 2010) is the debut feature of Boo Junfeng and tells the story of three generations of a family over some fifty years. In some ways the approach reminded me of Hou Hsaio-hsien’s Taiwanese melodramas of the 1980s, though with perhaps a less forceful presentation of the politics. The melodrama is also mixed with a ‘coming of age’ narrative. The first Singapore film website I looked at seemed to be put off by the politics and before the festival screening, the young star of the film, Joshua Tan asked us to consider the film as a ‘family story’ and not to focus on the politics. Politics is clearly still a source of tension in what is to outsiders seen as a society in denial and subject to ‘self-repression’. En is a young man who has finished high school and is waiting to be called up for his military service. Events conspire to make this a busy summer. I’m guessing that this supposed to be around 2000 since En has an original iMac running OS 9. His summer promises a first romance with a neighbour but then he is required to go with his widowed mother to help look after his grandma who has Alzheimers. In his grandparents’ house he finds mementoes and hears stories about his father who died when En was still a young boy. En’s mother is a Christian and a schoolteacher and we see her leading a school choir in a rendition of a ‘national song’ (in English). This ‘respectable’ teacher is also in a long-term relationship with a senior officer in the Singapore military – who, of course, is a man designed to irritate En. At one point, when En’s iMac develops a fault, this man buys him a laptop with Windows 98 – no wonder En is pissed off! En’s ‘journey’ is about discovering who his father really was. Was he a student radical and a Communist in the 1950s and early 1960s? Is that why he had to go to Malaysia? Was En’s mother always so conservative and if so why did they get together?

Noha and her elder sister prepare for her wedding

I enjoyed Sandcastle and I’m intrigued by Stray Bullet (Lebanon 2010) which is also a family melodrama but this time placed firmly in the context of conflict. In a community of Maronite Christians in a North Beirut suburb, 30 year-old Noha is still a spinster teacher. It is 1976 when as a title informs us “the Palestinian camps had all surrendered” in what was one of the many periods of the Lebanese Civil War. Noha has already withdrawn from one possible marriage and now a fortnight before she is due to marry a cousin under strong family pressure, she decides to meet an old flame. But as the director, Georges Hachem told us after the screening, Lebanon was then in a ‘time of warriors’ – there was always the possibility of some kind of violence and things soon start to go wrong for Noha and her family. I found the first ten minutes of this film quite hard to follow, trying to work out all the family connections, but the second half developed into a full-blown melodrama. It is quite a short film (only 75 minutes) but very intense. It also has at its centre the wonderful Nadine Labaki as Noha. Her star performance in Caramel is matched here as the stubborn and determined Noha who is not prepared to submit to the pressure to marry – whatever the cost. The cost is high and this is a real melodrama with a non-Hollywood ending. Yet in the interesting Q&A that followed, a Lebanese man in the audience asserted that he thought that the film was a ‘way forward’ in presenting the personal lives of people during the Civil War. Although it is specifically about one Christian community, the story is one with which all Lebanese could identify.

The story behind the film is interesting in that as an independent production, Hachem (who was returning to Lebanon after working in Paris) was lucky to find a local producer, Georges Schoucair, willing to put up the production budget. Unlike most films from the region this didn’t require co-funding, although the French experience of both director and producer was important. I thought all the technical credits were very good for a film on this budget and I especially enjoyed the music. I hope that the film gets a UK release.

54th London Film Festival

The London Film Festival had its opening night on Wednesday 13th October with Never Let Me Go and it runs to 28th October with screenings across London, but with a focus on BFI Southbank and the Vue West End in Leicester Square. This week I hope to report on a four day visit to the festival. It’s something like 20 years since I last visited the LFF and a lot has changed since then.

The new BBC Film 2010 programme started on Wednesday and included an item on the festival. What came across was the relatively recent sense of celebrity appearances and glitz and glamour. The rather gushing coverage emphasised the big name titles in the programme and the claim that London is up there with Cannes, Berlin, Venice and Toronto. I don’t think it is – yet. But there is clearly a determination to push it in that direction, indicated partly by extra public funding going to London and an assumption that it has now eclipsed Edinburgh as the UK’s premier festival. It was always bigger than Edinburgh, but arguably less exciting and it didn’t have prizes. It also came later in the year when most high profile films had already been seen at Berlin, Cannes etc. London was in a sense conceived as a festival of festivals – screening the best of the other festivals. The highpoint was often the archive screenings of restored prints. Those are still there but have receded into the background a little. British Cinema has generally grown in importance as a festival strand and now there are five prizes/awards. Two of these, the BFI Fellowship and the Grierson Documentary Award have been there for longer than I can remember but now there is The Sutherland Award for the director of the most original and imaginative feature début, The Best British Newcomer Award and the Best Film prize. I find the explanation in the brochure confusing but at least one of the above gets a ‘Star of London’ trophy.

In addition, the LFF now has higher profile industry events alongside the programme of Q & As and Master Classes. I know that Rona is going to cover a couple of screenings with personal appearances. The main strands of the festival alongside New British Cinema are the Gala Screenings and ‘Film on the Square’, both offering the highest profile films with a strong Anglo-American showing. ‘French Revolutions’, ‘Cinema Europa’ and ‘World Cinema’ are self-explanatory. ‘Experimenta’, Treasures from the Archive and Shorts make up the other strands. Finally there are education events, but these aren’t listed in the main programme.

My own interest is in the ‘World Cinema’ and ‘Cinema Europa’ strands, though I’m also going to take in a couple of French films since the festival timetable dictates what’s on offer at the times I can go. My reasoning is that most of these are films that I might never get to see distributed in the UK. I can’t see the point in scrambling for tickets for a film that will be released everywhere a few weeks later. So, I’m afraid my choices will be pretty obscure, but I am aiming to see films from Egypt, Bolivia, Singapore, Zimbabwe and Lebanon and I’m hoping for some surprises.