I’ve had a successful year in terms of attending other film festivals, but being based in London, naturally a lot of my focus every year — especially when it comes to the best of new films (rather than the archival screenings of, say, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna) — is the London Film Festival. This year, the stewardship of the festival had been taken over by Tricia Tuttle (as acting director initially, but now confirmed), who as a deputy director of the festival in previous years had always been a lively and engaged presence in Q&As, and undoubtedly has been very busy behind the scenes, because it seems to me to have been a particularly strong selection this year. Obviously a lot of that is down to the vicissitudes of availability of various titles (the lack of the new Claire Denis film was the only one I really felt I missed), but what films I saw were all interesting, and almost all screenings had an introduction if not a Q&A with the director or producer afterwards.
Of course, I cannot claim that my festival experience is that of everyone else; any film festival necessarily exists in multiple guises. The screenings that tend to get all the attention are the big galas and premieres, primarily in Leicester Square cinemas (or the festival’s large pop-up space in Embankment Gardens), and as a regular filmgoer I largely avoid those: they are expensive, and all the films generally already have release dates, so the only attraction is to see a film early and with its famous stars in attendance, and while that’s fine for the festival itself as far as getting press coverage go, it’s not where my interests lie (I did go and see the Sight & Sound gala premiere of Lee Chang-dong’s Burning, though). Instead, I tend to choose the titles that have no distribution in place, many of which are directed by first-time directors. In order to narrow my choices down, and not read up on every film in the programme endlessly, I usually shortlist films directed by women or people of colour — which also generally has the benefit of diversifying the range of cultures and experiences I see on screen during the festival.
As in previous years, the largest number of films I booked to see were from the Middle East and Arab-speaking world (programmed by Elhum Shakerifar, who also produced one of the films I saw in the festival), but it seems to me that the strongest selection out of what I ended up seeing were Spanish-language films. My favourite was the second (or third, depending on how you’re counting) feature by Dominga Sotomayor, whose debut De jueves a domingo (Thursday Till Sunday, 2012) I had caught up with on DVD earlier this year, and which is a strong film about a family breaking up, conveyed during an extended car trip across the country. When I saw that, it made me think of the child’s-eye point-of-view of Estiu 1993 (Summer 1993, 2017, dir. Carla Simón), one of my favourite films from LFF 2017, and it may be that there’s a certain circle of inspiration that moves from Sotomayor’s own debut to that film, and into Sotomayor’s second — indeed, the car of De jueves a domingo makes a reappearance in the opening shot of the new film, though this isn’t a road movie — and I thought of all of them again watching Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young). It’s set in a sort of hippie commune outside Santiago in the early days of the new democracy in the 1990s, conveyed through subtle details (it wasn’t until Mazzy Star’s “Fade into You” swelled up on the soundtrack that I fully realised we were in the mid-90s). It’s all beautifully shot and acted (largely by non-professionals), and I can strongly recommend it. It’s also a film for dog lovers (in the way that most festival cinema, if we’re being honest, is really about cats).
Also making a strong impression was young Mexican director Lila Avilés’s first feature La camarista (The Chambermaid), which follows Evelia (an amazing Gabriela Cartol, another first-time actor), a young native-born woman working in a luxury hotel in Mexico City. It lacks any strong, melodramatic plot contrivances, preferring to subtly loop in ideas of class and race as markers of difference, feeding into the way that guests react to Eve’s presence, and her own ability to work her way around within the hotel’s confining hierarchical structure. It makes its points without fuss, and using a slow, long-take sensibility that really conveys a sense of place, even as the film never strays beyond the bounds of the hotel itself. Also dealing with race is Miriam miente (Miriam Lies), a film from the Dominican Republic made by a husband and wife team (native-born Natalia Cabral and Spanish transplant Oriol Estrada) previously known for making documentaries. Here the race angle is more explicit, because it’s about a young Black Dominican girl growing up in a rich white society of debutantes, and the film’s drama (such as it is) revolves around the preparations for Miriam’s quinceañera and the guy she has invited as her date, whose constant non-appearance turns out to be because he also is Black and therefore not considered a suitable partner by her family or friends, hence her lies of the film’s title. Without ever being overtly angry, the film very ably expresses some of the race and class-based resentments that thread through this society. Both films remind me of other recent films from the region dealing with class and race, such as the Colombian drama Gente de bien (2014, dir. Franco Lolli) or the Venezuelan Pelo malo (Bad Hair, 2013, dir. Mariana Rondón).
It’s also worth mentioning here that my highlight of the ‘Treasures’ strand of the festival was Enamorada (1946), a Mexican melodrama from its 1940s golden age, directed by Emilio Fernández. Its restoration was premiered by Martin Scorsese (whose Film Foundation took the lead in the restoration work) at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year, before I arrived at that festival, hence why I missed it there. The BFI will be doing a season next year of Mexican films, which will undoubtedly be a real highlight, given how many of these films offer unrestrained pleasure in their melodramatic plots and forthright performances. In this case, it’s María Félix who tears up the screen as Beatriz in a small Mexican town during the revolutionary era, arms akimbo and both nose and eyes flaring at every moment, seemingly from having to be around such incompetent men. It’s a delight.
Returning to Middle Eastern films, my second-favourite film at the festival and the highlight of that strand, was for me the Iranian film Tehran: City of Love by another debut feature director, Ali Jaberansari. In a Q&A afterwards with Ms Shakerifar, he mentioned taking inspiration from the deadpan work of such directors as Aki Kaurismäki, Roy Andersson and Jim Jarmusch, and all of that is quite evident on screen. It tells three stories, which only briefly intersect, but all of which seem to suggest a different aspect of romance, with specific reference to body image. One is an overweight woman working as the receptionist at a cosmetic surgeon’s office, another a self-loathing funeral singer who has just split up and doesn’t know how to be happy, and the third is an ageing bodybuilder with repressed gay desires (or so it seems; the film is very circumspect on this) who feels a chance to connect with another person when a younger man needs training for an upcoming championship. Because it’s Iranian, there’s a strong sense of melancholy that weaves through all these stories, but ultimately the deadpan humour is evident at all times and there’s even a small hint of hopefulness, even if nothing seems to go quite to plan.
Another highlight of this region’s cinema was the Egyptian pseudo-documentary Dreamaway, by directing team of Marouan Omara and Johanna Domke, which in its play with performance and the light fictionalisation that is applied at certain levels, brings to mind Alma Har’el’s work (like LFF 2016’s LoveTrue or her earlier Bombay Beach). In this case, you get the sense that the fictionalisation is partly to protect the workers themselves, who limn the conservative attitudes of their society with the relative hedonism and freedom of this entirely separate resort area. Indeed, the resort at Sharm-el-Sheikh, which seems strictly for foreign tourists, is also portrayed as largely desolate and empty — artistic licence, perhaps, but one that speaks eloquently to the drop-off in tourism as a result of Egypt’s recent turmoil. And so we see these young Egyptians cleaning rooms, doing fitness/dance routines, mixing drinks and performing as mimes (one man in full black-and-gold body makeup pretending to be a bronze cowboy is exactly the kind of thing you might find amongst the crowds in Covent Garden, or wherever your city’s tourist heart is found) to an audience of just each other. The uncanniness is further heightened by the conceit of a man in a monkey costume eliciting confessions from the back of a flatbed truck, and there are occasional brief interstices with these workers wandering aimlessly through the desert much as the characters traipse along roads in Buñuel’s Le Charme discret de la bourgeoisie — surrealism is never far from the surface here.
I want to round up my summary with a trio of American films, two of which I saw when I visited the States at the end of August, and which I featured in my round-up of that month. If I’d seen Madeline’s Madeline and Sorry to Bother You at LFF 2018, they’d be in my top 5 (indeed, the former film, directed by Josephine Decker, would probably be my #1). As it is, I saw Andrew Bujalski’s latest Support the Girls at LFF (it was on release when I was in the States, but I couldn’t fit it in back then). It initially seems fairly unpromising — it revolves around the workers at a Texan ‘breastaurant’, a strangely American phenomenon of a family-friendly diner staffed by young women wearing revealing tops — but turns out to share more in common with some of the films discussed above than expected. Bujalski himself comes from a very specific type of NY-based indie improv background (he was one of the early filmmakers in the so-called ‘mumblecore’ movement, though with 2015’s Results he showed a tendency towards the kind of space he deals with in his latest film as well: a brightly-lit space redolent of the worst trends of modernity, with a cast of charismatic screen-friendly name actors). As such, there’s a strong sense of fellow consciousness with the women who work at the restaurant, their struggles with uncaring, bottom-line and image-obsessed management (embodied by James Le Gros), and with a generalised feeling of class-based disconnect within wider American society. It’s also tied together with a pair of divergently strong performances by Black woman leads: Regina Hall as Lisa, the very competent and well-liked general manager of the restaurant, who would probably never be seen in this environment if it weren’t for needing work, and Shayna McHayle as worker Danyelle, whose eye-rolls and attitude enliven the film no end. The versatile Haley Lu Richardson (familiar from Columbus and Edge of Seventeen) is also on fine form, and completely unrecognisable from those other performances. It’s a slow-burn comic highlight.
My Top 20 Films at LFF 2018 (that I saw there)
- Tarde para morir joven (Too Late to Die Young, Chile/Argentina/Brazil/Netherlands/Qatar, dir. Dominga Sotomayor)
- Tehran: City of Love (Iran/Netherlands/UK, dir. Ali Jaberansari)
- Enamorada (1946, Mexico, dir. Emilio Fernández)
- La camarista (The Chambermaid, Mexico/USA, dir. Lila Avilés)
- Support the Girls (USA, dir. Andrew Bujalski)
- Îmi este indiferent dacă în istorie vom intra ca barbari (I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, Romania/Bulgaria/Czech Republic/France/Germany, dir. Radu Jude)
- Dreamaway (Egypt/Qatar/Germany, dir. Marouan Omara/Johanna Domke)
- Miriam miente (Miriam Lies, Dominican Republic/Spain, dir. Natalia Cabral/Oriol Estrada)
- Beoning (Burning, South Korea, dir. Lee Chang-dong)
- Jiang Nu Er Nu (Ash Is Purest White, China/Japan/France, dir. Jia Zhangke)
- Monrovia, Indiana (USA, dir. Frederick Wiseman)
- Netemo Sametemo (Asako I & II, Japan, dir. Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
- Ai to Ho (Of Love & Law, Japan/UK/France, dir. Hikaru Toda)
- Haishang Fucheng (Dead Pigs, China/USA, dir. Cathy Yan)
- Rafiki (aka Friend, Kenya/South Africa, dir. Wanuri Kahiu)
… with a special mention to Madeline’s Madeline (dir. Josephine Decker) and Sorry to Bother You (dir. Boots Riley), which I’d already seen, and which would rank highly. Any of the films above, indeed, could have been higher-placed had I perhaps been in the right frame of mind to take them in, and there was plenty to like in all of them I thought. There was also an excellent “surprise treasure” film screening (a newly-restored 1988 medium-length film), but we were asked not to speak about that.
Disclaimer: I am not a film journalist or writer (you may be able to tell; this is all strictly amateur), I did not get press accreditation, and I paid for all my screenings.