African-American filmmakers can often be found working in the documentary form — which often presents fewer financial and political hurdles than feature filmmaking — and some have made entire bodies of work, exploring complex issues of race and urban identity, often within an academic framework. This is where Christopher Harris seems to come from, and listening to the director speak afterwards, it’s evident he has thought very deeply about his praxis and about representation on film. The quiet, observant approach is reminiscent of recent documentaries in a similar vein such as Hale County This Morning, This Evening by RaMell Ross and the work of Kevin Jerome Everson in that sense of a sort of decontextualised Black present-day life, of people seen in a very specific place, albeit always laden with unavoidable historical connotations and meaning. RaMell Ross in his film is a little more playful, using intertitles to sometimes wryly comment on what is seen. And if the structure initially seems haphazard, yet I have no doubt it is very carefully put together.
I’ve written up reviews of all the films I saw over the last twelve days, so you can find them by following the London Film Festival tag, but it’s time to reflect about the festival as a whole, and also rank my favourites of course.
First off, there were plenty of really good films, both in competition (an overall competition, a first feature competition and a documentary one too) and in the galas, and I imagine we should credit that to the festival’s director Tricia Tuttle, whose first year this was at the reins (though she was acting director last year).
However, as with every year, I largely eschewed the big gala screenings as well as films that were certain to return to our screens, with a few exceptions (and these generally rank high in my favourites, because they have buzz for a reason). I prefer to go to films with no distributor attached, and mostly films directed by women. Of the 31 films I saw at the festival, 24 were directed (or co-directed in two cases) by women, and 17 of those were women of colour. (The fact that male-directed films rank quite highly in the list below is probably because they have to be pretty special for me to make an exception and go see them.)
The other statistic is that most of the films I saw were not in English, which seems fairly obvious but it’s nice to avoid anglophone cinema occasionally. Even of the three American films I saw, Lingua Franca was focused on a Filipina transwoman so chunks of the dialogue were in Tagalog (and Cebuano). I managed a couple of archival films (from the Treasures strand), but most of those I see at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato in June.
It’s fair to say that from most of the critical coverage I’ve read, there are plenty of films I am excited to see upon their return. Professional critics (somewhat by necessity) have to see the big names to have an opinion and be part of a wider conversation, but it does mean that a lot of critical coverage (certainly the anglophone British/American critics) tends towards the same narrow list of titles. Many of the big director names started with smaller features, perhaps ones that were a little less assured, and for all the quality found amongst first-time directors, you can’t expect a director’s finest work to be their first, so some of the debuts tend to lurk further down my list.
I’m sure I’ll be seeing more of the LFF 2019 films over the next 12 months or more, as distributors’ release windows can sometimes stretch on rather a long time; one of my favourites from last year, Tehran: City of Love, only got a cinematic release last week in the UK. Already some of the titles are on Netflix, but I hope I don’t have to wait so long to see such lauded films as Bacurau and Atlantics, both films I was very close to adding to my list.
10 The Sharks (2019)
9 Lingua France (2019)
8 A Thief’s Daughter (2019)
7 Overseas (2019)
6 Star-Crossed Lovers (1962)
5 So Long, My Son (2019)
4 And Then We Danced (2019)
3 The Unknown Saint (2019)
2 Sweet Charity (1969)
1 Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Disclaimer: I am not a film journalist or writer, I did not get press accreditation, and I paid for all my screenings.
My final day of the London Film Festival sends me to three films from Asia (two directed by women), and all of which deal with families in their various guises, though Bombay Rose has more of a romantic flavour than the other two. All three represent reasons why I continue to love contemporary cinema, and value the films that the LFF presents.
My penultimate day at the London Film Festival started with a screentalk from Kasi Lemmons, director of Harriet (part of this year’s festival, though sadly a film I shan’t be seeing here, as it was a late addition), but also many other films I’ve loved over the years. Her five feature films were all covered, with clips provided, in an interview chaired by Gaylene Gould, and I’m reminded of how underrated and funny Talk to Me (2007) is, not to mention her seasonal musical drama Black Nativity (2013), though of course it’s Eve’s Bayou (1997) which received the most attention, and for good reason. Lemmons was voluble about her career, which stretches back to her early childhood as an actor, and is an inspiring figure in general, happy to speak to her many admirers after the screening. I did not ask a question, although I do wonder how the film will be received Stateside, given the recent prominent critiques of Black British actors playing iconic African-American figures. I certainly plan to see it though, and Cynthia Erivo has already shown in Widows that she’s a star in the making. Of the four films I saw, they span several countries, including two German films (one from the East in the 1960s, and the other a recent mystery thriller) both with slightly tricksy narrative structures), two black-and-white films (the East German one and a recent Saudi film directed by a woman in a magical realist style), and one documentary.
My two films for the third-to-last day of the London Film Festival were two dramas touching on murder, both made by American directors, although quite different in many other ways. After all, one is a Mediæval-set Icelandic folk tale based on a Brothers Grimm fairytale (i.e. the proper weird old-world stuff), and the other is set at a Death Row facility in the States, but in both settings the characters follow their own twisted logic to its murderous conclusions.
Only two films today, as I used the evening to have some birthday drinks for myself, but both films I saw were written and directed by a woman who also took the lead role, and one gets the sense that both films are about their respective directors. As such the ways that they each approach themselves as subject probably reveal plenty about their respective situations, as the Korean film is more broadly comical.
I can’t say I was expecting a Nordic-style deadpan multi-strand story of three misfits looking for love from an Iranian film (in a post-screening Q&A the filmmaker quoted Kaurismäki, Roy Andersson and Jim Jarmusch when naming his reference points), though the fact that it’s shot through with a sort of hangdog melancholy feels a bit more in keeping with what I’ve seen from the area. It’s lovely, though, both in its filmmaking and the performances — lots of carefully-composed frontal shots, with very low-key interactions as we watch the characters’ faces carefully for signs of reaction: brief flickering smiles from the cosmetic surgeon’s receptionist Mina (Forough Ghajabagli); anything that’s not utter gloom from funeral singer Vahid (Mehdi Saki); and a hint of same-sex attraction from bodybuilder Hessam (Amir Hessam Bakhtiari). Nothing quite goes as you think it might, but equally nothing goes truly dark, there’s just the constant undercurrent of potentiality as well as absurdity, and it’s sort of lovely to see each of these three characters come out of their respective shells, even briefly.
Director Ali Jaberansari علی جابر انصاری; Writers Jaberansari and Maryam Najafi مریم نجفی; Cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah محمدرضا جهان پناه; Starring Forough Ghajabagli فروغ قجابگلی, Mehdi Saki مهدی ساکی, Amir Hessam Bakhtiari امیرحسام بختیاری, Behnaz Jafari بهناز جعفری; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at Vue West End, London, Friday 19 October 2018.
For my week of Iranian cinema I can’t really avoid Abbas Kiarostami. He is, by some way, the pre-eminent figure in Iranian cinema, certainly the best-known, though some of his earlier films can be difficult to see. Many have been banned in Iran for political reasons, not least his 1979 documentary First Case, Second Case which was filmed on either side of that year’s revolution.
At one level this feels like a dour, controlled and apparently innocuous morality lesson with a documentary-like precision, as a series of talking heads comment on two different examples from a classroom where disobedient boys are being punished: one in which one the boys denounces his colleagues, the other in which they stand united. However, it was made at the time of the Iranian Revolution, and the moral questions are ones that pierce to the heart of any society, especially this one at this time: should we stand with our colleagues who are being unfairly treated, or denounce them for personal gain (and even if do, have we really gained anything). The first people we hear from are the fathers of each of the boys, and then a series of governmental, religious, cultural and educational figures, who broaden the debate to one of fairness and indeed about whether the teacher was in the right. Of course, these lines of argument become rather leading at a time when the entire country was in turmoil: the film was banned and many of those speaking in the film were suppressed later.
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی; Cinematographer Houshang Baharlou هوشنگ بهارلو; Length 53 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Arlecchino, Bologna, Friday 28 June 2019.
My eighth day of the festival should have been filled with more films, but I ended up not going to the third. Perhaps you could say the long hours were getting to me (I did feel my eyelids getting heavy briefly during Portrait), but actually something else came up. However, the two I did see both presented fascinating films about women’s lives, neither of which featured men at all (or almost never), though of course patriarchal control was never too far from the surface.
Iranian cinema may have its own domestic identity, but plenty of creative talents from the country have been nourished overseas, in exile (whether formal or self-imposed) from their home country. Women like Mania Akbari or Ana Lily Amirpour have become quite well-known in their respective areas (whether visual art or genre cinema), and there are several others who have had some success. I focus on two below who made films in 2017.