BFI London Film Festival 2021 Part 2: Here we go. As promised, the follow-up to the first part of our extensive overview of LFF 2021 focuses on some outstanding directorial debuts, documentaries and a couple of noteworthy animated features. Savour these (and note down our selection of the five worst films, which should be avoided unless you’re a glutton for punishment). Then scroll down to see the winners of our much-coveted DVDfever Awards.
To be honest, I can’t recall a previous London Film Festival with such a high standard of debut directors. Everywhere you looked there was something remarkable, a fresh vision or approach, a way with actors or story or adaptation that pulled you forward in your seat.
Maybe the best director of young actors around today is Celine Sciamma, but there’s a young pretender to that crown now in the shape of Laura Wandel with her stunning debut, Playground (above). This deservedly won the festival’s First Feature Competition (aka the Sutherland Award) and its USP is that it’s all filmed from the children’s eye-level and is a microcosm of all the issues – from brutal bullying and fast friendship to secrets and lies – that infect the adult world outside the playground itself. The casting is superb, with Maya Vanderbeque holding the film together as the singular, strong-willed Nora, and Günter Duret as her weaker, older brother Abel. It’s pretty much survival of the fittest in the concrete jungle of the playground, classroom and canteen, all filmed in cool, observational documentary fashion. A must-see.
There’s a danger at film festivals that you see so much in quick succession that it all merges together, but Small Body (below) has left so many lasting images, almost like bruises on my consciousness, that it’s proving impossible to forget. It also impressed the Sutherland Award jury so much that they gave the film and its director Laura Samani a special commendation. Set a century ago in remote, rural Italy, the story centres around a devout young woman, Agata (Celeste Cescutti) who has suffered a still birth, but wants to save her dead child’s soul from the state of eternal limbo. To do so she makes a painful, perilous journey into the mountains, carrying her baby’s tiny coffin on her back, encountering some rum characters, and pairing up with the unfathomable figure of Lynx (Ondina Quadri), all against the backdrop of some seriously staggering scenery. Put simply, it’s two kids wandering through the woods and beyond, as if in a real life fairytale. The colour palette and lighting are fabulous and some scenes are reminiscent of Portrait of a Lady on Fire, which is praise indeed. Another name to watch.
One directorial debut that’s definitely caught everyone’s eye is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, based on an Elena Ferrante story and filmed by the Rocks DOP Hélène Louvart. Starring a wish-list of talent in Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley as the mother (older and younger), Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard and Paul Mescal (of Normal People fame) is feels failsafe, and Gyllenhaal shows herself a real actors’ director. So Colman excels as the aggrieved, stiff-upper-lipped tourist in her own ‘Paradise Lost’ that’s interrupted by noisy neighbours – including Johnson – and memories of her own past maternal guilt in the powerful Buckley flashback sequences. With simmering, heady atmosphere throughout, it’s one that lingers.
Rebecca Hall is another actor making a strong directorial debut. Passing is also adapted from a novel, this one from Nella Larsen, and is even more personal to her as the story is of a Harlem woman passing herself off as Caucasian when she is light-skinned. Hall herself discovered late in life that her own mother, the opera singer Maria Ewing, had a similar heritage and experience, and Hall as director has created something visually arresting – in subtle, beautifully-lit black and white – that also packs a punch in addressing issues of race and prejudice head on. What elevates it further are the remarkable lead performances of Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson as well-heeled, old friends reunited and confronting a stifling world in their own, very different ways and on their own terms. And the millinery is also top notch.
Argentine director/screenwriter Andreas Fontana has made a thriller that’s so much more than mere plot in Azor – which manages to be reminiscent of Heart of Darkness and the murkiest John Le Carré tales, but also feels like an undercover documentary. Set in Buenos Aires in 1980, Fontana’s first feature follows a Swiss banker on a trip into the unknown, where money insulates the filthy rich from unhappiness and violence, despite the flagrant corruption and random disappearances occurring around them. Again, hugely promising.
If you’ve seen the mass shooter film Nitram (featured in part one of our roundup), then Mass, from first-time writer-director Fran Kranz, is probably the film to pair it with. A chamber-piece, set in one claustrophobic room, features outstanding performances from its four central actors: Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton and Reed Birney. One couple play the parents of a school shooter, the other couple are the grieving parents of a victim. Both pairs are shell-shocked, cautiously brought together in an intimate peace and reconciliation type situation, and both pairs barely concealing their pain and distrust, after initial awkwardness at meeting. As one declares: “Why do I want to know about your son? Because he killed mine.” Reminiscent of the play God of Carnage, which became the movie Carnage, this slowly bubbles away until it boils over, and just when you think it’s done, there’s an unexpected, highly emotional return to the fray by one of the participants.
With three dramatic stories that feel like connected documentaries woven together, Nudo Mixteco shows the flip-side of a film like Roma. Director-screenwriter Ángeles Cruz centres his debut feature on the indigenous people who make everything function in society, and it touches on issues that may still be taboo and preferred kept secret and out of sight. These include fidelity, sexuality, finances and family matters, and it also shows how hard it can be to go home again.
Straight away in The Alleys – from first-time helmer Bassel Ghandour – we plunge into a heady atmosphere at street level, hemmed in within a tight community. Families seek suitable wives for their sons, arrangements are made and love is frowned upon. Amidst the domestic loyalties and passions, spying, blackmail and petty crime also flourish, and back-stories gradually reveal themselves. The mood veers from high comedy to dark tragedy, and the Jenga-like plot feels more like The Godfather, though starring Palestinian actress Maisa Abd Elhadi as more of a ruthless Godmother-figure who is no stranger to violence. Impressive.
Virtual and real worlds collide in the anime, Belle from Mamoru Hosoda, which re-tells the Beauty and the Beast fairytale. Its unexpected and distinctive look feels flat in the foreground, yet three dimensional and realistic in the background, and pursues the idea of ‘body-sharing’ across another parallel, virtual existence. So the lead character, Suzu, gains confidence from her highly-successful avatar, Belle before encountering the ‘beast’ in the shape of ‘Dragon’. The mix of ancient and modern mythology at its heart also tells much about the all-pervasive technology in our lives.
The innovative animated feature from Jonas Poher Rasmussen, Flee isn’t quite Waltz With Bashir or Persepolis, but is definitely informed by both groundbreaking movies. What makes it different is that it’s a documentary that has painstakingly taken every part of the true story of Amin, a fleeing young, gay Afghan man and his awakening as he journeys to Denmark – and animated it, mainly drawn, some stripped down, some more realistic with occasional archive footage, including sections from his life in Afghanistan. Quite remarkable in its ambition and execution, this has already won awards for Rasmussen and his friend Amin, who deserve all their plaudits.
Running to over three and a half hours, Mr Bachmann and His Class (above) might sound daunting, but once you’re absorbed in its characters – the charismatic schoolteacher Mr Bachmann, and his class of many cultures, faiths and languages – you’re hooked. Maria Speth has already been compared to Frederick Wiseman, and not just for the length of the film, but for the rigour, detail and dedication to the subject, shooting this across six months. The school is in a town where World War II munitions were made, its industries now attracting many diverse migrant families. Speth is holding a mirror up to German society right now, with the class as a microcosm. Using unconventional teaching techniques and music, Bachmann engages with the kids and makes them think and laugh. It’s so in-depth that you feel like you really know him and his students, and I for one would love to see a follow-up documentary, in 7-Up style, to see how all the kids are faring in a few years time.
All These Sons is the fine, second documentary from Joshua Altman and Bing Liu, and focuses on two community groups that are trying to stop young black men in Chicago from falling through the cracks or re-offending. It could almost be called ‘Second Chance’, as the leaders believe in redemption and forgiveness, viewing the men as the solution, rather than the problem, if they’re just given a chance. It addresses the desperate situation they find themselves in, living in a neglected area with the lowest life expectancy, schools being closed down, and structural inequalities. Lots to get your teeth into here, and debate.
Long overdue, Citizen Ashe tells the story of one of tennis’ groundbreaking heroes, Arthur Ashe. But this isn’t one of those warm, fuzzy hagiographies that position the subject as a single-minded do-gooder. Quite the opposite, as it shows him as initially quite the playboy with some pretty outdated attitudes towards women – and a black man who saw racial battles as something that others could fight. After all, he’s making his mark as an extraordinarily good black player in a very white sport, a contemporary of Muhammad Ali, who’d also fought his way into American sporting lore. There are references back and forth in time, taking in Althea Gibson and Serena Williams, Jesse Owens and Colin Kaepernick, and it feels more dramatic when Ashe fully wakes up as civil rights and black power surge around him. His tipping point is the Emmet Till killing, and his wife also helps change his attitudes. There are missteps like playing in South Africa, and losing there to his bitter rival, Jimmy Connors, who he also labelled “unpatriotic” for refusing to play Davis Cup for the USA, but there’s also his guiding hand on the career of explosive young talent John McEnroe, and his latter fighting against apartheid. The documentary maintains its nuanced view even when tackling Ashe’s untimely demise from the AIDS virus, and his activism around AIDS.
Just when you thought that there was nothing new to learn about the little tramp himself, along comes The Real Charlie Chaplin from James Spinney and Peter Middleton, which has somehow unearthed two amazing bits of archive. First is a 1983 interview with an old childhood friend that Kevin Brownlow recorded on audio – and they’ve recreated it beautifully to drop in at crucial points in the narrative, giving a better picture of his formative years and character, and the poverty and deprivation of his upbringing. Second is a four-day Life magazine interview that Chaplin did in 1966, which fills in missing bits of his story, from marriages to stardom and creating his films and best-known roles. And it’s not just for Chaplin completists.
Greenham Common is the main location and character in Briar March’s documentary, Mothers of the Revolution, narrated by Glenda Jackson and linking the politics and feminism of 1980s Britain with global sisterhood and constant nuclear threat in the Cold War. Anyone unfamiliar with the era and the protest gets bags of context, as these latter day suffragettes camp around the US airbase at Greenham, chain themselves to it, and carry out the occasional break in. Joined by folk heroine Peggy Seeger and film star campaigner Julie Christie, plus the likes of Joan Baez and Yoko Ono, some 30,000 women assemble to declare their peace mission. The weaponisation of the media against these women four decades ago, vilifying and belittling their every move and statement, might seem eerily familiar to those reading the ongoing received narrative against Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain. ‘Twas ever thus.
The First Wave (above) is entirely set in New York City during the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic and it still feels viscerally terrifying and unreal, even though we all witnessed this in real time. Key to making this documentary hit home is the almost total access director Matthew Heineman gets for his structure of three parallel narratives: the politics and policy level, the healthcare professionals, the patients and their families, allows him to show, not tell, or resort to emotive tactics. This makes it a gut-punch of a doc as you witness individuals actually dying – endlessly. Then it all ramps up several notches after the killing of George Floyd, especially as people of colour are on the Covid frontlines. But you cannot and should not look away.
Totally comprising archive, The Taking initially seems like it might be a straightforward, rose-tinted look at Monument Valley and the Western movies that were made there. But it quickly turns into something far more provocative and interesting, almost like an essay in its insight. Director Alexandre O Philippe peels back the mythic landscape to reveal how whites are framed as heroic and brave as the West is romanticised, most notably in John Ford’s Westerns. Indigenous Native Americans are shown as baddies, with whites as innocents as history is erased and cultural appropriation is whitewashed under the cover of entertainment. Much to chew on and many movies to re-watch and re-evaluate.
It’s always fun to watch a Mark Cousins’ documentary, as you feel like it’s being made in real time right in front of you. For his latest, The Storms of Jeremy Thomas, he manages to film his portrait of his producer friend during a road-trip they take en route to Cannes’ Film Festival in Thomas’ sports car. The combination of this idiosyncratic duo gives them great access to the likes of Tilda Swinton and Debra Winger, who have appeared in Thomas’ productions, plus a generous portion of clips, and allows Cousins to be reverent and irreverent about the body of work. There’s a loving Cousins’ script, with typical flourishes, and you get a multi-faceted portrait of Jeremy “The Prince” Thomas in the passions in each part: Car, Sex, Politics, Death, Cannes, Endings… all leading towards a conclusion that a producer can also be an auteur.
Go to Page 2 for our DVDfever Awards for 2021, plus the Most Disappointing films of the year!