BFI London Film Festival 2023 Part 2 by Helen M Jerome – The DVDfever Review

BFI London Film Festival 2023 Part 2 BFI London Film Festival 2023 Part 2 by Helen M Jerome: If you want your card marked for all the highly promising directorial debuts at the 2023 London Film Festival – and a few key documentaries – you’ve come to the right place. Part 2 has much to savour and bookmark, and follows up the first part of our extensive overview of LFF 2023. Then continue reading to discover the winners of our much-coveted, very virtual DVDfever Awards – plus our Top 25 festival films.


Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s debut film, The Settlers (above), might just be the perfect pairing with Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon in its theme of crushing and eradicating native people and taking over their land, in this case in Chile. Co-written with Antonia Girard, the colonialist story is split up into captioned chapters, from ‘King of the White Gold’ and ‘The Half Blood’ to ‘The Ends of the Earth’ and ‘The Red Pig’. The action starts in 1901 in Tierra del Fuego, where fences are being erected to carve up open land. Staggeringly beautiful landscape is stunningly shot, accompanied by an exciting and often percussive soundtrack. A ragtag trio, consisting of a Scottish lieutenant, American cowboy and Chilean boy (Mark Stanley, Benjamín Westfall and Camilo Arancibia), ride forth, wiping out entire native settlements en route to the Atlantic Ocean. As land is grabbed, religion is also spread, and Haberle’s neo-Western, and remarkable feature debut, takes on the darkest of hues.

The prestigious Sutherland Award – which is the festival’s First Feature Competition – had some phenomenal debuts this year. The main prize-winner was Sweden’s Paradise is Burning from Mika Gustafson, co-written with Alexander Öhrstrand. Its chaotic story shows three young sisters coping with no parents around – shoplifting, scavenging, skipping school, fighting, and getting by. Basically, they become a bit feral, and the incredible performances from Bianca Delbravo, Dilvin Asaad and Safira Mossberg are all-too believable, along with the one well-known face, Ida Engvoll from The Bridge and The Kingdom. Worth seeking out.

Also in competition was director-screenwriter Luna Carmoon’s Hoard. Part of its success definitely stems from its fine casting. Mum Cynthia (Hayley Squires) is a hoarder, who finds joy in discarded, useless things, and calls her crowded house of stuff a “catalogue of love”. When her young daughter Maria (Lily-Beau Leach) is found in jeopardy, she’s whisked off into foster care with loving, perennial foster mum Samantha Spiro. All goes well until teenage Maria (Saura Lightfoot Leon, excellent) loses her best friend, and encounters the older, prowling Michael (Joseph Quinn) who was also fostered by Spiro. Their love-hate attraction simmers and boils over into something transgressive, notably when Maria recreates scenes she watched in Tin Drum as a child (NB. you may want to avert your eyes from these), and starts to repeat her late mother’s obsessive habits. Remarkable and verypromising.

George Jaques’s debut Black Dog was co-written with one of his co-stars, Jamie Flatters, who plays one of two teens, opposite Keenan Munn-Francis. The pair of mismatched lads – one painfully shy, the other almost comically cocky – are thrown together and embark on a journey north, up the A1 from London. Both are entirely convincing, and even though there’s no neat closure, there’s some learning, black comedy, and processing of grief.

Another Chilean corker comes in Penal Cordillera (above), the debut feature from director-screenwriter Felipe Carmona. Set post-Pinochet’s dictatorship, this focuses on a remote location at the foot of the Andes, where a handful of generals from this period are doing penal servitude. They are, however, treated with deference and even allowed out for family visits. When the truth of their easy existence escapes, their rights are cut and these elderly, but genuinely scary men kick off. Beautifully filmed, with an Apocalypse Now feel in some parts, and a constant, swirling undercurrent of violence, it’s summed up as: “like visiting a kindergarten with murderers.”

Unexpectedly delightful, mainly thanks to the charm of central character Adam (Faraz Ayub), Sky Peals marks director-screenwriter Moin Hussain’s debut. Adam is a nerdy service station burger joint worker standing on the edge of hope and despair, unable to process the death of his father, with Claire Rushbrook as his absent mum. It straddles cold realism and something more fantastical, and again promises much more to come from Hussain.

Rosine Mbakam’s Mambar Pierrette has a real obs-doc feel. The key to this Cameroonian debut is the director putting her seamstress cousin (Pierrette Aboheu) in the title role. Everything revolves around her and her dressmaking, her compassion, her sewing machine, and her place in the community. And every day might be hard work, but manageable for Pierrette, until she has everything taken in a street robbery.


Outside competition, some remarkable debuts addressed real-life stories and urgent issues. One Life, from director James Hawes, and written by Lucinda Coxon and Nick Drake, tells the story of Nicholas Winton, who together with friends, famously helped bring 669 children over from Europe at the start of World War II, in what became known as Kindertransport. Johnny Flynn plays the younger Winton, and Anthony Hopkins brings his own charisma to the older Winton, with perfect period actors including Helena Bonham-Carter and Romola Garai helping bring the historical narrative to life. The film is structured in two main time frames, with the events from fifty years earlier crashing back into Hopkins’ memory in the late 1980s, as he curses how little he feels he achieved, despite the incredible scale and daring of the venture. Bonus is festival favourite Samantha Spiro popping up to play Esther Rantzen on That’s Life, as we follow the story’s incredibly moving resolution.

Fighting a very different battle – against ageing and the dying of the light – NYAD is the uplifting feature debut from joint directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. And they’ve certainly picked a challenging subject: a sports biopic set at sea. Starring Annette Bening as marathon swimmer Diane Nyad, Jodie Foster as her best friend and new coach, plus a crusty Rhys Ifans as the captain of their support vessel, the story starts when Nyad hits 60 and needs a new challenge. She becomes obsessed to overcome the challenge of swimming from Cuba to Florida, having famously failed to do this 30 years earlier. She won’t protect herself with a shark cage, gets attacked by jellyfish, blown off course by the weather… but nevertheless she persists. Failure makes her even more determined and stubborn, despite the added setback of childhood trauma resurfacing in her darkest moments. Crucially, the co-directors manage to build the sense of jeopardy throughout. And Bening and Foster make a dynamic acting duo.

There’s another kind of watery peril in Mahalia Belo’s timely The End We Start From, which is very much a journey held together by its star, Jodie Comer. Written by renowned playwright and Lady Macbeth screenwriter, Alice Birch, it adapts Megan Hunter’s 2017 novel to tackle the climate emergency head on. We start with a pregnant Comer going into labour just as the world seems to be ending, and there’s little help, even from partner Joel Fry. Water is pouring into her London home, the weather is apocalyptic and everyone is fleeing the capital. When they escape into the countryside, this is also under water, and the rest of the film travels into various, very different, but submerged parts of the land, with Comer
and her baby mainly going solo, occasionally encountering other British actors playing eccentric survivors, from Benedict Cumberbatch and Gina McKee, to in-laws Mark Strong and Nina Sosanya. Uneven, but very promising.

Powerful, Glasgow-set coming of age drama Girl, from debut director Adura Onashile, shows mother Grace and daughter Ama (fine performances from Déborah Lukumuena and Le’Shantey Bonsu) isolated and adrift. And even as Ama ventures out into the world, memories of trauma return for Grace…

Belgian borstal drama The Lost Boys (above), from Zeno Graton, quickly succeeds in gripping viewers because of its excellent casting. Joe (Khalil Gharbia) and William (Julien de Saint Jean, previously superb in Lie With Me) are sent to a young offenders institute and bond over a crafty joint, which soon escalates into mutual attraction, then all-consuming desire. Joe could get out, but his passion for William holds him back. Symbolism abounds in fire, ice and snakes, notably in their tattoos, and the abundant talent in the leading actors should ensure they both rise to the very top.

Power Alley from Brazilian debut director Lillah Halla is superficially a sports movie about Sofia, the star player in a volleyball team, but it’s actually about friendship, religion, bigotry, and reproductive rights. For Sofia falls pregnant just as she’s due to play in Chile, abortion is illegal in Brazil, she has no money for the procedure, so her teammates club together to raise the cash. Remarkably, the volleyball sequences feel very realistic, despite none of the young women having elite experience. And the director admits that making it after Bolsonaro’s 2019 election showed how he’d legitimated the growth of intolerance.

If you fancy some Nordic Noir set on Dartmoor, then Caroline Ingvarsson’s Unmoored – adapted by Michèle Marshall from Håkan Nesser’s crime novel The Living and the Dead in Winsford – fits the bill. Starting in Scandinavia and moving across Europe, the plot centres around TV presenter Maria (Mirja Turestedt), whose toxic husband Magnus is accused of a crime, and she’s frankly had her fill of him. Of course, there are big twists plus shedloads of atmosphere and suspense on the lonely, windy Devon moors – and having got her vengeance in up top, you wonder if she can escape her fate and the truth.

Deceptively small in scale, director-screenwriter Raven Jackson’s debut All Dirt Roads Taste Of Salt contains ambitious themes – and with talent like our own Sheila Atim, it punches above its weight. Naturalistic lighting and much handheld camerawork give extra atmosphere, as does a great soundtrack, and there’s an aching, painterly, Terence Davies feel to this portrait of the Deep South, with death and mystery at its heart.


There’s a dream team at the core of The Pigeon Tunnel in which top doc director Errol Morris gets to tell the true life story of writer John Le Carré by sitting down with him (not long before his passing) and letting the tales flow. Named after Le Carré’s autobiography – which turns out to have been the working title for most of his spy novels – it’s also a Cold War metaphor that flips back to some vivid, boyhood experiences. You can see the child maketh the man as young David Cornwell (Le Carré’s real name) lives through the tangled web woven by his family. And it’s a miracle that he emerges relatively unscathed, considering his mother leaves when he is five, and his father Ronnie is a confidence trickster. The film becomes a voyage into the novelist’s psyche, witnessing his dad’s life as a succession of embraces and escapes. The experiences also help turn Cornwell into the perfect recruit for the secret service, with his fictional creation, George Smiley, the ideal father he never had. Woven through the set-piece interview are extracts from Le Carré’s books, films and TV series, and the theme of deception running across the documentary is enhanced by Morris’ use of refracted, splintered mirrors and angles for the sit-down sections.

Among many strong festival films about women, one of my favourites was definitely Copa ’71 (above), from ace directing duo Rachel Ramsay and James Erskine, backed by impressive executive producers Serena and Venus Williams and star footballer Alex Morgan. Telling the previously untold story of the Women’s World Cup in Mexico way back in 1971, it also reveals how the tournament has been controversially excluded and erased from the record books. Making this much more than your usual sports documentary, there’s brand new footage of and from punters in the stadiums with 100,000 crowds, vivid news stories from the time, and now the moving reminiscences of the players who represented the likes of England, Mexico, Italy, and eventual winners Denmark, as they look back.

Another phenomenon from the same era is Anita Pallenberg, whose story is told in Alexis Bloom and Svetlana Zill’s documentary Catching Fire. Access is excellent, probably because her son was one of the producers, so we get the truth behind Pallenberg as muse to first Brian Jones then Keith Richard at the pomp and peak of The Rolling Stones – and briefly Mick Jagger during Performance. And, according to Pallenberg, Jagger wrote ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ about her. Constructed with a mix of recon, stills, archive footage, and interviews with her children now, we also hear the voices of Marianne Faithfull and Richard himself. We see how she was an actress in her own right, and how her style influenced Richard… so much so that he often borrowed and wore her gear. What makes it all work, however, is the inspired casting of Scarlett Johansson, who we hear throughout, narrating as Pallenberg.

One of those docs that opens up to reveal something surprising, much like Capturing The Friedmans, director Chloe Abrahams’ A Taste of Mango looks at the unspoken secrets driving a wedge between three generations of women in the same family. When they’re reunited, the dreadful family abuse that occurred in the past is finally revealed.

Claire Simon’s excellent documentary, Our Body, is an unflinching, extraordinary, access-all-areas look at birth, life and death on the gynaecology ward in a Paris hospital. Big stories of resilience, dread and hope pile up. What makes it even more powerful is an unexpected twist in the director’s own health while making the film. Recommended.

Deepa Mehta’s collaboration with Sirat Taneja, is the autobiographical and eye-opening doc, I Am Sirat. Shot with a mix of vertical selfie and conventional horizontal styles, this cleverly emphasises that Sirat is living a double life. A trans woman, forced to live a lie with her mother at home, but perhaps unexpectedly able to be herself when at work and socially, she spends the film trying to get acknowledged and become legit with her ID card, so her life as a woman can begin…

Ehsan Khoshbakht’s Celluloid Underground is a love letter to cinema, in the very personal style of an Iranian Mark Cousins – while also tackling suppression and censorship. Also worth checking out are Leandro Koch’s The Klezmer Project – exploring disappearing cultures, peoples, language, and music, with a few folk trying to keep them alive – and Cyril Aris’ Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano, about the making of the award-winning movie, Costa Brava, Lebanon. Rich pickings for doc lovers.


25 Best Feature Films (in alphabetical order):

    All Of Us Strangers
    The Bikeriders
    Bonus Track
    The Book of Clarence
    Evil Does Not Exist
    Fallen Leaves
    Hit Man
    The Holdovers
    The Hypnosis
    Killers of the Flower Moon
    Les Indésirables
    May December
    Paradise is Burning
    The Peasants
    Penal Cordillera
    Poor Things
    Pot Au Feu (above)
    The Rye Horn
    The Settlers
    Zone of Interest

Best Documentaries:

    COPA 71
    The Pigeon Tunnel
    Our Body
    Taste of Mango

Rising Talent:

    Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s debut director of The Settlers
    Felipe Carmona, debut director of Penal Cordillera
    Janet Novás, in The Rye Horn
    Saura Lightfoot Leon, in Hoard
    Luna Carmoon, debut director of Hoard
    Dominic Sessa, in The Holdovers
    Anta Diaw, in Les Indésirables
    Juan Daniel García Treviño, in Lost in the Night
    Mika Gustafson, debut director of Paradise is Burning

Best Drama:

    Poor Things
    Runners-up: The Peasants, Paradise is Burning, Saltburn, May December

Best Romance:

    Pot au Feu, Fingernails, Memory, Bonus Track, The Nature of Love

Best Comedy:

    Hit Man
    Runners-up: The Hypnosis, Fallen Leaves, The Holdovers, The Book of Clarence

Best Thriller:

    Killers of The Flower Moon
    Runners-up: Eileen, Lost in the Night, Only the River Flows, Shame on Dry Land, Stolen

Best Political Thriller:

    Penal Cordillera and Les Indésirables

Best Director:

    Yorgos Lanthimos, Poor Things
    Runners-up: Hirokazu Kore-eda, Monster; Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Evil Does Not Exist; Emerald Fennell, Saltburn; Andrew Haigh, All of Us Strangers.

Best Actress:

    Emma Stone, Poor Things
    Runners-up: Thomasin McKenzie, Eileen; Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon; Sandra Hüller, Zone of Interest; Tilda Swinton, The Killer; Juliette Binoche, Pot au Feu

Best Actor:

    Franz Rogowski, Lubo
    Runners-up: Barry Keoghan, Saltburn; Paul Giamatti, The Holdovers; Glen Powell, Hit Man

Best Ensembles:

    Totem, Paradise is Burning, Saltburn, The Settlers

Best Duo:

    Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed in Fingernails
    Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel in Pot au Feu
    Khalil Gharbia and Julien de Saint Jean in Lost Boys
    Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard in Memory
    Paul Mescal and Andrew Scott in All of Us Strangers
    Annette Bening and Jodie Foster in NYAD
    Déborah Lukumuena and Le’Shantey Bonsu in Girl
    Julianne Moore and Natalie Portman in May December

Most Haunting:

    Evil Does Not Exist, Zone of Interest

Best Ending:

    One Life, Evil Does Not Exist.

Best Costumes:

    Poor Things, obviously.

Annual Festival Ubiquity Award (aka the Kristin Scott Thomas Award):

    Carey Mulligan in Maestro and Saltburn; Jacob Elordi in Saltburn and Priscilla; Jodie Comer in The Bikeriders and The End We Start From; Samantha Spiro, in One Life and Hoard.

That’s everything from BFI London Film Festival 2023 Part 2, and don’t forget to check out Part 1 if you haven’t yet seen that.

Check out the London Film Festival website.