London Film Festival 2020 Part 2: Here we go – straight into part two of our round up of the London Film Festival 2020 (part one is where to get your fix of reviews of the new feature-length ‘fiction’ movies). Here we’re focusing on the best of the documentaries from a very strong selection, some archive films, plus episodic releases, and shorts. And we round off the whole overview with our much-coveted 2020 DVDfever Awards.
The Painter and the Thief (above), from director Benjamin Roe, is one of those documentaries that are almost too fantastical to make up. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction. And there are multiple twists and cliff-hangers along the way to keep you guessing. Set in Norway, it foregrounds an artist who is the victim of a theft, and the addict who has stolen two of her artworks. We follow the narrative from both their points of view, with haunting music flowing through and gluing the pieces together. Both individuals are damaged and haunted, as we see when she reaches out to him, and there’s a feelgood, redemptive passage of the film… until a car crash changes everything. Real people and their real lives, yet surreal.
Another accused man is at the heart of Garrett Bradley’s remarkable film, Time – although the focus is really on the effect of one African American man’s incarceration on his wife, Fox Richardson, and children across the years. We are thrust into the story of their lives via black and white diary footage, with a jumble of happy memories. Then we peel back any layers of artifice when Fox talks straight to camera as if to her imprisoned spouse. Acting perhaps as a neat companion piece to Ava DuVernay’s The 13th, this ongoing filming and access to Fox carries us through decades as she narrates her campaign for her husband. Solo, jazzy piano also helps pull strands together, as we marvel at her strength in adversity, and her overachieving, equally inspirational sons. And long before the end, you’ll be genuinely cheering her on in her fight for justice.
The Reason I Jump has already won the Sundance Audience Award, and it’s easy to see why Jerry Rothwell’s multi-layered film is such a crowd-pleaser. Based on Naoki Higashida’s book of the same title, and shining a light on autism, it leaps around the world to show different journeys for young people. Amrit in India explains and interprets the world through her drawings. Author David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) has an autistic son himself, and appreciates the Higashida book’s cartography; how it maps the mind. Joss, in Kent, has a memory like “an out of control slideshow”. Ben in the US uses a letterboard to communicate, and is incredibly articulate once he can express himself, as is his lifelong friend Emma, who he calls “my North Star”. Meanwhile, Jestina is up against centuries of stigma and misunderstandings – and not just at home in Sierra Leone, but worldwide – and her mother is desperate for other families to open up.
One Man and his Shoes, from Yemi Bamiro, seems to be telling another version of the Great American Myth, that anyone can make it up the ladder, and that sport is microcosm of society. It’s initially and superficially about the making of an icon, and an iconic sports shoe… and then it goes deeper and explores how monetisation and capitalism and ‘coolwashing’ can quickly become exploitative, turning kids into consumers and even seeing youths murdered for their sneakers. The darker side of the American Myth.
With no narration, just the power of its images, Notturno (above) is Gianfranco Rosi’s vision of the precariousness of everyday life. Focusing on the borders in Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, we see soldiers training, bereaved mothers and widows, city horses, moments of quiet amidst gunfire – every scene a perfect miniature with minimal night lighting from headlights or a flickering generator, and just the noise of wind, flies and footsteps. Particularly affecting is hearing little kids with PTSD recounting their traumatic memories with pictures they’ve drawn. Quietly very moving.
In what becomes a bloody travelogue, African Apocalypse has director Rob Lemkin follow writer Femi Nylander as he goes in search of the real Mr Kurtz (from Joseph Conrad’s novel Heart of Darkness) across time and space. Starting their journey in Oxford, they head to Niger, where French Captain Paul Voulet cut a violent, brutal swathe in 1899, and it remains ‘engraved on their hearts’. Nylander looks at his own twin heritage and sees how colonialism still rears its ugly head with the continued mining of uranium powering France, and there’s a neat connection bringing it all up to date with statue toppling debates and BLM protests back in Oxford. An interesting, provocative film.
I’m a massive fan of Talking Heads, but couldn’t get tickets to see David Byrne’s American Utopia on Broadway, so I was (as they say) stoked to see it on film, as directed by Spike Lee. It starts with Byrne holding a pink brain in front of a live and lively Hudson Theatre audience. He and his fellow performers are all barefoot and clad in identical grey suits, with typical Byrne choreography. The show tries to make sense of life, exploring through song – some new and many Talking Heads classics like Burning Down The House, Once In A Lifetime, Slippery People and crucially Don’t Worry About The Government – which all spring back to life in this reimagined form, and take on new meaning. Byrne also speaks on power and politics for his entire ensemble: “most of us are immigrants and we couldn’t do without them.” Now I want to see this live even more!
Music is also at the heart of a couple of very different documentaries. Sound for the Future is a clever way to revisit Britain’s youngest post-punk band, the Hippies. Director Matt Hulse – who was one of the trio of siblings that comprised the band – takes the whole phenomenon of recreating photos from your childhood up several notches. He even builds a local project to recreate entire scenes, and revisit and interrogate the band’s golden, sepia-tinged 1979 memories. Using Scottish Youth Theatre kids, the film also becomes about the making of the film itself, in meta style. Joyous!
Another labour of musical love comes from director and star, Caroline Catz, in her doc, Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes. Known mainly as the composer of the Doctor Who classic theme tune, Derbyshire was underappreciated in her lifetime, and Catz straddles doc and drama reconstruction in reframing her work and legacy. That she’s now considered the godmother of EDM gives extra weight to this heartfelt tribute film.
If It Were Love, from Patric Chiha, is one for the danceaholics. This French film is ostensibly about precisely choreographed dance and expression – a rave in slow motion – while dipping into the idea of abandoning oneself, with a thin line between the dancers’ lives and what they are performing.
And there’s much music too in Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets, from Bill and Turner Ross. Set around the time that a local bar with a close community is due to close its doors for the last time, this semi-documentary slows down the Roaring 20s bar’s ‘last day in paradise’ so we can see all the characters, the waifs and strays, in close-up and realise that all life is here. And even though the lens literally feels rose-tinted, with a red filter, there’s a harsh reality and finality at the heart of the film’s nostalgia.
Go to Page 2 for more of London Film Festival 2020 Part 2!