The London Film Festival 2014‘s first part brought you English-language movies, and in Part 2 we looked at features from the rest of the world. Traditionally we like to hand out our virtual LFF awards in Part 3 of our round-up. And yes, they’re on their way. But first it’s high time to look at the best documentaries of the 58th BFI London Film Festival. And there were some corkers.
It seems to have been a theme to gather films about the visual arts – especially painters – this year. Standing head and shoulders above all of them is, of course, is Mike Leigh’s fabulous Mr Turner. And if you like singular studies of singular artists, then you should seek out HOCKNEY: A LIFE IN PICTURES, in which director Randall Wright gets amazing access to David Hockney’s archive, his working process, and even to the Yorkshireman himself. Brought up in austerity, we see how Bradford shaped his early existence, and begin to understand how he’s become as fascinating as his exquisite drawings and beautiful paintings. We meet family, friends, lovers, colleagues – even his dachshunds – and we see how using an iPad helped Hockney freshen his approach, and you tend to agree with his own assessment: “I realise I’m a bit of a one-off.”
Directed by South Bank Show veteran Gerry Fox, MARC QUINN: MAKING WAVES sees Fox go it alone, abandoning a big film crew and taking his time to really get under the skin of the mighty Quinn (sometimes intrusively), in his quest “to reveal what it really takes to be a creatively and commercially successful artist today”. Quinn may not have yet reached the heights of Hockney, but he is already impressing everyone from Henry Moore’s daughter to the bigwigs at Chelsea Flower Show and the Venice Biennale. Oh, and he meets the Queen. But his own wife and kids take it all in their stride. The creative process is front and centre throughout in his ‘fabrication workshop’ and with help from his ‘art technicians’, and as he presents found objects like a giant shell “untouched by human hand”, but perhaps the loveliest section features Quinn’s giant ‘fingerprint’ artworks.
As we’ve come to expect from all Frederick Wiseman films, NATIONAL GALLERY is entirely absorbing, meticulous in its detail and very, very long. Mind you, when you consider that he shot some 170 hours of footage, then it’s a miracle he’s pared it down to just under three-hours running time. Storytelling is at its heart, and he gets warts-and-all, access-all-areas from minute one. There’s a very different agenda at work here, compared to last year’s Wiseman doc, At Berkeley, and the virtue of art and knowledge come to the fore as qualities worth celebrating in their own right, but also as a challenge for the marketing folk. And as the film gets into its own rhythm, Wiseman starts to discover what makes this organisation tick.
It’s not just the people running the place, managing it, shaping it and endlessly attending meetings about its identity and future. It’s also the curators who act as interpreters, entertainers and cheerleaders for the huge range of paintings. We see how schoolchildren, educators, philanthropists and just good old Joe and Joanna Public are riveted. Life drawing classes are an eye-opener, huge crowds form for the latest blockbuster exhibition (in this case Leonardo), dancers rehearse for an event in the gallery, and we go behind the scenes for a privileged look at conservation of canvases, frames and the paint itself. We sit in on earnest discussions about budgets and charities, and we linger on classic works from Rembrandt and Turner. Splendid stuff.
In similar fashion, Johannes Holzhausen spent more than two years filming inside Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum to get us right inside THE GREAT MUSEUM, thanks to an initial connection through a friend who worked as a conservator there. In many ways, this is a much harder institution to run, as it’s pretty much the British Museum and National Gallery in one, and the building itself needs considerable TLC. From grand visions of what they want to achieve, right down to the ripping up of floorboards, all museum-life is here. Everything demands constant attention, from bejewelled crowns, stuffed beasts’ heads and family heirlooms to drawers of coins. They work out how to tackle beetles within canvases, discuss how great art used to be displayed and which pieces to bring out of storage, create galleries on the computer, then roll out the red carpet for royal visits. Hugely animated macro and micro discussions are equally enthralling.
Go to page 2 for the winner of the Grierson award for Best Documentary.