The 2022 BFI London Film Festival (“LFF) was my first back in-person since 2019. These are my notes and observations about the films. These aren’t full blown reviews because I’m no film expert.
Last year’s online selection was dire, super depressing themes – and I like depressing films – and no Italian films – deadly sin as far as I’m concerned – so much so I didn’t even bother writing about it.
This year the BFI brought a variety of stories made by and about a wide range of people and I’m delighted to write about films again.
The LFF is a significant creative recharge for me. Seeing how people tell their stories is inspiring and helps my own creativity. Plus, I learn lots of interesting new things along the way.
Make time for these
Nüshu is a secret language and script developed by women in China when they weren’t allowed an education and lived in relative isolation within a household. The secret language allowed women to share their experiences, feelings, encouragement and poetry.
The film follows two contemporary women and how they weave Nüshu into their lives. We also meet an extraordinary old woman who is among the last living women to remember Nüshu from lived experience.
Hidden Letters is more than just a cultural documentary about a historical thing. The way this film interweaves the past and present is lyrical and completely engrossing. It’s also a universal film about women communicating with the world and how that changes when men intervene. There are masterful and hilarious scenes when men decide what Nüshu means now and how it should be marketed. Global mansplaining, and seeing it on film without comment, will get you to laugh out loud.
All That Breathes
This was a gorgeous and wonderful documentary film. It has won the Documentary category at LFF.
It’s about brothers who rescue black kites, vultures and other birds who fall out of the Delhi sky. I don’t recommend animal films lightly (see my most recent blog post).
The brothers aren’t vegan, but they understand “life is kinship” and they don’t differentiate between birds who are vegetarian and those who aren’t. The latter are considered unclean and bird hospitals and sanctuaries won’t take them in. It’s unfortunate such insight isn’t extended to all animals because that’s the only morally sensible position.
In any event, this isn’t a hagiography of people doing good things or only about the conditions making birds fall from the sky. It’s about real people doing something and about the non-human animals who live beside us. And an illustration of how they go, we go.
The visual narrative also seems to glide in the sky and the brothers are so candid and vulnerable in the film you really get the sense of having visited with them.
Available on Mubi and it’s in wide release.
Name Me Lawand
The family of a profoundly deaf Iraqi Kurdish boy risks everything to seek refuge in the UK because in Iraq, there are no facilities or help for someone like Lawand.
In the UK, Lawand finds his voice when he learns British Sign Language and can finally interact with the world. He’s an extraordinary young man who can now take part, learn, play and find his place in the world. And what does the UK Home Office want to do? Kick them out, of course, unless Lawand as a 12 year old can convince a court the family deserves to stay.
Imagine the layers of trauma here.
But he does it. And seeing the story of this remarkable young person under extraordinary pressure is something to witness. I’m not going to say it’s inspirational because it’s not and that’s an unfair view of someone’s real struggle.
Lawand and his family were in the audience at the screening and it was the cutest thing ever. They all looked simultaneously delighted and bewildered. I can’t imagine the emotions of seeing yourself go through those moments and reliving all that past. And all the while having a very supportive audience all around you. It would’ve been interesting to hear from them.
Into The Ice
Greenland’s ice moulins are on film for the first time. Visually, this is a stunning film, as you may imagine. And the importance of it for our understanding of melting glaciers due to climate collapse can’t be understated.
Ice moulins are basically super deep chasms within the ice sheet. They’re sort of like bathtub drains for icy meltwater, but they’re ever shifting and moving as part of the ice sheet. Because they’re deep and moving, they’re dangerous and not closely studied. They can’t be monitored from afar or with a drone because the signals don’t reach down to their depths.
The brave scientists who are studying them are seeing the effects of climate collapse in a much different way – much faster and with much greater impacts – than the surface only measurements. Having both is important to know what’s going on.
The most poignant thing the director said in the Q&A was the scientists feel a “burden of awareness”. They know and understand what’s happening, yet we’re not listening.
Much like all these folks talking about climate and yet being nonvegan…. I get the feeling. I’ve no idea whether anyone involved in this film is vegan, btw, and I didn’t ask. It just wasn’t the time and place.
The documentary is now available on BBC Four.
Bobi Wine: People’s president
Bobi Wine is a very popular musician and the Ugandan leader of the political opposition to Museveni, the country’s long-term president.
This film follows Bobi and his change from pop figure to political leader over five years. The film also features his wife, Barbie Kyagulanyi, who was present at the screening and was just amazing in the Q&A.
Bobi’s and Uganda’s political struggle are something to behold. Despite being beaten and jailed for doing nothing more than campaigning, Bobi perseveres. He and Barbie are incredible figures. And we all need to know about them.
Incidentally, one of the producers of the film is seeking asylum in the USA instead of the UK because the latter is deemed unfavourable to asylum seekers at the moment.
The original title was Bobi Wine: Ghetto President, but as it’s been acquired by National Geographic, the name has changed. NG will give it the wide distribution it deserves.
My Imaginary Country
In 2019, Chile exploded with popular protests, resulting in elections displacing the far right government and a referendum rejecting the country’s constitution, which had been in place since Pinochet.
This film is worthwhile seeing for the incredible scenes from the demonstrations, the sheer numbers of people in the streets and the political context we glimpse. It’s also possibly the saddest film I saw because despite the hopes, the reality is the country rejected the newly-written constitution, which puts into question the success of this relatively peaceful revolution.
Written and directed by Patricio Guzmán who was filming during the 1973 coup against Allende.
Super Eagles ’96
Nigeria, Fela, football, corruption and political struggle all come together in this documentary about the first African team to win gold for football at the Olympics. It’s directed by British-born Nigerian Yemi Bamiro, who also directed One Man and His Shoes about Air Jordans, which I loved at LFF 2020. Bamiro is clearly becoming a master at weaving a full picture of what seems like one small topic.
Nothing happens in isolation and that certainly applies to the rise and success of the incredible Nigerian national football team. There’s tons of never-before-seen archival footage the film team found in dusty libraries. There are interviews with Nigerian footballers and the phenomenal Noo Saro-Wiwa, daughter of executed political activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa.
Whether you’re a football fan is immaterial. This is an incredibly immersive, fun and interesting film to see more sides of Nigeria. Well worth your time.
During the Q&A, Bamiro was quick to give as much credit for this film to the filmmaking team, which was made up of mostly women.
Find the soundtrack to this film as well. It’s, unsurprisingly if you’re familiar with Nigerian music, brilliant.
Meet Me in the Bathroom
One for musos! All about the late late 90s and early noughts music scene from Brooklyn and based on Lizzie Goldman‘s eponymous tome.
You’ve got archival footage directly from the bands and oral contributions from The Strokes, Karen O and The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Moldy Peaches, Interpol and LCD Soundsystem. You get to see a bit of NYC before 9/11 and the music scene before Napster. It all feels like a million years ago. I’m used to seeing films about my old NYC. When a younger generation bemoans the loss of their NYC like they do in this film, it soothes my own nostalgia.
Love or hate these bands, it was a hell of a time and some brilliant music.
Nina Menkes makes her lecture Sex and Power: The Visual Language of Oppression into a film. She examines how the male gaze behind the lens continues to be a powerful and pervasive arm of patriarchal propaganda. She doesn’t only look at men’s films, but women’s too. We’re all bound up together in this skewed worldview.
It’s eye opening and simultaneously, we know all this. We feel it in our gut when films or scenes just don’t sit right with us. We might not be able to point out why, like she does, but once they’re explained as well as she does, now you won’t be able to unsee or not notice them anymore.
If The Streets Were On Fire
The narrator and protagonist of this documentary asks the viewer this and follows it up with “but you can only see it if you’re there”. That’s how he describes the knife crime crisis amongst young people in London.
To get young people out of the estates where they might end up fighting with others, community organiser, Mac, assembles group bike rides into The City. The City is ideal for them because it’s neutral ground for all participants and far enough away from the estates that no boundaries accidentally get crossed, which could lead to potential conflict.
But then the police get involved in any event because they view these young cyclists as nuisances. What are these kids supposed to do? They just can’t win.
Until there’s a trailer to this documentary, see Bikes Up, Knives Down and BikeStormz for an idea.
Senegalese and Griot director Moussa Sene Absa was so happy when talking about this film and very generous with his insight, whether about the film or culture. I’d happily listen to him all day. It was interesting he said he felt free with this film like he had with no others. Primarily because of Covid travel restrictions, he had no foreign funding. That foreign funding should limit filmmakers in any way is a very sad statement on the conditions or even perceived conditions that come with such money.
Two things completely alter a young woman’s life in Senegal. First and directly, events her dying grandmother final wishes set in motion. And second, the siren call of Europe for her beloved twin brother.
Essentially, this story is about how the women protagonists deal with what life has handed them. There is submission to the will of the elders, but on their own terms. They’ll do what they’re asked without submitting to a life of regret. The women here aren’t victims, despite actually being so in a variety of ways. They’re strong, driven and know exactly what they’re doing – for better or worse. And each character also gets their own chorus. But it’s not your usual impassive chorus. They emote and take a small, but active role. So they’re much more relatable, drawing the viewer further into the story.
The Cloud Messenger (Meghdoot)
Without a doubt one of my favourite features in the Festival. The story of star crossed lovers – through time, space, dimensions and reincarnations – was inspired by an ancient Indian poem where the protagonist speaks to clouds to send messages to his lover.
The film’s lovers meet once again in their new reincarnation. This time, they’re in a high school in foothills of the Himalayas in northern India. Nevertheless, they must overcome the ancient curse which follows them in all rebirths.
There is love, drama, beautiful scenery and a heaping helping of Hindu mysticism. It takes place in the boarding school the director attended in his youth. And he wrote an entire new Kathakali, a form of classical dance with extravagant costumes, makeup and hand gestures, which is an integral part of the film.
The leads are young, vulnerable and intense. You’re right there with them the whole way. It’s an impossibly gorgeous film.
The Girl From Tomorrow (Primadonna)
As in many places in the world – still – marital rape wasn’t a crime in Italy. This story of a Sicilian woman in 1965 who challenges this accepted practice by refusing to marry her rapist is powerful with some excellent acting by newcomers and veterans of Italian cinema.
The protagonist knows herself and won’t bow to accepted tradition and what her village imposes on her. This is no mean feat for a young woman in Sicily from a farming family. The pressures are enormous.
What I really liked about this film was her grit and her relationship with her family. The usual trope would be the family would be unsupportive and she’d have to fight that too. That’s been done many times. So to see a totally different dynamic was great.
The African Desperate
Palace, a young Black woman, graduates from a masters in fine arts program somewhere in a leafy upstate in the US. She’s talented, has to deal with her pretentious and micro-aggressing professors and an annoying guy she’s been crushing on all summer. All sounds pretty typical right? But we’ve not seen this perspective from a Black woman. And it’s fantastic fun to see her enjoy herself, rejecting the usual screen stereotypes for Black women, and tell her crush what’s what. Super enjoyable film.
A Danish, Jewish and queer horror film set in London. The combination of these elements was compelling and I knew I had to see it. The film is both a horror and romance story, cleverly intertwined. There are plenty of spooky moments, but no gore. The actress playing Leah portrays her character’s many interesting sides so creepily well. She’s a delight to watch. Another enjoyable film.
I didn’t expect to like this film. It’s a big budget film tackling Don Delillo’s eponymous novel, starring Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig and Don Cheadle.
Then I did like it. It was chaotic, dark, quirky with echoes of Covid mishandling and denial and with a good dose of banal suburban absurdity. Driver as a slightly overweight and slouchy middle class suburbanite professor with an absurd speciality is very amusing. Don Cheadle’s character is hilarious and his academic speciality is equally absurd as Driver’s. Gerwig does nutty beautifully and naturally. Eminently watchable.
A reverse murder mystery taking place in a hair stylist competition. It’s unconventional and fun, both things sorely needed.
My Father’s Dragon
I always try to see at least one animated film because they’re often so incredibly inventive. Cartoon Saloon, the Irish animation company responsible for Wolfwalkers, which I loved at the 2020 LFF, was involved in this production. Obviously then, I needed to see this.
Based on the 1948 children’s novel by Ruth Stiles Gannett, this is a story of a boy, Elmer, who tries to help his mum make money. He goes on an adventure to Wild Island to find a dragon. The dragon, Boris, is captive on the island because its inhabitants are exploiting him to keep the island from sinking.
Boris was lured to the island by family lore and tradition, teaching him he can only evolve as a dragon on this island. But the conditions on Wild Island terrify him. And why shouldn’t they? He’s tied up and imprisoned so he’ll keep lifting the island each time it starts to sink. The islanders, a motley crew of different animals, want to survive and they believe the only way is to exploit Boris.
Elmer liberates Boris from the islanders, but only because he too wants to exploit Boris for his own gain. In the end, Boris understands how to find his courage by facing his fears and Elmer figures out how to ensure the island won’t sink without the need of exploiting Boris.
As much as this might be a story about everyone finding their courage, it’s very much a story of rejecting exploitation – and simplistically, animal exploitation – to meet our immediate needs. A pretty decent vegan message.
This imaginary Jewish village in Ukraine welcomes back two of its sons who’ve come to resolve unfinished business. Unbeknownst to all of them, it’s just 24 hours before the Nazis invaded and murder everyone in the village.
This single-shot film imagines what a shtetl would’ve been like in 1941 and everyone speaks only Yiddish, as they would’ve done then. Both these things alone are reason enough to go see this film. The lead protagonist left the village years before to pursue his love for cinema. His former neighbours and family now view him with suspicion. And with some good reason, as we see later in the film. There’s much joy and vigour in the young protagonists’ lives, despite what we all know awaits them.
Unlike other films about the Shoah, this one shows us what life was like in a before-times. We see it the moment before it vanishes forever and that’s very poignant just like the use of language. Yiddish was the day to day language and there were plays and films written in Yiddish. WWII largely put an end to that. Common usage of Yiddish declined rapidly as survivors adapted to their new homes and Jews acculturated.
The village set, located in Rovzhi near Kyiv, now stands as an open air museum and memorial. As an homage to the novel La Disparition by Georges Perec, whose mother died in Auschwitz and in which the letter e never appears, the letter e is also missing from the title of the film to underscore the missing.
Hala, her husband, Mutaz, and their 14 year old daughter, Zeina, cling to living in their flat in shelled out Damascus in increasingly extreme conditions. Mutaz is absolutely adamant he doesn’t want to leave to become displaced. The word nezouh in Arabic means the displacement of souls, water and people.
Mutaz is simultaneously traumatised and clings to masculine and traditional notions, despite their being wholly inapplicable in a barely existing Damascus. Hala and Zeina have appeased Mutaz as much as possible, but they both realise there are fewer options available to them for any kind of life. They’re ready to go.
This isn’t the usual conflict film. It’s an allegory about how people cope, create normalcy and what ultimately takes over when you can’t take it anymore. And the filmmakers show this through lovely details, a bit of magic realism as well as the innocent perspective of a 14 year old. A powerful and beautiful film.
The Banshees of Inisherin
Martin McDonagh’s does a buddy film like no other. This is dark, funny and sufficiently creepy. The scenery of the remote Irish island is beautiful. There’s plenty of bleakness and menace too. We hear the sounds of civil war in the distance. There’s an abusive and bullying police officer. We’ve got a pipe smoking crone and a spinster sister too, who incidentally delivers the best line and judgment on the follies of men. And it’s all wrapped up in a character study of how each of them comes to terms with and deals with their life, isolation and mortality. A brilliant film.
You Won’t Be Alone
I had heard about this Macedonian-language film from the brilliant podcast and film commentary Filmsuck sometime in April 2022. I knew I had to see it for myself, despite horror being a genre I generally avoid.
A baby girl is promised to a very scary looking, shape-shifting, wolfeateress, a type of witch who roams the Macedonian mountains. The witch and the girl are very different and they’re both isolated from others. The witch because of what she looks like and the girl because he mother has hidden her away to attempt to keep her safe from the witch. This attempts ultimately fails, and the girl too becomes a shape-shifting wolfeateress.
The way they come to terms with their isolation is entirely different and the whole point of the story. One is consumed by anger and bitterness; rightly so once we find out her backstory. And the other attempts to overcome and find a place in life. She looks for beauty, love and poetry in all she sees, despite knowing very well it’s all steeped in suffering.
Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery
I saw the first instalment of this new series with leading actor Daniel Craig as a Southern detective at the 2019 LFF. This second film is similarly entertaining, but less zany than the first. The cast, including the great Janelle Monáe, is dizzyingly A list, as are some of the splendid cameos. It takes place on a sunny Greek island (but really in Serbia) and makes fun in a big way of tech bros, influencers and fringe hucksters – the trifecta of modern day grifters. More than this and there’s spoilers. It’s alot of fun.
The story is about Blaze, a 12 year old girl who witnesses a horrific, violent and deadly crime against a woman and the aftermath of that trauma. Overall, I wasn’t too keen on this film. It’s worthwhile for two scenes.
First, the scene where Blaze is compelled by the Australian court system to give evidence during a committal hearing with the perpetrator present. Completely insane thing to do and ways around it – video – are commonly used. In any event, as Blaze is attempting to speak and is being bullied by defence counsel, she imagines herself placing a tiny white dragon figurine in her mouth. From that position, the dragon breathes a torrent of flames, instantaneously pulverising the perpetrator. Worth it just for this. And the marketing people must’ve thought so too because that’s the film poster image.
Second, the scene between Blaze and a therapist who is finally able to connect to her is thoughtfully crafted, whilst being delicate and natural. The therapist gives Blaze the tools she needs to manage the extraordinary amount of trauma and survivor’s guilt. It’s such a powerful and intimate moment to see.
As the disappearances and executions in Chile under Pinochet really start going, what’s it feel like when you’re trying to help? And what are the implications of that help? These are the direct questions this film asks, albeit from a very middle class and privileged perspective.
This is very much a woman’s film and I loved that about it.
The protagonist is a doctor’s wife, Carmen, who goes to her seaside home (glorious mid-century modern) for the winter holiday break. Her beloved parish priest ropes her into helping a wounded man at great risk to all of them, obviously. The film is claustrophobic because you see everything through the protagonist’s eyes.
But that’s the point. You see the oppression of Pinochet and the patriarchal oppression she’s lived with her whole life. She tries to escape that smothering in a variety of ways, including helping the wounded man. Is she doing it for him? For herself? Both? Does it matter?
Keep an eye on Carmen’s fabulous zebra striped dress.
What were you thinking?
Amazingly, I didn’t walk out of any film this year. Here are four from which I probably should have.
This horror film takes place 45,000 years ago. A band of homo-sapien hunter-gatherers travel to what looks like Scotland today to find food. 45,000 years ago, Scotland would’ve been forest-covered and not the wet-desert it is today. And that was my first problem with this film.
This band is utterly inept. They can’t feed themselves and slowly start to unravel. Apparently, the myth hunter-gatherers primarily hunted still isn’t dead. Early humans primarily gathered because hunting was a high energy activity. And everyone participated. Our merry band of heroes have precisely zero gathering skills, so they’re starving.
In their fanatical hunting-only mode, they’re also modernly misogynistic, ascribing women roles there’s no evidence they would’ve had in nomadic stone age times. I have no idea how this band was even able to survive the boat journey they took to this place.
I don’t really care when a monster starts picking them off one by one. They get killed in what’s supposed to be a scary forest. It’s far from that. The forest is obviously a stand of commercially planted sitka spruce with all the trees in nice and neat little rows of mounds. Not wild at all and definitely not a scary. I continued to be annoyed, yet I stayed…
Who is doing the killing? It turns out, it’s a misunderstood Neanderthal who has better survival and caring skills than the band of homo sapiens. The Neanderthal gets it in the end and the two survivors look out bleakly at the destruction they’ve wrought. Sigh. So deep.
Akram Khan, dancer and choreographer, and film director, Asif Kapadia, are two great artists in their respective fields. Technically, this film is brilliant with Kapadia using a much closer shooting style than we normally see when dance is on screen.
There’s a particular dance sequence here which really struck me. It’s a contemporary take on classic Indian dance, performed in a context completely out of its original culture and absolutely perfectly placed. A brilliant moment, no doubt.
The story is about prisoners somewhere very cold. They’re waiting for a spaceship to take them elsewhere. The two leads develop a strange relationship after he pursues her and eventually she falls for him. Creepy vibes dressed up as completely normal. Usual male gaze stuff adapted for dance.
A military officer is in charge and reminded me of a famous Twitter tech bro who wants to leave Earth for Mars. This guy rapes and kills the lead woman protagonist towards the end. Then he leads everyone out to the rocket taking off for space. He leaves behind the male protagonist with the woman’s lifeless body, the prison falling to pieces around them and suddenly the lifeless body of an arctic fox, which we had briefly seen in a few seconds of film at the very beginning. I’ve no idea how the fox got into the prison or how they died. Maybe this was an odd nod to climate disaster.
More oddity in Andy Serkis reprising a Gollum-like voice work with sometimes unintelligible muffled words. I don’t know what they added. But Serkis was very happy to have done this work as he said in the Q&A post film.
But sometimes the Q&A afterwards ruins the film. Once everyone got on stage, all they could talk about was the visuals, the excellence of the male protagonist and what a fantastic addition Serkis’ voice work was. No mention of the dead woman or the fox. It was all self-indulgent and self-congratulatory. Ick.
The Eternal Daughter
I don’t know, I saw Tilda Swinton was in a film and didn’t pay attention it was a Joanna Hogg film. I’m in the minority. I detested The Souvenir with its mumbling, self-absorbed art school characters.
Tilda Swinton is so good even when she’s playing an annoying character coming to terms with the death of her mother in a posh hotel – a former estate – in the English countryside.
But is she coming to terms with it or is she processing it so she can exploit it to make a film about it? I think the latter.
This has the makings of a ghost story, but it really isn’t. Nothing much happens and there’s recurring scenes meant to be ominous which come to nothing. There were only two supporting actors with truly puny roles. Who knows maybe they were some sort of nod to The Souvenir and its sequel and I’m a dullard who missed it. I simply didn’t care, but it was fun to walk on the red carpet with Tilda a meter or two away.
This was billed as a dark comedy about whistleblowers. Ok that description had potential. In reality, the film was about a middle class couple from London, Guardian-type readers who stumble on a very bad and big secret. They call an invented big newspaper and the editor orders them into hiding, reassuring them an important journalist will come get their story from them.
Instead, two armed minders arrive. The four have pointless conversations and play games over a day or so. There’s no laughs yet. They look after them until a supposed journalist – played by a wooden and bored Jenna Coleman (and I can’t blame her) – arrives. Still no laughs.
By now, we’ve all figured out the two whistleblowers are toast and they’ll be despatched in the end. It’s all predictable, not terribly dark because it’s all so obvious, not very interesting either and no funny bits.
I also saw Leonora Addio (strange film about Pirandello), Chee$e (antihero becomes accidental weed dealer), Kanaval: A People’s History of Haiti in Six Chapters (beautiful images, but light on history), Malintzin 17 (meditative), which were all watchable.
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