These are my notes from LFF 2020. They were written either immediately after my seeing the film or shortly thereafter. I’m not a film expert, so these are impressions rather than full-blown reviews.
Because of the novel coronavirus, I watched these films at home, on my own, with my two cats as fellow viewers. The weird licensing rules meant we couldn’t cast any films to our television and I could only watch on my MacBook Air, which was surprisingly enjoyable actually. I missed being in a cinema, running between venues timing everything just so, seeing friends and glimpsing actors, directors, writers and the odd celebrity.
A cinema is a space apart with one fixed, meditative focus. I tried recreating the space in a darkened room, which worked for films I watched at night whilst everyone was sleeping. This was a bit more challenging during the day. The only crucial thing missing was the collective experience, where you laugh, cry and jump out of your seat that bit harder and that’s impossible to recreate at home.
This year there were even more stories about women and made by women than last year. Same with stories from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, with two exceptions (both North American films). The themes this year seemed to be identity, kids dying and long, cinematic shots.
I group the films under “The most striking”, “Very good to eminently watchable” to “Nope to meh!”, but they’re in no particular order otherwise. At the very end, there’s a special section dedicated to films the RWN community might appreciate. I don’t generally give much away and hope there’s enough to pique an interest in some of these films.
The Most Striking
Stray – Any film about animals always makes me very nervous and I generally avoid them. It’s impossible for animals to have agency under human control and I don’t want to see the already fraught relationship exploited further. This documentary was different. It’s primarily about a stray dog, Zeytin, a proud and strong female living on the streets of Istanbul, where stray dogs are allowed to live and roam freely. They’re fed by people (yes, even during pandemic lockdown). Despite being free, it’s not an ideal life because they’re still living in our world, which is beyond their natural comprehension and are surviving at its margins.
This documentary was filmed between 2017 and 2019 and mostly from the viewpoint of Zeytin. All the shots are sort of leg height or from the ground up, which was very interesting. The change in perspective very much transports you and sometimes makes you uneasy. The filmmakers follow Zeytin and some other dogs, and we learn from the director, Elizabeth Lo, Zeytin never followed them back. Which I loved.
Because of Zeytin, the filmmakers meet a group of refugees from Syria. They’re young boys, sleeping rough, huffing glue and seeking love and companionship. They love Zeytin and they long for a dog of their own to care for. The marginality of existence of both the refugees and the dogs is dramatic and unjust. Some people are kind to them, while others chase them away and others are kinder to the dogs than they are to the boys. None of it is right.
I don’t equate human and animal suffering. They both exist simultaneously and the reasons for both originate when we decide who will have what rights and who will be treated as an object or a nuisance. Those decisions are often based solely on what we want and what suits us. This film illustrates this painfully perfectly.
The Painter and the Thief – A fascinating documentary about two paintings stolen in Oslo and the relationship between the painter and the thief. The thief becomes a muse for the painter and there’s an extraordinary moment when he sees himself portrayed in one of her painting. Whatever it is he sees of himself in that work moves him. His emotions are palpable. It was remarkable. Without giving too much more away, it’s super interesting to see the inside of a Norwegian prison and a classic Norwegian camp house. There’s always alot of tension in the filming because you never know what’s going to happen or how either of the two protagonist will react.
The Reason I Jump – Based on Naoki Higashida’s memoir about his world as a non-speaking autistic person, this documentary follows similarly placed people in the USA, Sierra Leone and India. David Mitchell (the author, not the comedian) translated the book. He too has an autistic, non-speaking son, so he brings his own experience and sensitivity to it. It’s fascinating to see how the two young people in the US can spell out words using a special tablet with cut out letters. One of them says something very poignant and powerful about the education they received before finding this new mode of communication. He spells out, “they denied our civil rights.” We also see the incredible art by a young woman in India and meet a couple who set up a special school in Sierra Leone to begin to dismantle the prejudice against autism and provide community. There’s a great line from Higashida’s memoir where he says, “I can’t be sure what your normal is even like”. The sounds and textures of the film were wonderful and very particular giving us an idea of what things look and sound like for non-speaking autistic people. The sound was recorded in 3600 and was made into a binaural mix for online viewing. I was glad I had my decades old noise cancelling headphones for this. Wonderful and eye opening documentary
Chess of the Wind – When do we get to see pre-revolution Iranian film?! This fully restored 1976 (and banned in 1979) film was amazing. Apparently, before only poor VHS copies existed. In 2015, the son of the director, Mohammed Reza Aslani, found original negatives in Tehran antiques shop and shipped them to his sister in France. The director participated in the restoration and once they ascertained there wouldn’t be a problem for anyone in Iran, they re-released this film and they expect it will be shown in Iran, albeit with some censorship.
The story takes place around 1924 and is anchored around a fight for the family’s wealth after the death of the matriarch. There’s a daughter, a queer Hamlet-ian figure, who is confined to a wheelchair; the greedy and evil step-father who wants everything for himself; and two adopted brothers, the elder of which is betrothed to the daughter, much to her distaste because she’s much more interested in her young and pretty handmaid, and the younger who is having an affair with the young handmaid.
It’s filmed entirely inside the family mansion. The setting is a darker version of the lush interiors in Visconti’s Gattopardo. It’s like an oil painting. There are visually stunning recurring scenes of washer women, almost like a Greek chorus, where they talk of growing political discontent and poverty. And the score of drums and horns is incredibly affecting. The tension, oppression and claustrophobia of the family unit, as it is, are palpable. There are so many layers to this film. Queer, feminist , socio-political and tradition vs modernity. That last layer comes to the fore at the end when we finally see the world outside the mansion gates.
Wolfwalkers– I alway try to see at least one animated film and this year’s was a great one. It’s 1656 Kilkenny and Oliver Cromwell has hired a hunter, with a small daughter, to clear the forest of wolves to make way for farming. They meet the mythical mother and daughter wolfwalkers and everything changes. I loved how Kilkenny was depicted in woodblocks, the fluidity of the animals, the movement and light in the forest. An Irish Ghibli film, both in animation and themes of powerful women, our wild selves and threatened nature. The score was beautiful too.
Relic – Ostensibly this is a horror film. It felt more like a memento mori on film. Three generations of women – grandmother, mother and daughter – are the sole protagonists. Grandmother is succumbing to dementia and the disease itself is the scary monster. The house, the loss of memory and self all eventually become her enemies and come to get her, slowly slowly and when she least expects it. And is the monster done once it’s got her? Couldn’t it also go after the mother and daughter? There’s a powerful moment towards the end with the generations next to one another and the compassion the mother shows to the monster was a great moment too.
Mogul Mowgli – London based rapper Zaheer is about to start a tour supporting a famous rapper. But he gets ill with a degenerative autoimmune disease. There’s great imagery in the film and some won’t resonate with those unfamiliar with Pakistani culture. I felt this made the film even stronger because the culture is allowed to speak on its own terms without being diluted with explanations. There’s fantastic music in the film, both in Zaheer’s tunes (written by Riz Ahmed who play him) especially Where you from? and traditional Qwaali songs. There’s great imagery too, including a hospital gown morphing into an elaborate kurta and a hilarious video from a rival and younger rapper. It’s also very interesting how despite his father’s silence about his experiences fleeing Pakistan at partition and seeing horrific events during his journey, it’s only Zaheer who experiences the flashbacks and the psychic fallout. I liked this reference to genetic trauma and how second and third generations deal with the consequences of being an immigrant. Finally, it’s a Toba Tek Singh who brings together father and son – and that’s not explained in the film, so I had to look that up, making me appreciate the ending even more.
Time – Sybil Fox Richardson (aka Fox Rich) and her six kids live in Louisiana. Her husband was sentenced to 60 years in Angola prison for bank robbery. She spent time in jail for the robbery too. The irony is the robbery was a desperate attempt to keep their legitimate business afloat. Once she leaves prison she raises her kids without him for the last 20 years and is successful in work and as an inspirational speaker. Her kids are amazing. And throughout she never stops advocating for his release on the basis the punishment wasn’t commensurate with the offence. To her, life’s only valid expression is love so she never gives up. The documentary is an incredible insight into the effects of imprisonment on this family. To the filmmaker’s surprise, Fox Rich had been taping hundreds of hours of video over the previous 20 years to show them to her husband someday. She recorded them to manufacture and ensure they’d all have shared memories, even if they weren’t made together. Her home videos are woven throughout the documentary to great effect. Emahoy’s score is gorgeous and a complete revelation to me.
Genus Pan – There are super lush long shots in this black and white film from the Philippines. Three men work for a mine on an island. The mine is a dangerous and corrupt place. After they’re done paying bribes, protection money and rent, they’ve got little left. On their journey home, two of them get into an argument, resulting in serious violence. One among them is the conscionable one, speaking against the corruption and injustice they face during work. But there’s little mercy awaiting him. The contrast between the breathtaking beautiful cinematography and the desolation and ugliness of their lives is stark. It’s a fascinating film though and has the tension of an early Clint Eastwood western. The women affected by the corruption and injustices suffer brutally.
Ultraviolence – Ken Fero documents deaths in police custody in the UK between 1995 and 2005. There has been only one successful prosecution for a custody death and that was in the mid-80s. The documentary is framed as a letter to Fero’s son both to document the brutality and as a letter of resistance. “Endless brutality requires endless resistance,” says Fero. In addition to police brutality, Fero explores Islamophobia and the war in Iraq. It’s an extremely powerful and timely documentary.
Undine – Of course I’m going to watch a German film about a mermaid who demands undying love and will kill you if you leave her! There’s mad love, subtle magic and fab urban history of Berlin. Undine was a popular myth during the romantic period. The protagonists were dancers before becoming actors and you really see that especially in a scene where they’re walking together, practically as one. The score was Bach’s harpsichord concerto in D minor BWV 974 and it was perfection.
The Intruder (El Profugo) – Another horror/suspense film, which is alot for me, although it turned out to be a very enjoyable love story, comedy and psych thriller. The film was disquieting and sinister, but also funny – a sinister comedy? It’s based on El Mal Menor, an Argentinian cult novel by C.E. Feiling. It was such a fun film.
Ines hosts a supernatural intruder/stowaway. She struggles with identity and who do we let take over ourselves from those whom we love? Lovers? Parents? The mother character turns brilliantly menacing and the intruder is so impish (loved him in 120 BPM). He was perfectly cast. The message seemed to be we have space for more than one identity within ourselves. Interesting to note the director was a woman with a mostly women crew.
One Man and His Shoes – Weaving politics, class, marketing and exploitation of Black culture, this documentary explores the history of Air Jordans, the shoes and brand alongside the rise of Nike. It’s a fascinating look at how marketing and some bit of luck (the NBA banning them because they weren’t white) made them anti-establishment and something young Black people in particular would want (according to the filmmakers). It was fantastic to see old and cringeworthy adverts that (eg. the Converve weapon rap). And fascinating to think of Spike Lee as the father of sneaker culture from his adverts about them.
Michael Jordan broke barriers for Black athletes, Black marketing and the popularity of basketball. The financial deal he made and the royalties he still gets are extraordinary things I had no idea about. The documentary also looks at collectors of both the Air Jordan trainers/sneakers and Michael Jordan memorabilia collectors. There’s one US collector who has been collecting since 1985, his collection is insured for over $1 million and he has one original pair from that year he wears annually on New Year’s Day. There’s also a section about the violence associated with Air Jordans, which has existed since they first came out and still happens. I also had no idea about that.
Shadow Country – Sudetenland was part of Bohemia/Austria for 600 years. Then in 1928, it became Czech. The film, based on real stories and families, begins in 1939 and ends just after the Communist Party takes over Czechoslovakia in 1948. It follows families in one small village.
SPOILERS – Some chose to remain Czech, some pledged loyalty to Germany or became outright Nazis. The Jewish families are taken away to concentration camps. One man, who had been a Communist sympathiser in 1939 and married a Jewish woman, manages to survive the camps and returns with orders to purge the village of Germans, Nazis and collaborators. He sets up a kangaroo court, slaughters many of his fellow villagers, many of whom weren’t Nazis, and dumps them in a collective pit. The rest are rounded up and expelled into the forest. When they’re allowed to return, things are once again very different both for them and for those who had condemned them. It’s a terrifying history of shifting sands of culpability and responsibility.
Director Ivan Arsenjev expects the film, which took 14 years to make particularly because of the research that went into it, expects it to be controversial because there are still unresolved issues stemming from these events.
Notturno – Gianfranco Rosi visits border communities of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon. The documentary was shot over last three years. It opens with a heart rending and beautifully poetic lamentation by a mother for her son in the now empty prison where he was killed by the Turkish government. There’s a visit to a school where Yazidi children are learning to cope and deal with their trauma. Omg what’s there to say there. Devastating. There’s an incredible prison scene and not what you’d expect. There’s a play about politics in a mental hospital and the voice recordings of a woman which finally makes it into the hands of her mother after Rosi tracks her down three years after he was given the phone. There’s no video of direct conflict and the film has no narration other than what the people being filmed might say. The narrative is about the fallout from conflict. This documentary is a follow up to Fire at Sea about the refugees on Lampedusa.
After Love – I wasn’t sure this was going to be a standout, but I kept thinking about it. It’s haunting me. It’s not the story itself I find haunting, but the very subtle and physical performance by Joanna Scanlan as Mary, a widow who finds out her husband has a secret family and she finds them. The shifting identities of each of the characters is fascinating. Who are we for each of the others we know? Each one of the characters is multifaceted and hiding some part of themselves from the other, including the dead husband by being dead – the ultimate hiding.
Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes – This is for electronic music nerds and Dr Who fans. Delia is the godmother of electronic music and the composer of the Dr Who theme tune. She worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (and if you ever get the chance again to see and hear Radiophonic Workshop on tour, go! Fantastic gigs). The filmmaker had access to a treasure trove of recordings found in Delia’s home after her death. Cosey Fanni Tutti was also involved in making the film. Brilliant journey through musical decades and the birth of electronica.
African Apocalypse – Paul Voulet was a French army officer who, between 1898 and 1899, blazed a trail of terror, maiming and death from the River Niger to Lake Chad. He was only stopped once France sent Colonel Klob after him for going rogue and infringing on the British portion of West Africa. The documentary follows Femi Nylander, a young British-Nigerian poet and activist from Oxford during his visit to Niger. Femi uses Heart of Darkness as a framework and he sees Voulet as a real-life Mr Kurtz. The road on which they travel, the main highway through Niger, was built by Voulet. Although it’s not a perfect documentary, the topic is well worth exploring.
Friendship’s Death (1987) – Tilda Swinton is a cyborg envoy from space. That’s all I needed to read to know I wanted to see this film. The premise gets more incredible after that! She accidentally lands in Amman during Black September 1970. She was meant to land at MIT on a mission of friendship; hence her name. She’s found by the PLO and meets Sullivan, a Glaswegian journalist played by Bill Patterson, who is also a PLO sympathiser. The two of them strike a close friendship and have many conversations. The film takes place primarily in their hotel room during the fighting in Amman and feels much more like a stage play. Friendship and Sullivan talk about life, death, politics and humanity’s propensity towards self-extinction.
One memorable line by Sullivan goes something like politics has nothing to do with people and all to do with maps. Friendship may not have much luggage, but she changes into some fab outfits. She hates the hoover because it’s a scavenger. Instead, the typewriter is adorable because Friendship sees it as a distant cousin and doesn’t like Sullivan abusing it by typing so hard (it’s a manual).
Very Good to Eminently Watchable
The Disciple – This film was gorgeous, from the interiors and the changing face of Mumbai as the protagonist ages to the absolutely divine music. The film starts with a 24 year old student of north Indian classical music, following him to adulthood and middle age. We also get to see flashbacks of him as a child with his father introducing him to the music. He has two gurus, one he looks after and studies from, and the other is a legendary and long-dead figure whose voice recordings he listens to while he rides his motorbike through an impossibly empty Mumbai in the dead of night. Seeing him struggle and watching his fervent beliefs change significantly was deeply enjoyable. He simply changes, without ever ceasing to love his music. Kayaal music, the type he loved, means state of mind and the film illuminates his changing states of mind. I also loved the actors were musicians and not trained actors.
Honeymood – Fun romp following a couple on their wedding night in Jerusalem. All sorts of mayhem ensues prompted by a strange gift the groom receives from his ex and the slightly neurotic and impulsive nature of his wife to get to the bottom of it. There’s even a musical number of the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend type with incredibly handsome soldier-types. The parents of both of them are hilarious. A bit like After Hours or Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth. It was fun seeing a super busy Jerusalem at night.
1800 Rule – Possibly the saddest film this year and I can’t write about it without spoilers. A teacher from Tehran takes her daughter to a family wedding against her oppressive husband’s wishes. On the way to the wedding there are omens – pretty obvious ones so you’re not really surprised when tragedy strikes. First there’s an encounter with a woman clad in white, holding a little girl’s hand. The daughter waves to the wee girl and we meet the white-clad woman again later after the tragedy. Then there’s a small bird who dies by flying into the cottage where the mother and daughter are staying.
The wedding is gorgeous. It takes place in a snowy forest with everyone wearing white. The young bride and groom are hipsters, even the wedding band is hipster-y. It was interesting to see the contrast between the young couple who are free and light as against the oppressive relationship between the husband and wife.
Tragedy strikes, of course. Then the mother decides to cover it up! And ropes her family into it. It gets worse and doesn’t end well. No surprise there. No secret, and this isn’t the only one, goes unpunished in this film! And maybe that’s the way it is in life too. The scenes where the family is grieving, particularly the grandparents, are remarkable. They way they all freely cried and showed grief was unique and seemed very genuine. This is an emotionally painful film, but the performances and social context make it worthwhile.
Farewell Amor – Angolan immigrant to New York City is reunited with his wife and daughter after 17 years apart. They all need to get to know one another again or from the start. I really enjoyed this film. Sure the story is somewhat simplistic, but so what? It’s a good immigrant story.
I Am Samuel – Making space for queer African voices when being queer is illegal in many African nations (in Kenya, it’s a leftover of British colonialism) takes a tremendous amount of courage. Samuel is a gay man from rural family and whose father is a Christian preacher. Samuel moves to Nairobi to earn more money. His family doesn’t know he’s gay and they’ve built a house for him with some land to farm. They hope Samuel will eventually move back to the land (implicit in that is Samuel would take care of them in old age). Samuel’s partner, Alex, seems to be from a more privileged background. When Samuel comes out to his family, it’s interesting to see they’re more accepting of him and Alex than the latter’s family. While Samuel’s family eventually accept them, Alex’s family have threatened seriously bodily harm. What role does class play in acceptance in some African countries? I suppose survival and care are much more immediate concerns to farmers who rely on the land and their physical selves to ensure it than someone who relies on less immediate means for that. So it would make sense for a farmer to see the ultimate futility in rejecting a son.
Sound for the Future – The Hippies were a post-punk band from 1979. Matt Hulse retells the story and uses young people from Glasgow to reconstruct it. The kids casting call was brilliant. Their singing of “Rabies is a killer”, a Hippies song, is delightful and very funny. Loved the mixed media filming and animation collage. The soundtrack was great, including XTC, Sleaford Mods and Ought. Definitely a muso nerd film.
Eyimofe (This is my desire) – Two intersecting stories in Lagos in one neighbourhood. After a tragedy (kids die again!) a man’s life unravels, but he tries to keep it together. He wants to emigrate to Spain. His neighbours, two sisters, want to emigrate to Italy and they’re ready to use the unborn child one of them is carrying as the price of passage. This isn’t the usual emigration film though because it’s the idea of emigration that propels them, but ultimately they realise it’s a false hope. Instead, the film looks to what these characters will do, with great integrity and dignity, to survive and keep their families together. I love the bit where the American boyfriend of one of the sisters is talking with his Nigerian friends about the scams they believe “local” women will play to use their white or rich lovers. As if these folks themselves aren’t taking advantage and enriching themselves to the detriment of the “locals”. There’s also the assumption that there are scams or that the scams aren’t based in actual privation.
Never Gonna Snow Again – Another allegory … maybe?! Zhenia is a masseur in a gated community in Poland. He comes from the Chernobyl region and is preternaturally beautiful. All his clients live in massive, identical homes on tiny plots of land. They have all the habits and neuroses of upper middle class. He seems to have magical powers and hypnotises people to make them feel better. He’s also hunted and haunted. There are some themes of ecological disaster from where he’s from to an incident related to cutting of the last remaining bit of forest in the neighbourhood, cancer and to the title itself, a reference to the notion snow will cease to exist after 2025 (?!). There are lots of dogs in this film, but I’m not sure I understood why, especially not the ones in the dry pool in what I think was a reference to the abandoned Chernobyl village itself (maybe rewilding?). It’s a visually stunning film. Absolutely lush yet stark and clean as well. Trent Reznor’s score was superb. And one of the dogs in the film appeared in the Q&A after the film, which was a nice bonus.
Cicada – Ben and Sam meet at The Strand bookstore in New York City. Their relationship helps them come to terms with being gay, getting shot and having been molested. Two perfectly ordinary men dealing with trauma is a story that needs to be told. And I appreciated this film exactly for that reason.
The Salt in our Waters – Bangladeshi artist from the city comes to a remote and religious fishing village. He makes sculptures and his interactions shake up the traditional notions of the villagers. The scenery was very interesting as were the references to climate change and how that’s affecting the villagers’ lives. It reminded me of Sembene films.
Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets – USA docu-drama – sort of. The protagonists are real people, bar flies, although some are actors, who are gathered together by the filmmakers for 18 hours to simulate the closing party of a down at heel Las Vegas cocktail lounge. There’s no script and they all interact with one another. They’re all the characters you’ve ever met in a bar anywhere in the world. It’s a contemporary tableaux from an Otto Dix or Toulouse Lautrec painting, maybe with fewer feathers.
There are many memorable lines. For example, when Michael, a possibly homeless actor who says he’s 57 but looks 75, rolls in first thing in the morning. The guitar-playing bartender hands him a shot and says, “the best part of waking up, is bourbon in your cup.” Michael features heavily in the film and you don’t know if he’s being sincere or acting. Maybe both. He says, “alcoholic failures are boring. I ruined my life sober.” There’s Ira who is absolutely blotto by the afternoon and he receives a call at the bar from his work, like a character from Cheers. There’s an Australian patron with a mysterious brown paper package (turns out to be fireworks for closing time) and at one point, he takes off his trousers to be more comfortable. No one minds. And this is before he takes the massive dose of LSD another patron gives him. There’s some talk about politics (filmed pre-Trump). The three armed services veterans, two men and a woman, commiserate about what a raw deal they got in the military and since being out. One of the veterans gets more and more belligerent as the night wears on. As they’re deciding at 5am who’s going to drive home, his friend says to the belligerent veteran, “you just tried to fight a dude with eyes tattooed on his eyes.” He replies, “that just means I’m right.”
Rose: A Love Story – This was an unusual and understated horror film. Sam and Rose, a vampire-like woman, live somewhere in rural Wales. He takes care of her to make sure she doesn’t turn into a vampire. He loves her so much he will go to great lengths to keep her safe.
It was a very low budget film and they only had one week to film it. When they arrived, that part of Wales had gotten more snow than ever. The cinematography and setting are beautiful.
Zanka Contact – Combine a western with Joan Jett in Casablanca and you get this film. A washed-up and heroin addicted musician is forced to go back to his home in Morocco where he meets Rajae, a sex worker with a beautiful voice. They set out on a redemptive journey. I enjoyed this story despite it being a bit predictable and schmaltzy at times. Khansa Batma, who played Rajae, is a famous singer in real-life and comes from an equally famous family of musicians and artists.
Striding Into the Wind – Fun buddy road trip film set in contemporary China. It was interesting to see depictions of university life for young Chinese people. I wonder if the experience depicted rings true for many other young people in China. I’d love to know what young Chinese think of it. The two young male protagonists are film students and the reason for the road trip is to get some authentic grasslands footage in Inner Mongolia. The director of the film is a hilarious caricature. He woos the beautiful Mongolian star of his film (which has no script, ha!) and remarks he’s happy with the “ethnic minority-ish” nature of his film. He then asks for more exoticism as he’s walking with the chief of the village who has just hosted a banquet for them in the ceremonial ger, with costumed dancers and a fake bonfire because the grasslands are dry.
Nope to Meh!
Kajillionaire – I deeply disliked this film about a family of low-level grifters in Los Angeles. The parents are super paranoid and they use their 26 year old daughter in all their schemes. She has never known any other life and is like a prisoner. She doesn’t realise this or what her parents are really like until she meets a Puerto Rican woman. And this was weird too. She was the only POC in the film and of course she end up being the mystical POC who is the conduit for the white person to realise who they really are. Ummmm… no. We really don’t need this anymore. There are moments of cinematic brilliance and physical acting that’s tragicomic. Ultimately, it’s deeply uncomfortable because you’re watching an abusive relationship right until the very end.
Herself – Sandra is an abused wife living in Dublin with two daughters. She gets out, but not until it’s gotten horrible. The film mostly focuses on her PTSD flashbacks to the violence. She works two jobs and gets the idea to self-build a house. Amazingly and most improbably, a doctor, for whom her now-dead mother used to be a housekeeper, gives her a disused part of her back garden to build this house. I mean that’s nice, but fore real? Where does that happen? Is this the equivalent of the Pretty Woman syndrome where the woman in distress is saved by the wealthy man? Just in this case, the man’s part is Harriet Walter’s as the doctor. Just because it’s a woman saving a woman doesn’t make this story any better. Female solidarity is a good thing, but this is a fairy tale. The only nod to reality is a custody hearing, and even that teetered on the very unlikely. In the end, there’s an awful twist that you see coming a mile away. Meh.
Wildfire – I had to pick between this film about two sisters in Norther Ireland and Siberia with Willem Defoe. I usually would automatically pick a Defoe film, but picked I did that with The Lighthouse last year and I hated it. So I did the opposite this year and didn’t pick the Defoe film. Another mistake!!
The film opens with a young woman returning to her sister’s house after having disappeared a year before. The women are in their 20s or early 30s. They’re Catholic and their mother died when then were young. We learn, with very few details, their dad was killed by IRA and his killers freed. We’re meant to understand via the ether the mother was forever marked by this and that’s why she killed herself. But it’s never clear what happened.
I was interested in this conflict, which may still be simmering in NI, between survivors and perpetrators. But no, what did we get? A drunken and frenetic dance scene – if you have to put one in your film, please for all that’s good in this world, think again, it’s not new or interesting – in a bar where the sisters are bonding again. When they stop for a moment to do handstands, the older one has a mild confrontation with an alleged perpetrator and it gets them kicked out of the bar, obviously. We don’t get to know more.
It also seems the sisters are bizarrely still coming to grips with their mother’s death. They’ve only been apart for a year and their mother died when they were young children, barely adolescents. They’re coming apart emotionally and sabotaging their lives. But why? Why now? We get no answers. Just random acts of women losing it. Joy. Nevertheless, there’s a great line the older sister delivers when she’s quitting her parcel distribution warehouse job. She says, “I’d rather shit on my hands and clap than work here.” Well… it wasn’t that bad a film.
Industry – LFF will sometimes screen a few episodes of a new TV series. I always enjoy checking this out because there’s potential. Not this time! This series is about a group of recent university graduates during their first six months at a big, but second tier, investment bank. This is a trial period for them and many of them, as they’re informed, aren’t going to survive cut day when they’ll learn who has been chosen for a permanent contract.
What happens to these talented and fresh faces is ludicrous. The first episode begins with the interview process. We’re meant to believe Harper, a young Black American woman (her braids and nose ring are a signal she’s urban, obviously) from a third tier US university, has landed an interview in London. This is basically impossible, unless you’re well connected or get lucky with perfect grades. She, however, doesn’t even have a transcript because we see her forging it later when HR requests it. She tells her potential boss, Eric (played by Ken Leung), she only wants to be judged on merit and nothing else. Ummm… yes, right because that’s really how capitalism works… especially in a bank. Eric is apparently impressed by her grit (I’m crying laughing already) and asks her if she knows how many mountains he’ll need to move to get her to London from the US (I might need oxygen at this point). Well, Eric probably not that many; that’s what you have an HR department for and the bank pays people to actually do all this for you. Don’t worry, we’ll see him later actually checking on her visa process; he’s so caring! This would never happen for what is an entry level position. Ever! I need oxygen again and a mop to clean up the kombucha I’ve just spit out from laughter.
Another applicant is a young, posh Black British man telling the interview panel he played third fiddle in his mum’s life. First there was Jesus, then Thatcher and finally him. He quips, “one’s the reason we’re all here and the other was a carpenter”. What? Would anyone under the age of 55 ever say that and be taken seriously? We’re meant to believe he’s an Alex P. Keaton type. Nope.
Oh and things get better. By month three or less, Harper has already made a big sale to a difficult client who comes on to her after an evening out at a client dinner. Can you guess the edgy bit? That client is a woman! Oh yeah, you can see the writers congratulating themselves about this clever twist. Also, let’s remember, neither Harper nor any of these young folks have had jobs before. They’re all fresh out of uni (not even masters degrees). Yet, they’re all talking as if they’ve lived life on a trading floor since in utero.
There’s a tense moment when Harper makes a big mistake that could cost the bank a few hundred thousand pounds. The back office, which monitors all trades, catches this and calls her. She doesn’t want to tell Eric immediately, as she’s supposed to. Instead, she proposes to the back office guy (played brilliantly by a Scottish man who’s having none of it) that if he lets this slide, he’ll have her in his pocket and she could get him face time in front of MDs (managing directors)… let’s go back to the premise… she’s just gotten there and has zero anything. To the writers’ credit, the back office chap laughs at her. And there’s so much more, including a very white Iranian character. This isn’t Billions, the first series anyway, which was a legit depiction of the world of high finance.
What also had me in fits of laughter was the pretentious writers during the Q&A. They’re Brits. They say they have a background in finance after having worked in it “momentarily after uni” (their words), so they’re all about the authenticity. Sure, if authenticity is what young men with shallow experience of a place fantasise the place is about. They say they didn’t want a derivative (and seriously no pun intended on their part, which had me gasping again, as it’s very much a banking term) show about finance with an evil bank. They wanted the show to be character driven because people are smart and audiences know. Yes. They do. They can smell this bullshit miles away.
Bad Tales (Favolacce) – Like in Roald Dahl’s stories, the adults in this film are awful. In this story there’s added sadism and deadly cynicism. It was utterly charmless. The title in Italian is a pejorative term for fables. Fables would have some sort of payoff at the end. Not a happy ending necessarily, but not utter bleakness and depravity. There’s no respite from the darkness.
SPOILERS. And it gets so incredibly dark (more dead children!) overshadowing any merits of the cinematography or story telling, which are actually very good. I’d say avoid, unless you’re feeling particularly in the mood to be disturbed.
Gold for Dogs – Ah another addition to the canon of cute French girls at the beach learning about sex. This is like Pauline à la plage without the charm. Esther is a sweet and introverted young woman who has a summer relationship and disastrously tries to pursue it when he moves back to Paris. Somehow she ends up in a convent near Gare Montparnasse. She moons around until she fixates on one beautiful novice who has taken a vow of silence. Because it’s a French film and you need a beautiful woman to have some sort of meltdown, the novice breaks her vow by talking to Esther through a wall. The novice implores Esther to leave the convent because unlike her who is incredibly beautiful, Esther’s plain and can be loved. The world is otherwise cruel to super beautiful women who aren’t allowed to age and everything about them is criticised. Well, sure… yes, but really that’s meant to instil some joie de vivre in Esther? Apparently, it does and we see Esther back to frolicking in the waves. Oh please. But maybe she thought why on earth would I want to be around this malcontent? And I wouldn’t blame her for that.
Possessor – Other than The Fly and Eastern Promises, I’m not a fan of David Cronenberg, but I thought well, this is written by his son Brandon, I should give it a go. I hated it. It was like watching imposter syndrome playing out to an extreme with the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime as the theme song. The premise is strategic murders are carried out by a corporation employing specialised assassins who spiritually possess the mark who will physically carry out the murder. Possession occurs via an eXistenZ-like (oh I forgot I enjoyed that film too actually) port in the skull the corporation has previously and surreptitiously implanted in the mark. The arch of the story is predictable as hell.
Tasya, who is the possessor and apparently one of the most talented employees, is gradually beginning to lose the ability to separate out of her possessees. Her line of work has also estranged her from her family somewhat. Her next job proves to be the most difficult because she loses control of the body she possesses despite carrying out the murder she was charged with.
There was requisite gore and pretentious Jodorowski melty faces, but not as interesting. SPOILERS. In the end mother kills her young son. Is that just edgy? Or trying to make a heavy-handed comment about rejecting domesticity? Whatever the case, nah.
There were no people of colour in this film, other than the first possessed assassin, who has barely any lines and is killed within the first few minutes of the film, and an extra.
For those of you in the RWN community, my special picks for you are:
Stray; The Painter and the Thief; Chess of the Wind; Wolfwalkers; Time; Genus Pan; Ultraviolence; Shadow Country; Delia Derbyshire; African Apocalypse; Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets; Notturno; Friendship’s Death.