These are my notes and observations about films I watched in the 2023 edition of the BFI London Film Festival (“LFF”). I’m not a film expert and I’m not going to attempt a full treatment like proper reviewers do. 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.
This year, I attended half as many films as usual. I have lots going on and I wanted to keep free time for those impromptu things I would otherwise miss. After the Covid interregnum, I no longer feel the need to book lots of things. I want to be open to unscheduled possibilities. And it was good I did because a friend from NY was in Town on her own impromptu trip and I got to spend time with her. None of this is relevant to my notes on the film festival, obviously.
My rating system is simple and has evolved a bit over the years. Now, I put films in two categories: Make Time for These and What Were They Thinking?These reflect more the time I have for things than anything else. Reviews, stars, accolades and criticisms are all pretty subjective in any event. Like what you like.
Make Time for These
This is the story about the impact of Kevin Smith’s late 90’s film, Chasing Amy, on the life Sav Rodgers, the documentary’s director. I love-hate Chasing Amy for all the reasons. I knew I had to see this documentary. It was my last film for the festival and it’s my winner for LFF 2023.
I love the character of Alyssa Jones. She’s self-assured and unapologetic about who she is and how she lives her life. The cis-het male protagonists can’t handle any of it and were easily recognisable by the then-27-year-old me as the man-children they were despite the gauzy filters. I found that hilarious and saw plenty of their ilk in my real life. And I love it was filmed in locations I knew so well having grown up nearby. Still, it’s a film of its time and problematic for a variety of reasons, including a cis-het man making a film about queerness.
The documentary has everything from Sav’s compelling life story, 90s culture, bad ass women like Joey Lauren Adams being incredibly candid and Guinevere Turner, plenty of New Jersey (obvi) and Kevin Smith himself. Mercifully, Ben Affleck doesn’t make an appearance.
Sav has immense courage to pursue and develop this obsession with the film into a completely absorbing story which also serves as a few different spotlights on the film itself.
Must you see Chasing Amy to understand this documentary? Probably not, but it makes the whole thing that much more meaningful.
This documentary observes three children living as refugees in northern Cameroon. They and their families fled and survived incursions and violence at the hands of Boko Haram. They all saw unspeakable violence. Two of the children were separated from both parents and they have a much harder time making a life for themselves in the village even whilst being well looked after. The third child still has her mother and she’s better able to cope. She even manages to do well in school and entertain thoughts about a decent future. It’s incredibly poignant.
There’s no narration in this documentary. You simply observe what happens in this village and how people go about their lives, despite Boko Haram being a presence in every level of their lives. You also get to see the Batallion Intervention Rapide, the Cameroonian special unit and proxy force (accused of committing atrocities and extrajudicial killings) meant to protect the villagers, run around the village looking like they’re shooting some B-roll for their training videos.
I always make a point of seeing at least one animated film during each LFF. They can be great. Robot Dreams is my favourite feature film of this year’s festival.
This is a gorgeous animated film about Dog and their bestie, Robot. It’s a poignant and funny story taking place in 80s NYC, mostly East Village, and based on Sara Varon’s graphic novel, which I hadn’t heard of before. There’s no dialogue and you don’t need it. I loved the relationships Dog and Robot develop and how they both cope with what life throws at them. And seeing the depictions of 80s East Village was a real treat for me with loads of good memories of time spent there through the late 90s.
My second favourite film of the festival is this unusual French film, part horror, science fiction and coming of age taking place in a contemporary world where humans are spectacularly beginning to mutate to non-human animal forms. As you can expect, the non-mutating humans are terrified of these new humans and do everything in their power to keep them repressed and oppressed. Which is a pretty accurate depiction of what we still do to so many so-called others, human and animal. But this film is hopeful in its portrayal of a father and son in their grappling with everything this new reality has wrought upon them.
I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil it for you.
Variation on a theme of sorts, this Malaysian film about an 11-year-old girl who begins to morph into something else entirely is fantastic. It ties as my second favourite feature film of LFF 2023.
Tackling menstruation in any culture is still, at the very least, uncomfortable despite it being one of the most common events on the planet. The actress playing the protagonist is a force of nature. Her unbridled rage is fuelled by bewilderment, ignorance, unpreparedness and frustration with oppressive norms. She counters that with what should be rightfully hers, freedom to just be whoever she’ll become.
Rage on girl.
A fascinating and beautifully shot film about the last days of France’s military presence on Madagascar. Most of the story is told essentially from the point of view of the child who grew up to be the film’s director/writer, Robin Campillo. He was a small boy living with his family on a French military base in Madagascar.
The film shifts between a childhood story to the adults’. And it’s interesting to see how the adults know they are, and are proud of being, colonisers. Yet they’re completely ignorant, or at a minimum they avoid thinking in any way, about what that colonisation means for the Madagasy or for themselves as they contemplate being returned to France, a country they don’t really know anymore. The film ends, rightly, with a shift from the colonisers’ perspective to that of the local Madagasy.
This film is based on the true story of Sukhwinder Singh Mithu and Jaswinder (Jassi) Kaur Sidhu. Jassi was a Canadian-Punjabi woman whose family had her murdered for marrying Mithu against her family’s wishes. This is obviously not a breezy story and the final moments are devastating.
Jassi is an educated middle-class woman visiting her family’s village of origin. Mithu drives his own tuk tuk and is a Kabbadi player (a sort of catch/wresting game). The pair meets at a Kabbadi match. They’re from completely different worlds and don’t even speak each other’s languages. We don’t get the full story of why the unlikely pair becomes so besotted with one another so we must assume a coup de foudre. They’re both so young and innocent, you absolutely believe it.
The scenery of Punjab is so beautiful and the two are so damn happy. The violence you know is coming is such a gut punch. I loved how the story begins and ends with the Punjabi singer cum narrator, Kanwar Grewal, who sets it up as if it were a folktale for the ages.
Grewal sings the family moved far across the ocean, but brought all of Punjab with them. That struck a chord with me too. I have always been confounded by those who move away from their country of origin and expect their culture to remain immune from influences and culture of the new country. My parents did this and it wasn’t good. Of course, retaining a culture and traditions is a good thing and infinitely enhances an existence. But to remain so cemented to traditions, especially oppressive ones related to controlling women and girls, which themselves can be changing in the old country itself is a recipe for assured misery.
Wim Wenders opened the film with a short, recorded video wearing an eye patch over his right eye. Pirate Wim. He jovially bemoaned he couldn’t be at the IMAX for the screening of this remarkable film because [skip if squeamish] his cataract correcting lens had detached, he couldn’t see anything and it needed to be reattached pronto. Completely gross and I completely empathise, having had my own torn retina emergency surgery, an accelerated cataract which made me virtually blind in my right eye for almost a year until I could get cataract surgery. Down with gross eye things. Yey for modern times and this unbelievably visually stunning film.
Anselm Kiefer is a remarkable German artist who has been working at a high level since he was a teen, which I didn’t realise until seeing it in this film. He’s now in his late 70s.
His works are enormous and made of varying media with some of the more affecting ones of vast, cratered and forlorn battlefields. We see him cycling around the massive warehouse, launching a wheeled canvas to join others in a stack, tossing textile works from a great height for no reason and leaving an open flamed blowtorch on the floor as he considers his next strokes without an ounce of protective gear.
His grand vision now includes a landscape-scale outdoor art installation in the south of France called Eschaton. The film is a glorious immersion in his works, the foundation and his son and Wim Wender’s grand-nephew play, respectively, Anselm as a young man and boy. Nice touch. See this at the biggest IMAX you can find.
An idiosyncratic and beautifully shot film about life? Death? Reincarnation? I don’t know for sure. Samsarameans the endless cycle of birth, death and rebirth – the endless cycle of suffering – which is ultimately an illusion. This is the only film I’ve experienced where falling asleep enhances the experience and transports you exactly where I think the filmmakers want you to be, experiencing samsara, an illusion within illusion.
There are two stories and they’re possibly connected.
We start in Luang Prabang with its seas of saffron robed monks. One young man who had been a monk travels up the Mekong to regularly visit an elderly woman on her deathbed. He reads her the Book of the Dead to prepare her for what she’ll encounter. As she drifts off to her final sleep, the young man describes Bardo, which is the first-place humans experience after death (I wonder do non-human animals also experience it?).
It’s a place filled with a variety of stimuli, scenes, people and it’s meant to be frightening if you’re unprepared (hence the Book reading). The soul will wander there until it sees a new body it fancies trying.
As that scene ends, the screen goes dark and a script appears asking the audience to close their eyes and experience the flashing lights and whatever else through their closed eye lids until it’s over.
My companion and I dutifully oblige and swiftly nod off until we’re woken up by a loud whispered “Wake up! Wake up! The goat is born” And although we’re slightly bewildered about what just happened, we’re in a new reality set in the seaweed farming seaside communities of [direction] Zanzibar. And into a new story.
The new born goat belongs to a little girl. She takes the goat everywhere, including school. One day, she meets some Maasai on the beach. They tell her stories about traditional funerary practices where bodies were left in the forest for the animals. And if no animals would take the body, they’d move it elsewhere. To a small Muslim girl this story is hypnotic and completely wild. She gets distracted and loses the goat.
She searches for the goat to no avail. The goat seems to be in a cave desperately calling. The little girl goes home and tells her mother about her encounter with the Maasai and her mother tells her people have different beliefs about life and death. In some places, she says, they believe the soul travels to another body. Imagine, she says, our little goat could have been an old woman someplace far far away.
Directed by his son, Neo Sora, this is an intimate two hour solo concert with Sakamoto on the piano in a bright and airy recording studio in Tokyo. If you’re a fan of his work, then this is a beautiful gift.
What were you thinking?
More like what was I thinking?! I should’ve walked out. I’m out of practice on walking out of films, hoping against hope they’ll somehow improve.
The description sounds interesting: a Vietnamese man returns to his home village to bury his sister-in-law and look for his long-estranged brother. I tend to like these sorts of films, because it’s always interesting to see how people deal with the various situations and people they meet again when they return to their original or parental home.
It’s also a Cannes Caméra d’Or winner for what it’s worth and I’m obviously a philistine. The scenery is beautiful. That’s undeniable.
The second warning salvo came when the LFF programmer introduced this film. They said it was minimalist. It’s a three-hour film. What’s minimalist about that? Minimal editing – fact. And, in this case, it’s minimalist because there’s absolutely no story line and marginally more dialogue… for three hours!! It’s a maximalist boring film.
One amusing moment came when the protagonist meets his old girlfriend. He still fancies her; she doesn’t and instead became a nun. Atta girl! The film seems to start getting somewhere once the protagonist is out on his motorbike. Don’t be fooled. Nothing continues to happen. Worse! Just when you think there has been a development, the protagonist awakens from a nap, revealing it’s most or all a dream. Imagine boring your friends with that?
Demented animation. Helpless parents fumbling to explain away the death of a main character to their crying kids. A main character with such grotesque features to make Pennywise seem cuddly. Colours so brilliant and saturated to make your last LSD trip seem sepia toned. This was the scene on a Saturday morning at the IMAX for the showing of what I thought would be a fun animated film. Instead, what we got was a bad, thinly veiled simulacrum of a genetically modified and steroid pumped Studio Ghibli film.
The protagonist is a little girl whose mother has abandoned her. We never find out why or where she’s gone. The girl is withdrawn and sad. Her inattentive father and stepmother focus primarily on their infant son. The four set off on cruise with all the entertainments and distractions available. One dark and stormy night, the little girl sees a fish washing up on the deck. She runs out to save them and gets swept away.
What follows is ultimately her fever dream before flatlining in a hospital bed. When she was swept overboard, the ship’s clown had followed her in with an inflatable ducky floaty. He told her a story about an underwater casino with a perpetually in debt captain-cum-chef. He was with her until he Jack Dawsone’d into his watery grave. Miraculously, she was rescued, dies in her hospital bed and is resuscitated with her family – still minus mum – surrounding her whilst her dream self whistles one of the Spirited Away melodies… the end! Cue kids howling in shock at such an abrupt and harsh resolution.
The end credits roll on simple line drawings trying to sweeten the blow. They show her emerge from her shell, playing with friends and her nuclear family finally paying attention to her. By that point, the damage was done. The kids were traumatised and I couldn’t help but laugh at the utter chaos this animation had wrought.
For my past Notes on the LFF see, BFI