For the last few years I’ve always tried to visit the annual LFF for three or four days. It’s one of the few benefits of BFI Membership for us ‘out-of-towners’ and although it is an expensive few days, it has always felt worthwhile because of the possibility of finding, among the 250 or so films, some gems that are unlikely to get into UK distribution. It is good for me to feel that I have some grasp of what is going on in international non-Hollywood film and the LFF possibly helps in this, especially since most filmmakers are also present at the their screenings.
The Covid Pandemic has changed everything. This year’s festival has a greatly reduced selection of titles, only some of which will play in cinemas. But in addition, there is a wide selection of festival screenings being offered online via BFI Player. Personally, I’m still in restricted lockdown and I have no desire to travel to London or to go into a cinema anywhere in the current ‘Second Wave’ context. So I’ve purchased some online tickets. I’ve already discovered that there are some significant benefits and disbenefits of an online festival on the scale of LFF. I’ve already tried online visits to some smaller festivals and that has been fine but London is a different issue.
First, it’s nice to save the not inconsiderable cost of train fares and either hotel rooms or rail/tube costs if I stay with friends. I can also make my own tea/coffee and snacks. On the other hand I lose the big screen experience and most online tickets are actually more expensive than the matinee prices I usually pay as an old person. When I got down to actually booking tickets E-tickets, I also realised that the restrictions of screening times in different venues does not totally disappear in the online context. You can check the various procedures and see the programme on the festival website here. I’ll just mention a couple of the issues.
The first point is that you’ll have to use the BFI Player, which so far I’ve only used for free Archive films. The tickets are £10 or more (the usual price of BFI Player screenings I think unless you are a monthly subscriber). Secondly, the online titles are available only at set times. Some titles are showing only once and you must start viewing within 30 minutes of the designated time. Other titles are available over a 72 hour period and one is available over 96 hours. Once you start watching a film, you must complete your viewing in 3 hours. I find it difficult to watch a whole film on my desktop computer in one sitting as it is not a comfortable viewing environment. We’ll have to see how it works out. I think there are some filmmaker intros or Q&As (possibly pre-recorded?) as well as some ‘Industry Events’ and talks. The other big bonus in 2020 is that if you live outside London, there are some cinemas in major cities which are screening a small number of the high profile LFF films during the festival.
I’ve followed my usual strategy of ignoring anything American or mainstream UK and anything that will obviously get a UK release. Instead, I tend to go for Latin America, Africa, Asia and smaller European film industries. This year I’ve gone for films from Mexico, Argentina, Iran, Bangladesh, China, Czech Republic and Ireland. The Iranian film is an archive restoration and it’s free, like two other archive picks. I’ll let you know how the experience works out in a few weeks time (screenings from 10-16 October). Whatever happens, kudos for BFI Festival organisers in getting things organised. Buying the tickets, at least, proved to be painless.
This was the second of my forays into the ‘Classic Features’ now available online from the London Indian Film Festival and it proved a very rewarding experience. The film’s title Runway refers directly to the home of the film’s central family who live beneath the flight path of aircraft landing at Dhaka’s international airport. The airport is so close that some of the lights indicating the landing path are situated close to the family’s shack. There are also vaguely metaphorical/symbolic readings associated with the title. At one point a small boy aims his catapult at an aircraft that roars over him as it lands. The father of the family is away trying to earn money in Kuwait and for his son Ruhul, who is effectively the ‘man of the family’, life is refusing to ‘take off’. He can’t find a job and he and his sick grandfather are the men at home supported by the earnings of Ruhul’s sister Fatema who works in a clothing sweatshop and his mother Rahima who keeps a cow, bought with a loan from an NGO. The shack’s location is also close to the local river system and Ruhul watches the fishermen with the static Chinese nets.
Runway was made by the husband and wife team of Tareque (director) and Catherine (producer) Masud, whose previous international success was The Clay Bird (2002). Tareque was killed in a car accident in 2011. Catherine is now the curator of the couple’s back catalogue of features, documentaries and shorts. The Masuds’ work seems largely self-financed or ‘independently’ produced and low budget and in a way this film is a reminder of aspects of the similar Indian independent films of the 1970s/80s, except that it doesn’t use the kinds of avant-garde techniques of New Cinema or feature the professional acting and literary/theatrical riches of much of Parallel Cinema in India. The main cast of this feature appear to have been non-professionals at the time apart from the actor who plays the grandfather. Some smaller roles are taken by professionals. Fatema’s friend Sheuli who lives close by is played by Rikita Nandini Shimu who went on to become the lead in Made in Bangladesh (2019), which was very impressive at the London Film Festival last year. The whole cast are very good and the technical standards of the film are high despite what seem to be budget difficulties.
Along with the performances, I was most impressed by the script which manages to to interweave the stories of all of the characters to demonstrate the complexities of life in a country like Bangladesh. Everyone faces financial and moral dilemmas and their actions have an impact on each other. The film never ‘preaches’ but it shows us these lives in such a way that we recognise the problems but also see that there is respite in the love for one another and the beauties of the natural world. It’s a life-affirming film even when it presents us with jihadism and its consequences. Although the events are linked to actual events in Bangladesh earlier in the 2000s, all the characters are fictitious.
Ruhul’s uncle runs a small internet/telephone parlour which Ruhul visits to search for job opportunities. Over a few days he becomes friendly with Arif, a university dropout who appears confident and well-groomed. Ruhul is being recruited into a jihadist group. He is aware of what is happening and of course the group leader promises him that he can get a job at the airport. Will Ruhul become a martyr? His dilemmas are several. He feels that he is living off his mother’s and sister’s earnings. He must get a job, but becoming a jihadist will alienate them and ‘fail’ them. He knows they love him. Sheuli is the girl he loves but he feels he can’t marry her and be supported by her work. Will his father return from Kuwait where industrial disputes threaten the job market for migrant workers? Rahima misses her husband so much that she begins to fantasise that he has returned. It all sounds desperate but Ruhul has the capacity to stay calm. Can he pull through?
Runway is available to watch free online (via registration) until 19th August and is well worth a look.
When the opening credits of this wonderful documentary rolled and I realised that this was going to be an outside observer’s take on the phenomenon that is India’s annual monsoon, I did experience a moment of concern about yet another westerner’s perspective on the sub-continent. Why was this appearing in an online version of the London Indian Film Festival? In the UK especially, we get a wide range of Indian-set documentary material on TV of varying quality, some excellent but some much less so and the lingering sense of Raj nostalgia and an orientalist eye is often evident. However, in this case I think the film escapes this kind of possible censure.
Sturla Gunnarsson is a distinguished filmmaker, born in Iceland but raised and educated in Canada where he began work with the National Film Board and developed a stellar career in documentary and fiction for cinema and TV. I feel ashamed not to know about his long and successful career – my only defence being the usual one that Canadian filmmaking still struggles to get distribution in the UK. Monsoon is not his first film set in India and this becomes evident very quickly.
Gunnarsson offers us several different ways of thinking about the annual monsoon. One is through the stories of individual characters – a family in a village on the backwaters in Kerala, a bookie in Kolkata, a retired meteorologist in Pune etc. Another is about the sheer physical presence of the monsoon and the spiritual questions it raises about how the need to cope with such powerful natural forces has an impact on a large and diverse country like India. In subtle ways the film also makes comments on social, economic and political questions about India. The film was shot on 4K digital and must be very impressive on cinema screens. The stunning imagery is accompanied by an excellent music score by Andrew T. Mackay and the Bombay Dub Orchestra.
The structure of the film follows roughly the course of the monsoon which hits Southern Kerala in the first few days of June and moves North and East over the next few weeks.One of the narrative drivers of the film is the attempt by government meteorologists and climate scientists to predict accurately when and how the monsoon will move across the country. In 2013 the rains are unusually heavy in Kerala and flooding hits the Prasad family who Gunnarsson has chosen to follow. But further north in the lee of the Western Ghats in Maharashtra no rain falls for the fourth year in a row. Government announcements have to be carefully timed to avoid too much stock market speculation – but the bookie in Kolkata seems able to maintain his business, betting on the rain simply on the basis of studying the clouds. Gunnarson himself provides narration. He is calm, speaking softly and asking questions but generally unobtrusive. He does, however, also hint at more probing questions.
The sequences in Mumbai inevitably mention Bollywood, with a chance for Moushumi Chatterjee to reminisce about shooting Manzil (1979) with a young Amitabh Bachchan. Also inevitable perhaps, Gunnarsson’s camera wanders through Dharavi but presents us with two very different stories in the densely-crowded slum now deluged by the monsoon. One features a man from the least advantaged of all social groups in India who has become a barrister and is making a plea in the High Court and another features people making animal sacrifices in the rain. Gunnarsson admits that he doesn’t really understand these rituals and his cinematographer Van Royko records these scenes as part of the general coverage of Mumbai during the monsoon. The final locations for the film’s narrative are the states of Assam and Meghalaya in the far North East of India. The National Park in Assam needs the monsoon rains to replenish the natural environment for its endangered species like the Indian rhino which becomes vulnerable at this time of year to poachers. Meghalaya has the great waterfalls that see the rains eventually rushing to replenish the Brahmaputra river system. At this point Gunnarsson himself is overtaken by the emotional and spiritual impact of the rains.
If I have one slight criticism, it is that the film doesn’t clarify aspects of the movement of the monsoon winds. At one point we see meteorologists recording a front moving north-westwards across the Bay of Bengal, but the impact finally comes from the South West which is why Southern Kerala is hit first. This is part of the complexity of the monsoon weather systems, with the Arabian Sea branch of the monsoon hitting first. Equally, the narrative structure of the film suggests that Meghalaya receives the rain last, but actually the town of Cherrapunji (‘the wettest place on Earth’) which appears in the film, begins to receive heavy rain in June which then peaks in July. This the ‘Bay of Bengal’ branch which picks up more moisture as it heads north-eastwards and then when it meets the Eastern Himalyas, turns back towards the rest, after unloading much of its water over Assam and Meghalaya. But it’s too much to ask the film to explain all this in detail, I think. What the film does do, quite neatly is to use small symbols to mark where each sequence is filmed.
This is certainly a documentary I would recommend. It offers visual storytelling about the impact of weather systems with a focus on personal stories. In the wider context, the monsoon can cause great damage through both flooding and drought, starvation and landslip and so on. People die from the impact and 70% of India’s rainfall occurs in the period from June to September. This film will give you a good idea why it is so important to the Indian economy and to Indian culture. The voiceover is in English with some subtitles for statements by people speaking local languages.
My final film in this year’s Cheltenham International Film Festival (still available online here) was proably the best; vying with Antigone and Rounds for the accolade. Narratively it’s a conventional ‘coming of age’ story however as it’s set on an Innu reservation in Quebec, the cultural difference is sufficient to make it stand out. Add to that the marvellous central performance of Sharon Fontaine Ishpatao as Mikuan and Myriam Verreault’s confident direction, we get a cracking film. The film’s based on Naomi Fontaine’s impressionistic novel and the ethnically white Verreault ensured that she would be sensitive in adapting the novel through getting to know the Innu community as well as recruiting Fontaine as co-writer.
I’m guessing that the narrative is autobiographical, in general if not in the detail. Orla Smith, at the start of her interview with Fontaine and Verreault, states:
Kuessipan is an Innu word meaning, “It’s your turn.” That sentiment inspired Noami Fontaine’s novel of the same name: living in Quebec, away from the Innu community she was born in, she was confused by white people’s notions that Indigenous Canadians were this strange ‘other’. Fontaine decided it was the Innu people’s turn to tell their own story, and so she wrote Kuessipan.
This Othering of difference that reduces the diversity of a cultural group into a homogenous, and often misunderstood, blob is, of course, a huge problem. One of the functions of art is to get us to understand others and the film does that superbly with its ‘warts and all’ portrayal of thepoverty-stricken reservation life. Ishpatao portrays the vulnerability and strength of her character who is pushing against the limitations of roots and against the way she is seen by white people; she’s in a limbo and so it seems, at times, that she belongs nowhere. Mikuan has a tough time personally, with added melodramatic family tragedies, but has the inner strength needed to combat adversity.
Verreault, in her feature film debut, brilliantly integrates actors and non-actors and so the film’s authenticity comes from more than the location shooting. When Mikuan joins a school writing group it feels the scene has been created through improv so convincing is the interaction; and her poetry is great.
An interview with the lead actors, Ishpatao and Yamie Grégoire who plays Shaniss Mikuan’s ‘friend for life’, states there is more indigenous filmmaking happening in the area and it would be great if we could get more of it on the festival circuit. Particularly if they’re as good as this.
Director and co-writer (with Simeon Ventsislavov) Stephan Komandarev’s last film, Directions (Posoki, Bulgaria-Germany-Republic of North Macedonia, 2017), centred on taxi drivers in Sofia. In Rounds it’s the turn of cops and he hopes to complete the trilogy with ambulance workers. ‘Hopes’ reflects the difficulties he had in getting the small budget for Rounds and the film was shot, incredibly, in 12 days. It won the Cineuropa Award at the Sarajevo Film Festival and the Best Actress jury prize for Irini Jambonas who plays the only female cop. Rounds is a brilliant mix of mordant humour and social commentary. It’s set the night before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and some of the conversation is about the debate whether the Red Army statue should be removed or not.
Clearly Bulgaria is a divided country between those who celebrate western ‘freedom’ and those who pine for the days of Soviet ‘tyranny’. As one character says (I paraphrase), “I used to live on Class Struggle Street and they renamed it European Way; it hasn’t changed”.
The narrative follows three pairs of cops who are linked only by moving a corpse over a precinct boundary so they won’t have to deal with it. Komandarev said in an interview they used stories from actual cops and the absurdity of encountering grave vandals who claim their names are Rocky, Rambo and Sylvester give a sense of the surreal nature of some of their work. The darker side of dealing with those on the margins is seen when searching for an AWOL Alzheimer’s patient who turns out to be an ex-teacher that had ‘saved’ the cop from a life of crime. The glimpse we get into the ‘care’ home is quite chilling and the cop faces the moral dilemma of what to do in such circumstances. Another thread includes a young lad beaten up by neo Nazis.
Understandably the takes are long and the camera is often positioned in the back of the car giving it a documentary feel that is entirely appropriate. The performances are all believable and it is some feat of filmmaking to produce such a superbly made film under such limitations. This ‘night in the life of . . . ‘ gives us the good and bad and an insight into what post-‘Communism’ is like in a former eastern bloc country. It’s a clear sighted view of division which is important in divided times. The current ‘culture wars’, from the right wing perspective, is all about taking sides and if you’re not for them you are against them.
The film is still available at the Cheltenham online festival here.
According to IMDb the lead of Stitches, Snezana Bogdanovic who plays Ana, was a leading classical actor in Yugoslavia and her brilliant performance is crucial to the success of this delve into Serbia’s murky past. The narrative centres on the fact that hundreds of children were sold into adoption when their parents were told they were stillborn. Stitches is ‘inspired by true events’ and investigates the emotional fall-out of not being sure about a child’s fate. Ana’s child was taken from her at birth and though it’s 18 years later she is still seeking evidence about what happened, even if it’s only a grave at which to mourn. Even though she now has a daughter, Ivana (Jovana Stojiljkovic), Ana’s emotional lockdown means she’s alienated from both her and husband Jovan (Marko Bacovic).
Bogdanovic plays Ana as a dogged pursuer of truth and if, occasionally, a plot point seems to be missing (Ana’s sister, for example, seems to change her mind suddenly) it doesn’t detract from the powerful story. Everyone from the police to health authorities and her family have told her give up her search. It’s not until Ana makes progress that the emotional dam starts to break that we see how good Bogdanovic’s performance actually is. Ana has been almost a blank page throughout the film and Bogdanovic is careful to avoid histrionics as she nears her goal; indeed Ana’s desire is not one we might expect..
The film was directed by Miroslav Terzić (script by Elma Tataragić) and the camera follows the relentless Ana as she works her way through each day. In one rare scene where she isn’t present Jovan is urged by the police to curb his wife and so we see the misogynist hurdles she has also had to combat. Similarly, in Argentina the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still await justice – as dramatised in The Official Story.
Her husband is a security guard who has unsocial working hours and there is often some confusion about what time of day it is. This emphasises that, to Ana, nothing other than finding out about her child’s fate is important; she is just going through the motions of life to the detriment of Ivana, whose alienation from her mother is readily understandable. Ana’s existence is economically portrayed as almost dream world or, more accurately, a nightmare. It’s another good film available at the Cheltenham online festival here.
This title was also reviewed by Keith at the Berlin Film Festival in 2019: See Stitches (2019)