BFI London Film Festival 2021

It’s time for the London Film Festival again and this year the BFI has reverted to a festival mainly in London cinemas (including the Festival Hall) but thankfully some festival screenings are online and some are being shown in cinemas in different parts of the country, including Glasgow, Belfast and Cardiff. Since I’m staying put in West Yorkshire I haven’t investigated the whole range of venues but I have attempted to navigate the online offer. I have managed to book half a dozen films and my first review will appear soon. As usual, I’ve avoided the ‘big name’ films and gone for the ‘smaller’ offerings. I hope to bring you news of films from Lebanon, Iran, Bangladesh and Japan plus two American independents, one a Native American drama and the other featuring a Ghanaian community in the US.

After last year’s online festival, I’ll be better prepared to make sure I catch all the introductions and Q&As. I don’t think the BFI have yet sorted out a deal which enables me to ‘airplay’ BFI Player screenings direct to my TV screen via Apple TV (there is a BFI app on Apple TV that I’ve been warned away from) which means I’m stuck watching the films on my desktop computer. It’s better than a laptop or iPad but not ideal. (Other festivals make airplay straightforward.) I’m wondering just how it will feel to see a film on a cinema screen again? I think I’ll give it another month or two at least before I find out.

Out of the seven films I watched on last year’s online festival, four actually made it into some form of distribution in the UK, ie. cinemas, streaming or on physical media. I hope we get a similar outcome this year. Watch this space for reviews.

Privatisation and the threat to Film 4

A Film 4 logo seen in the credits of many British films

The Tory government in the UK is seriously considering the possibility of selling the publicly owned Channel 4 TV corporation. Unlike the BBC, Channel 4 is not funded by the licence fee but by the sale of advertising. However, as well as its commitments as a Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) in the UK, Channel 4 has other commitments that derive from its establishment in 1982 as a ‘publisher broadcaster’. These have been watered down over time and particularly since the early 1990s when the bold, radical style of Channel 4’s operations was severely curtailed and the channel became more focused on mainstream programming skewed towards younger audiences, while retaining a cutting edge on particular forms of programming such as news. I confess that I became far less interested in the station at that point. However, the other parts of its original remit remained in the sense that Channel 4 was required to commission all its programming from other TV channels and particularly from independents. In addition this commissioning should include production outside London and the South East. This became particularly important when ITV ceased to be organised through regional franchises and became a single national network operation.

Film 4 is the film production and distribution arm of Channel 4, commissioning films since the channel’s outset. In the last 30 years, Film 4, alongside the BBC and BFI has been a major funder of independently produced British films. I would go so far as to suggest that if Channel 4 had not funded filmmakers in the 1980s through to the 2000s, the British film industry would probably have folded and become nothing more than an offshore facility for Hollywood productions. It might be argued that in reality that’s all the UK film industry has ever been except for its genuine studio period from the late 1930s to the early 1960s. Nevertheless, Channel 4 and Film 4 have been important in ensuring that smaller independent British films have been made, including films in Scotland, Ireland and Wales as well as English regions. In doing so they have been crucial in helping to develop the careers of filmmakers such as Shane Meadows.

Derry Girls, made in Northern Ireland by Hat Trick for Channel 4

It’s also true that the commissioning of programmes by the BBC and ITV from independents eventually followed the Channel 4 lead. Even so, to take away that possibility that Channel 4 might fund an independent to make Derry Girls in the North of Ireland or It’s a Sin about a group of gay men learning to live with HIV/AIDS in the 1990s would be very damaging to the media ecology in the UK. Both have been big hits with audiences, but would another broadcaster have commissioned them? The companies that made them are now quite large independents, some having been acquired by foreign multinationals, but many others are still small UK companies. On Tuesday this week 44 independent production companies paid for a full-page advertisement in the Telegraph newspaper, a major Tory-supporting media outlet, arguing that privatisation “would cost jobs, reduce investment, and place companies at risk in the nations and regions”. The ad was timed to attract attention at the Tory Conference in Manchester.

One of the This Is England TV serials based on the original film and made by Warp Films in Sheffield for Channel 4

The government response has predictably argued that any buyer of Channel 4 would be required to abide by its PSB and other founding commitments. So, it would follow the ‘successful’ model of privatisation of the rail industry, postal service, energy and water etc, all of which are now a national disgrace? If the privatisation goes ahead the only likely buyers are going to be multinationals and these will be mostly US-owned corporations. Can we see Disney, Viacom or Warner Bros, supporting offices in Leeds and Bristol and funding shows like Derry Girls? Perhaps they would, but in the long term they are international capitalist enterprises with only profit as a long-term goal (Channel 4 is currently a not-for-profit corporation). Would Film 4 still exist as a funder? Wouldn’t the already high US content of the channel just increase? Do we really think that the UK government could force one of these corporations to stick to PSB regulation?

There is a second concern here that links the possible privatisation of Channel 4 to the rise in film production from the streamers, principally Netflix, Amazon, Disney and Apple. The Tories will argue that the streamers are producing films in the UK, lured by high quality skilled crews and facilities and tax concessions for ‘high-end television’ as well as feature films. There are several problems with this. First, the government has no clear cultural policy. It cries out for films and TV about ‘British values’, whatever they may be, but The Crown is the only Netflix production I can think of that fits the government request and that’s not exactly social realism. Are Netflix going to fund Shane Meadows (and would Shane want to be funded by them?). Second, dependence on dollar investment in UK film and TV is vulnerable to exchange rate changes and other factors. The streamers could decide to leave for a host of reasons and all the shiny new studio spaces currently being hurriedly built to lure the streamers would be empty. I don’t subscribe to Netflix or Amazon, Disney or Apple TV+. Dealing with multinational capitalist enterprises is a given of modern life but this quartet threaten the very future of British broadcasting. With a government seemingly determined to ‘subdue’ the BBC and create more commercial freedom, UK TV will become as US-dominated as the UK film production. Channel 4 is one of the few organisations striving to protect independent filmmaking in the UK – and to help export the films produced. The privatisation must be stopped.

Lullaby (Chanson douce, France 2019)

Louise (Karin Viard, left) with Myriam (Leïla Bekhti)

This title popped up on my DVD rental list and at first I couldn’t remember why I had put it there originally. I clearly missed the UK and US releases back in early 2020 but I quickly realised that it was a film by Lucie Borleteau (whose film Fidelio – Alice’s Journey (2014) I really liked) and that it was adapted from a novel by Leïla Slimani, whose first book I had read in 2019. Chanson douce as a novel won the Prix Goncourt and was a bestseller in France. In the UK it was translated as Lullaby and tellingly in the US it became The Perfect Nanny. These titles carried over to the films. I think the American title is misleading, but having said that, there are many films with the title Lullaby and I think that the ironic French title is arguably the best. But it seems that many UK and US reviewers had problems with the film, possibly because of their expectations.

Louise with Mila and baby Adam

Part of the problem may be that Slimani’s novel was inspired by a murder in New York carried out by a nanny and that in turn may have led some reviewers to think that the French film would be a form of horror genre picture. I haven’t seen any of the American films that have been identified with the genre, but I’m familiar with the titles and some of the plot outlines. For many reviewers it seems to be the case that a genre film fails if it doesn’t deliver the expected narrative closure or the various conventional narrative elements along the way. Lucie Borleteau presents a film narrative that is in parts almost ‘procedural’ about the daily duties of a nanny presented with a familiar social realist aesthetic, but then she shifts focus to the psychological breakdown of a character and interweaves this with ideas about fairytales, myths and folklore – and although she doesn’t deliver the expected shocks of a genre horror film, there are still shocking and surprising moments as well as challenges to some of the complacency we may feel faced with a familiar genre. Much of the discussion about the film centres on the ending. Borleteau doesn’t leave the ending ‘open’. She ‘delivers’ but not in the way we might expect.

Louise becomes the mother in many different ways

Myriam (Leïla Bhekti) is a mother of two small children, not yet at school (French children start school at 6, I think) and after being a full time mother for five years she decides that she needs to return to work as a lawyer. Her husband Paul (Antoine Reinartz) works as a music producer and argues that it will cost all of Myriam’s salary to pay for childcare, but she is adamant and they advertise for a nanny. The interview process that we see is perhaps a too familiar montage and it’s obvious that the best candidate is Louise (Karin Viard), although the staging of her interview does drop hints that things might not be what they seem. Perhaps the real purpose of the montage is not to simply create a gentle comedy but to emphasise the significance of the choice of an older white woman who is ‘French’. Louise is eager to please and to work longer hours and become more involved in the family’s affairs. If Miriam wasn’t so busy and focused on her return to work, she would probably have become suspicious of Louise much earlier. There are some subtle pointers to the nuances of bourgeois French life in the narrative. We learn more about Paul’s background, partly through the appearance of his mother Sylvie. Paul’s family seems more middle-class and he adopts a more professional pose in dealing with Louise. Even so he demurs to Myriam, about whom we learn little and who has a more friendly relationship with Louise.

Leïla and Paul take Louise with them on holiday. Is this wise?

The Press Notes for the film are available from UniFrance and I found them to be an interesting read. I think I’d already guessed something about Lucie Borleteau’s approach. She mentions Hitchcock and Polanski and their films Vertigo (for Kim Novak’s performance) and Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant. I was reminded of an earlier film by a young director, À la folie . . . pas du tout (France 2002) directed by Laetitia Colombani who also mentioned Hitchcock and Polanski. That film too was criticised because it cast Audrey Tautou in a role that hinted at her rom-com persona being important but then switched to a much more disturbing narrative. I have a vague idea how French film schools work and I think they produce directors who are much more interesting than US/UK reviewers expect. Leïla Slimani is also interviewed in the Notes and she adds another range of references that Borleteau must have navigated. Slimani mentions Chabrol and also Jo Losey’s The Servant with Dirk Bogarde. Chabrol does seem quite important with his bourgeois satires such as La cérémonie (France 1995) with Isabelle Huppert as the disruptive interloper who ‘turns’ Sandrine Bonnaire’s maid against her employers.

The ‘family’ in the park

Lullaby as a film ‘belongs’ to Karin Viard, a vastly experienced actor, who seems able to tackle any kind of role. I last saw her in La famille Bélier (2014) in mainly a comic role. Louise is a very difficult role, I think, but Viard takes it in her stride. She might well have been initially cast by one of her previous directors, Maïwenn whose name still appears on Lullaby’s credits as a writer. For some reason Maïwenn left the production and Lucie Borleteau stepped in. She and Leïla Slimani seem to in agreement on the approach to the story. I wonder if the film would have been very different directed by Maïwenn? Either way this is a film primarily about women. There are five female roles of importance with Louise, Myriam and Sylvie plus 5 year-old Mila and Wafa, the mother who Louise meets each day in the square. There are moments in the film when racism directed against Maghrebi migrants seems about to become important though I don’t remember anything directed at Myriam (Leïla Bhekti was born in Paris to Algerian parents and she is a high profile star in France and married to Tahar Rahim). It’s more important that Myriam is a bourgeois parent who doesn’t mix with the other parents in the park and isn’t aware of Louise’s home district, an area of social housing an RER train ride away.

I found Lullaby an intriguing film and much of the time I could almost not bear to watch, fearful of what was going to happen next. Melodrama and horror are close together as expressionist modes of cinema and Lullaby is a form of family melodrama mixed with a psychological thriller that gets out of control. I recommend the film. Here’s the US trailer.

He Walked by Night (US 1948)

The hunted man loads his weapon in a familiar noir image

This little gem was broadcast as part of Talking Pictures TV ‘Late Night Friday’ schedule in the UK. Generally described as a ‘crime noir’, it’s perhaps better classified as an example of the semi-documentary police procedural cycle of films started by Jules Dassin’s The Naked City in 1948 and eventually becoming a staple of US TV as well as developing a UK equivalent. But He Walked by Night also has its own important features, primarily the camerawork of John Alton. Alton literally ‘wrote the book’ on noir night-time location shooting, characterised by intense shadows. Painting With Light was published in 1949.

The search begins . . .

. . . Roy Roberts as Captain Breen (left) and Scott Brady as Sergeant Brennan, leading the hunt

There are several other stories about its production that are worth mentioning. It was independently produced by Brian Foy, a veteran of studio ‘B pictures’, and distributed by Eagle-Lion, the company set up as part of J. Arthur Rank’s attempt to distribute his British films in the US (which meant Rank distributed this US indy in the UK). Foy gathered together some of the highly experienced filmmakers he knew from his studio operations including the writers John C. Higgins and Crane Wilbur and director Alfred L. Werker. However, there is a strong suggestion that at least some of the directing duties were by an uncredited Anthony Mann. Mann directed T-Men in 1947 for Brian Foy Productions with Higgins as one of the writers and John Alton behind the camera. A similar kind of film with ‘Treasury Men’ working undercover to root out fraud, T-Men is another form of ‘procedural’, also released by Eagle-Lion. Finally in terms of production stories it’s worth noting that Jack Webb, who has a small role in He Walked by Night as a backroom technician, would soon go on to produce and star in a radio series developing the police procedural idea and titled Dragnet (1949-57) and in turn this would become one of the most iconic US TV shows of the 1950s (1951-59 plus later series). There were also a couple of feature films and all this can be traced back to Webb’s experience on He Walked By Night.

Richard Basehart is the doomed criminal . . .

The police procedural idea was to take the idea for a film on a real case and to film on location in Los Angeles. Roy Martin/Morgan (Richard Basehart) is a burglar specialising in the then new electronics goods market(radios, TVs and tape recorders etc.) He has also acquired an arsenal of weapons and one night when he is disturbed by a police patrol car he ends up shooting a police officer. This sets off the procedural narrative which ends in a chase through the Los Angeles storm drain system, something used since as either an LA-set device or using sewers and underground tunnels in other locations – but this may be the first use and it benefits greatly from Alton’s camerawork. I enjoyed the film very much though I was struck by the moment when the officers in a patrol car hear over the radio that one of their colleagues has been shot. They are suddenly electrified and burst into action. I hope they would react similarly if any member of the public is shot. This shot reminds us that the film (and many similar procedurals that followed) relied on the co-operation of police forces which perhaps led to a selection of stories and an influence on how these were presented.

The end comes in the storm drain

I believe that this film is now in the public domain in the US so it is widely available online but to really appreciate its visual qualities, you should seek out the best quality print (see DVD Beaver for disc options or check the streamers). Richard Basehart is excellent as the dangerous man on the run and Scott Brady and Roy Roberts give solid performances as the the two police figures leading the hunt.

Limbo (UK 2020)

Limbo is one of the more remarkable British films of the last few years. Its subject matter of asylum-seekers in the UK is not in itself new, but its presentation here is – in several different ways. Although it is a fictional story, there is a real-life event which is some ways might prompt the ideas behind the fiction. In 2015, when the Conservative government in the UK agreed to take 10,000 Syrian refugees, a small number of families (15 or 24 according to varying reports) were sent to Rothesay on the Isle of Bute. Rothesay is a ferry and road/rail journey of around 2 hours away from Glasgow. The influx of even a small number of refugees was noted on an island with a resident population of only around 6,500. Fortunately the refugees appear to have settled in well.

(from left) Omar (Amir El-Masry), Wasef (Ola Orebiyi), Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) and Farhad (Vikash Bhai) share a house

Ben Sharrock’s film Limbo places a motley group of around 20 asylum-seekers from Africa and Asia on a remote island in the Outer Hebrides (the film’s credits suggest that scenes were shot on several islands in the group including North Uist). This carries to the extreme the idea of isolating asylum-seekers with larger towns several hours journey away (apart from air services). The asylum-seekers are all single men who are housed in what appear to be local council dwellings and the narrative focuses on a group of four men in one of the small houses. Asylum-seekers are not allowed to work until they have been cleared to stay in the UK as refugees. Sharrock’s approach to his narrative is arguably both absurdist and fantastical, but in many ways actually makes a more authentic statement about what it means to be an asylum seeker than other more ‘realist’ films. The film is released in the UK by MUBI and after cinema screenings it is now available to stream on MUBI. The stream includes a recorded discussion between writer-director Sharrock and his four principal actors. It is worth noting that the actors were at first reluctant to read a script which they thought might be the same old story about migrants and ‘white saviours’ etc. However, having read the script, they all became enthusiastic and very much wanted to be part of the production.

Boris and Helga role play an encounter on a dance-floor . . .

. . . to the bemusement of the asylum-seekers

The film opens with a close-up on a blackboard. The camera pulls back to a mid-shot of a woman facing the camera. She nods and a man turns on a portable CD player. Hot Chocolate’s ‘It Started With a Kiss’ begins and the camera pulls back to a long shot showing the woman slowly begin to move her body in time with the music. We can see the man now as well and the couple appear to be in a small hall with a high ceiling and a long thin blackboard on the wall behind the couple and a large space in front. The screen shape is Academy, the squarish shape (1.37:1) coming back into vogue for isolated art films. I was so mesmerised by this opening, I failed to recognise one of my very favourite performers, Sidse Babett Knudsen the Danish star of the Borgen TV serials. Here with long straggly hair and wearing an ill-fitting blouse and calf-length skirt, she and Kenneth Collard play Helga and Boris who are employed to help asylum-seekers to understand British customs. This lesson is ‘Cultural Awareness 101: Sex – Is a Smile an Invitation?’. When the camera offers us a reverse shot of the twenty asylum-seekers they look bemused, mystified or stunned. The camera picks out the four men who will be principal characters. Sidse’s dancing is at once hilarious, oddly strained and yet still erotic. The pacing is very slow. Helga asks a question when the dancing ends and one man slowly raises his hand to answer but we then cut to the bleak (but very beautiful) landscape of the isles with heather-covered moorland, seawater inlets and hills in the background and then to an isolated phone-box in the middle of nowhere. This is the centre of the universe for the asylum-seekers, their only means of access to the outside world (apart from a hill-top where a mobile signal might be possible). I’ve described this opening in detail because the constituent elements are well-known/conventional but Sharrock presents them in such a distinctive way throughout the film that we are invited to think again about what we see.

Omar speaks to his mother, a refugee in Turkey

Farhad examines the oud that Omar always carries

Eventually, our focus will narrow to just two of the characters (though significant action will also involve the two West Africans in the house). Omar is a Syrian who always carries his grandfather’s oud everywhere he goes. In its case, the oud is like a guitar and initially Omar cannot play it because he has injured his wrist. When his dressing is removed he is still unable to play but more from the trauma of being parted from his family (though he came to the UK deliberately, hoping to send for his parents). Omar speaks very good English, as does the other main character, the older Farhad, an engaging Afghani man who has been waiting longer for his asylum application to be considered. I’m not going to spoil any more of the narrative and instead I’ll stick to general comments about Ben Sharrock’s approach to his story. I understand he spent some time in Syria after growing up in Edinburgh. This is his second feature following Pikadero (Spain 2015), filmed in Spanish and Basque – this is also available on MUBI.

Omar meets some locals including these quizzical young women . . .

. . . and the Sikh who runs the mini-market

Limbo does have a conventional narrative of sorts. Some viewers might read it as a showing a ‘character journey’ for Omar. It’s not giving too much away to suggest that he can only free himself from his own ‘limbo’ by playing his oud, preferably for an audience. But this also means coming to terms with aspects of his family relationships and Sharrock finds ways to explore this using fantasy sequences which I think work very well. I think this is a wonderful film. Parts of it are very funny. One or two moments are harrowing. It isn’t an overlong film at just over 100 minutes but it is slow, giving you more time to appreciate the camerawork by Nick Cooke and the pacing of the edits by Karel Dolak and Lucia Zucchetti, as well as reflecting on what you are seeing. The performances are all very good but particularly the two central performances by Amir El-Masry as Omar and Vikash Bhai as Farhad. Bhai is from Leicester and El-Masry was brought up in London. I realised later that I had seen El-Masry in the John Stewart film Rosewater (US 2014). He has also appeared in a Star Wars film. Bhai has been in several UK TV shows. El-Masry speaks Egyptian Arabic and Bhai learned some Dari for his role as an Afghani man. I point this out simply to confirm that this is a carefully scripted film for actors rather than an attempt to cast non-professionals in a form of realist drama. The focus is directly on the experience of ‘limbo’, the pervading sense of being caught in a ‘waiting room’ with memories of where you have left and attempts to maintain hope about where you might get to. There is relatively little contact between the four men and the locals who are mainly friendly if sometimes insensitive. The locals include both Helga and Boris but also a local Glaswegian Sikh shopkeeper who has some good lines. Reviewers have variously compared the film’s presentational style to Abbas Kiarostami, Aki Kaurismäki and Roy Andersson. I can see the possible links but this is very much Ben Sharrock’s (and his cast and crew’s) film.

One of the best films I’ve seen this year and one that I very much recommend, I hope you can find Limbo online or on a cinema screen. Perhaps community cinemas will book it? You can view the MUBI trailer below. The US trailer is, I think, misleadingly ‘oversold’. The MUBI one gives you a better idea of the film.

Whither Sight & Sound?

I have subscribed to Sight & Sound since the demise of The Monthly Film Bulletin in April 1991. I actually preferred the latter but the new monthly former magazine did offer reviews all the theatrical releases in  Britain. There were limitation; Indian films not released into the specialised audience  circuit were usually missed. And whilst the added video reviews were useful most of the space went on critical comment and not enough on the technical aspects of the release. Even in recent years we had reviews that used the anachronistic ‘4×3′ or ’16:9’ to describe titles. I also found other items like the annual obituary articles helpful.

Unfortunately as digital files overtook film as the major release format the coverage of the technical aspect of theatrical releases were reduced. For the last few years we had information on certification, running time, aspect ratio and sound  system; but for some odd reason formats [film versus digital] were not included. I also think the standard of reviewing has reduced. Quite often I wondered if the reviewer had seen the title in a theatrical setting or was relying on some video or streamed version.

Now things have taken a definite turn for the worse with the September and October issues this year with a complete change in form, style and technical aspects. One oddity of the magazine these days is that the September issue appeared in early August and the latest October issue has arrived in early September. When I saw the former issue my heart sank into my boots and the more recent issue confirmed my worst fears.

There had been some earlier worrying developments. One year the obituaries were only presented online; they have returned in printed form but in a shorter version from that online. In the review section the distinction between theatrical venues, streaming and television started to break down; now it has practically disappeared altogether.

I am not enamoured with the new format, style or organisation. The paper used has changed and is presumably of a cheaper quality. Certainly the stills have less definition than in the past. Some pages are coloured rather than white and there has been a wholesale change in fonts; I had difficulty reading some of the text. On these pages any illustrations have an odd hue.

What seem to be the worse changes are in the review section. Both the synopsis and technical data are drastically reduced. Here the changes in fonts make the technical information difficult to read. All we get, and this not uniformly, is the origin, certificate and running time. This matters since titles can appear in a variety of digital formats and not all of these serve the productions well. I have seen screening where the ratio is wrong or cropped: where the colour looks odd: where there is digital breakup: and where occasionally the title seems not quite complete. So information on formats is [for me] important in selecting screenings. And exhibitors mostly fail on this point.

This may well be part of a long term process at the British Film Institute; a friend reckons it will go solely digital at some point. Either to pursue this or accelerating this was the appointment of Mike Williams as Editor; he previously oversaw at the New Musical Express [now NME]as it went digital. And the changes in Sight & Sound go hand-in-hand with a stronger emphasis on digital.

Williams notes in his editorial for the October issue that there have been both positive and negative responses to the changes. But this is not reflected on the Readers’ Letter Page’ where w e find a positive letter accorded twenty six lines whilst a complaint gets only six lines. I suspect that in the latter case the shortest possible letter was selected.  And the space for readers has been cunningly manipulated so that half goes on a subject chosen by the editor as ‘Talking Point’.

A friend, David Howell, has kindly supplied the following::

I’ve just done a content analysis of the 116 pages:

Advertising – 17 pages (admittedly quite a bit is for BFI products & services)

Material repeated from the archive (which subscribers have free access to anyway) – 7 pages

Television – 6 pages

Stills photography (you can make out a case for TV, as being moving images, but stills ???) – 6 pages

Full page photos with no text – 3 pages

That leaves just two-thirds of the mag allocated to writing about film (and many of those pages have unnecessarily large stills).

I have never looked at the online digital version. It may be that these changes look better there. Is this a covert move to discourage print readers so they go online, [to S&S]? It fails in my case.