I enjoyed my three day visit to the LFF and this time to have the chance to spend more time in ‘BFI Southbank’ as it is now branded. I know that the changes took place some time ago, but for those of who live 200 miles or more away, the LFF is our main chance to experience it.
I failed to enquire why I couldn’t get a Wifi connection, so that’s my fault. On the positive side, I did spend time in the BFI Library, although only as a reading room, so I can’t comment on how efficient it was in getting books from stacks. But it’s free and I didn’t need to book and I appreciate that (I am a BFI member, but at Stephen Street you had to book and pay if I remember rightly – I most used the library back in the 1980s in Charing Cross Road). In the evening, the library space became a venue for talks etc. I didn’t visit the Mediathèque, which was closed on one of the days, but it’s clearly a useful resource (you can watch a wide range of BFI holdings on-line). Perhaps what I appreciated most was that the whole building is now more open and airy. The bar-restaurant overlooking the river seems to work much better than I remember previous arrangements and it was a pleasure to have a late breakfast there before a late morning screening.
I’m still puzzled though as to where the LFF is going and what it now thinks it is for. I went to eight screenings. They were chosen to be ‘not American or British’ and ‘not films known to be about to open or to have already secured a UK release’. My logic is quite simple, London has been the one festival in the UK which has screened a selection of global cinema that probably won’t get a UK release, but is at the same time high quality and likely to figure in future discussion of global trends. On that basis, my selection worked well. I enjoyed all eight films and although it looks likely I might have a chance to see some of them again, none of them will get a UK release in the near future. There are over 200 films in the LFF and none of my selections have been mentioned in any of the mainstream media reports on the festival that I’ve seen. As far as radio, press and TV are concerned, the festival seems to be about a limited number of high-profile films, mostly American or British – or major art films already set up for UK release. What’s the point of highlighting these? (To be fair, there was a short piece in the i newspaper which urged London cinemagoers to ignore the week’s predictable new commercial films on release and seek out the more unusual films in the festival.)
London has a problem as a film festival. Its timing places it after all the major European festivals (Berlin, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Venice, San Sebastián etc.). It finds itself with only a handful of major films that offer a European première or a ‘world première’ (Toronto has already taken most major films). And now London is competing with Rome (now scheduled for November) for what is left. London was once a festival for UK cinephiles, allowing them to catch up with all the art films that had appeared at other festivals. It was relatively small and inward-looking. It has gradually grown and recently has reached out to a wider, non-specialised audience as well as attempting to attract industry delegates, partly through promoting its three competitions. But as industry commentators have pointed out, if LFF wants to raise its profile further (and in industry terms the UK rivals France as a film production/distribution centre) the BFI would need to throw a lot more money at the festival to secure more prestigious premieres and guests. At the moment, winning best film in London is not a big deal. This year, the winner was Rust & Bone, Jacques Audiard’s big breakthrough film after several arthouse triumphs. The film didn’t ‘need’ the London win, but perhaps it will help the film in the UK where it opens next week? In France, its biggest market, it opened back in May soon after its positive reception at Cannes. London opened with Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie (in UK cinemas a few days later) and closed with Mike Newell’s Great Expectations (in UK cinemas in December). These films fulfilled the red carpet requirements but do either of them belong in a major film festival?
LFF 2012 has been a commercial success for new director Clare Stewart with more bums on seats in more venues over a more concentrated period. I have no complaints about that and if promotion of cinemagoing to a wider public is the aim, all well and good. But is it compatible with raising the industry profile of the festival? Compare London to Toronto – no ‘official competitions’, only a ‘audience award’ but real evidence that the festival can launch small films on their way – Juno, Slumdog Millionaire are perhaps the best examples. Can LFF do that? Does it want to?
My final film during my festival visit was programmed in the ‘Debate’ strand, though again, I fail to see what the debate might be – except that we might want to argue that most of us who live comfortable lives ought to appreciate much more how difficult other lives can be. But that can’t really be contested, can it? Children of Sarajevo is a dark film but the strong performances, especially by Marija Pikic as the central character Rahima, make up for that and give us a sense of hope.
Produced with support from production companies and funding agencies in France, Germany and Turkey, Children of Sarajevo still ranks as a relatively low budget film and most of the action takes place indoors or on local streets at night. Rahima is introduced as a young woman wearing a headscarf and from the inserts of video footage of the war in Sarajevo in the 1990s, we deduce that she survived the war (but lost her parents) and has turned to her faith in an attempt to make sense of her life.
Rahima has problems. She is the only breadwinner in her household and works hard as a chef in a large restaurant. She returns home to housework and the latest calamity to befall her young brother Nedim, still at school. The neo-realist narrative driver in this film is a broken iPhone – belonging to the son of a local wealthy politician, but broken, allegedly, by Nedim in an attack on the boy. We don’t know exactly what is in Rahima’s background, but she is treated badly by the school headteacher and by the corrupt politician, both of whom expect her to pay for a new iPhone. Nedim doesn’t appear to be a ‘bad lad’, just not very aware of everything his sister has to do for him and he starts to make the wrong decisions about getting involved in local criminality.
On the other hand, Rahima is very much part of a community, with a potential suitor and close supporters in her housing block. I’m not really sure that I appreciated the significance of the hajib she wears. (I live in an area where muslim women wear all kinds of combinations of veils and scarves.) Rahima is the only one of the women in the film to do this and she clearly has female muslim friends. I found a review of the film written after its successful Cannes screening (the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard competition) that discusses this issue and quotes the film’s writer-director, Aida Begic (who is also photographed wearing a headscarf). The East European Film Bulletin review by Collete de Castro suggests that: “In wearing the veil, Rahima is at once closer to God and further away. Hiding from the world, she is at once protected and exposed.” The director is quoted as saying that the idea for the film came to her when she realised that “we don’t believe in the reconstruction of our society any more, we’ve replaced dreams with memories”. That makes sense. The world she depicts in the film is no longer at war as such, but it certainly isn’t a world that is at peace with itself and there appear to be great inequalities.
This is an intense film that requires attention to detail. I hope it gets a wider exposure. Here’s a trailer:
It’s great news that Satyajit Ray’s 1963 masterpiece is to be re-released in the UK on a new digital print in Summer 2013 and it was a privilege to be able to view the new print in the ‘Treasures’ strand of the LFF. This restoration goes back to the original film negative and looks very good. The only slight disappointment is that this isn’t one of Ray’s more location-based films. The title translates from Bengali as ‘The Big City’, but much of the film uses sets and back projection. No matter, all the other ingredients are there: a beautifully written story, fantastic performances and a riveting theme of tradition, women’s freedom outside the home and the economic realities of modern Calcutta in the 1950s.
At various points, calendars and diaries tell us that it is 1953. Because we see little of the city, the only other contradictory signifier of time period is a rather more modern motor vehicle that looks early 1960s. The time period matters perhaps only in respect of one of the narrative strands concerning the Anglo-Indian community in the city – see below.
The story by Narendranath Mitra focuses on the Mazumdars, a single family of three generations. Subrata and Arati live with his parents and their own child plus Subrata’s younger sister – still a young teenager. Money is becoming scarce for this middle-class family. Subrata works as an accountant, but his salary is barely enough to support the extended family group and he feels ashamed that his father, a retired teacher with an MA, is reduced to seeking favours from his ex-students who have ‘made good’ (this is one of the separate narrative threads in the film as the old teacher visits his students). When Arati suggests that she might get a job, her husband at first refuses (and doesn’t tell his father) but the prospect of a second salary is far too tempting in the economic circumstances. Arati applies for a job and after an interview is appointed as a ‘salesgirl’ or ‘canvasser’, making housecalls in order to interest upper middle-class housewives in the purchase of a knitting machine. Her immediate boss is a successful Bengali manager. Presumably the machine itself is imported or made in India under licence. I’m not sure why I think this, but I suspect that Ray used his own experience of advertising agencies in London to design the company logo. This film isn’t about industry as such (that becomes the focus of Company Limited in 1971) but the Bengali manager makes several comments about being free of foreign control.
The film works mainly because of the riveting performance by Madhabi Mukherjee as Arati. She was only 20 when she worked on the film, but convinces as a married woman a few years older. The film narrative depends on her believable transformation into a working woman who can stand up for herself.
The ‘Anglo-Indian question’ is significant with the film set in the early 1950s, only a few years after independence. One of the other four young women appointed as canvassers at the same time as Arati is Edith, an Anglo-Indian in her early twenties about to get married and needing the income. The Anglo-Indians (defined here as mixed race families, rather than as Europeans who remained in India after independence) faced a difficult position when the British Raj ended. Many sought a new life in the UK, Canada or Australia. Those who remained, mainly in Calcutta or Madras, could no longer rely on the more prestigious jobs in railway administration. Edith is depicted as a modern young woman in Western clothes who speaks English in all situations. She befriends Arati, who is open to new experiences, and this friendship is central to the narrative, both in the influence of Edith on Arati and in the conflict created by the behaviour of the women’s boss who demonstrates his prejudice towards the Anglo-Indian community and Edith in particular. The manager is quite an unpleasant character and several commentators have linked this attack by Ray on the ‘new business types’ in the city to his similar criticisms of older business leaders in his previous film Kanchenjunga.
Despite the prejudice shown by the manager and some rather ungracious behaviour by one of the old teacher’s students, overall Ray sticks to the rule of his mentor Jean Renoir and characters are presented as ‘human’ in their behaviour. This is especially true within the family situation. Subrata has the education but he is not as bright as his wife. He is bound by tradition, but he loves his family. The ending of the film has been criticised by some as too optimistic – in a film about the economic realities of life in the city. But really it is optimistic about the marriage. I guess I’m an old romantic, but I thought that there were grounds for optimism. Often rated slightly less highly than Ray’s most famous films, Mahanagar is for me right up there amongst the best.
Writer-director Nishikawa Miwa was in attendance for this screening and through the excellent interpreter, whose name I didn’t catch, she was able to give the audience plenty to think about. It’s quite a long film (134 mins) and we didn’t leave NFT2 until around a quarter to midnight. I enjoyed every minute.
Dreams for Sale is a fascinating comedy-drama with two excellent lead performances by Matsu Takako (the teacher in Confessions) as Satako and Abe Sadawo as Kanya– Mr and Mrs Ichizawa, the central couple. At the beginning of the narrative, a fire in their restaurant as Kanya is preparing food destroys their investment and shakes their confidence. Satako recovers quite quickly and goes to work in a noodle bar but Kanya, the chef, is hit badly and starts to drink. However, a chance encounter with a woman he knows provides access to a new sum of money. At this point, we realise that we’ve seen this woman before in a sequence which seemed inconsequential at the time. This is a strategy Nishikawa develops through the film. The audience needs to stay awake to remember everything they have seen and link scenes together.
Satako is at first upset that her husband has got something from another woman, but then she starts to recognise that her husband, though not conventionally handsome, has a charm that seems to attract vulnerable women and she begins to work out how to use this quality to ensnare women with access to money. The couple will eventually become an adept pair of ‘marriage fraudsters’. Posing as his sister, Satako finds women and prepares the way for Kanya to seduce them into ‘pledging’ money for marriage – or simply because they will do anything for him.
Nishikawa Miwa told us that she had researched marriage fraud in Japan and that it was a significant issue. The obvious course would have been to make the film a crime story – how will they be found out, what will happen to them? There are also comic elements to exploit in the suspense as the stories of deception become more difficult to set up and control and we imagine all the duped women turning up at the same time. Indeed, some reviewers see the film as a very controlled farce. However, though there are elements of both crime film and comedy, Nishikawa plays it much more like humanist drama. What she really wants to do is to explore love and marriage – what does the deception do to the couple, what do they find out about themselves? They are not ‘bad people’ and most of the women they defraud have money to spend and they are getting something from the deal. Satako and Kanya also want to spend the money on a new venture, telling themselves that they will pay everything back. This doesn’t make the crime acceptable, but it does point us towards thinking about the current state of society in Japan and in a way the film fits in with the long-running series of stories about unemployment amongst skilled workers in the face of a stagnant economy. In some ways the film attempts something similar to Villain, the very successful awards winner in Japan that failed to find audiences in the UK. I think Dreams for Sale is probably a better offering for UK audiences.
This is a very good film that reveals its many qualities gradually and makes some demands on audiences who are repaid handsomely in the way in which the narrative develops. I hope it gets wide distribution and I recommend it highly if you get chance to see it.