The festival is over for another year, and I thought that I should conclude my notes about the films I saw this year’s festival.
I’ve got to say that I’ve been lucky and there wasn’t a duff film amongst them. I came away very satisfied with all the films I saw, even those that were chosen with barely any real consideration!
Ashkal is Tunisian/French production set in the ghostly suburbs of Tunis in an area called Carthage Gardens. It’s an area full of half-built tower blocks and apartment buildings, seemingly abandoned following the overthrow of President Ben Ali in 2011. We follow some police detectives who are investigating the curious death of a man who has died having been incinerated. Very quickly another death, also by fire is discovered, and
We follow Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) as they investigate, but there are claims and counter-claims about what’s happening. The investigation seems to be being derailed by others. All the while, it seems that a mysterious person is somehow causing this immolation to take place.
The scenery is moody, with lots of night scenes set in the concrete emptiness of the half-finished buildings. There’s a sense of unreality about the whole thing – something that becomes bigger as the film progresses. This is more than a noir detective piece.
I’m not going to claim to understand a great deal about the politics of Tunisia post the Arab Spring, but I do know that a key event was the death of Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire in December 2010. I don’t think that’s an accident in this politically astute film.
This documentary follows its director Lars Henrik Ostenfeld as he meets scientists on the Greenland ice sheet as he explores the consequences of climate change and what that will mean to the world.
I initially bought a ticket for this because I thought it’d look spectacular on the big screen, and it certainly did – especially the final section where they climb into a moulin to establish where water that flows into these vast shafts actually goes.
This is quite a personal documentary – with Ostenfeld featuring throughout. Walking and climbing on the ice sheet is deadly, and we feel his fear. But the bigger fear is probably the danger to ourselves.
The good news is that this film also aired on BBC Four over the weekend, and is on iPlayer (in the UK) for the next year or so. In a Q&A afterwards, it was pointed out that the same moulin also features in Frozen Planet II that’s airing at the moment, so the two can be watched in parallel.
Another documentary, this is a personal look at what it means to work in Korean Liquor Store in largely black neighbourhoods of Los Angeles. For historical reasons, explained in the documentary, Korean immigrants tended to dominate in opening convenience and liquor stores in the area.
So Yun Um is the daughter of parents who themselves were US immigrants who opened such a store. She and her sister have worked there as long as they can remember, and now as a young filmmaker, she documents life in the store, the issues that perhaps aren’t always open for discussing, and what happens in the future.
She also tells the story of her friend Danny who, extraordinarily once ran all the way from Los Angeles and Portland in pursuit of a dream job with Nike. He got the job. But then, following a parental death, returned home to help run the family store.
The film was shot during the period following the murder of George Floyd, and the ferment that happened on the streets of America that happened following that. Um draws parallels with the LA Riots following the beating of Rodney King back in 1991, with rioters targeting Korean owned premises in particular. Race and racism is openly discussed.
In relation to that, there’s a short sequence of clips from TV and film featuring clichéd Korean store owners. I suspect that this sequence could have been vastly longer than it actually was…
A really fascinating and well made piece.
I was really looking forward to this as it’s the follow up to Mark Jenkin’s debut film, Bait. In the is new film, it’s 1973 and we follow the unnamed “Volunteer” (Mary Woodvine), a woman who lives on a remote Cornish island where she records daily observations about a rare flower found on its windswept cliffs.
Her life revolves around noting down her recordings, and relying on a petrol driven generator for power. A Bakelite radio provides her only company, while she reads, and re-reads a book on survival. The only contact she has with humanity is via a radio link, so that she can call for re-supplies, at least when the weather allows.
This carefully paced film slowly builds out as first the flower, and then the Volunteer herself seem to become infected with lichen. She also has unexplained scarring on her body. And she appears to be having apparitions – the ghosts perhaps of former residents of the island.
This is a horror film, but not really. It’s creepy rather than scary. And the atmosphere is helped enormously by techniques Jenkins uses to make the film. He shoots on film – 16mm I think – and records sound separately quite often. He spoke to us in a Q&A afterwards explaining that he does many of his own foley sound effects himself as he edits the film. At the same time, he produces his own eerie soundtrack. It’s an impressive way of working; almost certainly unique.
I confess that this film ticked all my boxes, although I know that won’t be the case for all.
Here’s a horror film, Australian funded, shot in Serbia, and set in 19th century Macedonia and in Macedonian, featuring Swedish, Australian and Romanian actors amongst others. It’s an oddity.
At the start of the film, a mother is confronted by a demon, “Old Maid Maria” (Anamaria Marinca), who has the appearance of being covered in burns. She’s a witch of some description and she demands the woman’s daughter in return for her life.
Years later the witch returns and takes the daughter who the mother has tried in vain to protect. In turn, she is given the power of shape-shifting, taking the shape of the recently dead, but mute.
We follow her adopting some of these characters, all the while, in monologue, learning what she’s thinking as she tries to understand and make sense of the world around her. It feels like it’s based on actual old folk tale, but writer/director Goran Stolevski assured us in a Q&A that it all came from his imagination – some of it developed while he took late night Megabus trips back to his then home in Bristol between watching films in a previous London Film Festival.
Overall, the Festival was good fun this year. I saw mostly smaller titles, and nearly all of them had Q&As with the director and the occasional star of the films. While unlocking my bike outside the BFI, Sir Lenny Henry walked past one evening, coming away from the Matilda premiere taking place next door. And at my final film in the Curzon Soho, Idris Elba seemed to be holding court in the bar (I couldn’t work out if he’d been in any of the films showing there). Roll on the 2023 Festival – just get the ticketing working properly next time!