Amongst the many pleasures of attending a festival like the London Film Festival is that, in addition to offering the opportunity to survey a panorama of contemporary cinema, it creates a space to examine what these films say about life in the modern era.
Some films, like Victor Kossakovsky’s Aquarela, took a non-narrative (and largely nonverbal) approach. One of the most beautiful works in the festival, Aquarela is ostensibly an immersive paean to water, but the film’s mesmerising images of crumbling glaciers and storm-flooded streets can’t help but provoke a contemplation on climate change.
In contrast, Olivier Assayas’ knowingly playful Non-Fiction took a more light-hearted approach, exploring the modern condition through the microcosm of literary publishing. Non-Fiction may be, as Assayas says, the type of talky French film that people warn you about, but in its dissection of the lives, opinions and extra-marital romances of the publisher and his writer, it’s immensely entertaining and surprisingly thought provoking.
Further ruminations on the art of writing, and much else besides, were to be found in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s wide-reaching and picaresque The Wild Pear Tree, which centres on an aspiring writer who returns to his rural home town after graduation. He has written an ‘auto-fiction meta-novel’, but is constantly told he should be writing about history (his town is located in the Çanakkale Province of Northwest Turkey, home to the archaeological site of Troy). While desperately trying to raise the money to publish his work in the face of widespread indifference, he bemoans what he considers to be the small-minded bigotry of the town – but, as time wears on, his pretensions begin to slip away.
If The Wild Pear Tree shows us a portrait of a young writer grappling with the world around him, Aleksei German Jr’s Dovlatov presents a writer constricted by political structures: set in Soviet Russia in 1971, the film is a fictionalised account of six days in the life of the Russian writer Sergei Dovlatov. Refused publication for not sufficiently towing the party line, Dovlatov is unable to join the Union of Soviet Writers and therefore, effectively, he doesn’t exist for the USSR. As if in recognition of the strange netherworld that Dovlatov occupies, the film contains a soothing atmosphere, created by soft light and slow camera movements, which only adds to its intense, quiet profundity.
The effects of the political system on individual lives also ran through a number of other films in the festival. However, Mike Leigh’s rather pertinent Peterloo took a wider approach: in retelling the events surrounding the 1819 Peterloo Massacre, it interweaves a large tapestry of characters, thereby focusing more on the wider political ramifications than the individuals who suffered.
More intimate was Barry Jenkins’ achingly romantic James Baldwin adaptation, If Beale Street Could Talk: in 1970’s Harlem, a black couple are torn apart when the man is falsely accused, and imprisoned, for a rape he didn’t commit. Startling beautiful, the film is also a piercing study of the lives of black Americans.
Also looking at the political through the personal was Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, likewise set in the 1970s – this time in Mexico City. The story of a live-in domestic worker of Mixteco heritage who cares for a middle class family, the film unfolds against the backdrop of the Corpus Christi Massacre, in which student demonstrators were massacred by a government-trained paramilitary unit. An expansive, dense work, Roma is perfectly crafted, yet remains a surprisingly unemotional experience.
Elsewhere in the festival, films like Alonso Ruizpalacios’ heist-thriller Museum and Jia Zhangke’s Jianghu crime epic Ash is the Purest White flirted with genre conventions to tell stories with undercurrents of political history.
The film that did this with the greatest impact, however, was Cristina Gallego and Ciro Guerra’s drug trade drama Birds of Passage. Set among the Wayuu people in Northern Columbia, the film charts a young bachelor’s transition into a powerful drug lord – initially swapping coffee for dope in order to fund his dowry, his empire grows as the decades pass. In exploring how the drugs trade (and the money it brings in) affects the customs and rituals of the Wayuu people, the film shows how capitalism erodes traditional values and corrupts the younger generation. Spanning from the late sixties until the early eighties, it’s an epic, mythic tale – almost like a South American Godfather.
Interestingly, two other films grappled with political history through the idea of historic re-enactment: Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17, which frames itself as a documentary, and Radu Jude’s I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, which frames itself as fiction (of sorts).
Bisbee ’17 centres on the 2017 centenary of the Bisbee Deportation, in which 1,300 striking miners were forcibly rounded up and removed from Bisbee, Arizona and left stranded in a New Mexico desert with no food or water. 100 years on from the event, the city is still wrestling with the complicated legacy of the event and decides to stage a large scale re-enactment which forms the centrepiece of Greene’s documentary. As the film unpacks the history of the deportation, contemporary relevance is impossible to ignore: many of those who were taken were born outside the US, and families were torn apart as the miners were sent away. Not content with these present day parallels, Greene also explores the past – touching upon the mythology of the Old West and the Native American genocide.
I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians, meanwhile, details a young theatre director’s attempts to put on a production, using elements of re-enactment, concerning the 1941 Odessa Massacre, in which the Jews of Odessa were slaughtered. Attempting to grapple with the Romanian pogroms and the Romanian Holocaust, the young director meets resistance at almost every turn, including outright denial of Romania’s anti-Semitism. The film’s reflexive opening sequence makes it clear that her arguments are also those of the film itself, and her claim that she is not anti-Romanian, but merely hoping to find a way to help her country face their history, rings true. She wants to make something controversial in order to challenge preconceptions – and in this dense, multi-layered work, Jude has achieved just that.
If Bisbee ’17 and …Barbarians use re-enactment to examine history, two other films used a different type of ‘re-enactment’ to create affectionate tributes to the history of cinema: with his Robert Redford-starring tale of an ageing bank robber, The Old Man and the Gun, David Lowery paid homage to the New Hollywood of the sixties and seventies, while Panos Cosmatos channelled 80’s horror through the Satanic psychedelia of Kenneth Anger for his trippy, Nicolas Cage revenge-thriller, Mandy.
Moving on from these pastiches, three documentaries dealt more directly with cinema history: Mark Cousins’ Women Making Films: A New Road Movie Through Cinema successfully used examples from films directed by women to examine what it is that makes a good film. One of the women featured in Cousins’ piece, Alice Guy-Blaché, was also the star of her own documentary: Pamela B. Green’s Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché. It was a real delight to see Guy-Blaché being given the spotlight she so richly deserves – as the first female filmmaker, and a pioneering force in early cinema, she holds an incredibly important place in the history of cinema, and one can only hope that Green’s film will help her work gain renewed exposure.
The subject of Jane Magnusson’s Bergman: A Year in a Life, meanwhile, probably needs less of an introduction: in his centennial year, Ingmar Bergman has been the subject of major retrospectives around the world, and no less than three new documentaries. Magnusson builds her documentary around 1957 when Bergman was at the peak of his obsessive productivity, but the English title is misleading, as the film covers much wider ground (the original Swedish title, Bergman – One Year, One Life, feels more suitable). Perhaps the most revelatory aspect is a freshly unearthed interview with Ingmar’s brother Dag, which throws new light on Ingmar’s younger years. Filmed in 1977, the interview was suppressed by Ingmar, ever the great self-mythologizer. It’s just one of several insights into Bergman’s life and work which make Magnusson’s film essential viewing for Bergman fans.
Such documentaries, of course, help to remind viewers of the brilliance of cinema history. The same could also be said for the festival’s Closing Night Gala, Stan & Ollie, which infectiously revived the magic of Laurel and Hardy’s double act – but it was the films in the festival’s Treasure Strand which brought the past most vividly to life.
Fittingly, two of these even focused on filmmaking: Dennis Hopper’s messy The Last Movie (1971) and René Clair’s magnificent Silence is Golden (1947), the best film I saw at the festival. Concerning a young actor who is mentored in the art of seducing women by his director, the film is a charming, wryly comic exploration of male vanity, lechery, ageing, love and early cinema (it’s set in 1906).
For the Archive Gala, the festival assembled a real treat: The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show, a presentation of over 50 short films shot on 68mm or 60mm between 1896 and 1901. The screening, hosted by BFI curator Bryony Dixon, took place at the BFI Imax. Newly restored, the films glistened from the giant screen as John Sweeney and the Biograph Band performed pitch-perfect live accompaniment. All who attended were in agreement: this was something very special indeed.
Also special, in a rather different way, was the festival’s screening of Ingmar Bergman’s extremely rare spy film, High Tension (1950). Bergman considered the film an embarrassment and quickly withdrew it from circulation, making it one of his hardest films to see – so to have the opportunity to see it on the big screen, in a new restoration, was certainly one of the festival’s highlights, even though the film is certainly a long way from Bergman’s greatest work.
More satisfying, as a film in and of itself, was André De Toth’s startling None Shall Escape (1944). Made during the tail end of World War II, the film presents an imagined, post-war trial of a Nazi officer. As the various witnesses take to the stand to give their testimonies, the film flashes back to several key moments in his life, exploring his actions and the motivations behind them. Examining themes of individual accountability and foreseeing the Nuremberg defence of ‘just following orders’, the film’s scenes depicting the treatment of Jews are truly horrifying – and feel extremely prescient given that the full extent of the horrors was yet to be uncovered.
Also grappling with the legacy of war was Fridrikh Ermler’s Fragment of an Empire (1929), in which an amnesiac Tsarist soldier slowly comes to his senses, only to find that, while recuperating, he has missed the Russian Revolution. As he explores the social changes around him, the film falls prey to moments of Socialist propaganda, but Ermler’s astonishing use of montage to convey the soldier’s recovering memory assures the film a place in the pantheon of great Soviet silent cinema.
In terms of cinematography, however, the most glorious film on display was Emilio Fernández’s Mexican melodrama Enamorada (1946), which was ridiculous, hilarious and fabulous in equal measure. Ronald Neame’s Tunes of Glory (1960), meanwhile, pitted Alec Guinness and John Mills against each other in a superbly performed and scripted military drama.
Silence is Golden aside, though, the strand’s real highlight was Euzhan Palcy’s wonderful Sugar Cane Alley. Screening here in a 35th anniversary restoration, the film tells the story of a young orphan in 1930’s Martinique and, by showing his daily actions and encounters, offers a wide overview of life under French colonial rule. It’s the type of excellent ‘treasure’ which proves that, when it comes to cinema, sometimes the older films do it best.