The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
by Kevin Holmes
October 18 - November 2, 2006
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Mmm, I love the smell of the NFT in the morning!
Yep, that time has come around again, and this year it’s a biggie. They’re celebrating 50 years of the LFF—man and boy, hardest game in the world, etc., etc.—and what a celebration. As we’ve come to expect from this monster of a festival, there are literally tons of films on offer, along with the usual live events, screen talks, and master-classes that make this such a fantastic part of the London film calendar. But enough—let’s get onto the films and check out what this year’s got to offer the discerning film fan from the best in international cinema.
First up, and opening the festival, we’ve got the first fiction feature from Kevin MacDonald (he of the excellent documentaries Touching the Void and One Day in September), The Last King of Scotland. It’s based on the novel by Giles Foden and stars good old Forest Whittaker (whose booked in to do a Screen Talk on October 19th, so don’t miss that) as Idi Amin, whose brutal presidency ruled Uganda for eight years, between 1971-1979. He was not a nice man, and the film shows the horrors he perpetrated, along with his love of dressing up and other eccentric behavior, providing us with some much-needed comic relief. It shows us the man behind this monster without trivializing this part of Ugandan history; it’s terrifying but riveting cinema.
There’s a new comedy/thriller from French legend Claude Chabrol, L’Ivresse du Pouvoir (A Comedy of Power), dealing with blue chip corruption and abuse of power. Witty and astute as always, it’s sure to raise a bitter chuckle. If controversy is your thing, then the master of unease, Lukas Moodysson, provides plenty to antagonize and rile with his difficult and challenging new feature Container. The long-awaited new William Friedkin film, Bug, is an adaptation of the play. Its low budget heralds a return to form for this maverick. Also on offer is Danish cross-breed Princess, directed by Anders Morgenthaler. Mixing anime-style animation with live action and featuring priests and porn stars, it’s sure to raise a few eyebrows.
American offering Shortbus, directed by John Cameron Mitchell, is doing well in America. With its mix of sweet natured romance and no holds barred explicit sex, and its Yo La Tengo soundtrack, it’s sure to be a popular film at the festival this year. Could this succeed where 9 Songs and others have failed and bring explicit sex into the mainstream while still managing an engaging plot with likable, well-thought-out characters? There’s only one way to find out—get to one of the screenings and make up your own mind.
As always, there’s a great selection of world and UK cinema on offer, with Nick Broomfield’s new feature Ghosts (the name Chinese immigrants call the native Brits), about the deaths of the cockle workers in Morecambe Bay in 2004. With the event still fresh in everyone’s memories, this will hopefully, to quote His Bobness, “shake your windows and rattle your walls” with its grim depiction of immigrant life in this country. It’s Broomfield’s second fiction feature, displaying all the deft qualities we’ve come to expect from him and his films. Using non-actors, he follows these immigrants from China—where they leave their families and friends, who often shoulder massive fees ($25, 000) to get their loved ones smuggled into the UK or Europe in the hope of a better life for them all—through their time spent in England, working in a meat factory in Norfolk, and onto the Northwest Coast and that fateful night. It highlights the plight of immigrant workers in the UK, never shying away from showing the harsh realities of these workers. It balances that with the moments of humor that they share, while painting England in an unsentimental way, sympathizing with those who come here and work in our health, food, and service industries. By focusing on one particular female immigrant, Broomfield humanizes what we read in the papers and gives voice to this tragic tale, something that is going seemingly unrecognized by the British government (who even refuse to help out the families who lost husbands, daughters, and sons, leaving them with thousands of pounds’ worth of crippling debt). A must see.
More from the UK includes Mischief Night, directed by Penny Woolcock, from the makers of the excellent Shameless. Plus, the long-awaited UK premiere of the hilarious Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. If you have a sense of humor, then you cannot miss this.
Other world cinematic treats are Zacharius Kunuk & Norman Cohn’s The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, a Danish-Canadian collaboration made in the Inuit language with actors from the Inuit community; it focuses on when Christianity first came to the tribes around 1922, which coincided with a Danish explorer’s (Knud Rasmussen) trip to the Canadian Arctic to learn and record the tribes practices and beliefs. It’s a quietly tragic tale, as we see the next generation move away from their traditional Shamanic teachings to the lure of Christianity. This “conversion” is hastened by the fact that the people are starving and food is scarce—the only way to be assured of some is by converting to Christianity. The film makes great use of the white bleached landscape and carries a meditative, melancholy air, narrated by the last great Shaman’s daughter, Apak. It’s a heartfelt film about the dying out of something that should’ve remained, made by and within the community that it affected.
There’s plenty of other world cinema on offer, with a broad range and featuring surprising delights, like low-budget and sweet-natured Winky’s Horse by Mischa Kamp, a film about a Chinese girl immigrating to Holland with her family and struggling with school and making friends, until she discovers a local horse and like any little girl, falls in love with it. The film focuses on the little things and is a welcome antidote to the bigger American films on offer, bringing, as always, a nice balance to the festival.
What is always enjoyable about the LFF, along with the big releases on offer, are the little gems that you find by just following a whim and taking the plunge. This year has these films in abundance. One such film is the quietly moving documentary Aguaviva, by first time director Ariadna Pujol, which follows the fortunes of the inhabitants of the small town of Aguaviva. Due to its waning population, the town’s mayor decides to let immigrants move into the town to try and reinvigorate it. They come from as far a field as Argentina and Romania, and we see their integration (or lack of) into the local community. The film shows us a cross-section of the population from the old Spanish women—full of mischievous humor and tales of long ago—to a children’s classroom and a couple’s newly opened restaurant. We see the effect it has on local traditions, and the struggle the immigrants face in leaving behind friends and family for a better life for their children and themselves. All this is observed with the dispassionate eye of the camera, but the warmth and humanity among the community lights the film up with compassion and vigor.
Other documentaries include the harrowing account of the Jonestown Massacre in 1978, Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple. Told by the people who survived and lost relatives and loved ones, it’s an insightful look into what, exactly, drew these people to this enigmatic man and how the ideals of a community, free from a restrictive government, turned into a horrible nightmare that ended with mother’s laying dead next to their children in what was more like mass murder, than mass suicide. It’s a real eye-opener, told with conviction but remaining impartial so viewers can make up their own minds about these tragic events.
There are also plenty of music documentaries to cast your gaze upon, with Scott Walker: 30th Century Man, the eagerly anticipated film about the man himself, including a candid interview. Those Bush baiters, the Dixie Chicks, get the documentary treatment with Shut Up & Sing. Foxy and full of venom for Monkey Boy, you gotta love them and this film. Plus, there’s The U.S. vs John Lennon by director David Leaf (who’ll be attending the festival to talk about the film). It may not be bigger than Jesus, but the star certainly was, charting his infamous comment through to when he got shot.
Having scored two films from this year’s festival (Old Joy and Shortbus), there’s a rare chance to catch the brilliant Yo La Tengo in conversation on October 31st at NFT2. Hear this indefinable band talk about their music, influences and where they’re going next.
There are plenty of new Gala Screenings to enjoy as well as the more esoteric stuff. From festival closer Babel, with Brad Pitt, to new Will Ferrell movie, Stranger Than Fiction, about an IRS auditor who finds himself hearing a woman’s voice narrating the events of his life. It looks set to probe the existential questions that confront us all and combines a great cast with a fantastic, modern look. Also, there’s Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering, a contemporary drama set in London. There’s another must-see, Peter O’Toole’s new movie, Venus, also starring Richard Griffiths and Vanessa Redgrave. Also Richard Linklater’s new Fast Food Nation. He’ll be attending the festival for a Screen Talk to discuss this and, no doubt, his brilliant A Scanner Darkly. Along with those already mentioned to attend, Tim Burton will open his new The Nightmare Before Christmas 3D, which looks great. He’ll also be providing a Screen Talk. Also, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Verhoeven, Peter O’Toole, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nick Broomfield, Pete Postlethwaite, Terence Davies, Kevin Macdonald, Martin Sheen, Will Ferrell, Sacha Baron Cohen, John Cameron Mitchell, producer of Shortbus Christine Vachon, and many, many more.
As well as all the films, there’s a record breaking event scheduled for Sunday, October 29th. I’ll let the LFF tell you in its own words:
Inspired by regular Festival hot ticket—the Surprise Film Gala at the Odeon West End—50 Screens provides a unique birthday celebration for the Festival’s 50th Anniversary. Up to 10 surprise films will be revealed across 50 London cinemas and venues on the night, from Acton to Uxbridge, with special locations including Heathrow Terminal 4, HMP Holloway, St Ethelburga’s Church and St Thomas’s Hospital, bringing the Festival experience to thousands of people across the capital. Admission is only £5 and special guests are anticipated to introduce the films.So don’t miss that, the first time anything like it has ever been attempted.
Along with all the other films, there’s the usual Short Cuts and Animation, Experimental, Film on the Square, as well as the much treasured (ahem) Treasures from the Archives, showcasing new prints of Dr Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, David Lean’s Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, plus Lewis Milestone’s milestone (sorry) Of Mice and Men—to round off the literary adaptations—as well as many others. So plenty to see and do, dare I say too much. But no, it’s never too much, so don your slippers and some comfortable trousers and sample some of the best cinema the world has to offer.
To help you decide amongst this plethora of films to enjoy, you can download the festival calendar with audio clips and trailers straight onto you iPod from the festivals website. So now there’s really no excuse to miss out on some of the 181 features and 131 shorts on show this year at one of the world’s best festivals for the moviegoer. So what are you waiting for, check out the site and prepare to suspend your (dis)belief.
Kevin Holmes is a film critic living in London.
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