Of the total 242 feature films and 128 shorts from 67 countries screened at the 61st BFI London Film Festival, a quarter of the directors are female. It’s a depressing proportion but as the festival director claimed at the press launch of the programme, it’s rising. Over 12 days in October, I saw outstanding works by female voices, new and established. They lifted the level of storytelling and its directing to exciting horizons: image, sound and performing done to hugely rewarding excellence and originality that seemed like outbursts in our times of global doom.
Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania presented her fiction debut Beauty and the Dogs, a sharp social commentary on rape and the questioning of a rape victim. Shot over nine single-takes over the course of a night, it tells the story of Miriam who is just been raped by policemen and her supporter Youssef, a handsome man who she’d met just before the brutal incident. Superbly performed by newcomer Mariam Al Ferjani and Ghanem Zrelli, Ben Hania’s film presents the cruel nature of patriarchy and organised corruption in institutions that are meant to care for the protection of victims. Influenced by a real rape story that took place in Tunis in 2012, Beauty and the Dogs arguably deserves huge recognition for its challenging nature across its story-directing-performing whole, symbolic to a Tunisia following the Arab Spring.
Enfant terrible, photograffeur JR teams up with revered French filmmaker Agnès Varda for Faces Places, an emotionally charged road movie across France’s rural towns. On board a camera-van the duo set on a journey to photograph locals at home and at work while listening to their stories. Their pictures are then placed in public spaces, in large formats, creating a number of site-specific works. It’s a wonderful idea, honest and funny especially every time the two artists come across generational gaps, which create a special bonding between them. So inspiring that left me wonder, what a similar collaboration on board an exploration of rural Britain would look like?
Nine years after her critically acclaimed The Headless Woman, Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel returns with her fourth feature, Zama. Adapted from Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 existential novel, Zama tells the story of a minor officer and Magistrate of the Spanish Crown, Don Diego de Zama (performed by Daniel Gimenez Cacho) and his decline. Martel’s film is a cinematic journey into Spain’s imperialist grip across the Americas. Its richly layered sound and costume design alongside sporadic dialogues in native Indian and llamas’ existential crossings in the background of scenes, reshape the meaning of time quite impressively.
Palestinian director Annemarie Jacir’s third feature Wajib, is a superb observation of the relationship between a traditional father and his son who has migrated to Italy. Returning home for his sister’s wedding in Nazareth, Shadi starts hand-delivering the invitations with his father Wajib. During their task, the two men don’t see things the same way and confined in Wajib’s car the whole day, a warm connection starts to unravel. It’s a tremendous piece of filmmaking.
In Claire Denis’ Let the Sunshine In neoliberalism tears a woman’s satisfaction apart. Romantic love comes in measured doses and loneliness is always around the corner. With black humour and loaded with the darling air of the contemporary art bourgeoisie, Denis’ film deals with indecision and letting life be. It features a superb cast including director Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men), Denis regular Alex Descas (35 Shots of Rum), Juliet Binoche in the sexually charged lead role of Isabelle and Gérard Depardieu in the brief role of self-serving tarot reader Denis, le voyant. A real treat.
A wild card and an exceptional debut feature, Carla Simón’s Summer 1993 tells the story of a six-year old girl and her journey following the death of her mother. Frida, extraordinary child protagonist Laia Artigas, is adopted by her mother’s brother and his family who live in the countryside in 1990s Spain. It’s a visually arresting portrait of dealing with grief and it’s captured with poetic imagination resonating the spirit of Carlos Saura’s Cria Cuervos and Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive.
Elsewhere in the programme… more films to look out for in 2018
Loveless by Andrey Zvyagintsev (Russia), Winner of Best Film Award
Makala by Emmanuel Gras (France)
Five Fingers for Marseilles by Michael Matthews (South Africa)
Beast by Michael Pearce (UK)
The Florida Project by Sean Baker (USA)
The Killing of the Sacred Deer by Yorgos Lanthimos (UK)
Grey House by Austin Lynch (USA)
Maneki Neko by Manolis Mavris (Greece) (short film)
The Dead Nation by Radu Jude (Romania)
The Wound by John Trengove (South Africa), Winner of The Sutherland Award