10 film discoveries from the BFI London Film Festival 2019

Rocks (2019)

It’s awards day at the BFI London Film Festival today and while we’re approaching the final days of its 63rd edition, these highlights we’ll get you inspired and eager to hear about their releases. Eight feature length films, half of which are directed by women, and two shorts from an exceptionally good short films programme at the LFF this year.

These films tell stories from the teens next door, from the bottom of the ocean or the rocky mountains of Andes and they’re all about private feelings. They are influential in many ways but above all they’re strong visual poetries of human stories and familiar emotions.

This will probably remind you of Laurent Cantet’s The Class (2008) or more recently Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (2017) but director Sarah Gavron’s vibrant film Rocks is close to home. The kids next door in east London’s Tottenham are going about their daily lives in their school and family environment. On board are a group of secondary school girls, a terrific cast including Bukky Bakray, Kosar Ali, D’angelou Osei Kissiedu, Shaneigha-Monik Greyson and Ruby Stokes, all discovered through casting sessions at schools. Driven by the dramatic story of a home with no mum and no dad, Olushola Joy Omotoso (‘Rocks’ to her mates) has the difficult burden of finding a way to protect her little brother Emmanuel, and herself.

Penned by award winning playwright Theresa Ikoko and Claire Wilson (Little Drummer Girl) and shot by the naturalistic lens of Hélène Louvart’s (Happy as Lazzaro), Gavron’s film is remarkable because it deals with loneliness, adolescence and cultural diversity with heartfelt sensitivity. The film’s unique impact is yet to be discovered but it holds a vibrant energy, powerful enough to make you look into young lives from a totally different perspective.

Atlantics (2019)

When I interviewed director Mati Diop back in 2012 for her contribution to the 56th BFI London Film Festival’s Experimenta programme, I knew that a new generation of inspiring filmmakers was unravelling. She was presenting a selection of her short films for the first time in the UK. Seven years later she returned to the festival with her debuting feature Atlantics, this year’s Cannes Grand Prix winner (the first film by a black woman director in history to compete in the festival’s prize).

Atlantics started its journey in 2009 when Diop made her short film Atlantiques in which a young man talks to his friends about his boat journey from Senegal to Spain, from where he’d been repatriated from. Since then the director spent time with her cousin in Senegal listening to the conversations within his twenty something group and familiarising with personal stories about the idea of going to Spain. Already familiar with the way the French media illustrated illegal immigration, Diop started seeing that the obsession with Spain with which young people were occupied with has a much deeper meaning. In Atlantics, Diop films Senegalese young workers against the backdrop of one of Dakar’s futuristic skyscraper and a different Atlantic Ocean.

I’d never before seen a film that combines fiction, documentary and fantasy to such a wonderful effect that could make me think of my own upbringing in a relatively unknown town in Greece. Yet the two lovers in Diop’s film, lead by Ada – a wonderful Male Bineta Sane – and Souleiman, submerge from a society rooted deep into patriarchal values until the dead start to submerge from the African shore to seek fair play with greedy moguls. Amazing sounds from Fatima Al Qadiri’s compositions add to this intelligent, well-informed and mesmerising debut.

Atlantics is competing for this year’s Sutherland Award in the First Feature Competition
Bacurau (2019)

Humanity is brought against an intoxicating battle with a technology that is heavy on deadly forces in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s thrilling new picture Bacurau, which he co-directed with Juliano Dornelles. The duo shared the Jury Prize for their film at Cannes Film Festival this year. But two weeks prior to their celebration for their outstanding work, the Brazilian government demanded the return of the funds Mendonça Filho received for his 2012 Neighboring Sounds.

Next to the unfairness of the current Brazilian government the very essence of cinema has worked and this is precisely why we should continue celebrating cinema today: Mendonça Filho and Dornelles’s film is the perfect example. Following a period with no books, food, water, medicine (and coffins) the residents of the remote Brazilian village of Bacurau have had it with the government’s lies. It is a western blending fiction and documentary lines in which culture is sabotaged by a bunch of non-Brazilians whose only mission is to delete the village from the world map and extinct its residents. But a strong bonding and trust between the locals turn their interests into a bloodbath only to be reminded what it means to be human.

Arab Blues (2019)

Manele Labidi Labbé’s debut feature Arab Blues takes you to a world where dreams can come true. Iranian star Golshifteh Farahani’s (Paterson) magnetic lead Selma is a Parisian psychotherapist whose mission is to open her practice in Tunis. But a chaotic government and administration system following the 2011 Arab revolution will raise the barriers against her dream. Or maybe not.

Full with energy and life, Arab Blues is an adorable story worth discovering it for the sake of emotional values. Its strength relies on community bonding, a superb cast and bold free spirits, writer-director Manele Labidi Labbé has done a wonderful work about life’s sweet but often ignored principles.

The Cordillera of Dreams (2019)

Following The Pearl Button, his 2015 documentary about the significance of water and the origins of memory, director Patricio Guzmán returned to the festival with The Cordillera of Dreams, his study of the Andes mountains that is the “wall of rocks” representing 80% of his country’s territory. Guzmán’s compelling narration is a powerful reminder that oblivion is catastrophic. Equally powerful is his life dedication to tell the history of Chile where the brutal events of its military dictatorship from 1973-1990 erased people from earth alongside the memory of those who experienced it and are still alive.

The significance of Guzmán’s work is to be looked at with the sharpness of criticism and a deep understanding of the consequences unlawful actions bare. It is estimated that at least 15,000 people were killed, under 200 of which were women, and 2,000 were disappeared during the military dictatorship of Chile. What’s left are Guzmán’s 20 films to this day and the films of his fellow filmmaker Pablo Salas, the centre character in The Cordillera of Dreams. These works filmed the resistance against Pinochet and they are reminders of the chilling horrors that occurred in a country that is now invaded by non-Chilean investors who are operating the country’s mines of copper. We can’t ignore this, it is far too naive. The whole idea of profitability and the universal phenomenon of neoliberalism operates with apparent impunity and this we should at least be aware of.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Girlhood’s director Céline Sciamma lit up once again secret female codes with her Portrait of a Lady on Fire but not without the help of the daring performances from her cast. Adèle Haenel’s Lady Héloïse and Noémie Merlant’s painter Marianne exceed all expectations as two women in 1700s Brittany who are brought together for the painting of a portrait. This ignites a profound love story against the backdrop of the challenging strict barriers of 18th century society. It’s a daring work that once screened with Todd Haynes’ Carol (2015) it will be a thrilling double bill but as a warning, the dialogue in Portrait of a Lady on Fire will rocket your adrenaline rush to heights which are yet to be explored.

I Am (Not) A Monster (2019)

Founder of the University of the Underground, Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian (Disaster Playground) begins her search for the origins of knowledge with her documentary I Am (Not) A Monster. Deeply inspired by the work of political theorist Hannah Arendt, she begins her journey to meet people including Noam Chomsky, Pussy Riot activist Nadya Tolokonnikova and Magid Magid, Lord Mayor of Sheffield at the time of filming.

Using performance, traditional craft and an exhilarating Ethiopian hip hop soundtrack, Hayoun-Stépanian’s documentary is a time travelling political futures work that envisions a model of education which perhaps is too radical for some to conceptualise. But it’s bold, fun and punk.

I Am (Not) A Monster is nominated for the Grierson award in the Documentary Competition
Cold Case Hammarskjöld (2019)

Danish director Mads Brügger and Swedish private investigator Göran Bjorkdahl investigate the mysterious death of Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld while he was serving as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations. Cold Case Hammarskjöld will probably come as the surprise true story recorded in the history of documentary to younger generations who haven’t heard of Dag Hammarskjöld before and Brügger is determined to change this.

The realisation of how much we’re unaware of the things that are happening behind the scenes is shocking as the film reveals. Yet the documentarian’s work is a lot more challenging than revealing the facts. Brügger’s persistent work in re-enacting the events in Zambia in 1961 when Hammarskjöld’s plane crashed, following a meeting attempting a ceasefire negotiation in the Congo, unveils a series of crude facts that place Britain on the spotlight.

Cold Case Hammarskjöld is nominated for the Grierson award in the Documentary Competition


Olla (2019)

Ariane Labed (Attenberg) is behind the camera for her debuting short film Olla, a portrait of a woman who would travel far in order to meet the man to settle down with. But things take a different direction when she realises that happiness is not a commodity. It’s a motivating arthouse feminist work, funny and intellectually stimulating that gives Labed the bona fide directorial credit and a promising future as filmmaker.

What Do You Know About the Water and the Moon (2019)

What Do You Know About the Water and the Moon is probably the single film title from the festival programme that could make you wonder about the world around us. But it doesn’t stop at the title. Chinese filmmaker Jian Luo’s short film is a surreal work about the difficult subject of abortion. Grave as this may sound, it’s a human topic that very few people have the tolerance for discussion. In trying to avoid censorship from the Chinese government, Luo has made an admirable work in capturing human emotions with her delicate drama that will inspire new filmmakers and those with a keen eye for aspiring cinema. 

What Do You Know About the Water and the Moon is nominated for the Short Film Competition


The Winners
The 2019 competition winners at 63rd BFI London Film Festival are…

MONOS Alejandro Landes, Official Competition (Best Film Award)
ATLANTICS Mati Diop, First Feature Competition (Sutherland Award)

WHITE RIOT Rubika Shah, Documentary Competition (Grierson Award)
FAULT LINE (GOSAL) Soheil Amirsharifi, Short Film Competition (Short Film Award)


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