10 +1 highlights from the BFI London Film Festival 2020

Small Axe – Episode: Mangrove (No. 1) © McQueen Limited

The highest in attendance on record, this year’s BFI London Film Festival revealed an open and inclusive way of film viewing experience with virtual premieres, incredible live events and live cinema screenings. Headlined with Steve McQueen’s momentous Mangrove in one of the most challenging years for independent cinema, the 2020 (64th festival edition) LFF team exceeded in putting together an incredible programme of more than sixty films from around the world and 100 plus live events that were screened virtually to audiences across the UK.

So, this is a list to celebrate an exciting achievement. Together with other film festivals across the globe that operated digitally to a great extend this year for Covid-19 reasons, the LFF kept film alive. Here are 10 +1 highlights and some ‘Also don’t miss’ suggestions.

Mangrove (+ Lovers Rock)
dir Steve McQueen

Small Axe – Episode: Mangrove (No. 1) © McQueen Limited – Photographer: Des Willie

Multi-award winning Steve McQueen directs this powerful story of the 1970s Mangrove Nine 55-day court trial that changed racial justice in the UK forever. Mangrove is a five-part BBC film series about black power and the resistance that exposed police racism. It follows nine campaigners in Notting Hill including Altheia Jones-LeCointe (Letitia Wright) and Darcus Howe (Malachi Kirby) and their struggle to defend justice for police-targeted Mangrove restaurant and black businesses at large.

Small Axe – Episode: Lovers Rock (No. 2) © McQueen Limited

Mangrove was presented alongside McQueen’s Lovers Rock at this year’s festival and both films are part of the director’s Small Axe anthology series that remember critical and political events in London’s West Indian community between the 1960s and 1980s. Both films where shot by Shabier Kirchner’s finest cinematographic talent featuring scintillating dance sequences on the street (Mangrove) or indoors (Lovers Rock). Much shorter in length, Lovers Rock is a brilliant achievement of 1980s Black London sound systems that will make anyone fall for the rhythm of dab sounds (and a Red Stripe).

Limbo
dir Ben Sharrock

Scottish writer-director Ben Sharrock’s second feature offers a stimulating take on the ‘limbo’ stage of refugee journeys. It follows promising Syrian musician Omar (Amir El-Masry) whose landing on a remote Scottish island has forced him to experience unfamiliar oddities away from his home and family. Inside this newly-found strangeness he bonds with three other men who are also seeking asylum. But the never-ending waiting, sitting at weird classes for English speaking lessons and their encounters with swaggering teenagers have potent reactions to all four.

It is beautifully photographed by Nick Cooke including great takes of the glorious Scottish outdoors. Limbo is one of my top recommendations from this year’s festival.

Undine
dir Christian Petzold

Starring quintessential duo Paula Beer and Franz Rogowksi (Transit), Christian Petzold’s rewriting of the popular German myth of the water nymph is a fascinating take of love lost and life’s continuity. Alongside ultra-fine performances from both Beer and Rogowski, Undine exerts an exquisite kind of delicacy in story telling that’s keeping you alert.

I loved its perilous complexity and reference to architecture and urban life. But its reference to modern design versus old and its relation to humanity’s progress loomed ominously within.

Friendship’s Death (1987)
dir Peter Wollen

A rare and wonderful chance to see influential film theorist late Peter Wollen’s 1987 film, restored by the BFI National Archive. Straight from featuring in Derek Jarman’s grand picture The Last of England on the same year, a young Tilda Swinton gives another highly impressive performance as extra-terrestrial robot called Friendship.

Sadly I didn’t have the chance to see Friendship’s Death before this year’s festival and this is testament how important festivals are to understanding film history, alongside encouraging new voices. Friendship’s Death is an essential viewing that opens up the way people see Wollen’s radical instinct for cinema. It is as hybrid notebook for the future of the image. Wollen’s fascination with patterns across history, art and writing is radical and mystical, to quote theorist Kodwo Eshun’s words, a “monument for the future”.

Another Round
dir Thomas Vinterberg

Thomas Vinterberg was presented with the Best Film award for Another Round, the story of four school teachers who decide to put in practice Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s theory that drinking can increase social and professional performance. It’s riotous, funny and it gets messy. But as we tire with the rules of social distancing, you won’t regret watching this experiment of happiness. Greatest performance from Mads Mikkelsen too.

Time
dir Garett Bradley

A very special discovery, Time is director Garrett Bradley’s remarkable new documentary capturing a woman’s 20-year campaign to release her incarcerated husband from prison. Bradley powrfully combines home video and new footage to rewind times of hardship, social justice, family bonding and hope.

Time rightfully earned Bradley the Best Director award at Sundance Film Festival. Timeless for all around the world but especially for America now, this is a great achievement that looks into the lives of Black communities that are repeatedly mass incarcerated. It is a powerful work of freedom and love.

Ammonite
dir Francis Lee

Following his acclaimed God’s Own Country, Francis Lee’s follow up Ammonite with Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan leading a 19th century same sex love story is frankly moving. Winslet is ferocious in her reading as paleontologist and fossil hunter Mary Anning. She falls under the spell of young gentlewoman Charlotte (Ronan) who slowly begins to feel erotically attracted to her once she moves into her house. Ammonite’s thrilling imagery begins with Stéphane Fontaine’s (A Prophet) sensuous lensed details despite uncomfortable walks on the beach dressed up with multiple petticoats, corsets and steel hoop skirts. But it reaches an euphoria of intimacy that’s undeniably searing, scarcely beating Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color.

Yet Ammonite’s urgency is quite a revelation. It demonstrates a natural intimacy between two women that was so much more acceptable two centuries ago than it is today. And it is devastating to realise that.

Zanka Contact
dir Ismaël El Iraki

It is great to see a recent rock ‘n’roll genre whatsit racing our screens in the past few years. It’s perhaps a sign of our time but the fight for survival in American Honey (2016), In the Fade (2017), Mandy (2018), Bacurau (2019) and Queen and Slim (2020) captured audiences while intelligently commending on capitalism, political injustice and racism. And now this. Zanka Contact is Ismaël El Iraki’s debut that’s unforgettable in so many ways.

Set in Casablanca, it’s a love story between two fugitives: rockstar Larsen Snake and prostitute Rajae who met through a car crash! But aside the excellent performances, Zanka Contact has this single special quality in its story: it’s rising up to one’s vulnerable (and unresolved) past to dominate psychological traumas and look at life with a fresh eye. Don’t miss it.

Never Gonna Snow Again
dirs Małgorzata Szumowska, Michał Englert

I also loved Małgorzata Szumowska’s Never Gonna Snow Again, a mysterious and provocative take on the Polish bourgeoisie and mental health. Co-directed and co-written with her long-time collaborator, cinematographer Michał Englert, it features Russian speaking immigrant Zenia who works as masseur with magical powers for wealthy people who are trapped in their own gated bubble.

The film’s transcendental nature evokes the Theorem effect with a dash of Mulholland Drive surrealism. Fusing alcoholism, loneliness, illness, sexuality and grief, it’s a mesmerising and provocative work accomplished with striking detail and hilarious rotations.

Chess of the Wind (1976)
dir Mohammad-Reza Aslani

A rare work that will enrich your perception of Iranian cinema, Mohammad-Reza Aslani’s debut feature Chess of the Wind (Shatranj-e Baad) is a masterful study of aristocratic decandance and despair. Think of Luchino Visconti with a poetic reading of time and desire. Lensed by the excquisite Houshang Baharlou (watch out for the regular women at the fountain scene washing their clothes), it features a beautiful score by pioneer composer Sheyda Gharachdaghi.

Chess of the Wind was screened only twice in 1976 and later banned during the 1979 Revolution and considered lost until 2015. The original negatives were found in an antique shop in Tehran when they were then returned to the director who shipped them to a secure location in Paris. Still banned today, the 2020 4K restoration of Aslani’s film was done by Martin Scorsese’s non-profit organisation, The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna in collaboration with the director and his daughter Gita Aslani Shahrestani.

Also, don’t miss

Mogul Mowgli

David Byrne’s American Utopia, dir Spike Lee; Ultraviolence, dir Ken Fero; One Man and His Shoes, dir Yemi Bamiro; Cronenberg legacy–drone warfare provocative Possessor, dir Brandon Cronenberg; The Reason I Jump, dir Jerry Rothwell; The Salt in Our Waters, dir Rezwan Shahriar Sumit; Shirley, dir Josephine Decker; and hot ticket in town, Mogul Mowgli, dir Bassam Tariq.

* Mogul Mowgli is released on Friday 30 October in UK cinemas and on BFI Player.

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