I was born in London, but I grew up in Australia. To my eyes, the people of London move with direction and urgency, as if the city somehow has the stuff pulsing through their veins. Usually, I move like someone who spent most of their life in the Australian suburbs. But the city, this city, where I was born, makes me move with urgency, too.
Unused to its demands, I tire easily of the distances between the festival’s venues and of the dirty heat that sticks to me on the London Underground. I still haven’t made my way to the Embankment Garden Cinema, the festival’s temporary venue, first erected last year, to cope with growing audience numbers. The festival’s growth and success has been attributed to the leadership of fellow Australian and Festival Director, Clare Stewart. In an interview with Screen Daily, Stewart talks about being “an outsider coming to London,” and how it helped her identify the way in which the festival could navigate the city.1 Stewart says the global capital has a “neighbourhood-driven” culture. Even Londoners, it seems, find the great distances and its associated transport woes something of a barrier to entry.
Thinking, then, about the ‘festivalness’ of LFF, my experience is limited, shaped largely by geography. Now living in Bristol, the festival begins in my living room via the online viewing library and, mostly takes place thereafter at the festival’s principal press and industry screening venue, Picturehouse Central.
This year, watching films at Picturehouse Central meant crossing the picket line. Every day, staff would protest out front, handing out leaflets to explain how Picturehouse’s owners, Cineworld, have refused to acknowledge their chosen union, and how their repeated requests, dating back to negotiations from 2014, to secure the London Living Wage, have stalled in their Living Staff Living Wage campaign.2 Labour politics and ethics hit me with a very human face every day outside the cinema building: a fine frame for the kind of contemplations the big screen told. In the official festival guide, Stewart puts it best when she describes, “globally tumultuous times,” where “filmmakers around the world have increasingly urgent stories to tell and more reasons than ever to reimagine our reality.”3
The first film I watched at the festival in a cinema auditorium was Alex Gibney’s No Stone Unturned (2017). Already an admirer of Gibney’s investigative style of docu-journalism, No Stone Unturned impressed me with its careful pacing and effective emotional manipulation. The film powerfully demonstrates how reimagining the past is a poignant and important way to prove its impact.
Gibney examines the events leading up to and following the unsolved massacre of six men watching the 1994 World Cup in their local pub in Loughinisland, a small village and civil parish in Northern Ireland. With an unsolved case as its protagonist, Gibney uses cinema as a courtroom for the trial of a very troubled history.
Outlining the history of The Troubles is no easy feat, but Gibney does a decent job in setting up the broad strokes of a very messy conflict. Starting with re-enactment – a device he will repeatedly return to throughout the film, bringing Errol Morris’s seminal The Thin Blue Line (1988) quickly and easily to mind – Gibney asks us to re-imagine the massacre. Picturing the bloody events, he cuts back to present day talking heads to communicate the continued impact felt by families and friends of the men who died: they want answers. The oppressive hold of the unsolved murders just won’t let them go. The stranglehold extends beyond the screen and, before I know it, I, too, am hopeful that Gibney can help prove collusion was at play in what seems an almighty cover up in protecting the perpetrators.
You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to be convinced by Gibney that there is conspiracy at play: his goalposts are wide and clear. The evidence does the talking and his timing is impeccable. Whenever I just about tired of the unbelievable unfairness of the story’s painful history, Gibney would drip feed me another morsel of hope. He skilfully ensured that I sat at the edge of my seat, tears streaming down my face, but at manageable and recoverable intervals. Not only are the events Gibney selects important and worthy, (with a capital W), but his ability to orchestrate emotional engagement across exposé make him a truly remarkable storyteller.
A Mother Brings Her Son to be Shot, a documentary examining the legacy of violence in Derry, decades after The Troubles officially came to an end, takes a completely different tack on Northern Ireland’s persistent history. Interviewing and interacting with her subjects over a five-year period, award-winning journalist Sinéad O’Shea follows a family that live in a community that does not accept government or police rule. She elicits candid conversations but the approach has all the airs of an extended news story, placing its protagonists as pitiable subjects. O’Shea’s sensationalist title plays out like the cinematic equivalent of online click-bait: shocking premise, but not enough meat after the headline. It’s not to say that O’Shea doesn’t care, but her plain aesthetic and approach left me cold. It had me returning, however, to Stewart’s remarks about reimaging reality. Performative documentary work, such as Gibney’s, when skilfully orchestrated, enables emotional catharsis, in a way that a news-story approach, no matter the material, simply can’t.
More affecting still, is observational work done well. My film of the festival is undoubtedly Frederick Wiseman’s Ex Libris: New York Public Library. This documentary broke my heart multiple times and I wonder if I have the vocabulary to embrace it as fully as I’d like. Wiseman, with his incredible generosity, in his signature observational mode, taught me once again how to look. The content of the film covers everything from the history of slavery to how the library campaigns for its precarious mix of both private and public funding. The range of activities the library engages with is truly astounding and Wiseman never misses a beat, showing, not telling us how an organisation becomes an ambassador for access and inclusion. Subject wise, Wiseman has met his match: the library holds in its vaults and in its values the very essence and the continued history of what it means to be human. Watching this film is to be faced with humanity. When it finished, having watched it at home, I travelled to London, where I was once again faced by the picket line.
During the festival, fellow critics mused over whether LFF couldn’t, or wouldn’t take a hard line on the Picturehouse situation. LFF simply rent the venue; every day, the protesters called for a boycott. Though I believe they have the right to a union and deserve the London Living Wage, it would be hypocritical of me to say that I support them. I crossed the picket line. I watched films at Picturehouse. I am complicit.
The question of complicity lingered over me throughout the festival. The Harvey Weinstein story broke on the first full day of the fest, and everything looked different in its wake. Lynne Ramsay’s much anticipated You Were Never Really Here follows Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), a sort of “good Bad Guy”, butchering the scum of society and saving a young girl from a sex-trafficking ring. I cannot remember ever being as terrified and distressed in a cinema as I was watching this. Disgusted rather than gripped by stories about paedophilia, I find fear rather than suspense in waiting to see if a young woman will get away. But, and it saddens me to say it, a dark image, rather than a reflection on Ramsay’s skilful filmmaking, is what will stay with me. Seeing Phoenix sat next to a barely dressed minor on the edge of a sleazy hotel room bed caused my chest to tighten, but not for the reasons the film intends. Following the allegations against Casey Affleck,4 which implicate, though they were not directed at Phoenix, and, in lieu of almost hourly updates of rape and sexual assault allegations in Hollywood, the only thing I could think of while watching You Were Never Really Here, is whether or not the young woman before me – the actress, Ekaterina Samsonov, not her character, Nina – was safe. The image is etched into my mind and, despite being sure that the film is technically brilliant, brutal and affecting, I am unable to even begin to judge it as a work of art.
Elsewhere in the programme, I was horrified by the image of a baby in a tumble dryer. Paddy Considine’s second feature as writer and director, Journeyman, is the overwrought story of an aging boxer whose last fight before retirement leaves him brain damaged. Considine also stars in the film and, though his performance is undeniably good, the narrative is laced with insidious ideology. After Matty (Considine) is disabled, he sexually harasses and physically assaults his wife, Emma (Jodie Whittaker). In typical mainstream cinema style, her forgiving him is required narrative resolution. This shamefully eclipses the very real responsibility such a portrayal should feel towards condemning domestic violence against women. The most upsetting moments in the film include her being hit in the face for refusing his sexual advances and her running scared after finding their child in the tumble dryer, the latter of which was a cheap shot that, in terms of tears, paid off. Sure, I cried, but I was not moved by Matty’s journey to happily ever after. I left the cinema with a wet face and a shock of disbelief that Considine wasn’t brave enough to let the character end up alone, instead opting to abuse the only female character in the film to bolster his below average fare.
Video essayist Kogonada made his narrative feature debut with visually striking but narratively dire, Columbus. Stylistically, it bears the signature of his video essays: straight lines, symmetry, balanced composition, controlled movements and static framing. It could easily be dissected and studied in the same way that he examines Wes Anderson in Centred (2014), and Stanley Kubrick in One-Point Perspective (2012). Kogonada carefully composes shots with structures just off-centre or quirkily aligned, only to have his characters stand in for essay text and voice-over in explaining why, “See, it’s asymmetrical but also still balanced.”
Narratively, the film is little more than a patronising guided tour of the modern architecture that marks the film’s titular city, Columbus, Indiana. Jin (John Cho) is a Korean-American only in town to visit his estranged and comatose father. There, he meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), an attractive, younger woman to whom he can mansplain and condescend. In almost every static shot of the two together, Jin is literally standing on higher ground than Casey. When she offers to show him around and tell him about her favourite buildings – one in particular, owing to its rich history and aesthetic features – he interrupts her spiel, telling her that she doesn’t love it for academic reasons, but because she is moved by it. Kogonada then cuts to the interior of the building so that when Casey next speaks – pandering to Jin’s insistence that she is moved by the building – we literally cannot hear her.
The strongest and most affecting image I saw at LFF was the silencing of an Aboriginal Australian woman in Warwick Thornton’s Sweet Country. Before Sam Kelly (Hamilton Morris) shoots Harry March (Ewen Leslie) in self-defence, his wife is raped. White men raping Indigenous women is the story of colonialism.5 But Thornton doesn’t make us watch. Instead, he has Harry enter the cabin and slowly close every window and door until the entire screen is black. He tells her to “hold still”. The image is so loud. Who and what is not there, stolen, silenced, and blacked out – this is Australian history.
The cabin is made of timber, and no doubt built with the slave labour of Aboriginal farmhands. That the assault takes place within a structure built of timber – the literal reshaping of Australian nature – is significant. Early in the film, Thornton shows us in close-up wooden veranda decking against the rich, orange earth. A white man’s shoes enter the frame, standing on the platform he has built on top of the earth, dominating both the screen and the story.
Sweet Country stunned me like a slap in the face. Thornton’s symbolism is rich and painful. In one scene, the drunk white men in town project their myths and legends directly onto the country they invaded, as they watch The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906). Crying for at least my third, possibly fourth time, at LFF this year, I thought about what it means to be British-Australian. Every day I enjoy the freedom and privilege that structural racism, built on post-colonialism, allows.
Leaving London, I was left with a number of questions around complicity, ethics and the urgency with which we move. Like Stewart, I have a sort of outsider perspective, even though this is the city in which I was born. But even as I try to keep up with it, the city moves too fast for me. I want pause, and I want to reflect. What Gibney, Wiseman and Thornton’s films all share is a sensitivity in timing and the ability to show not tell. Crossing the picket line one last time, and filing onto the London Underground with hundreds of others too busy getting somewhere to be anywhere other than in transit, I longed for those cinematic breaths and I hope I can face reality.
- Charles Gant, “How Clare Stewart transformed the BFI London Film Festival”, Screen Daily, October 4 2017, https://www.screendaily.com/features/how-clare-stewart-transformed-the-bfi-london-film-festival/5122932.article ↩
- Living Staff Living Wage, BECTU, https://www.bectu.org.uk/get-involved/campaigns/picturehouse ↩
- Clare Stewart, “Introduction”, BFI London Film Festival 2017 guide, 2017, p.4. ↩
- Eliana Dockterman, “What to Know About the Casey Affleck Oscar Controversy”, Time, January 25 2017, http://time.com/4645846/what-to-know-about-the-casey-affleck-oscar-controversy/ ↩
- For an example of this history and its persistence, read: Liz Conor, “’Easy For The Taking’: Rape and Race in Australia”, New Matilda, April 14 2015, https://newmatilda.com/2015/04/14/easy-taking-rape-and-race-australia/ ↩