Debut films are often about youth, and about living on the edge. From The 400 Blows to Breathless, from Badlands to Kids, first features repeatedly channel the freedoms and frustrations of being young, via an array of outcasts, outlaws and hedonists. For a first-time director, making a film about middle-age, middle-class concerns only seems to make sense if you want to emphasise complacency, hypocrisy and devastating dullness (at least if you’re Michael Haneke, that is: see The Seventh Continent).
Still, in surveying the 12 films in the First Feature Competition of this year’s London Film Festival, the sheer prevalence of youthful and marginalised protagonists was striking. Here were tales of kids roaming urban estates and trekking through the desert, teenagers drinking and dodging bullets, and twenty-somethings getting lost in the woods. Many of the young characters in these films are victims of brutal exploitation – whether economically or sexually – and most are geographically sidelined, pushed to the margins both socially and spatially. While the bold and canny qualities of youth were on show, too, the competition’s overriding themes were vulnerability, anxiety and desperation – its vision of youth one of isolated individuals teetering on the brink. In this sense, we might detect a directorial desire to make visible the precarity that characterises much of contemporary life and, perhaps, to acknowledge the uncertainty and difficulty that commonly dogs the making of a first film.
One of the most intriguing entries in the competition, Something Must Break (d. Ester Martin Bergsmark), reworks cinema’s usual rendering of teen romance. Something Must Break is a kind of queer Grease, an alternative tale of summer lovin’ threatened by social convention that wraps pink and leather jackets around a transgender teen, Sebastian, and his new lover, Andreas. Set in the edgelands around Stockholm – a disjointed assemblage of run-down parks, shoddy supermarkets and empty industrial zones – the film combines sharp social realism with lyrical, slow motion tableaux, the latter sequences seemingly indebted to Lars von Trier’s recent work. Something Must Break is marked by a fascination with the material substances of relationships – there’s plenty of blood, sweat, spit and semen in the film. In one of its most evocative lines, Andreas, plagued by confusion over his sexuality, tells Sebastian, “You’re so beautiful I could vomit.” (“One might say that disgust continually vomits that which it never took in”, suggests Eugenie Brinkema in her brilliant new book The Forms of the Affects.) (1) As its affective power heightens, the form of Bergsmark’s film begins to crack in its second half, as if unsure where to go but determined to smash something on the way. Ultimately, Something Must Break posits a visceral and viscous queerness against the violent banality and banal violence of a heteronormative world, where conversations revolve around cottages in the country and microbreweries, and lame karaoke and shopping for a salad spinner constitute a weekend’s entertainment. The film’s finale suggests that we’re all living atop a world constructed from such rubbish, and it’s this “something” that must be broken if we’re to start really living.
More radical formal breaks distinguish the superb Butter on the Latch, directed by Josephine Decker. Developed from on-set improvisations and shot from a shaky handheld perspective, it judders and disorientates in odd and thrilling ways. The film begins with a traumatic event in Brooklyn, flashbacks of which recur at a Balkan music camp attended by two young women in the Californian woods. The film’s lead, Sarah Small, gives a remarkable performance that delves into mental distress, sexual power and the subtleties of friendship. With its eerie, shuddering form and total commitment to exploring subjectivity, Butter on the Latch recalls David Lynch’s Inland Empire – especially that moment when Laura Dern creeps up a garden path and we’re confronted with a grotesque distortion of her face – and it also has touches of Jane Campion’s recent television series Top of the Lake. A performance artist as well as filmmaker, Decker has already completed a second feature, Thou Wast Mild and Lovely, and seems like a major talent to watch.
A different kind of rural unease could be found in The Goob (d. Guy Myhill), a poetic British drama set in the big and bleak landscapes of Norfolk. Goob is a rangy, awkward teenager, played by first-time actor Liam Walpole, who at various times reminded me of Spock, David Bowie, Malcolm McDowell and Ezra Miller in We Need To Talk About Kevin. After leaving school, Goob is stuck on a dreary beet farm with his mum and her aggressive partner, who’s hell-bent on cutting short anyone else’s pleasure. The cycle of early mornings in the fields, dinners in the burger bar and evenings at the stock-car racing is enlivened by the arrival of seasonal migrant workers. However, the patient and imaginative way in which Goob’s perspective is fleshed out starkly contrasts with the hollow presentation of his summer lover, Eva – a Manic Pixie Dream Girl who skips through the mud with a cool bowl haircut and vintage wardrobe, and who seemingly exists to save this fella from terminal boredom. Still, The Goob has zest and heart, and is beautifully shot.
I had a strong coffee before seeing ’71 (d. Yann Demange) and it wasn’t my wisest decision of the festival: this extraordinarily tense and claustrophobic film, driven by a pulsing, paranoid soundtrack by David Holmes, generates enough palpitations and excess adrenaline without a caffeine hit. Set in west Belfast during the Troubles, ’71 centres on a teenage British soldier lost in a maze of cobbled streets, dark alleyways and concrete tower blocks, unsure who to trust and how to get back to his barracks. Demange’s use of urban space and his creation of atmosphere are undoubtedly impressive, although the script’s a little heavy-handed in drawing thematic parallels around division and loyalty. The film’s politics are still more problematic. Strangely, many critics have praised ’71 for avoiding an overt political statement about the Troubles, as if ridding cinema of politics were either possible or desirable. What’s more, can a film about a British soldier in Belfast – especially one that so clearly encourages us to see him as an innocent figure caught in a web of sectarian intrigue and military complicity – really be considered apolitical? It seems especially dubious to praise the film for simply using the Troubles as a way to heighten audience tension, as if its Belfast setting merely enables an edgy thriller. The politics of ’71 deserve closer scrutiny, not least because the film provokes comparisons with more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq – other scenarios in which some observers may like to think that British soldiers were merely innocents lost in a baffling struggle.
A lone British Army officer, this time without a trace of false innocence, plays a pivotal role in Theeb, an Arabian desert drama set on the edges of the Ottoman Empire in 1916. Invited into a Bedouin camp, the officer is subsequently helped across the desert by Hussein and his young brother, Theeb, whose name means “wolf” in Arabic and who proves to be a stubborn and resourceful traveller. Desert shootouts and bandit encounters within a stunning landscape (the film was shot in Jordan, where its British-born director, Naji Abu Nowar, is based) provide brief interruptions into a measured and intelligent exploration of hospitality and honour. At its core, Theeb draws up a conflict between the ethics of the nomadic Bedouin tribes and the bloody territorial claims and tight property management demanded by nationalist armies. As the British officer asks his guides, “Do you even know what a country is? What a King is? This is what people fight wars for.” Theeb also confirms what I first learned from last year’s Outback drama Tracks: camels are terrific on film.
Like Theeb, Franco Lolli’s Gente de bien and Sudabeh Mortezai’s Macondo are interested in masculinity, and especially male role models, though in very different times and places. In Gente de bien, an affecting Colombian class drama, ten year-old Eric – played with great charm by Brayan Santamaria – is a witty and warm boy who lives with his father Gabriel, a handyman. They occupy a small room in a communal boarding house in Bogotá, but when a bourgeois client of Gabriel’s takes a shine to Eric, the youngster discovers a world of private swimming pools, computer games and horse-riding trips. The social conflicts that result – working-class pride clashes with middle-class guilt – may not be new territory, but Lolli handles the material in confident fashion, closely attending to subtle markers of class, and Santamaria is a shuffling bundle of emotions who remains compelling throughout.
The title of Macondo refers to a state-owned neighbourhood on the outskirts of Vienna that has housed generations of refugees and asylum seekers since the 1950s – including a community of Chechens who feature in Mortezai’s film. We view this neighbourhood, and the surrounding wastelands and shipping containers, through the eyes of Ramasan, an 11 year-old boy who lives with his mother and two younger sisters. The family has fled Chechnya and the conflict with Russia that killed Ramasan’s father, but must now navigate the more maddening and patronising aspects of Austrian bureaucracy. In the absence of his father, Ramasan is expected to assume a patriarchal position; the struggle to fulfill this role is written across his open, intense face, but Ramasan learns to bury a certain notion of heroic masculinity, both literally and metaphorically, by the film’s end. Macondo has a strong sense of place, and a sense of humour, too.
If a relatively gentle form of social observation characterises Macondo and Gente de bien, other films in the First Feature Competition offered more brutal depictions of male violence. Jacqueline Rose has recently discussed the politics of honour killings, stressing the importance for modern feminism of “making visible the invisible histories of women” as “a way of reminding us of the worst that a still patriarchal world is capable of.” (2) The significance of this task is highlighted by the devastating Catch Me Daddy, directed by Daniel Wolfe. Laila, a 17 year-old girl from a British-Pakistani family, lives in a trailer in the Yorkshire Moors with her white boyfriend, much to the anger of her father and brother. For Rose, “Honour killing is the cruellest modern exemplar of how the sexuality of women can provoke a patriarchal anguish which knows no limits in the violent lengths it will go to assuage itself.” (3) In Catch Me Daddy the effervescence of Lalia (a dancing riot of hair colours, fuelled by smoothies and Codeine) provokes anguish for a ruthless, hapless gang of male pursuers, whose violence and stupidity know no limits. There are comic moments in the film, but these gradually give way to a bleak and tragic vision.
Winner of an audience award at Sundance, Difret (d. Zeresenay Berhane Mehari) also tackles patriarchal violence, with a teenage girl’s body once again generating legal wrangling, tensions between communities and wounded male pride. Based on a true story, it concerns the trial of a 14 year-old Ethiopian girl who killed the man who raped her after he kidnapped her for a forced marriage. By far the most conventional film in the competition, Difret has a powerful story, but is content to become a rather standard procedural drama laced with worthy messages about the importance of education.
Accusations of conventionality could never be attached to The Tribe (d. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy), winner of the LFF’s First Feature Competition and among the most astonishing debuts of recent times. As an opening title card informs us, the film is conducted entirely in sign language without subtitles or any form of translation. It is set in a run-down Ukrainian institution for deaf teenagers, and begins in a Kafkaesque manner with a bewildered young man carrying a small suitcase as he attempts to find his way around. Indeed, throughout The Tribe we are asked to consider the questions of power and exploitation that are attendant to means of communication and notions of comprehension. The lengthy scenes, very often composed of a single shot, force those of us ignorant of sign language to probe the development of characters’ gestures and expressions in order to make sense of the action – a form of alienation that the directors at times utilises for comic effect. There is remarkable choreography at work here, too, not least in the many tracking shots through the corridors and rooms of the institution, but also in a weird, stagey fight scene that plays out like West Side Story. Elsewhere, the violence feels horribly real, as it becomes evident that a brutally-controlled prostitution ring operates within the institution and in neighbouring lorry parks. There are two or three scenes in the film that are almost unbearable in their violence, an affect heightened by the duration of the shots. I sensed echoes of Haneke’s ethics here, as well as Alan Clarke’s Elephant, but this felt like a rare occasion where a festival audience knew it was witnessing something truly new. The Tribe made me reconsider what filmmaking and film spectatorship can involve, and it made the world outside the cinema feel strange and new as well.
The Tribe was not the only competition entry in which traditional dialogue was absent. No words are spoken between the protagonists in Labour of Love, directed by Aditya Vikram Sengupta, which depicts in blue-grey tones the alternate routines of an unnamed couple in Kolkata working on opposing shifts. While he works nights in a printing factory, she cooks and rests in the apartment; and when she goes to work in the morning, he returns to sleep and eat. The couple have only a few moments together, during which Sengupta transports them to a bed in a forest, a dreamy, utopian sequence that struggles to fulfill its portentous ambitions. Elsewhere, the film is more successful in its patient, delicate accumulation of simple everyday domestic rituals – the preparation of food, the folding of laundry – which are accompanied by an acute ear for the sounds of the city and an eye for surfaces and architectural details. While Labour of Love may be read as a critique of the harsh economic conditions that produce such separation, especially as we hear news reports of job losses and the sounds of protest marches, the film tends more towards tenderness and meditation. Indeed, I’m inclined to offer a kind of Zizekian counter-reading: the fact that the couple so rarely see each other is precisely why their relationship remains so strong.
I found the marriage portrayed in Second Coming (written and directed by the playwright debbie tucker green) to be of more interest. The film pairs Idris Elba with Nadine Marshall as a London couple with a young son. Yet, amidst all the kids running around the First Feature Competition, it’s an unborn child and the circumstances surrounding its conception that provokes mystery in Second Coming. Full of great dialogue and fast cuts, the film has some memorable vignettes of family life, including one extremely powerful confrontation between the husband and wife – an extended scene that works through anger, pain, pride and incomprehension, with the camera mainly focused on the confused reactions of the couple’s son. Although the film’s symbolism strains at times (notably in shots of a wounded bird), Second Coming is an immersive and moving experience. The closing credits are soundtracked by the funk of Marva Whitney’s “I Am What I Am”: as if anticipating the debates about allegorical significance that Second Coming will undoubtedly provoke, the film exits with a defiant affirmation of its refusal to offer neat and simple explanations.
London Film Festival
8-19 October 2014
Festival website: http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff
1. Eugenie Brinkema, The Forms of the Affects, Duke University Press, Durham and London, 2014, p. 132.
2. Jacqueline Rose, Women in Dark Times, Bloomsbury, London, 2014, p. xi.