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American Women's Club of Hamburg

The 64th BFI London Film Festival

October 7-18, 2020

 by Christine Riney

There wasn’t the usual razzle-dazzle that I was looking forward to, an empty red carpet, without the crowds and minus the paparazzi, but the show did go on. A mostly virtual program with 58 feature films, 38 short films, a selection of Screen Talks with major filmmakers and actors, as well as online salons and Q&As. Plus a new section was also introduced XR/Immersive  Art works with 21 films. The positive in the extensive virtual program is that more people were able to experience the delights on offer. A whole new crowd was able to meet, although virtually, stars, directors, and producers in a more relaxed, accessible format.

The audience was further engaged by giving them the honor of voting for the film awards usually left up to an official jury and finalized behind the scenes. Viewers were invited to vote on Virtual LFF Audience Awards in four categories: Best Fiction Feature, Best Documentary Feature, Best Short Film, and Best XR/Immersive Art.

Tricia Tuttle, BFI London Film Festival Director said: “This has been such a period of uncertainty and change across the industry and for our 2020 edition, we stepped into unknown territory. But we’ve been so encouraged by the adventurousness of filmmakers and rights holders, the unwavering support of our collaborators, and the spirit of unity and experimentation. And we have accelerated so many of our longer-term plans in just a few months – especially our desire to offer audiences across the UK greater access to the LFF. We all want to be back in cinemas, seeing films on the big screen, together, immersed. But we also want to keep seeing new cinematic storytelling from all parts of the world, hearing different voices and perspectives; this version of LFF delivers on both of those aims.”

I guess that sums it up. We all want to get more people engaged in cinema, challenge the status quo in the industry, and get back to the theaters!

On With the Shows!

The opening night film MANGROVE (2020)It has been 50 years since the events depicted in the film took place however they ring as true today as they did then. This film portrays the story of the Mangrove 9, the group of Black activists who clashed with London police during a protest march in 1970. We follow the events before, during, and throughout the trial. The trial itself was highly charged, extensively publicized, and took 55 days to reach a final conclusion. This trial is hailed as the first judicial acknowledgment of behavior motivated by racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police. Created by Steve McQueen it is part of a drama anthology, Small Axe - which comprises five original films. The series is set to come out on Amazon Prime Video. I look forward to watching the full series!

And the closing film AMMONITE (2020) A fictionalized account of the life of the 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning. Kate Winslet plays the pioneering scientist with Saoirse Ronan as Charlotte who forms a close bond with Mary during their time together in Lyme Regis, U.K. Winslet and Ronan deliver powerful performances and we are left to decide whether the bond they shared was friendship or actually true love.This is Francis Lee’s, second feature film and it is as emotionally powerful as his first GOD’s OWN COUNTRY (2017). Both of these films are worth a watch.

And in-between films.

As in previous years, the features are organized by theme; Love, Debate, Laugh, Dare, Cult, Journey, Create, Experimenta, Family, and Treasures.

Love: Sweet, passionate, tough, complex.
FARWELL AMOR (2020), a feature debut from Ekwa Msangi, which sees a New York-based Angolan man reunited with his wife and daughter after 17 years apart. The reunion of this small family exposes the fate of love when it is interrupted. The three newly reunited explore how you can regain the bond that you once had when life’s experiences come between you.

Debate: Amplify, scrutinize, and surprise, this year’s debate program also featured many films focused on social and racial justice.TIME (2020) is a documentary about Fox Richardson who, as a newlywed, took part in a botched robbery with her husband Robert. The love and bond they share have continued despite the life sentence that Robert received. Fox has spent over 20 years campaigning for the release of her husband. This is Garrett Bradley’s debut feature documentary. The topic focuses squarely on the racial injustice within the prison system.

Laugh:  Laugh-out-loud, dry, and understated.In HONEYMOOD (2020), a couple arrives at their honeymoon suite on their wedding night. The bride and groom soon realize that the night will not end as they had imagined. The bride discovers her newly minted husband received a wedding gift from his ex. They soon hit the streets to return the gift. Over the course of the night, we watch as they confront family, friends, strangers, and themselves, ultimately deciding whether they should stay together.

Dare: In-your-face, up-front, and arresting. SHIRLEY (2020) is a psychodrama based on the American Horror/Mystery writer Shirley Jackson played by Elizabeth Moss. Shirley is working on her next book and finds true inspiration when a newlywed couple comes to stay. Moss never disappoints and perfectly portrays this slightly mad intellectual who exploits the situation to develop her new book.

Cult: Mind-altering and unclassifiable to fantasy, sci-fi, and horror. RELIC (2020) is a horror film with a female bent. Unfortunately for the three generations of women in this film, they are plagued by a supernatural presence that doesn’t see age as an issue. This film had me raising eyebrows and wondering how far the supernatural power would go and why it was there in the first place. There were many times I looked away due to gruesomeness but I can’t resist an Australian film.

Journey: Transport you and shift your perspective. In NOMANDLAND (2020), Frances McDormand delivers another stand out mellow performance as Fern. Illustrating a very human existence, living on the road in her home - her van. Whether living a nomadic life on the road is an active choice or due to circumstances is thought-provoking.  A key statement I took away was ‘I am not homeless but houseless.’ This is a rich tale of modern day nomads.

Create: Channels the electricity of the creative process, celebrating artistic expression in all its forms. In THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF (2020), fact is indeed stranger than fiction. Oslo, April 2015, a young painter has her two most valuable paintings stolen, in a broad daylight heist from a gallery in the city center. In a bizarre twist, the Painter and the Thief form an inseparable bond. This is a beautifully filmed documentary. A must watch an emotional true story.

Family: Showcasing films for the young, as well as the young at heart. In WOLFWALKERS (2020), we are transported to the 17th-century in the Irish city of Kilkenny, where the last wolf pack is on the verge of being eradicated. This is a magically animated drama for all ages. By Caroon Saloon who also brought us The Breadwinner and The Song of the Sea.

Treasures: Recently restored cinematic classics and discoveries from archives around the world to audiences across the UK. THE CHEATERS (2020), originally produced in 1930, is an Australian melodrama charting the escapades of a con-woman. Created by filmmaking pioneer sisters Paulette, Isabel, and Phyliss McDonagh who made a number of mostly silent films in the late 1920s and early 1930s.

Experimenta: Revolutionise and reshape our vision of cinema. This year I didn’t manage to screen anything from this section. Perhaps I will be more experimental next year.

The Award Goes To

“There was never a moment in this utterly crazy year when we considered not delivering a BFI London Film Festival. We know LFF means too much to both filmmakers and audiences. So how fitting, then, that we put audiences in control of the Awards this year with our first Virtual LFF Audience Awards. And dammit, don’t our audiences have great taste?!” Tricia Tuttle, BFI London Film Festival Director

Best Film – ANOTHER ROUND (2020), Thomas Vinterberg
Explores the use of alcohol to be happier, funnier, more interesting, more fulfilled, perform higher - basically to be better. At its heart is Martin (Mikkelsen), a teacher who has lost his get up and go. Martin and his friends decide to use alcohol not to dim life but to enhance it. Mikkelsen is at his best as we watch emotions and demeanors explode.

Best Documentary – THE PAINTER AND THE THIEF (2020), Benjamin Ree
This had my vote! “The way Barbora (painter) approached Karl-Bertil (thief) at the trial was so moving to hear and that’s the reason I wanted to make this film. “I did not see the thief in him”, she told me, “I saw a human being”. Who would have known back then that the painter and the thief would become such good friends?” Benjamin Ree, Director

Best Short Film – SHUTTLECOCK (2019), Tommy Gillard.
This somewhat amusing comedy combines homoerotic vibes, toxic masculinity, a little hero worship, bullying, and a badminton court. It was short, which was good.

Best XR/Immersive Art – TO MISS THE ENDING (2020), Anna West and David Callanan
Imagine a world where life as we know it has been destroyed. The only way of connecting to anything is virtually, on the net. It’s an exploration of a future that seems all too real.
Anna West and David Callanan said: “Our work itself talks about the scary and unstable times we’re living in, and we’ve really felt that this year. The film was made under COVID restrictions, and with an incredibly small creative team, most of whom are Manchester-based. This means a lot to us all and the work on show at this festival is a real demonstration of the resilience of our industry. We’re so happy that this work has had a life outside our homes, and thrilled that people enjoyed it!”

And last but definitely not least the IWC Schaffhausen Filmmaker Award, the recipient receives £50,000– WILDFIRE (2020), Cathy Brady
This is a story about two sisters who grew up on the politically charged Irish border. One of the sisters disappears and when she finally returns they uncover secrets and resentments from the past that push their familial bond to the edge.

That’s a Wrap!

Just like so much in 2020 the London BFI Film Festival was different. It gave a lot to more people than previously and put us, the audience in the driver’s seat.

The couch is neither the best place nor the worse place to watch a film. The pause button does come in handy. But I prefer the darkness, big-screen sound, and image that a cinema delivers. I will mark my calendar for next year and hope that I am once again in the theatre, and experience the razzle-dazzle of the red carpet.

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