#LFF 2020: Ammonite review

Read Time:3 Minute, 18 Second


“Last year at this time we had snow, and now it’s nice.” An earth-shattering, potentially life-altering sea change occurs behind closed doors for two women living under the constraints of Victorian conservatism in Francis Lee‘s Ammonite.

Encompassing the cold, muted tone of the entire script – and indeed the era, this one line demonstrates, in just a few words, how its restrictive emotional restraint is conversely both its strongest asset and greatest limitation. There is an invisible, intangible barrier between audience and character that sets a distance between those looking and those being observed in Lee’s second feature. Much cannot be uttered out loud, must be kept secret, cannot be acted upon; and it is in this conflict between desire and convention that lies the crux of this narrative. The film tells of one fateful season in the life of pioneering palaeontologist Mary Anning, here embodied by a breathtaking Kate Winslet.

Through a literal pane of glass, the film is bookended by scenes in which we contemplate a fossil she uncovered, exhibited at the British Museum, but listed under the name of the man to whom she sold it out of a practical need for the money. Of the many ceilings that were in place in the first half of the nineteenth century that we encounter, male chauvinism – and credit taken for the skilled work of a woman – is high among them. Indeed, in the opening seconds, on her knees scrubbing the parquet floor of the exhibition, a scullery maid is literally pushed aside while undertaking her duties.

Through a modern lens, the manner in which we view the interplay of past with present perspective is one of a number of undoubted strong points to Lee’s direction. The film is handsomely made and the Dorset coastline has never been such a bleak, wild, roaring wonder to behold and to hear as it is exploring its coastline with Mary. And as in his astonishing Yorkshire-set debut, God’s Own Country, the arrival of a stranger to her provincial hometown of Lyme Regis lights a fire of sexual awakening long ignored, or purposefully suppressed, by the thick clay of the Jurassic Coast and illiberal attitudes of the time.

But how brightly will that fire be allowed to burn? Discoveries of far more than fossilised sea creatures will occur as Mary’s daily routine of trawling for buried treasure is interrupted by Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan). Come to take the sea air and convalesce after losing a child, she is no sooner introduced to Mary than her husband (James McArdle) departs on a geological survey, leaving his wife under Mary’s begrudging tutelage. From frosty beginnings, an imperceptible gravitational pull draws the two women ever closer together.

The issue of miscarriage, another that men leave women to deal with alone, with little more than a second thought, is brought out further by Gemma Jones’ nuanced performance as Mary’s mother. It is rather refreshing, in fact, to be able to say that Ammonite is a film without any strong male performances. The irony being that their influence is felt throughout as a barrier to progress. However, the film’s best moments come in the exquisite, unspoken lines of communication, nervous glances, tentative physical closeness between two actors on very top form.

And yet, in spite of two committed performances, when an unwelcome piece of correspondence causes a rupture, there is not the wave of emotion you might expect, or want to feel. Of course, the extent to which and how effectively the objective tone resonates will differ from viewer to viewer. Given its place and time, Ammonite’s coldness is perhaps apt, but its stiff upper lip may well not do enough to make yours quiver, either.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Nomadland review

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Adapted from Jessica Bruder’s non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century, Nomadland is writer and director Chloé Zhao’s third feature-length film and is a beautiful and compassionate portrait of people living on the outskirts of American society.

In 2011, after the economy collapsed, it leaves the rural town of Empire in Nevada uninhabitable, and sixty-something widower Fern (Frances McDormand) is forced to live out of her modified van, driving during the day and sleeping in car parks at night. Mourning the loss of her husband, as well as Empire’s end, Fern travels across the American West in search of seasonal work, but even though she’s alone in her van, it’s not a solitary voyage. Working shifts at an Amazon warehouse, food processing plants, and as a cleaner at a caravan park, she meets others in similar circumstances, and discovers a welcoming community of caravan-driving people whose lives on the road are challenging, but rewarding.

These modern-day nomads seek experience and the joy of today, rather than endless servitude and the American dream with its unrealistic promise of possible riches at some point in the future. Home, for these people, is in who they meet, not where they live; their lives are enriched by the connections they make, and the experiences they have, along the way. Offering a non-judgmental listening-ear, Fern learns of their own traumas and losses –poverty, death, family feuds, illness– and that their lives on the road offer them a freedom unavailable anywhere else. By being transient, they have control over their lives, rather than as outsiders struggling to survive on the edge of society. Reinvigorated, through being present in the here and now, they can enjoy the beauty of the world around them; they have a true connection to nature and living.

At times, Nomadland feels like a documentary, and it’s no surprise that the people Fern interacts with are real-life nomads, playing fictional versions of themselves. There’s an authenticity and melancholy to their performances, and Zhao provides them with an uninterrupted platform to speak and share; this allows for a rich character study of an arguably forgotten underclass in America.

As Fern, McDormand offers a commanding but subtle performance. She offers empathy and encouragement, always being present, listening, and witnessing their lived experience, but never burdening the space with a big acting ‘moment’. Indeed, the understated interactions McDormand offers, where she matches the pace and even rhythm of the nomads in conversation, are masterful. Less is more, and McDormand’s beautifully restrained responses show what power she has in her craft; the conversations between Fern and the other characters are filled with intimacy and tenderness.

Nomadland’s poetic realism is heightened by Joshua James Richards’ stunning cinematography and production design providing a vitality in the desert with its temporary inhabitants: searing scenes of natural beauty contrasting with the mundanity of factory work. The theme running through it all is a vividness of the present – a world of stunning vistas and soft conversations, juxtaposed with the temporary harshness of industrial life.

Never patronising, and avoiding polemic, Zhao tactfully manages to explore the world of the low paid and homeless, whilst offering compassionate insight into the lives of the people who make up our service economy. Nomadland, with its beautiful simplicity, and wonderful performances, manages to be an elegant, profoundly moving film which shows the real value of living, rather than just surviving.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Zoe Margolis | @girlonetrack

#LFF 2020: Limbo review

Read Time:3 Minute, 15 Second


Deadpan, absurdist comedy may not seem like an obvious genre choice for a story about the cruel, grinding bureaucracy of the UK’s asylum process. But five years since the playful oddness of his debut feature, Pikadero, Ben Sharrock returns in style with Limbo.

The Scottish director again demonstrates a measured human sensibility, this time with the plight of a group of refugees seeking the chance for new lives in Britain. Respectfully toying with the bounds of political correctness, whilst simultaneously laying waste to its hypocrisy with heavy doses of satirical humour, it’s a tightrope line which Sharrock walks with relish.

Knowing when to turn frowns upside down and when to keep his distance, Limbo opens with a smiley face drawn in chalk on a blackboard. The next shot frames a woman’s face, forcibly neutral. Later, the film’s two main characters, stifled musician Omar (a very strong turn from Amir El-Masry) and Freddie Mercury superfan Farhad (Vikash Bhai), will try to guess whether the other is grinning or frowning by covering their mouths, judging happiness or sadness by their eyes alone.

Why all this focus on facial expressions? Because, as is summed up by the title of a cultural awareness 101 lesson, they never tell the whole picture. “Sex: is a smile an invitation?” A sour-faced Helga (Sidse Babett Knudsen) has to rebuff the touchy-feely advances of Boris (Kenneth Collard) with an exaggerated wag of the finger. But it is the awkward, disbelieving looks from the assembled class in reverse shot that prompt the laughs. However well-intentioned this course of integration may be, its tone-deaf patronising belittles its pupils.

The film, however, neither sneers at, nor pities, nor wallows in this situation – or its subjects. Instead, from first to last, Sharrock – who also penned the script – gently tickles ribs while giving a frequent punch to the guts without ever really going for the jugular. Though out of sight, out of mind may be the go-to strategy for many when it comes to refugees, especially in light of recent political developments, each of these men has a story, a past, nuance, talent, intelligence and desires. And in his dedication to their native languages, attention to character detail and development of each, Sharrock does them and his film credit.

The respect he shows them does not match the less than warm welcome they receive from most of the locals of the sparsely populated Uist Islands, flung off the north west coast of Scotland. Stuck in shabby hostels, the wind, rain and snow outside are unrelenting. Even cinematographer Nick Cooke’s squared aspect cuts off any chance of us enjoying the brutal, beautiful landscape. But it keeps us focused. And as the boys watch repeat episodes of Friends, queue at the one phone box on the island to make calls home and eagerly eye the postman whenever letters are due, the thudding monotony, hopelessness and claustrophobia of it all begins to take its toll.

Omar, who carries his oud (an instrument a little like a lute) around with him at all times but never plays, exemplifies the film’s title more than any other. Fraught relations with a brother who stayed in Syria to fight and parents who push and pull for him to stay or return, his static purgatory is as spiritual, personal as it is literal. Although a devastating discovery and the departure of a dear friend force the floodgates to open a little, Sharrock’s resistance to easy answers or an easy way out is in-keeping with a tale in which the arbitrary flick of a pen, a stamp on a letter, can change someone’s life irrevocably – and yet may never come.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Notturno review

Read Time:3 Minute, 26 Second


All the world’s a stage for veteran documentary filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi. Notturno, his latest piece of deeply humanist cinematic theatre, concerns itself with the aftermath of the military coups, authoritarianism and foreign imperialism that have plagued the Middle East since World War One and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Those without a detailed knowledge of the region’s political history over the last century need not be put off by the enormity of the opening intertitles. For as in his astounding 2016 feature Fire At Sea, it is the individual stories of ordinary people that are Rosi’s focus. Filmed over three years in the borderlands of Iraq, Kurdistan, Syria and Lebanon, Notturno is a snapshot – in a patchwork of disparate vignettes – that captures the effects of trauma inflicted on and hardships lived by the civilian population.

Whilst the echoes of former conflicts and adversaries certainly still resonate, the Italian-American director presents the ongoing threat of ISIS as the latest in a very long line of regimes which must be confronted. There is no interviewing of talking heads, no direct interaction between filmmaker and subject in any way. Reportedly trimmed down from 90 hours of footage, Rosi’s wide-angle camera dispassionately captures people going about their daily lives, surviving. They are unrelated individuals who seem to have nothing to do with one another, but have a great deal in common.

We move from a former prison in ruins where a group of women sing laments to their dead sons, to the eldest boy of a family fishing by night and shooting birds by day to provide for his mother and siblings, to a couple enjoying an evening out. There are military personnel, too – they patrol desolate wastelands, clear already empty buildings and stand in silence at borders looking out to a misty horizon we cannot see. What lies beyond it? Metaphors and questions hang as heavy as the dark clouds that blanket the film, adding to its oppressive energy. Some may find the staccato jumps of place and point of view a little troublesome.

Cuts from one thread to the next and back again without pretext or explanation do not flow naturally or create a cohesive narrative. But should a documentary investigating such unimaginable savagery be an easy, convenient watch? Absolutely not. Given Notturno’s subject matter it is right that Rosi leaves some of that work up to us. The key to engaging in his vision comes at the halfway point of the film where we enter a school, or kind of rehabilitation centre, where by way of felt tip pens and pencil, displaced children draw their thoughts, their memories of the horrors they have witnessed.

“The night scares me so much,” says one young girl, struggling to sleep due to the nightmarish memories which haunt her. A boy, who must be no older than eight, stutters breathlessly as he recounts the actions of the ISIS men: beheadings, hangings, burning the soles of children’s feet, gunshot wounds. It is sickening that any child should have such images imprinted on their mind but again Rosi’s patient, objective distance is maintained. In these heartbreaking scenes lies the crux of Notturno’s purpose.

These children’s drawings allow them to explore and explain their trauma, to open up to their teacher about what they saw, how it makes them feel, what she must do to make them feel safe. Two photos of a tortured man held tenderly by his weeping mother and the images we see onscreen have the same purpose. They prompt questions, discussion. And at a psychiatric hospital we visit on several occasions, where a number of the patients are rehearsing a play on their Homeland’s past, present and destined future, word and image combine. They are part of the process of healing, of understanding and coming to terms with trauma, so as to be able to look forward.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Gold for Dogs review

Read Time:3 Minute, 1 Second


“Your cock and your words fill me with joy.” Crass to the point of being offensive, these lyrics – from one song of the soundtrack to Gold for Dogs – effectively sum up this deplorable coming-of-age debut feature. Nonsensical and tonally misguided, we travel from France’s Atlantic coast to Paris and back, but go nowhere.

The sound of vigorous love making meets our ears before our eyes as the film opens with a soft core porn scene set to the backdrop of sand dunes and crashing waves. The man, having finished, stands up and walks off to go for a swim. Characteristic of the kind of misogynistic callousness that Gold for Dogs will treat its central character, Esther (Tallulah Cassavetti), throughout, she hastily dresses and dutifully trots after her lover.

Very clear, then, from the first few moments that Jean (Corentin Fila) just isn’t that to her. But writing in her diary where, how and how many times she and this contemptible dreamboat have had sex, Esther proceeds to hang around like a bad smell at Jean’s going away party. Though his season at this seaside resort is done, he has time for one last conquest – which Esther witnesses and still proceeds to throw herself at him before he leaves.

Yes, it really is that pathetically bad. However, we hit lower depths after Jean has said his not-so-fond farewells as a friendless Esther attends a beach house party. Tarted up in a short, revealing Jelly Bean dress that she will wear for the rest of the film, she is coerced into a game whereby she’s locked in a bathroom with a stranger who essentially proceeds to sexually assault her in a bath. If the objective of this scene is to shock an audience, it succeeds, but it is no less disgusting for this.

The faint suggestion that Esther, 18, had lost her virginity earlier that summer and now must be keen to jerk off every guy in town is par for the course for the first part of a film which really is vile. Scowling, sour faced and forlorn at the departure of Jean, it’s no surprise that Esther wants to take to the road. Yet tenderness is nowhere to be found in Gold for Dogs, and even when Esther comes across the truck stop that her mum (Julie Depardieu) runs, she is met with contempt. After taking a train to Paris in a desperate, deluded attempt to rekindle affections with Jean, Esther is rebuffed; she tries to pick up a waiter in a bar; she is mugged in the street.

That just about covers it. It’s a real pity that the script and direction are so desperately poor as we really do want to feel sympathy, compassion, ANYTHING, for Esther, and Cassavetti seems to be giving it her all. Taking refuge at a convent near Montparnasse station, the final portion of Gold for Dogs takes an odd, and potentially more interesting turn, but unfortunately by this time any interest you may have had is long gone.

At a guess, Gold for Dogs sets out to champion female empowerment, self-determination and criticise the way in which young women are cruelly used, discarded and objectified by men, but it sadly doesn’t achieve any of this. Anything potentially profound there may be to say is lost in this squalid, tactless film that boasts the occasional stunning vista, but nothing of any true substance.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: After Love review

Read Time:3 Minute, 3 Second


Secrets, lies, love and sacrifices spanning a lifetime resonate across the English Channel and far beyond in writer-director Aleem Khan’s staggering debut, After Love.

Blending the traditions of a British-Pakistani household with the complications, and deceptions, of modern life, this simmering, low-key feature is at once as big as the moon and stars and as intimate as two cups of tea, sat side by side. Few life events can cause such a numbing, disorienting effect as the unexpected death of a loved one but grief will soon turn to disbelief for Mary (an extraordinary Joanna Scanlan).

A static, long take – one of many employed to great effect by cinematographer Alexander Dynan – opens on a kitchen as a couple return home in the pouring rain. The husband enters the living room, screen left, as his wife puts the kettle on. They chat from one room to the next, enjoy a piece of music he puts on; he sits down in an armchair to rest, but will not get up again. Fahima (Mary’s Muslim name) is stunned into silence – and it is from here on out that Scanlan’s enthralling performance grabs our attention for the duration.

Dismayed during the funeral, surrounded by members of Ahmed’s (Nasser Memarzia) disconsolate family, a single tear falls across her cheek. Unable to speak, her eyes do all the talking. It is not possible to articulate what such loss feels like, and so other than hearing Mary in her daily prayers, Khan’s restraint mirrors hers. But when going through her husband’s wallet she comes across a French identity card – for a lady named Geneviève, and messages on his mobile. Part of the white cliffs of Dover collapse into the sea as Mary looks back from the ferry (on which her husband worked) at a life, and memories of a marriage, crumbling around her.

In its observation of the everyday, its rhythm and its awkwardness, Khan’s script excels. “Are you here for the cleaning?” Seeking answers and potentially to confront a woman who has had a long-standing relationship with her husband, Mary is mistaken by Geneviève (Nathalie Richard) as someone from an agency. Geneviève is moving house, alone, and the clear-out of old clothes, photos and home videos is as revealing as it is shocking.

Clearing house is an obvious metaphor, but one that is left to play out of its own accord. Buffeted by the waves of shock and realisation at the extent of an act of deceit by her husband, she must keep up her own. She must know more, know why. It’s a tantalising dynamic which Khan slowly unties masterfully. Of such importance here, and part of the genius of the script, is that the man responsible for this seething anger, and due the retribution of both women, is absent.

For all the cattishness that could have transpired, Mary and Geneviève have a lot more in common than they might think. It is another obvious dramatic conflict that is cleverly subverted by the director who demonstrates a maturity well beyond his years at every turn. As barriers of language (Urdu, English and French) blur, the truth of the past and the reality of the present begin to fall. It would do a disservice to viewers and filmmakers alike to divulge more, but After Love is a technically proficient, sincere exploration of its thorny, complicated themes and gripping realist drama of the highest order.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Another Round review

Read Time:2 Minute, 55 Second


Eight years after The Hunt, Thomas Vinterberg gets the old band back together for a rollicking good time in Another Round. Necking half-a-bottle of Smirnoff before starting a day of work would generally be considered grounds for a pretty serious intervention.

But Martin (Mads Mikkelsen) will soon be having the time of his life. Though when the fun stops, will he? Well aware of the hangover that comes the morning after the night before, the prolific Danish director’s latest film is a riot of drunken fun.

But it also digs into the melancholy of middle age and the importance of paying attention to the tell-tale signs of depression. It’s OK to not be okay – and for typically stoical men to show emotional weakness, to be open about their feelings. A group of long-time mates don’t often need an excuse to knock back a whiskey or two, but rarely do they do so in the name of a scientific study. Before an early morning tipple becomes the new normal, middle age is kicking in, wives are nagging, kids are peeing the bed, teaching is a drag and Martin has well and truly lost his mojo. So, at his 40th birthday meal, Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) makes a bold suggestion.

He, Martin and their pals, Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen) and Peter (Lars Ranthe), are to apply Norwegian psychiatrist Finn Skårderud’s principle that human kind would be happier, more productive and fulfilled if a permanent 0.05% blood alcohol level was maintained at all times. An interesting theory that the boys put to the test – immediately, vigorously, hilariously. The Dutch courage – or is it Danish – that comes from being half cut sees Martin’s history lessons soar to new heights and some laugh out loud moments.

The same for psychology and music, but best for football coach Tommy not to share his ‘water’ with a kid who’s forgotten to bring a half-time drink. “I haven’t felt this good in ages,” says Martin as the group takes stock of the sociological, psychological and professional successes of their endeavour. However, any scheme that uses Ernest Hemingway’s daily boozing as a benchmark is bound to come unstuck at some point. And when they up the ante with absinthe-infused cocktails, the sight of four grown men dancing around Nikolaj’s living room to Cissy Strut by The Meters may be a joyous cinematic moment, but the consequences have all of them questioning whether it was worth it.

With the cracks of a crumbling marriage etched across his face, Mikkelsen is on typically top form in Another Round. Along with his frequent co-writing partner Tobias Lindholm, the director is clearly at ease in the assembled company, just as there is something of a scotch-induced warm embrace to spending time with Martin and the gang.

A bitter twist in the tale, and Vinterberg’s dedication of the film to his daughter Ida, who tragically died in a car accident in 2019, mean that there is pause for reflection once the booze wears off. It doesn’t hit the heights of former collaborations, but there’s a lot to drink in and appreciate here, and Mikkelsen’s all-dancing finale is one of the most exultant, triumphant moments in recent cinema memory.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Shadow Country review

Read Time:2 Minute, 57 Second


Set in a small village on the Czech-Austrian border, and spanning fifteen years pre, during and post-Second World War, Bohdan Sláma’s Shadow Country is a monumental piece of filmmaking. Simultaneously an historical allegory of tremendous scope and a claustrophobic, cautionary tale of collaboration and bloody revenge, it is both epic in scale and intimate in character detail.

“Who are we and where do we belong?” ask intertitles in the film’s opening moments. An expansive question, certainly, and one which Shadow Country explores with far more than existential musing. Spurred by a past of troubled identity, this interrogation has potentially grave consequences in the present and even worse for an unknown future. The people of Vitorazsko, a disputed hinterland passed for centuries between Austria and Czechoslovakia which would be annexed and occupied by the Nazis during the conflict, are those in search of an answer.

And though our first meeting with the villagers of Tušť is a joyous one – the christening of Karel (Stanislav Majer) and Veberova’s (Magdaléna Borová) son – divisions of opinion and national identity soon surface. There are those for an old Soviet newsreel and those against, those that want a swastika to be displayed in the square and those that tear it down. It is 1938 and in the gathering storm of war many of the townspeople are sleepwalking into a Nazi regime. As we move into 1939, swastikas are seen flying freely, are sown onto armbands, Hitler’s image is hung on a wall and ‘Jew’ is graffitied on the shutters of the Stein family shop.

An allegiance to either Germany or Czechoslovakia is the decision to be made and the apathy of saying “It’s none of our business,” defies any notion of truly loving, and protecting, thy neighbour. When Josef (Csongor Kassai), one of few actively resisting the decline to fascism, is denounced, tarred and feathered, the horrified reaction of those who find him shows that their new reality is beginning to resonate. A bump in the score marks the seeds of discord taking root and begs the question: what will you do now, how will you react to what you see happening in front of your own eyes?

Cinematographer Divis Marek’s crisp black and white, wide-frame photography, extensive use of long takes and a great depth of field does not leave anywhere to hide for characters caught between self-preservation, principle, and in some instances the chance to profiteer from the persecution of others. And yet for the first half of Shadow Country, but for the return of one young volunteer who has lost a leg, and diminishing supplies of food, the war happens – and then ends – elsewhere. We never leave the isolated village, trapped in ignorance and self-delusion. But will the void left upon the conflict’s conclusion be any better, or even worse, than what came before?

Brutal, vindictive bloodletting in the name of revolution will have a devastating effect on the community. Sláma’s patient, but well-paced, unveiling of Ivan Arsenyev’s script shows just how easily any person can be corrupted by power and prejudice when circumstances permit. Shadow Country is gruelling, unrelenting cinema, and yet another reminder that many wrongs never do make a right. Saying so with hindsight, rather than foresight, will not prevent history repeating itself once more.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Undine review

Read Time:2 Minute, 57 Second


Floating somewhere between drama and fantasy, myth and reality, Christian Petzold’s Undine is a beguiling, other-worldly love story between a diver and a tour guide – or is she a mermaid?

Brought to modern-day Berlin from the depths of German Renaissance philosophy, this supernatural allegory benefits from two strong lead performances, but is otherwise as transient and ethereal as the nymphs from whom it takes its title.

The eponymous Undine (Paula Beer) is a well-versed historian at the Centre for Urban Development and Planning. She gives talks on the German capital pre- and post-reunification to tourists and eager young students. Though it is by no means evident why we spend such time looking at 3D models and maps, and listen to Undine explain how the city has evolved over time, acknowledging the interrelation of past, present and future is underlined.

Her own future seems to be in doubt, though, when first dropped into a “We need to meet” break-up conversation. With a preamble we do not witness, Johannes (Jacob Matschenz) ends their relationship due to another woman. “If you leave me, I’ll have to kill you” seems a slight overreaction from Undine, but she stumbles – literally – across her knight in shining armour, Christoph (Franz Rogowski) almost immediately. Clumsily introducing himself after attending one of her talks, and then knocking over a fish tank when taking his leave, the pair lie on the floor of a café in raptures, looking longingly into each other’s eyes.

Later learning that Undine’s threat was not empty rhetoric, and that her search for a partner has far more at stake than 2.4 kids, a nice house and a BMW, it is love at first sight with Christoph. Inseparable, they begin a passionate affair and share their love for the water. However, when Undine discards her diving gear and hitches a ride with Big Gunther, a giant catfish who roams the reservoir where Christoph has been working, he realises that he may have been, well, catfished. But so enamoured is he that Christoph doesn’t bat an eyelid, even encouraging Undine’s historical knowledge as pillow talk. After all, there’s nothing like a speech on urban planning to keep a relationship’s passions aflame.

But when a chance encounter with Johannes and an accident befalls the couple, we dive into murkier waters where time, place and reason are hard to discern. The one constant in a film which flows this way and that is a singular piano refrain by Bach. Paired with this is Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees which comes in handy with the administration of CPR at a key moment and shows the tongue-in-cheek humour that Petzold peppers Undine with as the classical and contemporary intermingle. Beer, who impressed greatly in François Ozon’s 2017 film Frantz, again displays a maturity of performance beyond her years, and Rogowski has a natural, easy presence on screen alongside her again after 2018’s Transit.

So, what do we take away from Undine? Its woozy oddity does linger and the process of falling in and out love may well feel like drowning. But as we come up for air in closing it must be said that the best is surely yet to come from this excellent leading pair and gifted director after this latest underwater outing.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Ultraviolence review

Read Time:3 Minute, 52 Second


“They actually have the ability to…to kill. And they’re not sanctioned for it, in any way.” When police officers commit murder with impunity, what possible course of action can be taken by devastated families? When the CPS and IPCC conduct sham investigations, more to save face and keep the lid on cover-ups than to bring convictions, what happens then?

Brenda Weinberg, sister of Brian Douglas – who died at the hands of police in south London in May 1995, is one of many voices in Ken Fero’s Ultraviolence that is afraid; and so she should be. So should we all. Threatened with lawsuits and personally harassed after his 2002 film Injustice brought to light shocking acts of police brutality, Fero knows all too well the lengths to which the closed ranks of the Met – and other forces – will go in order to protect their own, rather than safeguard the public to whom they have an avowed duty.

Many years in the making, Ultraviolence is nonetheless a continuation of Fero and writer Tariq Mehmood’s former project. Though most of the archival footage and interviews here take place in and around 2005, the ongoing cycle of violence, denial and injustice has continued unabated until 2020 – with people of colour more often than not falling victim to racially-motivated attacks. Rightly focusing on the subjects and substance of the matter at hand, Fero does employ various flourishes of arresting visual style to underline his lucidity of argument. Godardian intertitles in striking red and blue consume the screen at regular intervals, echoing – or rather amplifying – the messaging of banners and placards.

Seen at marches in memory of the many men who have died in police custody, they also appear at the 2005 anti-war demonstrations which reacted to the UK’s illegal excuses for joining the Iraq conflict. Broadening the strokes of his indictment of broken establishment functions, Fero demonstrates that complicity in – or apathy towards – a regime’s acts of violence in the name of liberation (or fictitious WMDs) in faraway lands is just as significant, and harmful, as families constantly let down by the British judiciary for domestic acts of terror committed on their own citizens: “War is another name for mass murder.”

The now infamous images of children horrifically burned by napalm in Vietnam are compared to the effects of white phosphorous used in Iraq and that only in changing people’s thinking, how they view violence and its effects, will mistakes of the past be learned. Burying one’s head in the sand is no longer possible when young British lads are coming home from war in coffins, and the same feeling of revulsion should be felt when men akin to these soldiers are killed in police cells. The visceral shock of deaths we witness first hand via grainy CCTV footage from within police stations is a necessary affront.

We must all confront the reality of watching a man breath his last whilst lying prostrate on the floor of a cell as guards and officers around him laugh, make jokes and brag about the arrest. Because that is what happened. How else will people actually stand up and take notice? It is in the seemingly minor details that the enraging, endless cycle of inaction that Ultraviolence plays out. Official letters are delivered by hand to Downing Street by grieving wives, mothers and sisters, calling on the Blair government to reopen investigations. Responses come years later from the CPS and other authorities, announcing no wrongdoing, no grounds for prosecution or other such excuses for sweeping proceedings under the carpet.

It is telling, then, that although not concerned with a linear narrative, Fero employs an epistolary voiceover to his son, loosely cut into chapters – or Memories – as a call to arms, a lesson to the next generation. Perhaps they will deal with these issues differently and that there hope for the future. These campaigns may be endless, but Ultraviolence ensures that the fight goes on; that the names of Christopher Adler, Brian Douglas, Jean Charles de Menezes, Paul Coker, Roger Sylvester and Nuur Saeed will not be forgotten. Made with defiant conviction, this is a fearless, unflinching, but above all compassionate piece of documentary filmmaking that cares deeply about the people whose plight it tells. Enough is enough, it is time for change.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Cicada review

Read Time:3 Minute, 15 Second


Background noise cannot be ignored in Matt Fifer and Kieran Mulcare’s exceptional debut, Cicada. Aural triggers that recall repressed traumas are as vivid and immediate as smells or visual memories for Ben (Fifer) and Sam (Sheldon D. Brown). As they battle their individual pasts and the difficulties of a collective present, there is much that must be resolved for this couple to stand on their own two feet, and build a relationship together.

Completing his hat-trick of credits for the film, Fifer also shared screenwriting duties with co-star Brown and the collaborative nature of all the moving parts of this production is evident throughout. The co-directors’ patient pacing of the material may prove to be a little sedentary for some viewers, but this story of sexual awakening and realisation (‘Based on true events’, we are told) flows naturally, allowing its central figures – Ben in particular – the time necessary to make momentous leaps of faith.

In an alcohol-fuelled prelude to the main portion of the film, Ben has innumerable sexual encounters, with both men and women, in toilets, at home, at other people’s apartments. The hollow, momentary acts are engaged in, it appears, because he seeks to drown out a memory – the image of a young, curly-haired boy standing outside what we presume is his home. The significance of this vision will of course be developed, but its nightmarish grip – and the harmonious buzz of the titular insects – clings to Ben from first to last. But a chance meeting at a book stall with a tall, handsome stranger, and a playful exchange to discuss the pros and cons of The Hungry Caterpillar, sees Ben meet Sam.

Above and beyond the physical attraction between the two young men, there is an emotional closeness that we’ve not yet seen – and one that allows frank, probing questions to be asked: when did you know [that you were gay]? What were you like as a kid? Relationships are tough at the best of times, but the excess pressure that comes with Sam being the only Black man at his workplace, and still hiding his true sexuality from colleagues, friends and – most significantly his fervently religious father – means that this is far from plain sailing. And for Ben, aches and pains, nausea and a choking sensation when trying to eat, has him concerned about his health.

However, it becomes ever clearer that these ailments are symptomatic of psychological issues that have been ignored for too long. “I can’t tell you why you’re feeling the way you feel,” his doctor will tell him, but one word from a therapist he sees cuts through, in a heart-stopping moment, to the core of this crisis of self. Fifer and Brown each give strong, engaging performances that we fear may crack at the edges at any moment. Ben’s go-to defence mechanism is humour, clowning around with a charisma that proves magnetic for all he comes near. Sam’s doe-eyed sadness and introversion equals out the opposites attracting.

And as he finally sums up the courage to come out to his father, the noise of a car backfiring recalls the devastation of a drive-by shooting of which he was the victim. Once more shaking his resolve. Ben must return home for a tough conversation with his mother as the cicadas again bring wave after wave of long-buried memory. Told with tenderness and honesty, Cicada is a treatment of trauma that does not judge or preach or take sides, but, in building to its breathless crescendo, goes to show just how much courage it takes to confront the past in order to look to the future.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets review

Read Time:2 Minute, 54 Second


Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets’ vérité style belies a quasi-staged reality that challenges the distinction between fiction and documentary, studying the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. Shot over the course of a single night, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets depicts the final night of ‘The Roaring 20s’, a Las Vegas bar set to shutter forever.

In actual fact, the bar is located in New Orleans, still open, and the ‘regulars’ are a combination of real local barflies and non-professional actors. The film documents the carousing, heart-to-hearting, weeping and impromptu sleeping of the regulars on their last night all together. From the 1970s-styled opening credits and rolling soundtrack of folk-pop-rock to the crackly TVs mumbling in the background and the kitsch trinkets decorating the bar’s nooks, this is the faded Americana of a Tom Waits song come to life.

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets paints a portrait at once authentic and contrived. Its textures are rich and familiar. Are they so because we recognise that bar from our lives, or from an ingestion of pop-cultural soup that mythologises such places and people? Is there even a distinction to be made.  constructed or captured, or both? Michael, the undisputed tragic sweetheart of the film, is actually stage actor Michael Martin, but his admission that he is an actor disrupts otherwise clear distinctions that might divide the ‘real’ and ‘performed’ Michael.

Certainly, the magnificent observational nuggets he dispenses throughout the day – “I pride myself on not becoming an alcoholic until after I became a failure” – are poignant regardless of how scripted they are. As the day meanders into the night, characters fade in and out of the frame. A transgender woman arrives in the afternoon to catch up with Michael, disappears, then is suddenly there after dark, dancing and lip-syncing her way across the bar room.

Multiple stories play out and intersect, finding structure in the edit. Bartender Shay’s teenage son, Tra gets loaded around the back of the bar, fobbing his mother off with the amusingly-unlikely story that he’s just eating beef jerky with his buddies; an insecure poetaster composes a piece dedicated to the bar, heckled by an ageing war vet who later pours out his heart to Pam, a lush who dispenses advice to a young man on how she’s kept her “60-year-old titties” firm. If Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets succeeds in any one thing, it’s in capturing the wandering, picaresque continuity of a really good night on the lash, peopled by friends and familiars who seem to come in and out of our own personal frame.

The film is not explicitly political, yet context invariably informs and frames the piece, shot the day after Trump grifted his way the White House while pundits debate the result in between episodes of Jeopardy and syndicated classic movies. Peopled with misfits, the forgotten and the would-be forgotten, this community may well be constructed, but so are all communities through a messy assemblage of shared memories, space and experiences. Michael, the last of the group, finally rouses himself from the bar couch, barks at the staff one final time and stumbles bleary-eyed into the morning. Constructed or not, there is no question that we have witnessed something real.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Christopher Machell@MachellFilm

#LFF 2020: Supernova review

Read Time:3 Minute, 18 Second


Full to the brim with sharp wit, emotional sincerity and overflowing with love, Supernova sees the star power of Colin Firth and Stanley Tucci align. Harry Macqueen’s sophomore feature is a slender, pitch-perfect human drama, whose script, direction and arguably career-best performances combine to heart-rending effect.

By no means the first exploration of dementia on film, Supernova once more asks the impossible question of how one mourns a loved one whilst they are still alive. How can preparations be made for when mind, body and spirit leave the vessel which others know and love; when recognition of faces, places and memories slowly slips away? Threatening to U-turn before they’ve even got going, we join Sam (Firth) and Tusker (Tucci) in their trusty camper van on the road, heading north.

“Why didn’t you let me pack for you?” Sam laments, whilst pointing out to his partner, desperately searching, that his reading glasses are on his head. Fiddling with the radio and arguing over whether to use the bossy, Thatcher-esque sat nav or stick with the old-fashioned road map, these two know how to push each other’s buttons. It’s affectionate, playful, but by no means cloying and all bark and no bite. Firth and Tucci hit the ground running with an ease in each other’s company onscreen that makes us believe they could well have been a couple for the many years that Sam and Tusker evidently have.

Forgetfulness and perhaps a lack of organisation may never have been strong points for Tusker throughout his life, but they are worsening now. Wandering off with the dog at a SPAR break and struggling with shirt buttons show signs of a condition accelerating, and it’s something of which both members of this couple are acutely aware. Macqueen’s script is economical, full of wry asides and stiff-upper-lip humour that, in the hands of such accomplished actors, leaves us wanting to laugh and cry simultaneously.

Not ignoring the elephant in the room, but with differing views on how to handle it, Sam and Tusker are more concerned about each other. Again, this selflessness could have played as cliched or trite, but Macqueen demonstrates a remarkable maturity in what is just his second directorial outing to reign in his own material. The determined stoicism of his two leading men catapult our emotions to another level as a result of underplaying the material, of making the best of an unspeakably bad situation. At the close quarters of their van and throughout, the unspoken communication between these actors – and the moments they each must take on their own – is astonishing.

Set in an autumnal Lake District, cinematographer Dick Pope revels in the beauty of a landscape that Sam and Tusker have not visited in a long time, and mercifully allows us the time to take a deep breath between the emotional intensity of close-ups elsewhere. And it is under the auspices of featuring at a piano recital to revive Sam’s long-lost career that Tusker has contrived this journey, one to which he alone knows the destination. At a weekend stay with old friends a dinnertime farewell will not leave a dry eye in the house, but there are practical steps for these two lovers to take and the ultimate decision to make.

Knowing when to say enough is enough is as much of a moral quandary for the filmmaker as his characters, and one that Macqueen handles with great care. Such is the elliptical strength and restraint of Supernova that it holds back, never fully exploding into light. But in spite of that, and from first to last, it shines ever so brightly.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Never Gonna Snow Again review

Read Time:2 Minute, 56 Second


All that glitters is not gold, but there is positivity to be found in radioactivity. Co-directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert, the haunting supernatural forces at work in Never Gonna Snow Again are elusive, inexplicable and yet perfectly in sync with reality.

They enter and alter the world in which they exist via the hands of Ukrainian immigrant and masseur, Zhenia (Alec Utgoff). Spending his days servicing the rich clientele of an affluent Polish suburb, he listens to and observes the trivialities of their upper-class lives, absorbing their woes and vices through extra-sensory fingertips. Defying pre-conceptions of health, wealth and happiness as well as stereotypes of people and place, this superb black comedy-cum-mystery is deftly crafted by a filmmaking duo on very top form.

Having previously collaborated on a number of projects in the capacity of writer (Englert) and director (Szumowska), they team up in jointly penning and helming Never Gonna Snow Again to create a piercing, and at times outrageously funny, satire on the showy emptiness of modern capitalist society. This is counterbalanced with an underplayed, profoundly affecting tale of one boy’s longing for his mother and the lasting shockwaves of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. Utgoff is hypnotic in the lead role. Dressed in a black vest, trousers and white socks while putting his magical hands to work, he both resembles and has the grace of a dancer in the muscled poise that he brings to his performance.

With an impressive physical sure-footedness, the use of frequent close-ups and a breaking of the fourth wall allow us to see past the stern exterior to the sadness of the lost soul that wanders below. Retreating from the grand, expensively decorated homes of his clients, Zhenia’s own modest apartment is sparse and dilapidated. One photo hangs on a wall – a distant, fading image of his mother, seen from behind. This is an image that he struggles to let go and a face that he fights to recall. Reframing the prejudicial treatment that inhabitants of Pripyat would have received, shunned for being contagious, Never Gonna Snow Again instead presents its leading man as a superhero.

The ill effects of being born seven years to the day before the disaster are turned into powers to heal, alleviate pain, stress. But there was one person whom he was unable to save. And therein lies the rub for Zhenia who instead puts his talents to good use in the everyday. An endless procession of cookie cutter homes with ever-increasingly pretentious doorbell rings, and housewives who lust after the handsome young man, Zhenia remains diffident, polite and – for the most part – detached from their affairs, drugs, drinking and neighbourly one-upmanship.

With the ability to slow down time (literally), make these people stop, think and change, is he able to fill the void in his own life? Returning to the woods from whence he came in the film’s evocative opening moments, the visions each person has under Zhenia’s hypnotic spell humble them, provide a life-affirming clarity which far outweighs an hour’s rub down. And as they stand in silence, contemplating the falling snow – or is it a heavy dust? – they come to realise that this phantom-like stranger has changed their lives forever and will never be forgotten.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Time review

Read Time:3 Minute, 24 Second


Positing the question of whether the principal objective of incarceration is punishment, rehabilitation or undue persecution, Garrett Bradley’s Time is another vital addition to a growing canon of films to pointedly critique the US legal and prison systems’ unjust treatment of people of colour.

If Ava DuVernay’s ground-breaking 2016 film, 13th, provided the macro, a sense of the weight of history and enormity of a nationwide issue, Bradley’s very impressive feature-length documentary debut is a microcosm that explores twenty years in the life of one family’s lived experience. No less stirring or moving than its far-reaching antecedent, the 80 minutes we spend with Sibil Fox Richardson and her sons amply covers a lifetime in the shadow of one fateful day in 1997. With a family of four boys, Sibil and husband Robert have a house and a budding clothing store of their own. Sibil’s firm belief in the American Dream – instilled in her by her mother – seemed to be paying off.

However, with the business not bringing in the money needed to provide for a growing family – Sybil pregnant again with twins – the decision to hold up a bank in Shreveport, Louisiana is a fork in the road that would forever change their course. “Desperate people do desperate things. It’s as simple as that,” says Sibil, who – given her pregnancy – took a plea deal of twelve years, serving three-and-a-half; Robert, refusing the plea, received sixty. Whilst there is no doubt as to culpability, it is the length of sentence which Sibil and Bradley’s film set in their sights. How and why can the state impose such a hefty penalty, and would the same punishment be meted out to a white offender?

This question is neither asked, nor answered explicitly, but the subtext is clear. Though there certainly is remorse for their actions, if not sympathy for the man behind bars, it is the effect of this void on his family where the heart, and hurt, of Time lies. The visual metaphors of empty frames, visions of clouds, woodland, and the changing of seasons bleached of their colour by monochrome photography resonates throughout.

Demonstrating both the lack of a full and fulfilled existence and the timelessness of this story – which will resonate with many families across the US – the black and white cinematography is seamlessly interwoven with years of camcorder footage taken by Sibil, so that Robert could see his sons grow up, though not be there with them. Playgrounds and fairgrounds, birthdays and first days are recorded for posterity, but are tinged with bitter poignancy.

And the sadness in all of the boys’ eyes speaks to the elephant in the room, which is their father’s absence from it. The squared aspect of the home video, and close-ups in more recent footage, isolate the Richardsons in a state of immobility, while the world continues to turn and lives move on around them. At the other end of telephones, court clerks and secretaries, secure in a steady 9 to 5 existence are polite but unhelpful. An infuriating lack of pro-activity in chasing the necessary paperwork or judgements to appeal Robert’s sentence, to bring him home, demonstrate the lack of empathy, of basic humanity which people, often women, in Sibil’s position have to fight from one day to the next, one year to the next.

It is in her unerring drive, determination and courage that hope is found here. The ability to raise such eloquent, hard-working and successful young men, ostensibly alone, against the odds is remarkable, and provides a face to statistics so easily glossed over. Home footage played in reverse at the film’s closing acknowledges that the past cannot be changed, but perhaps there is more reason to be positive, and even see the return of colour, for a brighter future.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Herself review

Read Time:3 Minute, 30 Second


A Dublin-set kitchen sink drama for the modern era, Phyllida Lloyd’s strong third feature, Herself, is as much an indictment of the grinding bureaucracy failing to house and protect women abused at the hands of their partners, as it is the men who inflict such despicable physical and psychological trauma.

Fans of social realism will be drawn to The Iron Lady and Mamma Mia! director’s latest film. It shares echoes of Leigh or Loach but avoids all-out desolation. And though a departure from the style and substance of Lloyd’s former projects, it shares the common ties of an exceptional female lead, flanked by a gifted ensemble cast. Clare Dunne (who spearheads the film superbly with a knife-edge performance of raw ferocity and fragility) plays Sandra, who after many years of living in fear of her violent husband, Gary (Ian Lloyd Anderson), finally leaves.

The brutal altercation that prompts this escape is witnessed by one of her daughters just as the other runs to the corner shop with a note for the owner to call the Guards. Internal flashbacks of this horrific moment will replay in Sandra’s mind, to the panic-stricken thumping of blood pumping in her ears, at several points as its shockwaves persist. Cinematographer Tom Comerford’s initially shaky, roaming camerawork speaks to her petrified state of mind as daily life – the school run, working two jobs and sticking to weekend visits with dad – must go on, even if she and the girls are forced to live in an airport hotel.

Taking to it with a commendable sense of adventure, though each of them showing signs of confusion and trauma themselves, the effect of this change of circumstances for sisters Emma and Molly is well handled by Lloyd. Thanks in large part to the tremendous performances given by Ruby Rose O’Hara and Molly McCann as the young siblings. Herself explores the extent to which the children of a broken home are used as pawns by sparring exes and somewhat overlooked by a court system short of both humanity and a grip on reality.

“Was there a reason you didn’t leave sooner?” a tone-deaf judge will ask late on in the film, demonstrating a lack of compassion and understanding of Sandra’s experience, and by extension the experience of many more. Avoiding too many cliches of making a house a home, it is a roof over their heads that is needed. With a three year wait list for council housing to contend with, Sandra takes matters into her own hands and decides to build her own. “Nobody does anything for nothing in this country,” says contractor Aido (Conleth Hill, on fine form), though he will soon be proven wrong.

A gift of land by Peggy (a wonderfully cantankerous, waspish Harriet Walter who swiftly mellows), whose house Sandra cleans, is a convenient but passable narrative segue. And joined by Aido, his son Francis (Daniel Ryan), who has Down’s Syndrome, and a band of willing volunteers, construction soon gets going. Although seeing Conleth Hill break into a building site song and dance routine would be a novelty, the musical montages of progress being made on the house are reigned in before becoming overly twee. 

Moments that veer a little too closely to the saccharine are drawn back to a very harsh reality late on, but Lloyd does well to balance the rough with the smooth throughout. Herself champions women supporting one another in the face of adversity, through shared knowledge and experience and the film is to be applauded for doing so. The strength that the multi-generational female cast possesses, in overcoming the challenges and injustices put in their way is as true in the film industry as it is onscreen here. Furthermore, Herself shows that a collective of people of many different nationalities and walks of life can come together to achieve something remarkable, and we need that kind of message of hope and reconstruction now more than ever.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Stray review

Read Time:3 Minute, 15 Second


The saying goes that in the movies you should never work with children or animals. Acclaimed documentary short filmmaker Elizabeth Lo proves the latter part of this old adage to be complete nonsense with her feature debut, Stray.

Following the freewheeling day to day life of dogs living on the streets of Istanbul, the initial novelty and intrigue of this extraordinary documentary broadens further to a profound meditation on how mankind treats our so-called best friends, and one another.

‘Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog.’ Citing the words of Diogenes, and thankfully paying no heed to those of W. C. Fields, Lo opens her film with a philosophical flourish. It’s a high brow beginning that is followed by a close up of one particular dog’s hind legs and rear end. It is Zeytin, whose expressive brown eyes, dancing eyebrows, gentle confidence and ferocious displays of strength when necessary that will be our vehicle, our point of view in this new world.  

She is the canine we will study for just over 70 minutes in order to learn how to better live less artificially and hypocritically. Not convinced? You will be by the end. With a running time as lean and nimble as she is, we hit the ground running with Zeytin, cross roads, play fight with pals, have more serious fights with others, chase cats, sniff bins for food, nap and stretch. It is an immersive, all-encompassing sensory experience and Lo’s ground-level, intimate camerawork (she takes production and editing credits as well) is extremely accomplished.  

Perhaps thanks to Zeytin’s daily interactions with so many unknown humans, the closeness and comfortability that Lo garners from her canine leading lady is quite incredible to behold. Far from a threat to the filmmaker or any of Lo’s fellow species, it is human kind’s projection of stereotypes regarding stray dogs that sours this urban playground. And in spite of a swell of strings, surge of action and positive energy when Zeytin, her pal Nazar and others coincide with a group of lads who care for them, the treatment the whole gang receives at the hands of others is callous.  

Taking shelter from the rain in a building site, huddled together for warmth, we will later learn that these young men are Syrian refugees and like their canine counterparts have been outcast to the margins of society and must look after themselves as best they can. Complaining of a lack of assistance from the government to process applications, and struggling to find food and shelter, the boys sniff glue to take the edge off sleeping rough. But caring for Zeytin, and later Kartal – a black and white pup they steal from near the beach, gives them purpose and a chance of affection amid such a harsh existence.  

‘The state has launched campaign after campaign to drive dogs from the streets, but still they roam free.’ The last of a number of intertitles comes from Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk. Outraged at the authorities’ persistent attempts to rid Istanbul of stray dogs, the people of the city protested to prevent this from happening. Yet, the suffering and desperate need of Syrian boys is ignored, and they are arrested for sleeping rough. Our care for one species and inhumane treatment of the other hangs in the air like fog as Stray draws to a close. Hearing a distant call to prayer, Zeytin answers with a repeated mournful howl. Study the dog we should, as we might just learn something.

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63

#LFF 2020: Programme preview

Read Time:3 Minute, 15 Second

Neither shaken nor stirred by the current climate, and rolling with this year’s seemingly unending string of punches with remarkable aplomb, the 2020 edition of the BFI London Film Festival will be unlike any that have preceded it. The big news is that this year’s terrific selection of the world’s best new films will be made available to cinema lovers right across the UK.

Whether you would still prefer to treat yourself to one of fifty-five online UK premières in the comfort of your own home or if you are keen to get out to see them on the big screen, there are a number of options open to you. Select cinemas in Manchester, Bristol, Glasgow, Nottingham, Sheffield, Belfast and Cardiff will all be showing films from the LFF programme along with several different venues in London: the Barbican, BFI Southbank, Ciné Lumière, Curzons Soho and Mayfair, ICA and Prince Charles Cinema. 

With events happening across the UK to mark Black History Month throughout October, the release of Steve McQueen’s Mangrove – and its selection as the Opening Night film of the festival – could not be timelier. One instalment of the five-part Small Axe anthology, it details the activism of the Mangrove 9 and their 1970 trial in the face of racism within the MET police; McQueen’s latest film is definitely not one to miss. Elsewhere, though the ongoing Covid pandemic has affected productions and delayed releases around the world, and there are fewer films playing at the festival in 2020, quality over quantity is definitely the name of the game.  

Each of the feature film strands again boast highlights from the best of British and films from around the world: standouts in the Laugh category are Miranda July’s Kajillionaire and Małgorzata Szumowska’s Never Gonna Snow Again; a bumper Journey section gives you a wealth of choice, including The Hunt director Thomas Vinterberg’s latest Another Round, Nomadland – for which director Chloé Zhao and the ever-magnificent Frances McDormand are already garnering plaudits – and for something completely different, Elizabeth Lo’s Stray.

Documentary fans are spoilt for choice by this year’s programme. Stray is just one of a formidable selection – make sure to also seek out The Reason I JumpThe Painter and the Thief, Fire At Sea director Gianfranco Rosi’s latest project NotturnoUltraviolence and Time. Covering all strands, there is undoubtedly something for all tastes and interests. For movie lovers in need of something bold, stirring or downright terrifying the Dare (Mogul MowgliShirleySiberia), Debate (200 Meters, One Man and His ShoesAfrican Apocalypse) and Cult (PossessorRelic) strands have you covered. And furthermore, there are old Treasures to re-discover and Family features as well as a wealth of ExperimentaShort Films and the immersive LFF Expanded.  

But it’s not all doom, gloom and seriousness, the BFI have got crippling heartbreak, angst and loss for you as well in spades in the Love strand! DaysCicadaHerselfLovers Rock and Supernova are all standouts, and it’s Francis Lee’s Ammonite – following his extraordinary God’s Own Country – starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan that will close the festival. All in all, there’s definitely enough to keep you busy over the coming weeks. So, take a break from Netflix and log in or get out to see some really great films this October. 

The BFI London Film Festival 2020 takes place from 7-18 October. bfi.org.uk/london-film-festival

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63