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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Part Two: Alienation and Togetherness

Clare Dunne and Molly McCann appear in Herself by Phyllida Lloyd, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

It seems that despite the imposing COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 BFI London Film Festival will kick off with in-person screenings on the 7th of October. The virtual press screenings commenced a few days earlier on October 2nd with screenings of Honeymood, Mogul Mowgli, The Disciple and The Painter and the Thief. It remains to be seen how the restrictions will impact the festival proper once it begins, but its online life extends to virtual screenings available to the public as well as the advance press and industry ones.

Stray

Human beings live artificially and hypocritically and would do well to study the dog… – Diogenes of Sinope, 360 BC

As virtual critics’ screenings for the 2020 BFI London Film Festival resumed on October 5th, the familiar Dogwoof distributor logo—which seems to appear before every documentary I see—has never felt more apt than introducing the canine documentary Stray. Equal parts social realist drama, nature documentary, and silent-era city symphony, the directorial debut of filmmaker Elizabeth Lo follows a pack of feral dogs living on the streets of Istanbul.

Owing to the nation’s policy against euthanising or holding captive any feral dog—a privilege we shall see can sometimes be greater than that extended to humans—Istanbul has an unusually high number of strays, accorded a degree of amused and affectionate tolerance by the locals. Shot between 2017 and 2019, the central subject is the female mutt Zeytin, who on her exploration of the city, crosses paths with adorable puppy Kartal and sometime lover Nazar, with whom, in a moment of comic spontaneity, she finds herself mating in the middle of a women’s rights march.

However, the role of humans in the film is not restricted to bystander status, as through their interactions, the film begins to also subliminally follow both a team of dog-loving construction workers and a group of Syrian teenage refugees. This latter group spends their days playing with the dogs, hanging out on a construction site sniffing glue, and waiting for their citizenship paperwork to come through. Through these groups, the beginnings of a story do develop, and the dogs become more the keyhole through which we gain a glimpse of the bottom rungs of Turkish society, in a way that neither romanticises nor dictates.

Despite the flea-on-the-wall style, the film is broken up—by way of chapter headings—by the ruminations of antiquity’s great dog lover Diogenes of Sinope, whose reflections on the simplicity of a dog’s life initially add more humour than they do profundity. The film also includes an often elegiac score by Ali Helnwein, which accentuates the free-flowing intimacy of the camerawork; in some scenes, the cameras are clandestinely mounted on the dogs themselves. Some moments seemed almost to lean on the diegesis of documentary somewhat, as Lo’s camera seems almost impossibly invisible at times.

It must be said that at even a mere 72 minutes, the film’s concept does stretch itself, but it never becomes a trying watch thanks to the alternately playful, thoughtful and philosophical tone. Clearly, a monumental amount of footage was shot in order to realise the premise and fabricate it into a legible narrative and the filmmakers are to be applauded for the end result being as rich and engaging as it is.

Shadow Country

Stray was then followed by Czech black and white historical drama Shadow Country, shot in director Bohdan Slama’s home village, which follows a rural community through decades of wartime unrest between 1938 and 1952. When Germany annexed a portion of Czechoslovakia, many financially struggling German-speaking Czechs in the neighbouring villages sought further German expansion, seeking the prosperity Hitler promised. Meanwhile, many other Czechs, including the Jewish population, were naturally wary of occupation.

In such a scenario, we find the inhabitants of a small village in gathering disarray. When pressured by his Nazi sympathising sister, farmer Karel registers his Czech wife with the occupying authorities as German, he unwittingly sows the seed for the ruin of his household in the years to come. Many characters in Shadow Country make similar moral compromises, some through convenience or greed, but most through fear or anger. The occupation itself is pushed through in the lengthy film’s first hour, with the remainder of the runtime devoted to the period of reconstruction and retribution after the war, portrayed as the bloodier and more unjust period.

Many films have ruminated on the ethical treatment of those deemed war criminals, but in the case of Shadow Country, they are all civilians, misled or cowed into submission by force once before, while the most opportunistic are found doling out injustice on both sides. Shadow Country portrays its brutal events with a moral irrelativism, in which actions are the sole measure of a person’s humanity, and not affiliation.

The aesthetic strategies of Shadow Country recall films such as Cold War or The White Ribbon, with stark, brutalist monochrome showing up the many shades of moral greyness in its story, accentuated by the sinister electronic score. The film charts the vile course of history in a similar manner to Roberto Rossellini’s post-war masterpiece Two Women, largely from the perspective of its female characters, who are generally the film’s most central figures and easily the most sympathetic. There are even faint echoes of the historicism of Doctor Zhivago, albeit in a more fine-grain way focusing on a single community.

Some might well take issue with the way the film skirts past the horrors committed by the Third Reich while lingering over those committed by the new reconstructionist regime. However, looked at as a piece of national cinema, directed inwards at the Czech Republic itself, the film’s objectives become clearer. These are the crimes which the people of this nation must reflect on.

Shadow Country is unquestionably a ruthless and demanding watch, often exceptionally frustrating, and with the barest suggestions of hope or warmth. There is a degree of urgency to its themes though, with much of the world once again facing down the hateful policy of might makes right, where the most ruthless and uncompromising voices often hold the most sway. It is indeed a successful film that accomplishes its harsh goals, but its outward coldness will keep all but the toughest viewers at bay.

Herself

However, out of material little less bleak, Herself, the newest film from director Phyllida Lloyd (Mamma Mia! and The Iron Lady) crafts a film that is no less powerful, yet warm, thoughtful and affectionate. Following a brutal assault from her boyfriend, single mother Sandra resolves to set up a new life for herself and her two daughters. From her temporary accommodation in an airport hotel, and in between working jobs as a cleaner and a barmaid, she decides that if the council won’t find her somewhere to live, she will build one herself, and sets about erecting a small self-built house with the help of her new friends.

The script from theatre actor Clare Dunne, who also stars as Sandra, has the keenly observed emotional authenticity of one who knows her subject well, and her performance is stunningly moving and raw. She’s also supported by phenomenal turns from those around her. Game of Thrones Conleth Hill is unrecognisable, and Harriet Walter is terrific as the avuncular builder and grouchy landowner who support Sandra though the project. However, it’s Molly McCann and Ruby Rose O’Hara who very nearly steal the show as Sandra’s young daughters Molly and Emma, giving a kind of believability and emotional openness one rarely finds in adult performers.

The film does a sterling job of handling its themes and portraying the situation in as respectfully sympathetic and morally outraged a manner as possible, making it feel uncomfortably real and tangible. However, despite the grittiness of the potentially bleak subject matter, the feelgood musicality of Lloyd’s Mamma Mia! persists, through the inclusion of some of the pop singer Sia’s most robust anthems. One moment takes David Guetta’s “Titanium” and turns it on a scene that recalls nothing so much as the barn-raising scene from Witness.

Clare Dunne in Phylidia Lloyd's phenomenal film Herself
Clare Dunne and Molly McCann appear in Herself by Phyllida Lloyd, ‘Courtesy of Sundance Institute.’

Herself will be undeniably triggering for many of those with personal experience of domestic violence. However, it ultimately emerges as a beautifully touching and inspiring journey of love healing and support, that will be accessible to most audiences without diluting the seriousness of its important subject matter one iota. Like the widely celebrated Rocks, Herself takes tough, serious social issues head-on. Yet, manages to somehow be one of the most uplifting and inspiring films of the year, without feeling even the tiniest bit flippant or shallow in its approach. It’s slated for a home release on the 16th of October and it deserves to be seen, loved and admired by as wide an audience as possible.

Siberia

The most recent collaboration between director Abel Ferrara and lead actor Willem Dafoe, following Pasolini and Tommasino, and coming to London following its premiere at the Berlin festival, Siberia is a trying vision quest of a film that leaves an abiding feeling of its own lack of substance. After an opening where protagonist Clint (Dafoe) relates a childhood story over a black screen as the credits roll, the audience is properly introduced to the situation such as it is. Clint is an innkeeper at a rustic bar deep in the frozen north, who spends his days serving up rum to passing locals, with whom he hasn’t a single word in common tongue, and daydreaming vivid fantasies, which the audience is made a party to.

From here the film proceeds to present a series of fantasised vignettes, starting with simple fancies, like Clint being suddenly mauled by a bear, making love to a pregnant young woman, or witnessing an inexplicable subterranean sunrise before evolving into more involved and honestly wearying territory. Disturbed by these visions, Clint takes his dog team out into the stunningly photographed blue-tinged wilds to confront them.

What follows is a spiritual journey out of which you take only what you can scrape together to put in, and sadly, I feel nothing more. Many of these visions on his spirit quest revolve around Clint’s father, also played by Dafoe, and his wife and son, of whom we get only the briefest and most ironic sketches. Some of these delirious musings are individually quite diverting. However, the film itself never comes through with a strong narrative or coherent set of thematic statements to hang them upon. It’s an inscrutable, vain and shallow picture, the more of which I understood, the less I cared to see as its simplest moments are often the most rewarding.

The short running time keeps the film from becoming too tiresome, but it does little to reward the viewer however short a time commitment it makes of itself, with Dafoe seeming as lost in the central role as his character is. No doubt a certain crowd will paw over it delightedly, but I wasn’t terribly convinced by its jabs at either profundity or comic absurdism.

A Day Off of Kasumi Arimura

Rounding off the day’s viewing was A Day Off of Kasumi Arimura, not a film at all, but rather the first episode of an eight-part Japanese serial from celebrated director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Hot off the success of his Palme d’Or winner Shoplifters and his English/French language debut The Truth, Kore-eda presents a typically reserved and intimate drama following a fictionalised version of actor and star Kasumi Arimura (When Marnie Was There). Like many of Kore-eda’s films, the short focuses on the moment of familial reunion, as Arimura takes advantage of an unexpected day-off to pay a surprise visit to her mother (Jun Fubuki), stumbling upon a shocking family revelation in the process.

Gently unfolding to the strains of a wistfully plucked guitar, it’s as peaceable, thoroughly charming, and beautifully understated as any of Kore-eda’s cinematic works, containing the same cycles of unspoken familial tension and renewal. A Day Off of Kasumi Arimura is a perfectly touching little hearthside watch, summoning the warm, familial comfort of itchy knitwear as the nights drawn in and the air takes on a chill.

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Written by Hal Kitchen

A reviewer of music and films, I am a graduate of the University of Kent Canterbury where I have a 1st class BA in Liberal Arts and will soon have an MA in Film, specializing in film and gender theory. Whilst at Kent I was the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and run a Letterboxd account. I joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020.

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