Report | The 55th BFI London Film Festival


The 55th BFI London Film Festival
October 12–27, 2011

Given the regularity of the London Film Festival, it is tempting to read each year’s offerings as cultural and political barometers. This year, the tumultuous times have provided us with some interesting films, whether meditating on the human cost of the Iraq war, documenting and contextualizing the Arab Spring, reflecting on the cynicism of the United States political process, or proposing an alternative set of political and social ideals.

Richard Jobson’s The Somnambulists (2012) is a collection of documentary portraits of British servicemen and women who served in Basra. Re-enacted by actors against a black theatrical background, each portrait gives a personal account of military service in Iraq. Invariably, each soldier’s account mentions someone closest to them, and the piece ends with a silent, black-and-white shot of the loved one in their everyday environment, often staring into the camera. The use of actors to deliver the soldiers’ portraits alongside real images of their relations appears puzzling at first, but a creeping realization dawns on the audience that these are re-enactments of dead soldiers’ stories, and that we have been scrutinizing the faces of those left behind. The profundity of grief and loss lingers long after the film ends.

The proliferation of cheap video technology has allowed every political struggle, protest, and demonstration to be documented. While generally a good thing (so long as repressive regimes do not use the footage to pick out dissenters as in the case of Burma a few years ago), these videos pose editorial challenges: How does one edit such films into coherent arguments and galvanizing rhetoric? Tahrir 2011: The Good, the Bad and the Politician (by Tamer Ezzat, Ayten Amin, and Amr Salama, 2011) appears to have overcome the problem by presenting documentation of the Egyptian people’s uprising, providing an insight into former President Hosni Mubarak’s internal security apparatus, and satirizing idiosyncratic traits of a particular dictatorship. Together, the three segments depict the context and strategies of political oppression and the uplifting triumph of the collective will for political freedom.

Perhaps a sign of disillusionment with President Barack Obama, George Clooney’s Ides of March (2011) is an entertaining study of the U.S. political machine. Starring Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Gosling as a young political strategist who learns the Machiavellian tricks of the trade, the film strikes a despairing tone about the amorality of politics. Its portrait of a Democratic presidential hopeful, played by Clooney, who publicly espouses liberal values but whose real concern is political survival, is unforgiving. Other forms of cynicism are evident in Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly (2010), a slapstick period comedy from Hong Kong where famous performers such as Chow Yun-Fat and Ge You sleepwalk toward their paychecks, oblivious to the embarrassment in which they collude.

Yet, tales of redemption abounded in the festival’s offerings. Sonthar Gyal’s The Sun-Beaten Path (2011) is a sparse road movie about a traumatized young man who finds his way home, thanks to the kindness of strangers. Andrew Haigh’s Weekend (2011) is a beautiful story of two men falling in love. Miranda July’s The Future (2011), a quirky tale told from the perspective of a very clever cat, gives an awkward, low-achieving couple a second chance at love. The film that perhaps most offered up hope, community, and humaneness as political ideals was Robert Guédiguian’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro (2011). The story of a working-class couple whose retirement holiday plans are scuppered by a violent attack, the film considers the ways in which one might live up to socialist ideals in today’s world. Unashamed of its politics and humanist values, The Snows of Kilimanjaro is reminiscent of the best of Jean Renoir’s oeuvre and affirmative of human kindness amid inhuman conditions.

Sharon Lin Tay is the author of Women on the Edge: Twelve Political Filmmakers (2009); co-curator of digital art exhibitions at the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival in Ithaca, New York; and senior lecturer in film at Middlesex University, UK.

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