London Film Festival 2016 – Day 1 – SAFARI

October again and time for my brief trip to the London Film Festival. South of Doncaster the landscape through the train window gradually emerges out of green-grey mist, turning into that chilly but bright weather I associate with the festival, making walking between screenings a pleasure and an ice-cream-scoffing promenade along the South Bank between films a possibility. I have a particular fondness for the area in front of the old County Hall, where once a friend and I came upon Hitchcock directing the retrieval of a ‘necktie murder’ corpse from the Thames for Frenzy.

Turns out there will be no such brushes with the great this time. Most years come up with at least one masterpiece – last year Aferim!, 2014 P’tit Quinquin. But I’m ever hopeful, and set off from King’s Cross en route for my first film, pausing for a sustaining Laksa at the splendid C&R Malaysian cafe in Rupert Court . Wonderful though the taste is, I like this dish as much for its colours – bright yellow broth with red flecks of chilli decked with vibrant green slivers of cucumber and spring onion, with pure white fishballs and mysterious cream-coloured presences (chicken, rice vermicelli, and spongy dumplings) lurking in its depths.  Structured like a good film. My son and I set off to the Mall for the ICA, our stomachs well battened down for what promises to be a queasy watch.

You always approach an Ulrich Seidl film with some trepidation, and Safari, in which he turns his relentless eye on his fellow Austrian big-game hunting tourists, promise to be challenging. Hunting, from political, environmental and moral perspectives, is actually an easy subject to be shocked about, but with Seidl it’s never that straighforward. A family of four posh recreational hunters, two sun-toughened parents and their callow excited young folk, talk of their love of the ‘sport’, the merit of their weapons, their justifications for hunting, their admiration for the animals, and we see them led by a white guide to prime spots where they can easily find the quarry of their choice. It could be an eland, a zebra (the young lad specially likes them), a giraffe, even… they speak with longing of elephants, but it looks like even this very upmarket ranch baulks at that. Driven and then helped along with their huge gun paraphernalia, they’re set up and instructed by the guide, who also steadies the tripod for them or buffers their arm. It usually takes a couple of shots, but once the guide has verified the death they advance to gaze on their good work, going through an odd ritual of placing grass inside the mouth, raising the head on a stone, and posing for pictures, after a merry ‘Hunter’s Hail!’ (an upmarket  high five) is given to the proud killer. Quite what their joy can be founded on can only be the killing itself, since little skill is apparent, nor tracking skills nor, certainly, bravery, and this is what is perhaps the most shocking. They talk about it as if it’s a  kind of love.

While the hunters are taken back to their well-appointed lodgings, the native workers move in, to get the body back and prepare it, expertly skinning off the pelt and dismembering. They appear to feast on the less-presentable bits later. And the presentation of these black workers is problematic – they show a kind of skill and resilience absent in the hunters, in fact there’s a kind of pleasure in watching their expert skinning moves, but they do not speak, and are shown in a exactly the same distancing way. Is this a statement about oppression and colonialism? Or is it actually denigrating them to the level of dumb victims themselves, or showing them as a kind of romantic Unknown?

Elsewhere a stout pair of pensioners sunbathe, drink, and recite the prices of various prey from a list, more comical than threatening – am I right in thinking this couple also appeared in their own domestic setting 2 years ago in Seidl’s In The Basement? These two in particular appear in his trademark icy style, symmetrical, still, warts and all, bold-facedly confronting the camera as if they don’t know the director’s intentions, or don’t care, rather like the poor giraffe later who pops up his amiable face to watch the gun setting up to shoot him. You can see why Seidl is interested in hunting – it’s what he does himself.


Fish Tank

There’s quite some excitement about Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, out today. Here’s my review of her earlier feature, Fish Tank, from 2009, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes that year.

The people at the bottom of the pile in twenty first century Britain don’t get much of a look in on the big screen at the moment, other than as objects of fear or pity. Many people in Britain would refer to 15 year-old Mia (Katie Jarvis), the central figure of this film, as a chav. Sullen and solitary, she lives on an unprepossessing estate near the Thames Estuary (sorry, that’s Thames Gateway in today’s Britain) where banks of windows showing elements of the lives inside resemble the shelves of fish tanks in a pet shop. Her mother is still young, dressing like her teenage daughter and getting what she can out of life, including bringing home the occasional boyfriend. Mia is moody and apparently friendless, in trouble at school, her only passion dancing, which she does alone in her room to her music player. It takes a while to warm to her, helped along by a maybe over-symbolic episode where she tries to liberate a tethered horse at a Gypsy site.

Then there’s a breath of fresh air. Mother’s latest boyfriend is a charming Irish bloke (Michael Fassbender) with wider horizons, whose warmth begins to thaw the frigid relationships within the family. He takes them out into the fresh air, and they blossom into the image of a proper family. You are reminded how seeing people happy makes us like them. Someone at last believes in Mia and encourages her in her aspirations, but the halcyon period is shortlived and everything soon turns bad.

After a bleak denouement by the salt creeks of the Thames, the film ends with an escape into the unknown, Mia’s peeling herself free from her mother and the risk of sinking into the same life, beautifully encapsulated in a little dance they do together. It’s unexpected and moving.

Andrea Arnold’s unorthodox filming method unveiled the plot, shot chronologically, scene by scene to the actors, which partly accounts for its freshness and credibility. Katie Jarvis in her first ever acting role (apparently spotted on a station platform rowing with her boyfriend) as Mia is a marvellous find, and special mention must go to young Rebecca Griffiths as Mia’s sparky little sister, Tyler.

Mia isn’t, like Billy Elliot, specially talented in a field that will remove her safely from her class and make her acceptable, nor is her story removed from our present into the safety of the past. She is now. Like Ken Loach with Billy Casper in Kes, Arnold uses film brilliantly to see into the soul of a young person disregarded and put down by mainstream society, helped by a potent sense of place. It’s at times a hard film to watch, but not without humour, absorbing, and important.

Seen at Cinema Days, Odeon, Nuneaton, June 2009


The Idol

Hany Abu-Assad

It starts out as a fairly hackneyed tale, little kids getting together to form a band. There’s larky dashing through streets and across the beach, feisty self-promotion and bold-faced acquisition of instruments, the euphoria of youth, the tomboy Nour (Heba Attaallah) defying her gender at the heart of it all. They have some success, but tragedy strikes and they break up and go their separate ways.

But this is different. The streets they dance along are bombed out, their practice sessions are dogged by power outages, and they deal with hardcore criminal smugglers. The freerunning, so full of the joy of life, is over a ruined townscape.  We’re in Gaza.  This is the true story of Mohammed Assaf, who against all odds became the first Palestinian winner of Arab Idol, the pan-Arab equivalent of our Western versions.  If the sweetness of the first half of the film becomes a little cloying, hold on, for this is Hany Abu-Assad, director of Paradise Now and Omar, who of all film makers has shown western audiences the true sombre reality of life in Palestine. And in the end he doesn’t disappoint.

Now grown up, Mohammed (Dima Awawdeh) takes up his singing again, and remembering Nour he determines to try for the contest. When his audition over Skype fails because their emergency generator bursts into flames, it seems as if the forces against him have won in every way, but Mohammed confronts the dangerous conundrum faced by any normal citizen needing to leave the country for a legitimate reason, and arrives against the odds in the other world of luxury hotels and lives where pure survival isn’t always the constant preoccupation. And somehow this basically silly contest becomes meaningful and, even knowing the result, we care so much for his success that the ending feels personal.   Abu-Assad’s masterstroke is to cut to the real footage of the singer, the final minutes of the programme, and newsreel of the thousands of Palestinians watching from home in ruined public places and threadbare living rooms to see a small vindication of their existence in the world.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, September

Hell or High Water

David Mackenzie

It looks like a Western. The two protagonists wear cowboy hats and rob banks. The landscape is dry, scrubby, a beige monotone, a big sky. There are guns, oh yes. But still everything is changed. The machismo and the myth has gone out of it. The one-horse towns are scrappy dead places. The cowboys ride in clapped out cars. Native Americans have intermarried with other disadvantaged groups, their once proud names now a synonym for gambling halls.

The ramshackle Harvey farm, in arrears to the bank, has become suddenly worth something, after oil, that other Texas staple, was found, and the bank are greedy to repossess it. So divorced father of two sons Toby (Chris Pine), who has spent the last months caring for their dying mother there, has summoned jailbird brother Tanner (Ben Foster) to help save his sons’ legacy and pay off the debts, somehow. The plan is small-scale robberies, till contents only, of the small branches of the bank that’s doing them over. A decent man, Toby  is ill at ease and reluctant – it’s not admirable, smacking elderly bank employees and frightening women, but pretty harmless. But the hardbitten Tanner doesn’t like to stick with plans.

Officer Marcus (the inimitable Jeff Bridges) is slightly wearied by the prospect of catching these petty criminals. Bridges is as crusty and laid back as you’ve ever seen him, dreaming of and dreading his imminent retirement, joshing his native American/Mexican sidekick Alberto (Gil Birmingham) with wry casual racist chat which disguises the real bond between the two.  All four central performances are stellar, understated, full of painful melancholy but often funny too – though it’s hardly the caper movie some of the film’s publicity inexplicably suggests. I haven’t felt so troubled and involved in a hold up since Dog Day Afternoon. Chris Pine in particular shows what fine acting he is capable of. But the acting quality extends down the line too , to Katy Mixon as a warm-hearted waitress who in one of the most poignant moments of the film offers Toby an impossible chance of comfortable normality, and the splendid veteran Margaret Bowman providing light relief with a ‘diner’ scene to rank with the best.

The demise of the west – at best always a flattering heroic gloss on a fairly dreadful period of history – is also a token of what has happened to America, the western world, even. You took everything from us, as Alberto the half-Native American officer says, and now they are taking everything from you, as he gazes out over the bleak street where elderly women shuffle past cheap chain stores. The banks, money, rule. The contrast between the deep and decent impulses of the characters and the world in which they have to operate is painful.  And it all ends, as you thought it might, in desperation on a dusty hillside under the Texas sun. You won’t see a better American film all this year.

Seen at Tyneside Cinema, September