Lesser-known delights:‌ A look at some easy-to-miss films at the London Film Festival

Published by Global Times

This year’s London Film Festival (LFF) wrapped up on Sunday with a US World War II feature, Fury, whose red carpet gala screening included the presence of Brad Pitt which, as expected, drew much attention and fanfare.

The previous night we had heard that Russia’s Leviathan won the best film award in the official competition and Ukraine’s The Tribe won the Sutherland award for best first feature. But I don’t intend to list the awards and stars, as it is customary, but to instead draw your attention to some of the lesser-known delights of this great festival which – since it happens after all the big names like Cannes, Sundance and Venice – ends up presenting the best of the best.

As all loyal festival-goers can tell you, the real delight of a festival is not to brush shoulder with the big names or see the big films but to have a rare opportunity of glancing at wonders of cinema from around the world; to see films that you otherwise would have never got to see.

If I was the judge, I would have crowned Abderrahmne Sissako’s Timbuktu as this year’s best. As the world watches the rise of ISIS with horror, it should have a look at what is perhaps the best cinematic treatment of international Jihadism. The Malian Sissako is a devout Muslim, as he reminded the audiences here, and precisely this lies at the root of his glance at the Jihadists. With his breathtaking vision, we watch to see just how alien these gun-totting foreigners are to the lives and traditions of people living in the north Malian desert. That these self-styled warriors of god need the help of multiple interpreters and that they often have to use English or French to communicate with one another is a stark reminder of their alien nature. They speak in the name of Islam, yet their “Islam” has nothing to do with the actual religion practiced in some of the most exalted Islamic institutions in the locality.

It is all the more fascinating that Sissako, who has proven himself to be a dean of African cinema, had previously treated a different set of foreign invaders of his homeland: His Bamako (2007) is about the intervention of World Bank officials. How similar these bankers are to Al Qaeda-inspired jihadists is an irony that should not be missed.

Among the 248 films at the festival, many small delights won’t make the headlines but will remain with those who watched them for years.

Take Zhanna Issabayeva’s Nagima From Kazakhstan. An austere and brutal tale of friendship between two orphans, cast on the margins of post-Soviet Kazakh society. Those following the cinema of the region will be struck by the similar themes: loneliness, helplessness and collapse of humanity. Sickfuckpeople, an Ukrainian documentary that I watched at Hot Docs 2013, comes to mind. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union has left a social desert and a host of human stories of despair and neglect that are aptly portrayed in its cinema.

Among the few Israeli films present, Dancing Arabs stood out with its tale about a forgotten part of the Jewish state: its more than 1 million Arab citizens. Based on a true story, it chronicles the life of one of these citizens, the son of a Palestinian militant, and his love for a Jewish classmate when he makes it to a prestigious art school in Jerusalem. Present in London with the film was the striking Lebanese-French actress Laetitia Eido who shines as the Palestinian mother in the film. Having already played roles in eight languages, Eido has shown a remarkable versatility that makes us only wonder at what path her career will take her.

On a totally different front, we had the Shrew’s Nest. This debut by a pair of Madrid film professors, Juander Andres and Esteban Roel, is a horror film set in post-Civil War Spain. It shows that while horror cinema has struggled to produce notable films in Hollywood, Spain maintains a rich depository for the genre. The directors told me that they borrowed as much from American classic horror as from the gothic tradition of Spanish cinema. Casting Macarena Gomez, who is well-known for sitcoms, as the main character in this gory film, they have bravely attempted to mix comedy with horror – and have succeeded in presenting us with a film that is both chilly and funny.

China, too, had many offerings in this year’s LFF. Much attention was paid to the Gala screening of the White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom, a big martial arts hit which cost 100 million yuan ($ 16 million) to make. Based on a well-known novel by Liang Yusheng, it will surely satisfy fans of martial arts but it will be hard to connect with for those not already accustomed to the exaggerations of the genre. Its technical prowess, however, shows just how much quiet progress the Chinese cinema industry has made in recent years.

But a true sign of this progress was the diverse array of Chinese films present.

Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land is a dark humor that re-lives the best of spaghetti westerns. Set in the north-western deserts of China, the main character is a big city lawyer representing a dangerous crime boss. Sergio Leone meets Coen brothers in the Gobi.

Then we had Diao Yinan’s Black Coal, Thin Ice which had already shone at Berlin, winning the Golden Bear there. An epic murder mystery spanning over five years, it features the classic tale of a cop obsessed with a serial killer.

Zhao Dayong’s Shadow Days had also premiered at Berlin. His documentary background has given this story of a cool urban couple who go back to their borderland rural home a strong sense of naturalism.

But perhaps the most illuminating Chinese film this year was Peter Ho-Sun Chan’s Dearest, a moving drama that treats the issue of child abduction in modern China and, along with it, much of the contradictions and complexities of a society that is often talked about in the West but usually not understood very well.

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