Thursday 11 November 2021

Babi Yar. Context (Sergei Loznitsa, 2021)

Babi Yar. Context was one of just two titles to fly the Dutch flag at last month's London Film Festival, the other being Paul Verhoeven's mildly outrageous Benedetta.  Cannes favourite Sergei Loznitsa—whose Den Haag-based production company Atoms & Void has been behind every one of the director's films from 2014's Maidan on—has quite a pedigree, with his past projects including Donbass, In the Fog and The Event.  Loznitsa is a filmmaker who's as at home with the documentary format as he is with drama, with Babi Yar. Context falling into the former category; as with the director's previous non-fiction efforts, the film mainly lets its footage speak for itself—although there are a smattering of title cards to signpost the way.  If you haven't read up on the film prior to watching it, the early stages might prove quite difficult to get a grip of, but it's not too long before Babi Yar. Context provides a bit of, well, context.     

Made with assistance from the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, Loznitsa's film takes a long, unblinking look at an atrocity that happened just over 80 years ago, when Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C massacred more than 33,000 Jews in Kiev's Babi Yar ravine. Like numerous horrors of WWII, the events of Babi Yar have largely remained out of public consciousness, but Sergei Loznitsa places us firmly in the centre of a nightmare as we witness civilians being brutalised for the duration of a journey that will culminate in their slaughter.  As appalling as this crime is, Babi Yar. Context mines much of its horror from something beyond the obvious: the indifference of many of Kiev's citizens, who carried on with their daily business as the bodies piled up. The apathy on display recalls the words of Albert Einstein: "The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything".

When the Nazis invaded Ukraine in 1941, many welcomed their presence; posters of Stalin were torn down, and Hitler was widely viewed as a great liberator.  Although the Red Army retook Kiev in late 1943, this was long after the executions at Babi Yar, which had since become the elephant in the room for locals understandably keen to brush over the atrocity that had taken place in their back yard.  Loznitsa doesn't shy away from showing us the victims of Babi Yar, and while no film exists of the actual killings, there's no shortage of footage of the endless mound of bodies scattered across the ravine.  Yet what is arguably Babi Yar. Context's most horrifying moment occurs when we are shown a dozen Nazi criminals being hanged in Kiev's packed main square; while we've already seen footage of the trials that preceded these executions, it does little to take the sting out of these graphic, distressing images.  The inclusion of such material is indeed a brave move, one that poses some very difficult questions; most viewers will be pleased to learn that these men were sentenced for their awful crimes—but how many will truly want to see the death penalty being carried out?             

While Babi Yar. Context cannot be described as an enjoyable experience, its real value lies in its assembling of this footage into a coherent whole, one which chronicles an event that has been all but erased from the history books.  The film is primarily of importance as a document of record, yet its director quite reasonably hopes that it also contains lessons for today and tomorrow.  Given its rather unusual content, Babi Yar. Context is a tough work to evaluate in typical terms, but the extremely worthwhile nature of the project eclipses any requirement for the film to entertain (or even engage) the viewer.  Some may wish for a little more in the way of commentary, but the film invites the viewer to read around the events of Babi Yar and other, similar atrocities.  Sergei Loznitsa's film makes for a chilling, sobering experience, and it operates firmly outside of our expectations of cinema—documentary or otherwise.   

Darren Arnold

Monday 1 November 2021

LFF 2021: The Stats

The 65th BFI London Film Festival closed with a star studded finale on Sunday, October 17, with the European Premiere of The Tragedy of Macbeth at new Festival venue the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall with director Joel Coen and key cast, including Frances McDormand, in attendance. Over the 12 days of the Festival, the new Headline Gala venue helped to localise a buzzing new cultural heart for the LFF just South of the river, alongside the BFI’s home at BFI Southbank. Every night saw vibrant red carpets with a truly dazzling array of international talents on stage as well as in the audience.

The Festival also had audiences back in cinemas over the 12 days with a fresh new model which included dual West End hubs in London, 10 partner cinema venues around the UK, a new live exhibition of Immersive Art and XR at Leake St, Waterloo, as well as virtual programmes of film and XR. There were 139.4k physical attendances at screenings, events and the LFF Expanded exhibition and 152.3K virtual attendances. The Opening Night Gala, The Harder They Fall, also simultaneously screened at 41 venues around the UK.

The 65th edition welcomed over 200 International and British filmmakers, XR artists and series creatives to present their work at venues across the capital. The Festival featured a fantastic range of 161 (includes 2 x Late Additions and the Surprise Film) feature films from both established and emerging talent and hosted 21 World Premieres, 7 International Premieres and 12 European Premieres and welcomed a stellar line up of cast and crew for many of the films. Films from 77 countries around the world; 39% of the programme from female and non-binary directors/creators or co-directors/creators with 40% made by ethnically diverse directors/creators.

This year, a new partnership with the Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall saw London’s South Bank become the heart of the film festival experience, with this iconic cultural neighbour hosting nightly red carpet gala premieres alongside flagship venue BFI Southbank. Films also screened across a number of other London venue partners and a selected programme was available to audiences at UK-wide cinema partners with a broad range of films from the programme also screening on BFI Player, alongside the in-cinema premieres.

Source/image: BFI