Monday 10 June 2024

Queendom (Agniia Galdanova, 2023)

Jenna Marvin, a queer artist from a small town in Russia, dresses in otherworldly costumes and protests the government on the streets of Moscow. Born and raised on the harsh streets of a frigid outpost of the Soviet gulag, Jenna stages radical and dangerous performances in public to change people's perception of beauty and queerness and bring attention to the harassment of the LGBTQ+ community. Queendom is a breathtaking portrait of creative courage. "I’m proud and excited to share this important coming-of-age story of this fearless artist Jenna Marvin who celebrates queerness and fights Putin's regime," states director Agniia Galdanova. "Her art is unique, rebellious, and hopeful, while her life story is urgently timely."

Queendom is produced by Agniia Galdanova and Igor Myakotin with executive producers Jess Search, David France, Arnaud Borges, and James Costa. It is a Galdanova Film production in association with Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, International Documentary Association, InMaat Productions, Doc Society, and Sopka Films. Greenwich Entertainment's Andy Bohn negotiated the acquisition with Submarine's Ben Schwartz on behalf of the filmmakers. The film received its World Premiere at SXSW, followed by screenings at numerous festivals including BFI London Film Festival and International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). Greenwich will release the award-winning film in cinemas and everywhere you rent films on June 14, 2024.

Source: DMAG PR

Images: BFI

Monday 3 June 2024

Four Daughters (Kaouther Ben Hania, 2023)

Earlier this year, acclaimed filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania's Four Daughters (Arabic: Banāt Olfa; French: Les Filles d'Olfa) fell slightly short in its bid to win the Oscar for best documentary feature.  Ben Hania is no stranger to the Academy Awards, as her 2020 narrative film The Man Who Sold His Skin was nominated for best international feature; centring on a Syrian man who went to desperate lengths to reach Brussels, the film was based on a bizarre true story and starred Monica Bellucci and Belgian actor Koen de Bouw.  The Man Who Sold His Skin would eventually lose the Oscar race to Thomas Vinterberg's excellent Druk (AKA Another Round), and Four Daughters also faced some stiff competition in March when it came up against Maite Alberdi's The Eternal Memory, Christopher Sharp and Moses Bwayo's Bobi Wine: The People's President, Nisha Pahuja's To Kill a Tiger, and eventual winner 20 Days in Mariupol.

Four Daughters'  Dutch premiere took place in January, when it played in International Film Festival Rotterdam's Limelight strand, which also included such titles as Bertrand Bonello's The Beast, Sean Durkin's The Iron Claw and James Nunn's One More Shot.  This year, the Limelight section opened up its scope beyond Rotterdam, with audiences in Arnhem, Groningen, Maastricht and Den Bosch getting the chance to catch an advance screening of a film from the strand's eclectic selection.  Ben Hania's film focuses on a Tunisian family headed by single mum Olfa Hamrouni, who, as per the title, has four daughters.  In the wake of the First Arab Spring (which began in Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the uprisings), Olfa's two eldest girls—Rahma and Ghofrane—were radicalised and left home for a jihadist training camp in Syria.  Understandably, this left a huge hole in the lives of Olfa and her other two daughters, Eya and Tayssir.

In Four Daughters, actresses Nour Karoui and Ichraq Matar respectively take the roles of Rahma and Ghofrane, while Eya and Tayssir play themselves as events from the four girls' past are restaged for the camera.  While this is all quite straightforward—in essence, the sisters are joined by proxies for their absent siblings—matters get much cloudier when it comes to the mother's part in the film: even though Olfa is still very much present in the family home, she too is played by an actress (Hend Sabry), but the real Olfa is always ready to interrupt a scene when she feels it isn't playing out as she remembers.  It's suggested early on that Sabry's function is to act in those episodes which are too painful for Olfa to relive, although Eya and Tayssir are afforded no such safety net.  Given its slippery mix of fact and fiction, some may have been slightly surprised to see Four Daughters nominated for the best doc Oscar—it is certainly more of a docudrama than a strict documentary—but on balance it is fair to say that the film always has reality at its core.

As formally interesting as it is sincere, Four Daughters is sadly lacking when it comes to providing genuine insight into why these two girls decided to join Daesh; in this regard, Benedetta Argentieri's The Matchmaker—which documented the story of student Tooba Gondal, who left London to link up with ISIS in Syria—offered a more compelling look at the radicalisation of young women.  With her novel setup established, Kaouther Ben Hania appears wary of doing anything that could upset the metafictional apple cart, and the upshot is that the form eclipses the content.  But the quasi-family dynamic presented here is both moving and undeniably impressive, and there is much to like about the ways in which the performers interact with Olfa and her two remaining daughters.  Surprisingly, given its grim subject matter, Four Daughters is not without humour, and several of the reënactments elicit genuine laughter from all involved.  Yet no amount of hilarity can obscure the keen sadness at the heart of this fitfully engaging film.

Darren Arnold

Images: Jour2Fête

Thursday 16 May 2024

1st MIFF (30/5/24–2/6/24)

The inaugural edition of MIFF runs May 30th–June 2nd in London’s Leicester Square. Championing the narratives of international Muslim filmmakers and highlighting their compelling stories, the Muslim International Film Festival is also a platform for productions inspired by Muslim culture and faith, embracing filmmakers of all backgrounds. At a time of polarised public opinion and a prevalence of negative portrayals of Muslims in the mainstream media, MIFF has arrived on the international film festival circuit with a mission to celebrate and amplify the diverse voices that explore the rich tapestry of Muslim experiences via the medium of film. 

This first edition showcases the breadth of Muslim storytelling with premieres of acclaimed new features set throughout the world including the UK, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, Jordan, and Sudan. MIFF is supported by UK Muslim Film (UKMF), a charity working to change perspectives by championing underrepresented talent and voices, both onscreen and behind the camera. UKMF recently worked as cultural consultants with C4’s comedy drama Screw, ITV’s Good Karma Hospital, C4’s Hollyoaks, and Columbia Pictures’ Ghostbusters: Frozen Empire, ensuring that cultural and faith-based aspects of storylines are portrayed accurately. 
Sajid Varda, Festival Director of MIFF says: “We’re absolutely thrilled to bring this festival to London, where we’re on a mission to weave together cultures through the magic of cinema. MIFF is not just a festival; it’s a vibrant celebration of cultures and stories from across the Muslim world, providing a spotlight on talented emerging and seasoned filmmakers from all corners of the globe. As we bring together the film industry and filmmakers alike, our line-up features some of the most courageous and creative minds – each one bringing their A-game to the big screen. These are stories that pack a punch, that resonate deep within, and remind us that there’s more that unites us than divides us.”
The 1st MIFF opens with the London premiere of Belgian co-production Hounds. A multi-award winner including Un Certain Regard Jury Prize at Cannes, it portrays a father and son in the suburbs of Casablanca who get by on petty crimes for a local mob. Acclaimed supernatural drama Behind the Mountains sees a man who violently breaks free from his banal environment, evading society with its principles, codes and institutions. A multi award-winner at festivals including Cannes and Red Sea International Film Festival, Inshallah a Boy (pictured above) sees a widow pretend to be pregnant with a son to save her daughter and home from a relative exploiting Jordan’s patriarchal inheritance laws.

Image: BFI

Wednesday 8 May 2024

IFFR: Hubert Bals Fund Announces HBF+Europe Titles

The Hubert Bals Fund (HBF) of International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) has announced the ten co-productions awarded €60,000 each through its HBF+Europe support schemes, with eight supported for co-production and two for post-production. The selection comes with a strong commitment to emerging talent, supporting a majority of first or second time feature filmmakers and covering a wide geographical spread, with filmmakers from Singapore, Turkey, Lebanon, Chile, Tunisia, Mexico and Argentina. 

Tamara Tatishvili, Head of the HBF: “While demonstrating an impressive range of artistic approaches, all the projects in this selection call for the need to make our world a better place. Each production team follows a complex path to bring projects to fruition, and in cases like the two supported projects from Argentina, these funds will prove crucial to realising ambitious, artistically driven work. I am proud to make the HBF part of these strong collaborative efforts between international producers and selected filmmakers.”

The topic of migration is present throughout the selection, notably in Love Conquers All; Marie & Jolie similarly deals with movements of people. Bruno Santamaría presents a 90s-set story in Seis meses en el edificio rosa con azul; another period tale is Hijas únicas. The ghosts of the Paraguay War haunt the community in El mundo es nuestroOlivia tackles the theme of disappearance; Agora is the second project supported for post-production. One of the eight projects selected for Co-production Support must remain anonymous.

Two of the projects selected are Netherlands co-productions, both debut features. As Shadows Fade by Turkish filmmaker Burcu Aykar is a poetic, multilayered narrative that deals with queer issues and women’s liberation in 1990s Turkey, and is co-produced by Amsterdam’s Isabella Films. Set in an all-girls school in Singapore, Amoeba by Siyou Tan is supported for the third time by the HBF, following development and NFF+HBF funding, and is co-produced with Rotterdam’s Volya Films. 

Source/images: IFFR

Wednesday 1 May 2024

Beyond the Raging Sea (Marco Orsini, 2019)

Beyond the Raging Sea follows the harrowing tale of Egyptian adventurers Omar Nour and Omar Samra (Team O2) as they take on the Talisker Atlantic Challenge, an unsupported 3,000 nautical mile journey from the Canary Islands to Antigua.  After two years of preparation, with little open water experience, Team O2 embark on the world’s toughest row. Sponsored by DHL, and in collaboration with UNHCR and UNDP, they dedicated their journey to the displaced people who face peril crossing dangerous seas.

On Day 9, 600 miles into their journey, disaster strikes when Team O2 is hit by 45-knot winds and 8-metre waves that cause their boat to capsize. As they struggle to maintain their grip on a barely inflated life raft, Samra and Nour face the same dangers and decisions as the refugees they seek to aid, in this daring true-life rescue story. A survival story of epic proportions, Beyond the Raging Sea is a gripping first-person account of that experience narrated by those who lived it, capturing what they endured, what they felt and what it meant.

Beyond the Raging Sea was written and directed by Marco Orsini, whose Gray Matters screened as part of Design Museum Brussels' 2022 CineDesign programme. He is the writer, director and producer of seven acclaimed documentaries. Starting his career in television in the 90s, Marco produced 60+ hours of primetime programming for US and South American markets before turning his talents to writing and directing. His award-winning films and scripts have been translated into French, Japanese, Arabic, Italian, Mandarin and Spanish.

Omar Nour is an entrepreneur and retired professional triathlete. He represented Egypt on the Olympic triathlon circuit from 2010–2017. In business, he is the co-founder of VENTUM—a performance bike company—and the founder and chairman of Enduro Supply. Omar Samra is an adventurer, mountaineer, entrepreneur, inspirational speaker and future astronaut. He is the first Egyptian to climb Mount Everest and the Seven Summits and ski to both the geographic south and north poles (the Explorers Grand Slam).

Source: Springer Associates PR

Images: Ben Duffy

Tuesday 16 April 2024

IFFR: RTM Pitch Winner / Dates for 2025

With IFFR 2025 confirmed to take place from Thursday 30 January to Sunday 9 February 2025, International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) has announced the winner of its latest RTM Pitch. Bubbling, a cultural movement fusing dance, rhythm and electronic music born out of Rotterdam’s Afro-Caribbean community in the 1990s, is the focus of a documentary project awarded a grant of €20,000 by IFFR together with the municipality of Rotterdam. Filmmaker Sharine Rijsenburg will explore Bubbling culture as having both a deep imprint on the city’s identity whilst being simultaneously undervalued. As the winner of the RTM Pitch, the project will receive expert guidance and aims to premiere at IFFR 2025.

Sharine Rijsenburg: “For me, Bubbling Baby is a film about how we in Rotterdam, as a multicultural metropolis, celebrate, remember and appreciate our night culture. The Bubbling subculture shows a history that has helped shape Rotterdam’s identity, yet has remained invisible. With this film, I want to celebrate and make known the value of this cultural heritage.” The film will explore the impact of Bubbling, and more broadly Black culture, on Rotterdam’s identity. Using an Afrofuturistic aesthetic, Bubbling Baby will combine archive material from 1990s Rotterdam with scenes of Bubbling parties and the upcoming Summer Carnival.

Sharine Rijsenburg is a creative researcher and visual anthropologist based in Rotterdam, who combines explorations into socio-political issues with engaging storytelling. Her short films Paradijsvogels and Paradeis Perdí demonstrate her practice of delving into Dutch and Caribbean archives to investigate the relationship between (self)image, representation and colonial history. She has worked as assistant director on So Loud the Sky Can Hear Us (Lavinia Xausa, RTM Pitch winner 2021 & IFFR 2022) and as a researcher for, among others, VPRO Tegenlicht. At IFFR 2020 she was a Young Selector, a festival initiative giving creative and ambitious local young people the opportunity to curate their own IFFR programme.

Source/image: IFFR

Wednesday 3 April 2024

BFI Flare 2024: The Stats

The 38th edition of BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival closed on 24 March seeing a continued growth in audiences attending in person events at the Festival’s home, BFI Southbank. Overall BFI Flare saw 28,125 audience attendances across BFI Southbank screenings, events and on BFI Player. The festival had packed houses with 87% occupancy at BFI Southbank, up from 85% in 2023, with 54% of bookers new to BFI Flare. Over 12 days between 13–24 March, BFI Flare welcomed audiences to BFI Southbank with 58 features and 81 shorts screened from 41 countries. The festival hosted 5 World Premieres, 2 International Premieres, 6 European Premieres and 23 UK Premieres from across the features programme. Talent highlights included Elliot Page, the Merchant Ivory family, Linda Riley, Iris Brey, Michelle Parkerson and many others.
This year’s edition included the Opening Night European Premiere of LAYLA, Amrou Al-Kadhi's stunning debut feature, fresh off its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The World Premiere of LADY LIKE by director/producer Luke Willis, closed the festival. Both these films, as well as many others screening in the festival, demonstrated the theme of embarking on a journey towards living your true authentic self. Other highlights from this year’s film programme included the Special Presentation of CROSSING and the European Premiere of the moving drama CLOSE TO YOU, written and directed by BAFTA-winning Dominic Savage and starring, produced and co-written by Elliot Page. Simmering apprehensions surround a family get-together as Page’s Sam returns home for the first time since transitioning in this highly collaborative feature.

World Premieres presented in the Festival included WE FORGOT TO BREAK UP – a pitch perfect romantic drama by Karen Knox, featuring a trans musician caught in a love triangle with his bandmates as they rise to fame in this love letter to Toronto’s 2000s music scene. Two women hit it off in a lesbian bar in Kat Rohrer’s WHAT A FEELING – a romantic comedy with real heart that explores migration, class and sexuality in Austria. Several slices of the London queer community talk in depth about what it means to create a family in WHAT’S SAFE, WHAT’S GROSS, WHAT’S SELFISH AND WHAT’S STUPID, a heartfelt DIY debut by Jasmine Johnson. Jeremy Borison’s intriguing and important drama UNSPOKEN centres on a closeted Orthodox Jewish teen who discovers his grandfather might have loved another man, prompting a journey towards self-discovery.

BFI Flare screened the best queer films from the past 12 months in the BEST OF THE FEST section on the final day. These included 20,000 SPECIES OF BEES, a sensitive portrait of three generations of women spending a summer just as the youngest comes out as transgender; Andrew Haigh’s ALL OF US STRANGERS (pictured above), a dreamlike and intense meditation on life, loneliness and gay experience, beautifully conveyed by Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal; Emma Seligman’s BOTTOMS which sees Rachel Sennott and Ayo Edebiri play the school’s ‘ugly lesbians’ who start a fight club to hook up with cheerleaders and lose their virginities before they go to college; and George C. Wolfe’s RUSTIN with Colman Domingo's acclaimed performance as an African American Civil Rights activist who is finally given the recognition he deserves here, including his role in the 1963 March on Washington. 

Source/images: BFI

Thursday 21 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: I Don’t Know Who You Are

M. H. Murray's remarkably strong debut feature—which, having premiered at last year's Toronto IFF, screens tomorrow and Saturday as part of BFI Flare—is notable for the way in which it balances social issues with compelling drama, a combination Murray has some previous experience of, given that he wrote and directed all three seasons of Canadian web series Teenagers.  Murray's film is anchored by a brave, sympathetic performance from Mark Clennon, who here reunites with the director following the pair's earlier collaboration on the short Ghost, which first introduced Clennon's character Benjamin.  Benjamin's story is picked up in I Don't Know Who You Are, but whereas Ghost dealt with a man who—as per the title—was being ghosted after just one date, Murray's new film has a much weightier topic in its sights as its main character deals with both physical and emotional trauma.

Benjamin is a Toronto-based saxophonist who ekes out a living by teaching a handful of students and playing occasional gigs; this talented musician is recovering from a breakup with his partner in work and life, the slimy Oscar (Kevin A. Courtney), although the green shoots of a new relationship are beginning to emerge as Benjamin is now dating the caring, sensitive Malcolm (Anthony Diaz).  When one particular evening with Malcolm doesn't go quite as planned, Benjamin heads alone to a party where he proceeds to get very drunk, and as he staggers home he is sexually assaulted by a stranger (Michael Hogan).  Although he's reluctant to inform the police, Benjamin promptly seeks medical advice and takes an HIV test, which proves negative.  Benjamin is understandably relieved at the result, but as there's still a chance he might yet contract the virus, he is given both a starter pack and a full prescription for PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) medication.

There's a need to move fast with this course of HIV-preventative treatment, as the first 72 hours are when the tablets are at their most effective.  While Benjamin ingests the starter pack—which he soon vomits up—serious problems arise when he takes his script to a pharmacy.  As Benjamin hands over the ℞ and his health card, the pharmacist informs him that these drugs can be dispensed if they are charged to an insurance plan, which the musician doesn't have.  Alternatively, the tablets can be paid for, but as the chemist sets about filling the prescription, Benjamin is horrified to learn that the medication will cost him in excess of $900, a sum his hand-to-mouth existence simply doesn't allow for; thus, Benjamin is up against the clock as he frantically attempts to scratch together the funds to pay for the medicine.  To compound matters, it's the fin de semaine (as they say in Canada), so the government office that may have been able to offer some assistance is closed.

Just as the action in Ghost took place (and was filmed) in a single day, it seems fitting that exponential growth sees I Don't Know Who You Are unfold over the course of a weekend.  Murray proves especially adept at working with these temporal structures, and his latest effort instils a rising anxiety in the viewer as Benjamin struggles to raise the necessary cash.  Crucially, the film feels like an authentic Toronto story, with both T-Dot's streetcars and legendary music venue the Horseshoe Tavern featuring prominently; all too often, Ontario's magnificent capital has rather apologetically stood in for other cities—almost invariably New York—but here M. H. Murray expertly captures the essence of Canada's most populous city.  Such an unadorned presentation may well be down to budgetary constraints, but it all contributes to making Benjamin's urgent plight that bit more believable.  I Don't Know Who You Are is as impressive as it is sincere, and it ranks as one of Flare 2024's highlights.

Darren Arnold

Images: Festival Scope / BFI

Tuesday 19 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: Life is Not a Competition, but I’m Winning

Julia Fuhr Mann's feature debut Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning—which premiered at Venice and screens on Friday as part of BFI Flare—focuses on athletes who have found both themselves and their achievements sidelined by those who write history.  This is a work which takes a novel approach to its subject; while there is nothing new in a documentary that makes use of both contemporary and archival footage—which indeed is the case in this film—there are moments in Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning when Mann takes each of these elements to create cleverly mounted hybrid scenes in which present-day athletes mingle with sportspeople from the distant past.  

Yet these technical accomplishments—all the more impressive for being achieved on a slender budget—never threaten to distract from the moving true stories that underpin the film's narrative; Mann's film is less a formal stunt than a genre-bending celebration of the marginalised.  Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning sees a group of contemporary athletes gather in the Olympic Stadiums of Athens and Munich, where they and Mann look to the past as they remember those who were largely robbed of their triumphs on the track.  One of the earliest cases examined here is that of the German runner Lina Radke, who at Amsterdam 1928 won the very first women's 800m Olympic final—only for most of the attention to fall on one of Radke's competitors, who had collapsed at the finish line.  

This incident not only obscured Radke's moment of victory, but appeared to vindicate father of the modern Olympics Pierre de Coubertin's view that running was too strenuous for females; worse, the women's 800m event was subsequently removed from the Games, and would only be reinstated in 1960, which was also when the remarkable black American sprinter Wilma Rudolph—who contracted polio as a child—would win three gold medals in Rome.  Despite her superb showing at the Olympics, Rudolph's success was tempered by the situation in then-segregated Tennessee, her home state.  While both Radke and Rudolph's identities were never anything other than female, Mann also takes time to consider those athletes whose femininity has been questioned, such as the South African middle-distance runner Caster Semenya.

In recent years, double Olympic champion Semenya has faced much scrutiny regarding her gender, and while she's mentioned here, Mann opts to give more space to sprinter Stella Walsh, who won Olympic medals for Poland in 1932 and 1936; following her tragic death—she was killed by armed robbers while on a shopping trip—the autopsy highlighted Walsh's intersex status, and her exceptional performances on the running track became a mere footnote in the Games' history.  Then there's the terrible case of Ugandan 800m runner Annet Negesa, whose career was effectively wrecked by an operation to reduce her testosterone levels.  Life Is Not a Competition, But I’m Winning may be slightly uneven at times, but it serves an important function in spotlighting a group of athletes who have spent far too long in the shadows.

Darren Arnold

Sunday 17 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: Sex is Comedy

Edith Chapin's terrific documentary—which screens tomorrow as part of this year's BFI Flare—focuses on the highly specialised work of the intimacy coordinator (IC).  The film's subtitle The Revolution of Intimacy Coordinators (French: La révolution des coordinatrices d'intimité) serves to differentiate it from Catherine Breillat's 2002 feature Sex is Comedy, although the fact that the films carry the same main title—which in both instances is in English—is no coincidence: the ever-edgy Breillat's meta-movie, which drew on her experiences making Fat Girl, revolved around a filmmaker attempting to shoot an intimate scene involving two actors who dislike each other.  Immediately prior to Fat Girl, Breillat had directed Romance, whose release was littered with controversial incidents—not least the accusations of the film's star, Caroline Ducey, who claimed the writer-director had exploited her during the filming of explicit sex scenes.

Romance was made at the tail end of the last century, in a pre-#MeToo world where the role of IC didn't exist; post-Weinstein, however, the need to employ a specialist to oversee such scenes has become much more urgent.  Sex is Comedy: The Revolution of Intimacy Coordinators features Brussels-based IC Paloma García Martens, who worked primarily as a costume designer on films as diverse as Thomas Vinterberg's Kursk, Claude François biopic Cloclo and the Cannes-winning Blue is the Warmest Colour before branching out into her current profession.  Chapin's film documents Martens' work on another Flare 2024 selection, Split—a series that debuted on France Télévisions' all-digital channel Slash—but also takes in a useful conversation with French actress-director Ovidie and a trip to London, where Martens meets with the intimacy coordinator of Netflix's hit show Sex Education

While fans of Split will no doubt find Sex is Comedy: The Revolution of Intimacy Coordinators to be an illuminating behind-the-scenes look at the TV show, it should be said that the film works extremely well as a standalone documentary.  As the person at the front and centre of the film, Martens is an erudite and likeable presence—as is Sex Education's IC, David Thackeray—and this nominal subject is good value as she outlines the day-to-day activities of an IC on set.  The longer we spend with Martens, the clearer it becomes that very few people are cut out for a successful tilt at this profession; you suspect that Martens' prior film industry experience stood her in good stead for this exacting role (and it's possible that the much-publicised fallout from Blue is the Warmest Colour—a film which, like Romance, could have sorely used an IC—informed her present career choice).    

Running at just under one hour, Edith Chapin's taut, deftly edited film is never anything less than fascinating, and it's particularly engrossing when Martens details how she works with Split's actors as one particular scene is filmed, on a closed set, before some squelching Foley sounds are added in postproduction; this last stage brings some levity to proceedings, and it should be said that, despite the serious nature of the job undertaken by Martens, humour plays an important—possibly essential—part in putting all concerned at ease.  On a less positive note, we get to witness the great stress involved when the same scene subsequently runs into nightmarish censorship issues.  Yet Sex is Comedy: The Revolution of Intimacy Coordinators is an overwhelmingly uplifting experience, and it provides real insight into both the rise and methods of the IC.

Darren Arnold

Images: France Télévisions / Cinétévé

Friday 15 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: Days of Happiness

It has now been more than ten years since Chloé Robichaud's debut feature, the well-received Sarah Prefers to Run (Sarah préfère la course), which played in competition for the Sutherland Award at the 2013 London Film Festival.  While Sarah Prefers to Run fell just short of the LFF's award for best first feature—Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo took that particular honour—it did pick up a prize in Robichaud's native Canada at the same year's Vancouver International Film Festival.  In the gap between Sarah Prefers to Run and Robichaud's latest film Days of Happiness (Les jours heureux)—which screens tomorrow and Monday as part of BFI Flare—the director made the 2016 feature Boundaries (Pays), which cast Marvel star Emily VanCamp as a mediator in negotiations between the Canadian government and a fictional island nation.  Yet Boundaries is not the sum total of Robichaud's efforts from Sarah Prefers to Run through Days of Happiness: the past decade has also seen her undertake some TV work (more on that in a moment) and direct the Venice-premiering short Delphine.

Parallels can be made between Days of Happiness and another Flare 2024 selection, I Don't Know Who You Are: beyond both titles being Canadian films which focus on talented musicians navigating complex relationships in, respectively, Montréal and Toronto, the movies share a trait in that each is made by a filmmaker who previously wrote and directed every episode in a web series.  Just as three seasons of M. H. Murray's Teenagers preceded his I Don't Know Who You Are, Days of Happiness follows Robichaud's Féminin/Féminin, a show that aired on Canada's Ici ARTV from 2014 to 2018.  Days of Happiness sees Robichaud reunite with Sophie Desmarais, who played the title character in Sarah Prefers to Run; here, Desmarais stars as Emma, a young Montréal-based conductor whose career is on the up.  While her exacting work comes with its fair share of complications, it is Emma's life away from the podium that presents the most difficulties, but there are a couple of reasons why she has little chance of keeping things compartmentalised. 

Firstly, her father and agent, Patrick (Sylvain Marcel), is a domineering figure in both Emma's professional and private lives; furthermore, Emma is in an incipient relationship with one of her cellists, Naëlle (Nour Belkhiria), who is also mother to the young Jad (Rayan Benmoussa)—a detail which causes some friction, particularly on Naëlle's end.  Although Emma has achieved some success as a conductor, she is always having to impress her superiors in order to edge up the career ladder; against advice, she chooses a difficult Arnold Schönberg piece for an upcoming concert, and sets about preparing for this taxing performance.  As Emma tries to focus on her work, her relationships with the volatile Patrick and the hot-and-cold Naëlle deteriorate further, and this chaos is folded into the delivery of Schönberg's Pelleas und Melisande—a sequence which forms the emotional centrepiece of the film (although a late montage featuring flashbacks to Emma's childhood also proves very moving).  

In her workplace, Emma commands a huge group of musicians, yet her personal life sees everyone else calling the shots (note how, away from the concert hall, it is Naëlle who dictates the parameters of the relationship).  Comparisons can be made between Days of Happiness and Todd Field's Tár—which also centred on a gay female conductor who was attracted to a cellist—although the latter film established Cate Blanchett's title character as one in control of both her life and work, at least up to a point.  But whereas Lydia Tár is largely the author of her own misfortune, Emma is seemingly completely at the mercy of others when it comes to her own happiness.  Robichaud's film feels like both an authentic Montréal tale and a convincing portrayal of the world of classical music (Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the artistic director and principal conductor of the city's Orchéstre Metropolitain, served as the film's music consultant).  Days of Happiness may not be as ambitious in scope as Tár, but it is nonetheless an absorbing work in which Desmarais excels as the tormented maestra.

Darren Arnold

Images: Maison4tiers / BFI

Wednesday 13 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: The Blue Shelter

Today marks the start of this year's BFI Flare, which gets underway with two screenings of Amrou Al-Kadhi's debut feature Layla—a film that serves as the festival's opening night gala.  But tomorrow is when the event gets properly up and running, with Flare 2024's first full day offering up films such as the eagerly anticipated Dutch-British co-production Silver Haze, Sav Rodgers' uplifting documentary Chasing Chasing Amy, Orthodox feature Unspoken, and Elliot Page-starrer Close to You.  While feature films are very much the festival's bread and butter, shorts are by no means neglected by Flare; indeed, short films have their own dedicated strand—where, typically, several thematically linked works are combined to form a programme which lasts roughly the equivalent length of a standard feature. 

One such programme—and there are 11 in total at this year's festival—is Cosmic Dreams: Through the Looking Glass, which screens tomorrow evening in BFI Southbank's NFT3; this particular collection is one of three shorts programmes playing on Thursday, the others being A Taste of Spain and Methods for Facing a Hostile WorldCosmic Dreams plays home to Jérémy Piette's dreamy, elegiac The Blue Shelter (Le Garçon qui la nuit), which takes its place alongside Joana de Sousa's Between Light and Nowhere (Entre a Luz e o Nada), Alden Peters' Friends of Sophia (see trailer below), Jeanette Buck's Safety State, Antonia Luxem's On Falling, and Frankie Fox's Goodbye Python.  With a running time of 26 minutes, The Blue Shelter is fractionally the longest of the half-dozen films included in Cosmic Dreams: Through the Looking Glass, and certainly the most memorable.

Piette's film centres on Arthur, a young man quietly dreading the end of summer.  Arthur and his friends are enjoying a languid day at a sun-kissed Breton beach, where they spend their time reading, drinking and taking occasional dips in the sea.  Not far from the group, a lone sunbather proves somewhat distracting for the pensive Arthur, who attempts to take a beer over to the man until he's talked out of it.  As the day wears on, the friends join in a mass singalong to Robi's "On ne meurt plus d'amour", a rendition as joyous as it is wistful.  The Blue Shelter subsequently takes a left turn into magical realism as Arthur is separated from his friends and enters a vaguely unsettling crepuscular world; this surreal closing sequence is soundtracked by a haunting interpretation of another well-known song: Brigitte Fontaine and Areski's "J'ai 26 ans".  

Given the two very different halves of this film, Jérémy Piette proves most adept at stitching them into a cohesive whole, and his skill in doing so should not be underestimated (cf. Boléro, another short from this year's Flare, which founders in its attempt to change tack midway through).  Parallels have been drawn between The Blue Shelter and the sweaty, leery films of Abdellatif Kechiche, but such comparisons seem both wide of the mark and lazy.  Rather, Piette's film appears to be more influenced by the work of François Ozon and Jacques Rivette, with a splash of Steven Arnold's Luminous Procuress thrown in for good measure.  The Blue Shelter—whose warm, tactile Super 16mm cinematography recalls that of Christian Avilés' similarly lengthed La herida luminosa—is a fine, ambitious debut, one which captures the essence of a summer that is anything but endless.     

Darren Arnold

Images: BFI

Thursday 8 February 2024

The Iron Claw (Sean Durkin, 2023)

In the years since his 2011 directorial feature debut, the impressive and decidedly Haneke-esque Martha Marcy May Marlene, Sean Durkin has directed just one other feature film—2020's The Nest—prior to his latest effort, the biographical The Iron Claw.  In between his first and second movies, Durkin made the superb miniseries Southcliffe, a harrowing four-parter centring on a spree shooter played by a particularly terrifying Sean Harris.  The Tony Grisoni-penned Southcliffe may well be Durkin's finest achievement, and just last year he returned to the small screen to direct half of the episodes of another acclaimed miniseries: Dead Ringers, a remake/reboot of David Cronenberg's 1988 film of the same name.  Durkin has also produced other directors' films, notably those of Antonio Campos (Afterschool, Simon Killer, Christine) and Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother, Piercing).   

The largely 80s-set The Iron Claw charts the travails of a Texan family of professional wrestlers ruled by a fist of, er, iron belonging to patriarch Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), who is at the tail end of a solid career in World Class Championship Wrestling (WCWW).  As Fritz's time in the ring draws to a close, he's keen for his offspring—he and his wife Doris (Maura Tierney) are parents to half a dozen boys—to tag in.  When the couple's firstborn, Jack (Romeo Miloro Newcomer), dies in a freak accident at the age of six, the protective Kevin (Zac Efron) becomes the eldest of five, and as teenagers he and his brothers are pushed towards wrestling careers, irrespective of the varying levels of enthusiasm among the siblings.  Under the domineering Fritz's harsh guidance, the boys achieve a great deal on the wrestling circuit, with middle son Kerry (Jeremy Allen White) becoming the most successful of the brothers.  Sadly, the numerous titles won by the Von Erichs are more than offset by a series of family tragedies.

If The Iron Claw wasn't based on a true story, most would dismiss its plot developments as implausible, but the horrifying truth is that 
at the age of just 35, Kevin was the last surviving son.
  By this stage, Kevin and his wife Pam (Lily James, excellent) had started a family of their own, and the new father was understandably so concerned about the Von Erich line being cursed that he opted to give his first child the real family surname of Adkisson (Von Erich was only ever a ring name).  The physically transformed Efron is outstanding as Kevin, a kind, polite and sensitive man outside of the sport, yet one who poses a formidable opponent to the parade of de facto villains he faces in the squared circle.  Refreshingly, Durkin has opted to film each of the wrestling matches in one long take, and the results are convincingly unconvincing; as is so often the case with the cartoon world of wrestling, the question of authenticity remains unresolved.

Given his CV, Durkin seems an unlikely candidate to helm a wrassling movie—but many of us thought much the same when Darren Aronofsky announced he would be making The Wrestler.  Like Aronofsky's wonderfully bleak tale, The Iron Claw is a wrestling film that packs an existential wallop; that this punishing picture is backed by so-hip-it-hurts indie studio A24 (Midsommar, Uncut Gems, Moonlight) tells you it is likely to be anything but a rote sports drama, and Sean Durkin proves a good fit for a story in which the next misfortune is never very far away.  That said, the writer-director does know when to exercise some restraint, as evidenced by the omission of youngest brother Chris Von Erich—who committed suicide in 1991—from the film; even as it stands, the litany of agony presented in The Iron Claw comes perilously close to having a numbing effect.  Yet the coda is suitably moving, and for the most part Durkin's engaging film possesses a warmth that was all but absent from his previous work.

Darren Arnold

Images: A24

Friday 2 February 2024

One More Shot (James Nunn, 2024)

Having had its Dutch premiere at the Pathé de Kuip as part of International Film Festival Rotterdam on Sunday, James Nunn's One More Shot has its fifth and final IFFR outing tonight, when it screens at the city's Pathé Schouwburgplein.  One More Shot is playing as part of the festival's Limelight strand, where it takes its place alongside the likes of Jonathan Glazer's The Zone of Interest, Kaouther Ben Hania's Four Daughters and Sean Durkin's The Iron Claw; while Nunn's film may pale in comparison with these acclaimed titles, it's a serviceable action movie which deserves better than its straight-to-video fate.  With this in mind, One More Shot's Rotterdam screenings afford a rare chance to see the film in a cinema, and it's safe to say that far worse films will be granted a theatrical release between now and the end of the year.  While the movie's absence from multiplexes will prove disappointing for its cast and crew, it's easy to imagine One More Shot enjoying a long life on the small screen.

One More Shot is a direct sequel to James Nunn's 2021 feature One Shot—in between these ventures, the filmmaker helmed creature feature Shark Bait—and both films are novel in that each appears to have been filmed in a single continuous shot.  As such, the films' titles are quite witty, although it should be pointed out that considerably more than one gunshot is fired in each film.  One More Shot joins its predecessor and the likes of Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman and Sam Mendes' 1917 in a select group of movies that have been edited to look as if they were filmed in one take, even if such efforts might have to defer to those films that are bona fide one-shot features—such as Russian Ark, Victoria and Medusa DeluxeOne More Shot reunites Nunn with the first film's star, Scott Adkins, who came to the project fresh from his memorable turn in last year's epic John Wick: Chapter 4—a film that featured a jaw-dropping single-take fight sequence as it set about redefining the modern action flick.

Here, Adkins reprises his role as crack Navy SEAL Jake Harris, who in the first film was in the thick of it as his squad attempted to transport Amin Mansur (Waleed Elgadi) from a CIA black site.  Mansur had been detained on account of his involvement in a plot to launch a terror strike on Washington DC, and One More Shot opens with the prisoner and Harris arriving in the US as the clock ticks down to the attack.  The American authorities have brought along Mansur's heavily pregnant wife Niesha (Meena Rayann) as leverage, but before the CIA can begin interrogating their man, an army of mercenaries led by Robert Jackson (Michael Jai White) storms the airport in an attempt to retrieve Mansur.  Harris, who has only just had his part in this fraught business ended by Tom Berenger's apoplectic CIA officer, soon realises what's going on and sets about dispatching countless henchmen via a variety of brutal methods—although, more often than not, a gun is involved.  

The one-shot film is something of a curio: it can be hard to reconcile the impressiveness of the achievement with the notion that it's not much more than a technical exercise.  Here, though, there's a real-time urgency to the film, and the kinetic presentation manages to maintain interest in what is essentially a glorified video game (as indeed was the aforementioned 1917).  Adkins—in the sort of role usually reserved for the likes of Jason Statham—is good value as Harris; disappointingly, White is given precious little to do up until his (admittedly impressive) big fight scene with Adkins—both actors have a background in martial arts, which lends a satisfying authenticity to the face-off.  The rest of the acting is pretty variable, with Berenger phoning it in and Gemma Arterton's less-famous sister Hannah struggling to make much of an impact as a brusque CIA agent.  But One More Shot is all about the spectacle, and Nunn, working with a relatively low budget, has crafted a likeable, competent and generally entertaining action thriller.

Darren Arnold

Tuesday 30 January 2024

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Thursday 11 January 2024

53rd IFF Rotterdam (25/1/24–4/2/24)

Jonathan Ogilvie’s spirited Head South will open the 53rd International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) on Thursday 25 January, with the festival running until Sunday 4 February. New Zealand filmmaker Ogilvie returns to IFFR with his semi-autobiographical film, a small-town coming-of-age comedy where a private schoolboy becomes desperately enamoured with all things post-punk in 1979 Christchurch. Ogilvie's last film Lone Wolf screened in the festival’s Big Screen Competition in 2021. Vanja Kaludjercic, IFFR Festival Director: "With Head South, Jonathan Ogilvie returns to the festival with an unpredictable coming-of-age story that delights in its shifting tone. Ogilvie is the kind of filmmaker we cherish at IFFR: those for whom the art is, above all, an adventure of discovery".

A star cast voices Ishan Shukla’s dystopian sci-fi animation Schirkoa: In Lies We Trust, which has its world premiere at IFFR 2024 in the Bright Future programme of feature debuts. The paper bag-wearing citizens of the film’s ultra-regulated society attribute their voices to actors including Golshifteh Farahani and Asia Argento, as well as filmmakers Gaspar Noé and Lav Diaz. So Unreal is the latest film from genre-expanding filmmaker Amanda Kramer following a Focus programme at IFFR 2022, and screens in Harbour where it has its European premiere, as does Elegies, the latest by Hong Kong cinema legend Ann Hu. IFFR 2024 also welcomes Egypt’s 2024 Oscars submission Voy! Voy! Voy! by Omar Hilal, screening in the Limelight programme of festival favourites and international award-winners.

In the lead up to the festival, audiences across the Netherlands can get a taste of the programme with the IFFR Preview Tour. More than 35 cinemas have currently committed to hosting a screening of a film from the Limelight programme in the week before the festival, in cities including Arnhem, Groningen, Maastricht and 's-Hertogenbosch. The 41st edition of IFFR’s co-production market CineMart begins on Sunday 28 January, with Spotlight presentations by project teams returning this year on Monday 29 January. On Tuesday 30, the second edition of the Pro Darkroom presents a curated selection of work-in-progress screenings, and is followed by the IFFR Pro Awards in the evening. Talent programmes, including the Rotterdam Lab, also return to the festival.

Source/images: IFFR