This year I am attending the BFI London Film Festival for the very first time and am of course duly excited. The programme looks absolutely amazing, and what’s more, female directors are fairly well represented – as are so-called “women’s films”, ie. films that deal with women’s issues and so on. I have a highly ambivalent relationship to that term personally, but it is a handy enough way to refer to a number of different types of films (different genres, different nationalities, different eras, etc.) that despite everything have just that one thing in common: they deal with issues that are traditionally important to the experience of being a woman, and in some cases even with women’s history. So I think that for now, or at least for the duration of this post, I will stick with the term and even use it without the quotation marks I used above: Women’s films. There.
BFI has declared the 2015 edition of the festival “the year of the strong woman”, a term I certainly do not have an easy time using. If you’re wondering why that might be, I recommend you take a minute to watch this video. However, all semantics aside, the festival programme this year is truly leading by example in terms of including women’s films in a big, mainstream, commercial event. Well done, BFI! With this post, I mean to go through a few of the things I am looking forward to the most over the course of the festival (though I am sadly missing the last few days of it).
Of course, a natural place to begin is Suffragette, which has been hotly debated in social media in the last few days on account of a recent photo shoot. Regardless, the film, whose gala premiere at Leicester Square is taking place as I am writing these very words, is bringing a critical point in feminist history to the big screen. With Meryl Streep in the role of leading suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst as she rouses British women to fight for their right to be heard in the so-called democracy of the time, this is not a film for subtle moments and intimate dialogues. In other central roles we find Carey Mulligan and Helena Bonham Carter, to name but a few. No doubt Suffragette, which is both written and directed by women, is hoping to be remembered come awards season next year.
If you can’t get enough of the suffragettes, make sure to check out the archive film collection Make More Noise! Suffragettes in film which has two exclusive screenings during the festival.
Another big name which dominates the festival this year is Cate Blanchett, whose new film Carol (directed by Todd Haynes) premieres next week. Blanchett is being honoured with a BFI Fellowship ‘for her outstanding achievment in film’. Well deserved! Another film starring the elven queen, Truth, is also screening at the festival. Here, Blanchett portrays the 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes who gets suspended due to some unflattering stories about George W. Bush during election year… Her co-star is Robert Redford, and the film also stars Peggy Olsen aka. Elisabeth Moss.
Another huge title this year is from the documentary section and tells the story of probably the most badass 18-year-old on the planet: Malala Yousafzai. The documentary is directed by Davis Guggenheim and combines archive footage, new interviews and talking heads, and animated sequences. This is a unique chance to get to know the extraodrinary girl who won the Nobel Peace Prize at the tender age of 17 – though I’m willing to bet good money that this will not be the last documentary about Malala. By far.
From neigbouring country Afghanistan comes another documentary about life after Taliban. Debut directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli introduce us to a handful of photo journalists taking part in the Afghani media revolution that begun after the fall of the Taliban. They promise you a glimpse into Afghanistan as you have never seen it before – through the lenses of Afghans themselves.
In the Main Competition, one of the many exciting titles is Evolution. This film is directed by Lucile Hadžihalilović, whose 2004 debut Innocence was a coming of age tale set to an all-girls school. This one follows 10-year-old Nicolas who lives on an island inhabited solely by women and young boys. One day Nicolas makes an eerie discovery on the island, and everything changes. Evolution defies easy categorisation, combining detective story and horror, poetic essay and neo-surrealism.
In the same programme is Room, the story of a mother and a son trapped in a room against their will. Five-year-old Jack has spent his entire life in Room, but Ma tells him stories of the outside world. The question remains, will he ever see it? The film is adapted from the novel of the same name by Emma Donoghue, and stars Brie Larson as Ma. Larson is previously known to this writer as Abed’s girlfriend in Community, so it will be very interesting indeed to see how she deals with such a serious role. The film promises insight into a fascinatingly horrible situation, as well as a pretty unique depiction of the mother-son relationship.
One of the many debut films to be featured in the First Feature Competition, The Witch, takes us on a journey to 17th-century New England, where a devout Christian family are banished from their plantation. When a child goes missing, tensions and paranoia breed and the growing belief that a supernatural force is at work slowly leads the family to turn on each other. Taking place decades before the infamous Salem witch trials, the film bears witness to a gruesome form of hysteria and mass paranoia that over the centuries came to claim so many lives all around the world.
Centuries later and thousands of miles south, Ayanda (directed by Sara Blecher) takes us to current day Johannesburg. Here, we meet 21-year-old artist Ayanda who inherits her late father’s struggling garage. Along with her boyfriend David, Ayanda works hard to keep the business going. According the festival catalogue, this film uses a collage-style ‘inspired by the possibilities of a modern African aesthetic’.
Director Maya Newell takes us even further away, all the way to Australia. In Gayby Baby we meet the children of gay parents. Newell herself grew up with same-sex parents, and is in other words highly qualified to make a film on the matter. ‘Gayby Baby is both a social action film and a cinematically beautiful portrait of four loving families’, promises the festival catalogue.
My home region Scandinavia is also represented in the programme, although as usual it is Sweden who get the most attention. Firstly, there is the new documentary Ingrid Bergman – In her own words which features a selection of never-before-seen home movies, personal letters and diary extracts. Bergman was a woman concerned with documenting her own personal life and experiences, something this documentary has benefited enormously from. For a little behind the scenes peek at one of cinema’s true legends, this is the film for you.
Secondly, Beata Gårdeler’s second feature film Flocking explores the cheerful themes of victim blaming in relation to sexual violence and public shaming via social networks. The films asks how, if these are still current and relevant issues in Sweden, can the country really be such a gender equal utopia? As a Scandinavian I can only lend my own voice to the same question – and I will certainly make sure to watch this film.
Lastly, My Skinny Sister (directed and written by Sanna Lenken) is a portrait of two young sisters going through puberty and their teens together. Little sister Stella is ever in the shadow of beatiful, talented older sister Katja, but one day she discovers that not everything is what it appears with Katja. Stella is torn between her loyalty to her sister and the wish to make everything OK, while at the same time trying to figure out who she is meant to be and how love works. My Skinny Sister has already been screened at Berlin and Toronto and gained quite a following and highly deserved acclaim – not least for Rebecka Josephson’s performance as Stella. Highly recommended!
Moroccan-French production Much Loved is a very daring film which delves into the lives of prostitutes in Morocco. Director Nabil Ayouch follows a group of prostitutes through their ups and downs, showing both the glamour and the danger of their profession. There has allegedly been a huge outcry against the film and Ayouch in his native Morocco.
Also in the Debate section is a short film collection titled Last Man Standing is a Girl. This collection includes 9 short films, mostly by female directors, which in very different ways explore what it means to be a young girl in today’s society. Pictured below is The Face of Ukraine: Casting Oksana Baiul which is part of the programme.
Spanning centuries and continents, these are a few of the titles that has me excited for this year’s London Film Festival, though there are many, many more. Take a look at the full programme here to find your own favourites!