Obviously, there are lots of incredibly pressing problems that need to be solved on the planet right now. But there's been one particular problem that's been preying on my mind ever since the lockdown started in March. It's this - how are film festivals supposed to work now?
You have to sympathise with the BFI, who had to consider that question more urgently than most. Their second biggest festival of the year, the LGBTIQ+ fest that they nowadays call Flare, was due to start on March 20th but had to be cancelled just a few days beforehand. In a herculean effort, they pivoted to video in virtually no time, and had a reduced series of films running on their online player for the duration.
Their biggest festival - the London Film Festival - is coming in October, and some fascinating hints have already been dropped as to how they're going to make that happen. We'll talk about that here nearer the time, of course. But in between Flare and the LFF, the BFI was one of a number of organisations involved in the creation of We Are One, a free film festival that literally spanned the entire planet. This was back in June, so you've already missed it. Luckily, I didn't.
The idea behind We Are One was similar to that of the online Flare festival, but on a much grander scale. Twenty of the world's biggest film festivals - from Cannes and Locarno on down, and including the LFF - collaborated to organise a huge virtual fest running on YouTube. Each of the contributors picked a couple of films that represented the best of their output - either hits from previous years, or new releases that they would have been showcasing this year if it wasn't for the pandemic.
You'd imagine that this would just feel like a regular YouTube binge, and not like a special occasion. And, somehow, you'd be wrong. The scheduling was rather neat: each film had a 'live' premiere screening at a pre-announced time within the ten day span of the festival. You could (with one or two exceptions, basically the newest films) watch them on YouTube for a full week after that, so you didn't have to be there for the exact time the film first dropped. But there was a definite thrill of anticipation if you did, along with the ability to contribute to a simultaneous live YouTube chat. We didn't get involved with the chats, because that seems a bit impolite while a film's running: but that live element, and the requirement to catch the films in a one-week window, gave you an incentive to watch them as soon as possible.
Best of all, this was all free, although voluntary contributions to Covid-related charities were encouraged. And that's why you're about to read eighteen reviews of what we saw over the ten days of We Are One. (If I hadn't finished my furlough from work the day it all started, it could have been even more...)
Veterans of film festival coverage on this site will be assuming that we saw the odd documentary or two during those ten days. Um, how about four? We'll start with Nicolas Jack Davies' Rudeboy: The Story Of Trojan Records, one of the films representing our very own London Film Festival. It sold out instantly when it played the LFF in 2018, so I'm glad I finally got to see it. It's a music documentary spanning two countries, covering both the rise of reggae in Jamaica and the rise of the label that made it incredibly popular in the UK. It's a well-researched social history lecture, not afraid to position the music against the racial upheavals in the UK at the time. As a story it's a little awkwardly constructed, having more of a dying fall than a definite ending, but you'll never see a film with such an utterly banging soundtrack.
One of the newest films in the festival - so new that immediately after the world premiere live screening, they tore it off YouTube again - also has a musical connection. Josh Swade's Ricky Powell: The Individualist tells the story of a man I only previously knew from a Beastie Boys lyric: 'Homeboy, throw in the towel, your girl got dicked by Ricky Powell.' A photographer who was all over the various fashionable New York scenes in the 1980s, from hip hop to high art, Powell's secret appears to have been having enough personal charm to fit into any social situation, coupled with a natural talent for grabbing the right moment for a picture. The film of his life tries a little too hard to fit a fall-and-rise narrative over its third act, including some unforgivable messing around with his estranged mother. The Individualist, as a world premiere, was one of the few films in this festival with a post-screening Q&A attached, which you can still watch if you don't mind logging into YouTube to do it.
45 Days In Harvar has an intriguing premise: artist César Aréchiga goes into a Mexican prison and starts a 45 day art project in collaboration with the inmates, making a film about it as he goes. I’ve seen this story before in Viz, when the actor Luvvie Darling holds drama workshops with a room full of psychopaths (‘that’s it, darling, channel that anger…’). Thankfully, this particular story doesn’t end with the artist being stabbed to death with sharpened paintbrushes. He makes his projects more craft-based initially, giving the prisoners a sense of practical achievement before pushing their creative side a bit more, and never comes across as either patronising or matey. Aréchiga tells the story of the project sensitively, giving each of the prisoners a distinct identity without ever actually revealing their names.
Probably my favourite documentary here was Juantxo Sardón and Felipe Ugarte's Mugaritz BSO, which is ridiculously entertaining, though you could see how it could rub some people up the wrong way. A wildly imaginative Basque chef (Andoni Luis Aduriz) is shadowed by composer Ugarte, who wants to use him as the inspiration for some wildly imaginative music. Both of them are ultimately making conceptual art, and it's fun watching them try to outdo each other in ridiculousness. "I'm going to make this rarely cooked veal look like it's been burnt to a crisp." "Well, I'm going to barbecue a microphone and record the noise it makes for a backing track." Crucially, even without the concepts the music and food are both rather splendid.
So what about the narrative features? Well, we'll get to those. After all, most film festivals have all sorts of other ancillary material, and We Are One was no exception. One of their neatest ideas was to include a hefty strand of Q&A discussion sessions, all drawn from filmed interviews from the archives of the contributing festivals. Along the way, it's fun to compare how different international festivals conduct their talks.
Three different festivals try pairing up talented people on stage to interview each other directly or via a third party, and none of them really work. The talk accompanying the Locarno 2019 Excellence Award would seem to be ideal for this set-up, catching director Bong Joon-ho and actor Song Kang-ho just as Parasite is beginning its quest to collect every film award on the planet. But it's curiously uninvolving, partly down to translation delays, partly down to the odd staging of Locarno’s talk events, which are laid out like a press conference full of amateur reporters. On Transmission: Ang Lee/Kore-eda Hirokazu in Berlin has other problems, as a chat between two of the most interesting directors out there quickly degenerates into a mutual appreciation society. It's a similar story with TIFF Talks: Viggo Mortensen & David Cronenberg, even with Cronenberg having the home advantage of being in Toronto, and not helped by the assumption that you’ve watched the whole of Crash between the first half of the interview and the second half.
The more straightforward one-on-one interviews come off better, though the host of Sundance's Cinema Café with Jackie Chan never really has a chance once Chan makes his delayed entrance onstage. It's largely a conversation about his ecological work, and you can't help noticing that the point of most of Chan's stories is what a great guy he is. But his charm means that it never feels like he's got an ego problem: it's just the way he is. Another Locarno award chat, this one for the Locarno 2019 Pardo d'Onore, again suffers from the peculiar room arrangement, and the additional problem of the interviewer frequently repeating himself with the questions. Luckily, his interviewee is John Waters, who's capable of keeping the bitchy gossip and cheeky one-liners flowing almost single-handed. In Conversation with Guillermo del Toro, filmed at the Marrakesh Film Festival, is probably the best of the interviews we have here. There's some oddness in the way the talk's shot (it feels more like an archive copy than something that was intended for public consumption), and there are some awkward gaps where film clips have been clumsily removed. But del Toro is great in interviews, as a genre filmmaker who’s put some serious thought into what he’s trying to do: his discussion of his approach to choreographing the actors and the camera is particularly impressive. And he pulls off a crowd-pleasing local reference in his advice to young filmmakers in the audience – ‘travel the world, but always bring Morocco with you.’
Back on screen, we get a pair of animated shorts programmes from two different festivals. Annecy Animated Shorts Program has an incredibly strong first half - we get the neat artistic coup of Georges Schwizgebel's The Battle of San Romano, the incredibly stylish character study of Pascal Blanchet and Rodolphe Saint-Gelais' The Procession, and Joan C. Gratz's The One-Minute Memoir. The latter is a collection of eleven 60-second autobiographical sketches from multiple animators, buzzing with the energy and variety of a good mixtape, where the clips from established funny people like Paul Driessen and Bill Plympton work best. After that, the quality remains high but never quite reaches the same level as the first half, with Comfort Arthur's topical but unmemorable Black Barbie, Joanna Priestley's abstract and irritatingly not-online Dew Line, and Chris Dainty's slightly-too-personal-for-comfort biography of his friend Shannon Amen.
Annecy has a global reputation as the finest showcase for animated film on the planet. The Guadalajara International Film Festival? Maybe less so. But for the last decade, their Best "Animated Short Films" Rigo Mora Award has highlighted the best animated shorts to come out of Mexico. It has to be said, based on the collection shown here, Mexican animation is a bit on the bleak side. Alejandro Ríos' The Cats takes such a nasty turn halfway through that it pulls you out of the story completely - if you need a closing caption to explain what you were trying to do, you possibly weren't doing it well enough in the first place. Sofía Carrillo's Cerulia is probably the best of the three films on display, a quietly creepy little tale with elements of Tim Burton's work without his usual descent into camp. Victor Orozco Ramírez's 32-RBIT's collage aesthetic could be interesting on a large screen, but here it's notable for being a film in an online festival whose theme is how the internet is terrible.
We Are One even managed to get a few archive presentations in there. The LFF's presentation of The Epic Of Everest is a strong entry, but despite being one of the world's first snuff movies it hasn't got the same lurid appeal as Adela Has Not Had Supper Yet. This is a barmy Czech crime caper from 1977, directed by Oldřich Lipský but notable for having special effects by animator Jan Švankmajer, during the decade or so when the government had banned him from making his own films. American investigator and Neil Hannon lookalike Nick Carter is currently in Prague, looking into the mysterious disappearance of a rich woman's dog. Gradually, he suspects that the giant carnivorous plant known as Adela may have something to do with it, which is of course where Švankmajer comes in. A cavalcade of zany sight gags, cheeky anti-Americanism and unpredictable plotting makes for a perfect little rediscovery from the archives.
Moving finally to the fiction features, and you may remember that I introduced this festival to you weeks ago with a mention of Prateek Vats' Eeb Allay Ooo. By the time I wrote the Simian Site article, I'd already seen the film, but didn't mention how disappointing it was, so sorry about that. It starts intriguingly enough, with the cute premise of a man taking on a monkey-scaring job, and skews into a general indictment of how the gig economy is impacting India. But it doesn't really know how to end, taking a few melodramatic turns that never quite pay off, though the final image is rather effective.
Tracy Choi's Sisterhood is the first of two features from Macau, both of them containing a scene set during the literal moment of the 1999 handover. In this film, that was the last time that Sei saw her best mate Ling. Many years later, news of Ling's death brings Sei back to Macau, and also brings back memories of how their friendship grew and withered. Tracy Choi's film looks pretty enough (Macau locations will do that for you), but plotwise there isn't much there - the entire framework of the film is set up before the title card, and everything else that follows is just filling in the gaps in the story. Still, given that Sei and Ling first meet while working in a massage parlour, it's good that there's only one 'happy finish' scene in there.
As for Li Shaohong's A City Called Macau, it's the story of a casino broker, who acts as the middlewoman between the house and the punters. It's a job that leads to her getting stick from all sides, particularly as she’s the one who guarantees loans to those punters. As with Sisterhood, it's incredibly nice to look at, with enjoyable cameos from Hong Kong veterans Carina Lau and Eric Tsang, but the story’s a little unsatisfying. This may just be down to me automatically comparing this film to Hong Kong cinema's countless stories of glamorous gamblers: the Macau equivalent is a lot more realistic (and therefore downbeat) in terms of the human cost. (Also, in the HK equivalent, someone running up debts of that size would be threatened with physical violence pretty quickly. Here, it's all 'pay up or we'll put your name on a website'.)
We get a regular dose of new Japanese cinema once a year courtesy of the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme, and you could just about see Daigo Matsui's Ice Cream And The Sound Of Raindrops fitting into one of their collections. Set over a period of four weeks, but shot in a single 70-odd minute take, it follows six young actors through the rehearsal of a play right up to the opening performance. To be honest, the chunks of the play we get to see are pretty dire, and I spent most of the film assuming they were some sort of parody of fringe theatre, only to realise at the end that it's an actual Simon Stephens play called Morning. Aside from that, there's a lot to like here: a sextet of characterful performances, some slippery transitions between theatre and real life, the neat way music is integrated into both layers of the story, and the sheer technical feat of pulling this all off in one go.
But the single most astonishing thing I saw in the whole ten days was Nabwana I.G.G.'s Crazy World. Up until now, all I've seen of Wakaliwood cinema - the low budget action movies made by a tiny studio in Uganda - is a series of over-the-top trailers full of shouty narration, rough-looking camerawork and atrocious CGI. I came to the conclusion that these are films made by people who don't know what the hell they're doing. And then I watched one all the way through, and realised they know exactly what they're doing. These are films made with zero money but infinite enthusiasm - and that enthusiasm gets you over a hell of a lot. The action scenes are, yes, rough, but the editing actually generates proper excitement out of them. And whether or not it's down to the knowledge that they've got a global audience for this one, there's a lot of daft self-deprecating humour too. As for that CGI, I suddenly had flashbacks to the glory days of exploitation movies, where you were allowed to have duff effects if the ideas behind them are strong. At one point in Crazy World, two French video pirates attack a helicopter with a rocket launcher full of baguettes. I rest my case.
Is this the future of film festivals? Other approaches are available, and I'll be telling you about another one in a forthcoming piece. But it seems to me that you need to do more than simply hurl some films online to call yourself a film festival - timing and a limited window to view seem to help with that. I'm kind of hoping that by this time next year we're in a situation where we don't need to do this again... but I wouldn't mind too much if we had to. Being a monkey, and all.