Reviewed today: All Sorts Of Shorts, The Reason I Jump, Shirley.
Don't look for that title in the LFF programme, it isn't in there. Remember how I said yesterday that the shorts collections this year appeared to be geared less towards being watched as a curated playlist, and more towards a pool of films to be dipped into? Well, with a couple of hours before our first scheduled feature of the day, we decide to do just that, constructing our own shorts programme from the ones we didn't get to watch yesterday.
We start off by exploring the all-new Expanded section of virtual reality films, and gradually realise that this was a mistake. At least, that's the case if you're trying to watch these films at home without expensive specialised equipment, which the LFF insists is a thing you can do. I'd disagree. The £3 Google Cardboard glasses should theoretically allow us to strap our smartphones to our faces and watch these films that way, but the Cardboard launch page keeps talking about an LFF 360 Player without giving you any indication of how to access that. The alternative is to watch the films in your standard web browser, via their virtual environment The Expanse, and that's even worse: it chews up computer resources with very little return, navigating using a mouse is almost impossible, and when you finally get to the start button for a film it refuses to play anything at all. There's an email address on the site for help with the Expanded technology, but it was the wrong email address for the first two days of the festival, and nobody's been answering mails there since. If this is the future, they're doing a really bad job of selling this to me. [Update 11/10/2020: since I wrote this, the LFF have updated the Cardboard and browser viewing pages to link directly to the films on YouTube, which is much better. We can come back to this in a couple of days.]
We give up on immersive cinema after a frustrating half an hour, and go back to the usual flat kind instead. We pick a couple of shorts from We Built A World [BFI Player page], which is a largely documentary strand in the shorts collection. Tal Amiran's Dafa Metti [official site] takes its title from the Senegalese word for 'difficult', which comes up here frequently. Three Senegalese men currently living illegally in Paris tell their stories in voiceover, describing why they came and how they have to sell tourist souvenirs to survive. We don't get to see their faces - visually, they're accompanied by some ravishingly gorgeous shots of the city. The stark contrast between what we hear and what we see is kind of the point. Francisco Canton and Pato Martinez's Loose Fish [trailer] is a less swish-looking affair, set in a Moroccan port and following some boys around as they attempt to blag short-term jobs on the docks and fishing boats. The main focus is on Ishmael, who keeps working on the boats despite his chronic seasickness: but in a lovely final sequence, we get to see why he's working for the money.
The other shorts programme we pick a couple from is Secrets and Lies [BFI Player page], a title that's inevitably repeated by The BBG in Timothy Spall's voice like in the film. This is where we discover the disadvantage of choosing your own shorts rather than letting someone curate for you - you have to read the programme synopses, and sometimes they give away a bit too much. That's certainly the case with Éric Forestier's Little Princess, a French short in which a young girl alone in her flat encounters an intrusion from the outside world. There's a huge amount that the viewer is allowed to deduce for themselves, but the two-line listing in the LFF programme spells the whole thing out for you - if you're going to watch it on the BFI Player yourself, try to avoid reading anything first. At the other extreme, you shouldn't judge a film from the single image displayed in the listing: Hamza Bangash's Stray Dogs Come Out At Night [trailer] looks to be a jolly little thing about two Pakistani men on a camel, but it ends up being the tale of a man who's run away from his family for not entirely clear reasons. There's too much ambiguity and not enough intrigue to draw you in. The most successful short in Secrets And Lies is Ali Asgari's Witness [trailer], in which an Iranian woman's attempt to make a quick trip to a shopping centre while parked in a forbidden area has unexpected consequences. It's superbly plotted, with storytelling so economical that the title alone is a crucial part of it.
We have a few minutes left before we have to head out, so we dip our toes into the Experimenta section to see what brief craziness we can pick up from there. The Exposing Territories strand [BFI Player page] has what looks like the perfect candidate with Akosua Adoma Owusu's seven-minute King Of Sanwi and its irresistible synopsis: "re-worked footage from an unfinished film by Senegalese director Mamadou Johnny Sekka forms a re-examination of The Jackson 5’s 1974 trip to Dakar." What we get is a frantic audiovisual mashup of newsreel footage from the trip, images of Michael Jackson's later years, animated graphics hand-drawn onto the film, and a gloriously crass American report suggesting that African audiences love the Jacksons' dancing because of that natural sense of rhythm people always used to talk about. Sheesh. It may help to know that Michael Jackson was subsequently crowned as an actual African king, hence the film's title.
5.45pm: Shirley [official site]
Our first trip out to a cinema for this year's festival. The last time we were at BFI Southbank in February, it was to see Koyaanisqatsi, a film that famously documents "a state of life that calls for another way of living." Funny, that: eight months later, another way of living seems to be exactly what we've got. This time, we get to enter NFT1 through the mythical Door 2, which I've only ever seen used by Ralph Fiennes and Christopher Nolan before today. (We also get to leave via another door that doesn't even have a number.) Once inside, as promised, there's the surreal sight of 50% of the seats having had their bases removed for social distancing purposes. There's something reassuring about the fact that even in these reduced circumstances, this still appears to be a festival that attracts audiences who can't sit in the right seat, presumably being completely unfamiliar with the concepts of numbers and letters.
We get a video intro cum Q&A at the start - nice to see that idea extended from the streaming films to the real world ones - and then it's into the movie itself. Shirley is a completely fictional episode in the life of Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), the American horror writer. At the height of her fame/notoriety, her professor husband Stanley (Michael Stuhlbarg) arranges for a young couple, Rose (Odessa Young) and Fred (Logan Lerman), to stay at their house for a few weeks. Both couples are effectively exploiting each other - Fred is looking to get a promotion at Stanley's college, while Stanley is looking for someone to mind the house in general and Shirley in particular. Because Shirley is, to put it bluntly, unstable: and more so than usual right now, as she's about to embark on a new novel based on the true case of a missing girl.
I don't really know Shirley Jackson's work at all, apart from perhaps the movie of The Haunting. I should do something about that. As far as this film goes, the aim of director Josephine Decker wasn't to tell the life story of the writer, but to make a Shirley Jackson story out of it. Decker does this using a battery of unsettling devices from the word go: as Rose settles into her new situation, virtually everything around her looks off-kilter and makes her feel unsafe. This is before we even get to Shirley, who's a monster - and Stanley, who's just as bad.
Elisabeth Moss is terrific in the title role, as you'd kind of expect. Normally, I think of her as an actress who simply can't keep her emotions inside, but here part of the joy of her performance is seeing her bottle them up to an alarming degree, only letting them come the surface when it'll cause the maximum discomfort to others. Michael Stuhlbarg gives as good as he gets, and the scenes where the Jacksons bat insults off each other are utterly joyous. The hugeness of their work shouldn't distract you from how good Odessa Young and Logan Lerman also are, playing characters with the potential to actually change - something you feel Shirley and Stanley will never do. Overall, Shirley is a hugely accomplished film, and I'm glad to have seen it in a big room.
8.45pm: The Reason I Jump [trailer]
I like it when a film comes with special instructions for its viewing, and The Reason I Jump has just that: in the programme notes, director Jerry Rothwell asks us to watch it with headphones, to make the most of its sound mix in a home environment. I found myself getting flashbacks to a period in the late 80s when I lived in a shared flat which had a stereo video recorder but a mono TV: I'd frequently watch films with headphones on to get the full immersive effect. It's something I should do more often.
The initial inspiration for Rothwell's documentary came from a Japanese book, The Reason I Jump, written by non-speaking autistic teenager Naoki Higashida. In it, he painstakingly describes how he experiences the world, insisting his experience isn't inferior, just different from yours. Rather than doing a straight adaptation, Rothwell intersperses readings from the book with profiles of non-speaking autistic people from four continents, talking to those who care for them and finding out the ways they've developed to communicate - whether it's in pictures, or picking out letters on a board, or harking back to a past that to them is indistinguishable from the present day.
The closest comparison point I can think of is The Possibilities Are Endless, which visualised the effects of a stroke in the same way that this film visualises autism. Higashida says in his book that whereas us neurotypical types see objects as a whole then focus on the details, autistic people get caught up in the details, sometimes missing the whole as a result. Rothwell finds multiple ways to get that across on film, with macro lens closeups and an oppressive amount of detail in the sound mix. For example, we see one of the kids on a car ride frequently glancing out of the window: every time she does that, we briefly cut to an external view of traffic roaring past outside, neatly illustrating the sensory overload that's one of the consequences of autism.
The film's full of handy analogies like this. For The BBG, the most resonant one was how autism feels like speaking a foreign language - you know the words you want to say, but you can't get them out of your mouth. As a long-term student of Japanese, The BBG knows this feeling exactly. But if she can't find a word in Japanese, she can always fall back on English in frustration: this isn't an option that's open to the subjects of this film, and their frustration comes out in ways which seem alarming to the rest of us. If nothing else, The Reason I Jump is a plea for understanding, and hopefully it'll get a wide enough screening to be taken as such. (I've got to admit, my heart sank a little in the Q&A when Rothwell cheerfully announced that he had a deal with Picturehouse...)