Reviewed today: The Painter And The Thief, This Is The Rhythm Of My Life, UK Focus.
11.45am: UK Focus [BFI Player page]
"If you had one wish in the world," asks Stanley Tucci at the start of this year's LFF trailer, "what would it be?" Today, The Belated Birthday Girl has an answer to that question: "I'd wish you hadn't put together shorts programmes with six or more films in them, and then played the LFF trailer at the start of every single one." We have to skip through the BFI Player timeline a dozen or so times today as soon as that tinkly piano bit comes on, as the shorts programmes don't have any sort of convenient 'play all' option. It feels like they're not expecting people to treat them as a programme to be viewed from start to finish, more like a collection you can dip into at will. However, as presented in the BFI Player, UK Focus in particular feels like a consciously constructed playlist, with thematic links between consecutive films and a Hollywood star in the final film. So that's how we watch it.
As the title suggests, this is a collection of British short films, starting off with John Ogunmuyiwa's Mandem [complete film], which starts out as a light-hearted mooch around South London with two naughty blokes but switches tone abruptly (though effectively) several times in the space of its ten minutes. The main takeaway I get from this one is how crap white people are when they try to buy drugs. We then take a lurch into the dark with Sam Dawe and Paul Holbrook's Hungry Joe [official Facebook], a horror movie about a kid that won't stop eating. It isn't so much a story, more of a series of blackout sketches, each one ending with a punchline that's a little more grim than the previous one: once you've spotted the structure, it becomes a much less interesting film. Having said that, it has some surprising parallels with the next one in the set, Stephen Irwin's animation Wood Child And Hidden Forest Mother [trailer]. It doesn't have quite the same psychedelic headrush now as it did when I first saw it earlier this year at the British Animation Awards, but its manic energy and visual invention is still a wonder to behold.
As an example of the way shorts are linked together in this programme, the last two I mentioned both feature scenes of cannibalism, while the next two are centred around sexual abuse. Hey, I never said they were fun links. Molly Manning Walker's Good Thanks, You? [trailer] is the better of the two, centred around a terrific lead performance by Jasmine Jobson. Amy is a young girl struggling to cope in the aftermath of her rape, and finding it near impossible to talk to anyone about it. The film's more concerned with depicting Amy's fragmented mental state than the act itself, which is as it should be. By comparison, Adura Onashile's Expensive Shit [trailer] feels a lot more exploitative, leeringly hinting 'guess what we're building up to' throughout as a nightclub's toilet attendant is coerced into doing something she doesn't want to do.
By this stage in the programme, we're desperate for a bit of light relief, and thankfully the last three films provide that. Tommy Gillard's Shuttlecock [trailer] is the closest we get to a flat-out comedy, using a badminton tournament as the arena for a lot of alpha male posturing with a side order of homoeroticism. The boxy 4:3 aspect ratio and seventies-style title card are a neat way of reminding us that in the old days, this story would have been completely on the side of the alpha male, which certainly isn't the case here. Next we have Ethosheia Hylton's Dọlápọ̀ is Fine [clip], which is probably the best short in this collection, and definitely the most entertaining one. The story of a black schoolgirl and the compromises she has to make to get a job, it gets its points across charmingly and without the slightest bit of preachiness. Finally, we get that Hollywood star in William Stefan Smith's Two Single Beds, because that star is Daniel Kaluuya, who also wrote the script. Kaluuya and Seraphina Beh play two stand-up comics stranded in Doncaster after missing the last train home, and forced to spend the night in a single hotel room. The dynamics of their relationship don't quite ring true, and Kaluuya does seem more comfortable writing from the male perspective than the female one: though he does give Beh one terrific speech about the beigeness of current TV comedy that isn't afraid to name names.
It's an impressively diverse collection of talent both in front of and behind the camera, but it's all a bit relentlessly grim - though maybe that's just the way we are in this country right now. So as I chose this particular shorts programme, I let The BBG choose the next one to see if she can do any better. "It's not a competition," she suggests.
3,30pm: This Is The Rhythm Of My Life [BFI Player page]
Yeah, but she wins anyway. This collection of half a dozen international shorts has an incredibly woolly linking brief - "music, film, faith, costumes and colour lift our spirits and allow us to dream" - but the end result is definitely more uplifting than the British selection from earlier. Although again, we could really do with a 'play all' button, or even just a 'skip intro' button like the one that horrifies me so much on Netflix.
Igor Dimitri's Salsa [trailer] makes for a gentle start to the proceedings: it's a slice of life view of Buenos Aires, mostly centered around a hair salon and the music of the title that's constantly playing in the background. Shot on 16mm film and positively revelling in its graininess and dust specks, it's got a real sense of life to it, and it takes you by surprise when it suddenly ends just as you feel it's about to kick off. Next up is Asho [trailer], Jafar Najafi's portrait of an Iranian shepherd boy who you imagine is just the sort of character that a documentary maker loves to discover. Asho's a big fan of films and Tim Burton, but less a fan of the cousin he's been engaged to since birth, and he can talk the back legs off a goat explaining all this directly to camera. It's a film with ludicrous amounts of charm, but you wouldn't want to spend much more than half an hour with the kid.
The most pleasurable film in this set is Jambo Cinema [director's site], Dawinder Bansal's deeply personal reminiscences of her father and his side career in the early 1980s - pirating Bollywood films for the benefit of the people of Wolverhampton. Assembled from countless TV and film clips, with authentic VHS tracking fuzz layered over the top, it's a huge hit of nostalgia for anyone of a certain age, and it makes me sad to learn that I missed out on Bansal's related art installation. Although Jambo Cinema's the most fun of the six shorts here, Morad Mostafa's Ward's Henna Party [complete film to buy] is the only one explicitly described as a comedy. I'd take issue with that - it starts off as the gentle tale of a henna painter and her daughter attending a bridal party so that mum can do the bride's tattoos, but by the end it's turned into something else. It rambles a bit along the way, but the last few seconds are quite the emotional rollercoaster.
If we're still looking for thematic links between consecutive shorts in these programmes, then you could argue that Ward's Henna Party and Mountain Cat work as a double bill about sickly daughters. Lkhagvadulam Purev-Ochir tells the story of a young Mongolian woman who's taken by her mother to a shaman to help cure her heart disease, and how things work out with that. It's a delicate little character piece, with most of its action going on under the surface. That's not something you could say about Mother [official site], Jas Pitt and Kate Stonehill's documentary about a 'house' of gay and trans vogue dancers in the favelas of Rio, preparing for a huge show and talking about their lives as they do so. A film of big emotions, big hair and even bigger dance routines, it makes for a joyous ending to this collection of shorts.
One more thing to note about the LFF shorts programmes this year, before we move on: there's an interactive component to them that's been shamefully underpublicised, so I'll mention it here. Each shorts programme has a watch-along timeslot when they recommend you watch the films, followed by a live Zoom Q&A with as many of the filmmakers as they can bring along. The watch-along and Q&A for UK Focus is on Tuesday October 13th, and the one for This Is The Rhythm Of My Life is on Thursday October 15th. If you fancy a chat with these people, now's your chance.
9.00pm: The Painter And The Thief [official Facebook]
Here's a story for you. Barbora Kysilkova is an artist, originally from the Czech Republic but now living in Norway, who specialises in huge photorealistic paintings. Two of her paintings are stolen from an Oslo gallery, but thanks to surveillance cameras both of the culprits are quickly caught. Kysilkova becomes fascinated by one of them - a junkie called Karl-Bertil Nordland, who claims to have been so stoned at the time that he can't remember where the pictures are now - and offers to paint his portrait. It's the start of a very unusual friendship: one that seems typically Scandinavian in its non-judgmental nature, but turns out to be a lot more than just a high-class artist exploiting a low-class criminal.
Spoiler alert: The Painter And The Thief is a documentary. That may seem like too obvious a thing to class as a spoiler. However, this film is so intensely structured as a narrative, I spent about half of it convinced that these were actors performing a made-up story. That's partly down to the smart use of archive footage, which covers the backstory up to the point where director Benjamin Ree first got involved (including shots of Kysilkova painting one of the stolen pictures). It also helps that Ree carefully built up a good relationship with his principals: in the Q&A he explains that he involved them so closely in the filming, they called him to let him know when something was about to happen that he might want to capture.
On top of all this there's the story itself, a wild tangle of plot twists and reversals that would get you laughed out of a studio if you presented them in a script. There are individual moments in here that are jaw-dropping - Nordland's reaction to seeing himself in a painting for the first time definitely counts as one of those. But it's the slow build of the character study that's most impressive, showing the subtle shifts in the relationship between the painter and the thief, and ingeniously jumping back and forth in time to show events from both their viewpoints.
Maybe saying out loud that this film's a documentary does count as a spoiler, and if so then I'm sorry, because it means you'll won't get that exhilarating sense of uncertainty that I got when I watched it - a feeling I haven't had since 2008, when I went into Slumdog Millionaire believing it was a true story. But The Painter And The Thief is still an astonishing piece of filmmaking, however real you think it is.