Reviewed today: Identifying Features, If It Were Love, The Salt In Our Waters, Screen Talk: Es Devlin.
11.00am: The Salt In Our Waters [clip]
Here's one of the great mysteries of this year's LFF. As I've said before, the majority of the films are being shown online through the BFI Player. Obviously filmmakers would prefer people to see their work in a cinema, so the duration of their stay on the Player is time limited. For a lot of the biggest films being shown, you have a mere thirty-minute window to start playing it from when it first goes online: for the others, that window's kept open for seventy-two hours. Except for one: The Salt In Our Waters, a Bangladeshi film which went online on Tuesday and is staying available for ninety-six hours. What makes this one so different? Beats me. That's why I leave contract law to the professionals [waves at SpodoKomodo].
Following in the footsteps of his father, artist Rudro (Titas Zia) has travelled to a small fishing village to set up his studio there. It doesn't take too long for him to wear out his welcome: it's an incredibly traditional Muslim community run by a stern chairman, and the statues Rudro makes look very much like idol worship to them. When their fishing trade hits a dry spell, they blame it on the one thing that's changed in the village, and that's Rudro. The only person who sticks with him is his host's daughter Tuni (Tasnova Tamanna), and there's a whole other set of problems waiting to happen right there.
Rezwan Shahriar Sumit's film is incredibly impressive in all departments. The conflict between tradition and modernity is carefully played out without resorting to crude stereotyping on either side: a subtle climate change subtext gradually becomes text as a level 7 typhoon approaches the village. But none of this is allowed to get in the way of the story and the characters, so you never feel you're being preached at. The icing on the cake is Chananun Chotrungroj's beautiful cinematography, at home with both the glorious sunshine at the start and the tumultuous storm at the end. It's good enough to make you yearn for a proper cinema outing for this film: ironic, given that it's the one spending the most time online in this festival.
3.15pm: Screen Talk: Es Devlin [full interview]
If you count the recorded Q&A sessions that the LFF have been obligingly bundling in with every feature film this year, and add in the dedicated talk events like this one, then this counts as the 23rd (gulp) interview I've seen so far this festival. After that many, you start to become hypersensitive to the verbal tics of the various interviewees. The stage designer Es Devlin, being interviewed here by Sarah Perks for the first LFF Expanded Screen Talk, has one very specific tic: she starts many of her answers with the word "Listen..." I don't think she's being rude, just direct: she's got things she wants to say. On this evidence, some of them may be a tad pretentious, while others may be hilariously down-to-earth, but she'd like to be sure that they'll all be heard.
Here's one of them: the main reason why she's a designer is because when she was a child, there were only three channels on the telly, so she had to find other things to do. "We mustn't underestimate the amount of time kids can spend reading the backs of cereal packets. I loved it when the packet had something on it with dotted lines around it and a little picture of a pair of scissors, because that meant there was more you could do with it." When this gradually morphed into an interest in design, the main bit of careers advice she was given was that there was no money in theatre and she should try getting into TV instead. She personally found theatre cringey and embarrassing, but one day she walked into a stage design course and found an atmosphere that suited her perfectly, a messy combination of feral students and pot noodle containers. Her own careers advice to others is "walk into as many rooms as possible and stay in the ones you like."
Nowadays, she's got her own design studio, and sees its role as "turning ideas into forms" - starting with a primary text of some sort, passing it between people who convert it into a series of possibilities in the air, then taking the best of those possibilities and making it a concrete thing. She recognises the paradox that she's usually designing the look for a mass gathering - "currently an extinct medium" - but has to take into account that each individual audience member is expecting their own personal experience from it. Currently she's doing preparation for her role as the director of the 2021 London Design Biennale, and thinking a lot about the idea of resonance - the way that humans design objects like mobile phones, and then those objects can end up redesigning humans in some way.
Devlin's worked in theatre, art, and whatever the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics was, and all these areas are covered in the interview. Myself, I know her best for her designs for music shows, collaborating regularly with artists like Kanye West and Pet Shop Boys. (Here I am writing briefly about her work on the PSB's musical Closer To Heaven in 2001.) As a teenager her only real experience of concerts had been seeing bands at Tunbridge Wells Assembly Hall, and she hadn't really seen any of the big visual shows before being asked to design one herself. She sees her role as being responsible for what the music looks like, treating her sets less like environments where the artist performs, and more like garments they wear while doing it.
I wasn't quite sure initially why Devlin had been chosen as the subject of the first Expanded Screen Talk, implying a tie-in with the new strand covering virtual reality and other related technologies. She suggests it's because a lot of her work is pixel-based these days, with many of her designs being centred around huge LED screens. With her usual role of designing for large gatherings currently in limbo, she's currently thinking more about working in purely digital environments, while being conscious that we should never lose the connection back from there to the outside world. She illustrates it this way: when you go to a gig where everything is being synchronised by a pre-programmed timecode track - the speed of the music, the lighting and the video images - it feels totally different from a gig where everything is being synchronised by the drummer's breathing. It's a lovely image to finish on, and it's one I'll have to bear in mind if I ever get to see a live concert again.
4.30pm: If It Were Love [trailer]
Sometimes the reasons for choosing to see a film at a festival can be a bit vague. When the LFF programme came out in September, one of the films listed in it looked a bit familiar: and then I realised I'd seen a clip of it back in August. It was at the Design Museum's current exhibition Electronic: primarily a history of electronic music, but also along the way covering the parallel history of dance culture. A clip from If It Were Love was shown as part of the exhibition, demonstrating the way that clubbing and its dance moves have found their way into the artistic mainstream, while rubbing our noses in the fact that currently we're not allowed to do that sort of thing ourselves.
If It Were Love is actually based around a piece of contemporary dance called Crowd, choreographed by Gisèle Vienne, which takes 90s rave as its inspiration. Fifteen dancers on stage play a group of young people on a night out, and as the dance progresses we focus on various pairings-off and the stories behind them. It's played in a style that's beautiful to watch - largely in slow motion, with sudden bursts of synchronised speeding up.
The relationship between Gisèle Vienne's stage show and Patric Chiha’s film is an unusual one. He follows the show on tour, and shows sections of it as performed live, as well as during the rehearsals, with Vienne calling the moves from offstage. But he also talks to the dancers, and finds out more about the backstories they're attempting to portray in dance - some of which have been invented by Vienne and her collaborators, while others are details the dancers have brought in from their own lives. The dividing line between the two is left blurred, so you're never quite sure if, for example, Nazi Oscar is one of the characters or one of the dancers.
Chiha admits in the Q&A that he wasn't sure what sort of film he was going to make when he started the process, and to be honest it's still not certain now. There's an interesting idea at its heart, letting the dancers verbalise what they're trying to say in movement: but for that to be satisfying you need to be able to compare the two side by side, and all too often his clips from the show are too brief to allow that to happen. And if you get over-explanatory as some of the dancers do, to the extent of describing the subtext of an entire sequence beat by beat, then you're just watching an irritating DVD commentary. Including more of the show and less of the explanation might make this more of a conventional film, but I think that's what the source material deserves, out of respect for it if nothing else.
8.30pm: Identifying Features [official site]
I'll tell you one of the things I miss when doing a film festival largely from home, like this one: the tube journey home. It gives you a short period of physical decompression between the end of your last film and going to bed. Since Tuesday, we've ended the day with a disappearance and murder in Argentina, a suburban community of abusive families in Italy, and now more abduction and death on the Mexican border. If we have to do this again next year, we might need to explicitly plan programmes that'll send us to bed happier.
Meanwhile, in this one, Magdalena (Mercedes Hernández) has watched her son Jesús leave home and head off north to America for a better life. However, he never got there, and seems to have vanished altogether. Distraught, she goes off in search of him. Initially, faceless bureaucracy gets in her way: but that's preferable to what she finds as she gets closer to the border, where the law no longer exists and bandits rule the roads.
Director Fernanda Valadez does some intriguing things with this story. For a start, she makes sure that the focus isn't purely on Magdalena: early in the film we're comprehensively introduced to two other characters and their backstories, neither of whom will be involved with Magdalena until much later in the film. She's also not afraid to mix up her visual styles, with lyrical shots of the landscape contrasting with grimier footage of the lawless border towns: and expressionistic touches, such as one of those faceless bureaucrats I mentioned earlier always having her face out of shot.
Tying it all together is a lovely performance by Mercedes Hernández: her determination to find her son is never in doubt, as she trudges relentlessly across the Mexican landscape in search of answers. It's not a perfect film - those expressionistic touches extend as far as an actual appearance by the devil on at least one occasion, which feels like an odd misstep in the circumstances - but its sincerity and desire to highlight the current state of Mexico are all up there on the screen. Maybe we'll try to wrap up the remaining days of this festival with something a bit lighter, but I can't make any promises.