It's been an interesting twelve months for online film festivals, as long as you don't think too hard about all of the stuff happening outside which has forced us to have online film festivals in the first place. On this site, I've reviewed a few of my favourite real-world fests that have successfully pivoted to video (LFF, Sheffield Doc/Fest, JFTFP): and I've also covered a new one that was set up entirely from scratch (We Are One).
But here's a category I've steered clear of until now: real-world festivals that I've never got around to attending before, which are now open to me because they've moved online. Glasgow Film Festival has a perfectly fine reputation, but I'd never considered taking time out of my schedule to travel up there to be part of it. But if you put it all online and charge people a tenner a go to see a programme with some surprisingly hot movies in it, then you have my attention.
So, for one year only - hopefully, and I say that without any malice towards it - welcome to the only Scottish film festival worth a damn. (I believe the young people call this 'subtweeting'.)
We saw seven films over the twelve days of the festival, starting with the Opening Gala - Creation Stories, the Irvine Welsh-scripted life of Glaswegian record label boss Alan McGee (played by Ewen Bremner). It's as approximate a recreation of the truth as these things tend to be, flitting between McGee's teenage years as a music fan in Glasgow (with the added in-joke of his dad being played by Richard Jobson from The Skids), his move to London and the creation of Creation Records, the height of his fame when he signs Oasis, and the decline leading to a drugs-fuelled breakdown in LA.
Director Nick Moran has form with musical biopics - his adaptation of the Joe Meek story, Telstar, was lovely, though I appear to have said back in 2008 that he had trouble stopping the film from collapsing into chaos every so often. Now he's dealing with a genuinely chaotic figure like McGee, that tendency has been allowed to run riot. Because we're not in the 60s any more, the inevitable cheeky rock 'n' roll antics are here interwoven with far too much moralising psychobabble, encapsulated in the naff framing device of a poolside interview. It helps that the supremely likeable Ewen Bremner is playing McGee, as he keeps the character watchable even as he makes more and more poor decisions, although it has to be noted he ages at a totally different rate from everyone else in the film. But it’s a shoddily put-together piece of work, with too many montage sequences that drag on just to fill the length of a song.
No real biggie, though, because Creation Stories wasn't one of the three movies that persuaded me that I had to do Glasgow this year. Riders Of Justice, on the other hand, was one of them: the latest film by Danish writer/director Anders Thomas Jensen, whose previous movie Men And Chicken blew my mind when I saw it in Copenhagen six years ago. As before, Jensen has pulled together a cast of the top Danish actors, with return visits from Nikolaj Lie Kaas and Nicolas Bro, and Mads Mikkelsen once again at the forefront. He plays Markus, a soldier who has to come home from a tour of duty in the Middle East, after hearing news of a train accident that's killed his wife and traumatised his daughter. But he’s approached by three statisticians who’ve run the numbers and are convinced that it wasn’t an accident – and when they discover a connection to the Riders Of Justice biker gang, it’s the cue for Markus to take the law into his own hands.
The theme of a man with a Particular Set Of Skills avenging his family has become rather hackneyed in recent years, and if Riders Of Justice does anything it satirises the problems of the genre to wicked effect. For three-quarters of its running time it demonstrates total confidence in its whiplash changes in tone, tempered by a darker overall theme of how everything is connected in ways we can’t fathom. If it loses a little momentum at its climax, it's because Jensen hasn't found an alternative to the way that these films usually end: but the many surprises of the first three-quarters and the terrific performances by all concerned compensate for that slight sag in the finale. The weekend we saw Riders Of Justice was meant to be when Denmark's (and Mikkelsen's) other big hit of 2020, Another Round, opened in UK cinemas: that didn't happen, inevitably, but this works just fine as a substitute. (You still need to see Another Round when it comes out, though.)
We headed back to Scotland for Iorram (Boat Song), a film which got a small amount of press for being the first documentary ever made in Gaelic. It's slightly more experimental than that makes it sound, because this is a film that runs in two time periods simultaneously. The soundtrack is made up of audio interviews with Highland fishermen, recorded in the forties and the fifties, in which they recount their history and their old tales and songs. The visuals counterpointing this are images of today’s fishermen, and other people related to the modern trade like the seafood packing crews. It means there's a constant faint tension between what you hear and what you see - apart from one shot, which is almost gone before you realise what's happened. With lush photography and the genuine historical interest of the interviews, it makes for a lovely film to help you wind down on a Sunday night.
No disrespect to the Glaswegians, but unlike Alan McGee's film, the other music biography we chose from the programme - Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche - feels a lot more like a story that had to be told. Poly’s daughter Celeste Bell (who also co-directs with Paul Sng) takes us through through her mum’s archives to explain how a young mixed race kid in the seventies – as Don Letts points out, probably among the first most of us in the UK had ever seen in the charts – was warmly accepted by punk rock, a subculture made up of people who didn’t fit in. With her band X-Ray Spex she produced a small body of songs that roundly attacked the artificiality of modern life (Identity sounds shockingly on point these days). Within one year of the release of their only album, she'd been sectioned and told that she'd never work again. But there was a lot more of her story still to come.
There are technical issues you could quibble with here – in particular, Bell and Sng have a limited amount of X-Ray Spex footage to play with, meaning that a single German TV appearance gets chopped up and reused countless times. But what makes this film work is the raw personal approach taken by Bell throughout. It’s easy to forget how young Polly was when she started: she's still recognisably a teenager in a number of TV interviews where she's inevitably patronised by old men. I don't recall anyone at the time specifically reacting to her racial background - we were all more impressed by her complete refusal to play the game that girls in pop were expected to play. It makes the various external factors that led to her decline even more heartbreaking. Without getting too exploitative, the film gets across the tragedy of a woman who started out as a pioneer but ended up being eaten by the business like so many before her.
Remember I said there were three films that made GFF a must-attend festival this year? Well, here comes the second. First Cow is a return to the wild West for director Kelly Reichardt. I have fond memories of her previous attempt at the genre, Meek's Cutoff, particularly the way that my pal Nick wrote it off as an "ambient western". I was partly amused by the phrase, and partly amused by the idea that this was somehow a bad thing: and now it's more amusing, because First Cow is even more ambient. It tells the story of two loners who find each other on the Oregon trail: Cookie (John Magaro), who's reluctantly cooking for a band of trappers, and King-Lu (Orion Lee), who's on the run for murder. Both of them are looking for a way to get out of the rut they find themselves in, and end up collaborating in a get-rich-slow scheme that involves the ruminant of the title, as well as a sizeable element of risk.
The copyright date on First Cow is 2019, which presumably means it's been spending a year or so in quarantine waiting for cinemas to re-open - if the pre-roll advert on this screening is to be believed, it's probably going to go straight to Mubi. Which is a crying shame, because lots of it is shot in incredibly low light, which would look splendid in a cinema but less so on a home screen. But that quibble aside, it’s another fine piece of work from Reichardt: a typically human story with a pair of charming leads and some lovely supporting performances from the likes of Ewen Bremner (again) and Toby Jones. And it's all wrapped up with a simple tweak in the storytelling which gives the ending even more power than it would normally have.
The Dissident wasn't one of the big three films that attracted me to Glasgow this year, but it's the one that got the most press hype prior to its screening, as could only be expected given the white hot news story it tells. Bryan Fogel looks at the life of Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who was forced to leave Saudi Arabia after his commentary on local politics ruffled too many feathers. As everyone knows by now, his visit to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 – to pick up some paperwork relating to his upcoming wedding – ended horrifically. Fogel interviews journalists and activists from all over the world, and tries to piece together what really happened.
I found the result a bit too slick for its own good – it’s a dramatic enough story, it doesn’t need to be hyped up with the sort of devices that a Hollywood thriller would use. Fogel disagrees, though: I've seen interviews with him where he insists that he had to take this approach to get his film seen at all. And as so much of the story hinges on an audio recording (which we don't hear) of the events at the consulate, it could do with a bit more clarity over how that recording came to exist in the first place: the implication that Turkey bugs diplomatic buildings as a matter of course seems to be passed over here with a shrug. But the hype doesn’t overshadow the basic drama of the story, and getting it out to a wider audience can only be a good thing. Whether it has any impact in the wider world, given how little has changed in the last two years, is another story altogether.
Still, as our last two films of this festival are documentaries, they make for an interesting contrast in styles: one of them's shot, edited and scored like an episode of 24, and the other, well, isn't. Frederick Wiseman embodies the absolute antithesis of The Dissident's approach, and City Hall - the third of the must-see films on my list - marks the first time we've watched one of his documentaries at home, rather than in a cinema. It does mean you’re not locked into his gargantuan running times – in this case, 4 hours 35 minutes. We cheated and took a short break: there’s a short musical number two and a quarter hours in that felt like the perfect cue for a cup of tea and an Eccles cake. Once again, Wiseman takes a public institution – in this case, the Boston civic administration – and scrutinises it intensely without the use of captions or voiceover. For this approach to work, Wiseman needs subjects who can clearly express their point of view in the public gatherings and private meetings that make up the bulk of his locations, and Boston's mayor Marty Walsh is the perfect example.
Shot in late 2018 to early 2019, it depicts Walsh as an incredibly hands-on mayor, making an appearance at countless gatherings in one of the most diverse cities in the US, taking his clichéd status as a white man born of Irish immigrant stock as his cue to make himself somehow part of that diversity. As ever, Wiseman’s aim is to show what America should look like when it works, as people get together to move the city forward with Walsh at their forefront, occasionally complaining that Washington isn’t likely to be any help to them till at least 2020. But the non-public-employees get their say too, especially in a brilliantly edited half hour sequence of a public meeting discussing a proposed medical marijuana shop. It’s all assembled with the director's usual grace and skill, and makes you wonder if and where Wiseman’s cameras were running during 2020.
It's only a couple of weeks since GFF 2021 finished, but as film distribution is all over the place nowadays, two of the seven films - Creation Stories and Poly Styrene - have already been shown on Sky TV and can now be caught up with online. Iorram was on BBC Alba earlier this year, and may well make it out to the rest of the network at some point or other. The Dissident appears to be having problems finding anyone with the balls to distribute it here. As for the rest, First Cow is due on Mubi in April, Riders Of Justice should get picked up eventually, and City Hall is probably cursed to only ever turn up at film festivals, like most other Wiseman films. Still, that's a pretty solid collection of movies, and I'm grateful to Glasgow for giving me the chance to see them all within a fortnight of each other. Will I be back in 2022? I certainly enjoyed the opportunity to participate from home, but on a deeper level I'm hoping that won't be an option next year. Being a monkey, and all.