by Ge Allan
The 64th BFI London Film Festival has begun and with it, as expected, comes a digital streaming lineup plus some physical events in London.
This year's much anticipated films include ‘Nomadland’ by Chloé Zhao, ‘Ammonite’ and multiple Steve McQueen films. But to start, we kicked off our festival watching some directorial debuts right from the comfort of our beds.
‘Farewell Amour’ (dir. Ekwa Msangi)
We kicked off with the gently moving debut by Tanzanian-American filmmaker Ekwa Msangi. We begin by seeing New York taxi driver, Walter, picking up his estranged wife Esther and teenage daughter Sylvia, who he has not seen for 17 years due to the Angolan civil war.
Esther expects for them to pick up where they left off and be a family ‘as god intended’ whereas Walter is stuck in his previous adjusted life. He split up with his girlfriend for the reunion and is discomforted by Esther’s devout prayer and church-going that he is now forced into. Instead, he occasionally drinks red wine and enjoys salsa dancing in beautiful suits.
Through a subtle storytelling device we fill in the gaps and explore each character's experience of events, coming to understand why Sylvia is so reserved and why Esther relies on the church so much.
The film does devolve into somewhat cliched and saccharine devices, where Sylvia’s repressed desire to dance becomes an overdrawn metaphor for the family’s internal struggles. Despite this, each character is given time to be fully fleshed out and the use of light is wonderful.
Something often noted by people of colour is how many cinematographers and directors do not understand how lighting works on black skin. However, here the cast are exquisitely lit, alternately in rich warmth or blue light, techniques recognisable from films such as ‘Atlantics’ or ‘Moonlight’.
While an imperfect film, this affecting debut shows empathy with the many refugees or immigrants who have left their home country for better things and are faced with the harsh reality of life in the US.
‘I Am Samuel’ (dir. Peter Murimi)
Over five years, director Peter Murimi followed Samuel, a gay man from a rural village in Kenya who has gone to live in Nairobi and is in love with his partner Alex.
However in Kenyan law, being gay is punishable for up to 14 years. We see shocking footage of Samuel’s friend being brutally attacked for being gay, horrific slurs and rocks thrown at him.
Over the course of this vacillating documentary, Samuel explains his life as we see him functioning through Nairobi; working hard at two jobs and having fun with his many gay friends, with whom he discusses being queer in Kenya.
He also visits his parents who don’t know he is gay and believes him and his friend Alex are close friends. His Mum calls them twins for how close they are and alike in character. Alex however gets attacked at one point in the film after they both come out to their respective parents and we understand the very real threat the community imposes on anyone suspected to be gay.
While the depiction of being gay in Kenya is fascinating, the film can be rather slow and confusing at times. We never realise the passage of time until we see Samuel’s small child from a previous (forced) heterosexual relationship now a young woman, and his family later accepting Alex into the family.
While the verité style and unexplained changes in Samuel’s life are a choice of the filmmaker, there are no discussions of the issues faced day-to-day as a gay man. What made his family come to accept him? How is Alex affected by the attack? Samuel suddenly starts preaching at a church with his father and Alex begins to be called Henry, both for unexplained reasons. Without some filling in of the gaps we are left without much understanding of the issues deep rooted in Kenya or a deeper connection to the subjects.
180° Rule (dir. Farnoosh Samadi)
Iranian director Farnoosh Samadi’s directorial debut is a striking yet very bleak affair, reminiscent of icy European filmmakers such as Thomas Vinterberg or Michael Haneke.
We are painted a succinct picture of Sara, a schoolteacher, wife to controlling Hamed and mother to the cherubic Raha. Hamed prevents the family from attending a much anticipated family wedding last minute which leaves Sara dismayed. She also finds out that one of her young students is pregnant out of wedlock with an older boyfriend. The girl can’t tell her disapproving parents, despite Sara asking her to, and demands she keep it secret. Sara goes against her husband and decides to attend the wedding with their daughter, keeping yet another secret, and heads to the cold outskirts of Tehran.
After this concise first half, the second deals multiple blows to expectations. Through the first of two terrible tragedies, Sara has to deal with awful guilt and grief while enforcing her family to go along with the lie that she ever attended the wedding.
Many would most probably read the film as an indictment of Iranian women who disobey male order, and highlight its unjust punishment of her. But it rather could be read as a subtle illustration of the restrictions placed on Iranian women, how societal order forces Sara to keep secrets which entrap her and lead to her making uncomfortable decisions. In an incredibly short running time, Samad creates a tense family drama woven into a tale of the expectations on Iranian women.
Sara is a complex and prickly female lead which is always encouraging to see and the film raises questions of present women’s freedom in Iran. Made by a female director and discussing difficult choices by an Iranian wife and mother, it is hard to not see the film as doublespeak against the legal discrimination of women in Iran. The film leaves us bluntly and with incredibly cold ending but as a whole, it feels like a relevant comment on the importance of choice and not having to keep secrets.
In the next part we have a new batch of films to discuss, including Steve McQueen’s ‘Mangrove’, dive bar debauchery and hateful horror writers.
Ge Allan is the Film Editor of the Radical Art Review