Tag: Film Festival

The L-Shaped Room

Credit: British Lion Films

Orla Smith

In a recent talk at the BFI Southbank, Danny Boyle made the bold claim: “I am not sure that we [the British] are great filmmakers.” This quote set off two warring factions in my brain. One is the side that’s been writing about film for over five years — and watching it voraciously for even longer. It’s the side that grimly sighs and remembers the dozens of recent fanatically hyped up British debut features that turned out to elicit a series of homogenous shrugs. 

Then there’s the side of me that’s a fledgling filmmaker, one short film deep and terrified at the prospect of building a career in the increasingly hostile British film industry. There’s so much to say about Britain right now, and so few means by which to say it (at least in the medium of film). Yes, our homegrown box office hits are Fisherman’s Friends (2019) and Downton Abbey: A New Era (2022), and you might watch one of our government-funded independent films and find you’ve forgotten about it by breakfast the next morning. But it hasn’t always been like this, and my Christmas wish (for the sake of my future filmmaking as well as my own viewing pleasure) is that it won’t be like this for much longer. Consider this a Christmas card to Danny Boyle (with the British government cc’d), asking him to consider whether British filmmakers are the problem, or if Britain itself is shielding artists from their own potential.

This year, our press cohort has fallen over itself to praise directorial debuts Aftersun (Charlotte Wells) and Blue Jean (Georgia Oakley), with both of them triumphing at the British Independent Film Awards (BIFAs) over titles directed by more established filmmakers. (I’d like to throw in some support for the less-discussed and BIFA-ignored Pretty Red Dress by Dionne Edwards, which I slightly prefer to both, for its energetic filmmaking and its lived-in portrait of a Black South London family messily grappling with gender nonconformity.) Last year it was After Love (Aleem Khan), Boiling Point (Philip Barantini), and Censor (Prano Bailey-Bond). Stretch a little further back and you’ll remember the beloved His House (Remi Weekes, 2020), Saint Maud (Rose Glass, 2019), Ray & Liz (Richard Billingham, 2018), Apostasy (Daniel Kokotajlo, 2017), I Am Not a Witch (Rungano Nyoni, 2017), Lady Macbeth (William Oldroyd, 2016)… the list could go on further than you care to read. All have their merits, some I like more than others, but each of these are films that scream “POTENTIAL” without fully delivering on it. Because of course they don’t. What is a first feature if not a place from which to grow?

But what else ties all those films together, besides their debut feature status? All of their directors are yet to make a second film.

We are setting our emerging filmmakers up to fail; the UK film industry is currently little more than a constant stream of empty promises. Plenty of programmes exist to support first features, such as iFeatures, which has aided the development of films like Blue Jean, Perfect 10 (Eva Riley, 2020), Make Up (Claire Oakley, 2020), Pin Cushion (Deborah Haywood, 2017), God’s Own Country (Francis Lee, 2017), Apostasy, Lady Macbeth, The Levelling (Hope Dickson-Leach, 2016), and more. And yet, of that list, Francis Lee is the only filmmaker to have made a second film — and only with the support of American company Neon.

When we’re not hanging them out to dry completely, we are driving promising talent out of the country to seek funding elsewhere. In rare cases, this means Americans funding British-set projects, like Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir/Eternal Daughter trilogy (2019-2022), or Lee’s Ammonite. More commonly, this means artists leaving the country to tell American stories. Around half of Andrew Haigh’s creative output has been US-centric, and he’s now based in LA, which is a loss of one of Britain’s most thoughtful writers of character, and one of few contemporary filmmakers who really know how to block a scene. Lynne Ramsay and Andrea Arnold are two of the most stylistically distinct filmmakers to emerge in the 21st-century, certainly in Britain, both of them bringing poetry to marginal lives in ways that are very much their own. Still their careers seems to have shifted toward stateside storytelling with Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and You Were Never Really Here (2017), and Arnold’s American Honey (2016). (Perhaps we’ll win Arnold back after her catastrophic experience on Big Little Lies Season 2, but it’s too early to tell if her documentary Cow is a homecoming or a brief digression.) And it took Steve McQueen three American features (one a Best Picture winner) to be able to come back to Britain and make his opus Small Axe (2020). Even still, that watershed work that chronicles the stories of London’s West Indian community could only exist on TV, and never got its day in movie theatres.

In one of the most politically fraught times in recent British history — it certainly feels like we’re teetering on the brink of collapse — we need British cinema about Britain that is political, sharp, urgent, and compelling. The current moment should inspire a new wave of politically-charged films, and yet the waters are shallow and tepid. Sure, it’s encouraging that projects from diverse voices are increasingly being greenlit: more women are making films in Britain, and more people of colour, although certainly not enough. More queer stories are being told (although trans directors are conspicously absent from the list of filmmakers above, perhaps because the transphobia of British institutions outweighs their desire to appear progressive). 

But what use is providing one-off funding to the next generation when you have no interest in cultivating artists, and allowing them to have a career? It takes skill and practice to make a film that speaks meaningfully to the current moment, discussing political systems and personal plights in a way that’s poetic rather than trite. There’s a multitude of reasons that we aren’t seeing that in our national cinema, but it’s certainly partly because we aren’t allowing filmmakers to grow into the kinds of artists that can achieve something that profound. We aren’t providing them the freedom to work in an unconventional way, if that’s what they need to achieve results. Hell, even an old hand like Mike Leigh is struggling to get a project off the ground, even though it’s hard to think of a film more resonant to contemporary London than his nearly thirty-year-old film Naked (perhaps double billed with his 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky, to compare and contrast a nihilist’s and optimist’s views of the city). It amounts to nothing more than good PR for the arts sector, rather than actually equalising the cinematic voice of the nation.


In my state of depression about the country’s myriad legislative clusterfucks, the lack of political conviction and poetry in our filmmaking, and my own depressing career prospects, I found myself drawn back over half a century to the British New Wave. These films, which were predominantly produced in the early 1960s, massively shaped how British cinema is thought of and talked about, particularly since it originated the term ‘kitchen sink drama’, still hurled around today, and sometimes in a derogatory context. Watching Tony Richardson’s A Taste of Honey (1962) was a shock to the system. Somehow, cultural memory has marked these films as oppressive and traumatic, when some of them are filled with life, youthful energy, and visual beauty — if also accompanied by harsh truths.

These were films primarily concerned with working class lives, particularly in the North of England, responding to a lack of those stories in the British cinema landscape. They treated their characters as complex, thorny people; at turns bitter, humorous, sexy, and mad as hell (another label attached to the movement is ‘angry young men’). These were progressive films for their time, discussing class, misogyny, and various taboo subjects with more frankness than you’d find in most other contemporaneous films. And most importantly of all, they were largely compelling and exquisitely crafted.

The L-Shaped Room (1962) is a personal favourite of mine, and despite being an outlier as one of the few films in the movement to centre on a female protagonist, I think it represents a lot of the strengths of the New Wave. Directed by Bryan Forbes (Whistle Down the Wind, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, The Stepford Wives), the film follows a French woman named Jane (Leslie Caron) who moves into a rundown Notting Hill boarding house and grows to know and love its residents. Here we have an expertly directed ensemble drama with a strong sense of place (it is named after its setting, after all), that is matter-of-fact about the difficulties faced by working class people, but still holds so much compassion and warmth for its characters. The way The L-Shaped Room depicts outsiders on the fringes of society feels surprisingly modern: it’s primarily about the stigma surrounding single motherhood, and the film discusses abortion; it also features multiple queer characters, including a Black immigrant who Jane befriends when she moves next door to him. It’s much less of a difficult watch than something like the blisteringly rageful Look Back in Anger (1959), because the angry young man here (Tom Bell’s Toby) isn’t the lead character, but supporting to Jane (and he’s not nearly as awful as Richard Burton’s Jimmy Porter in Anger, because who is). But The L-Shaped Room still ends on an achingly melancholy note that provokes anger at the system that has left its characters with no good or easy choices. 

Crucially, this New Wave, which had ripple effects that are still felt in British cinema today, was not achieved by waiting patiently for the establishment to act. In fact, you can trace a lot of its films back to one production company: Woodfall Film Productions, founded by Tony Richardson, John Osborne, and Harry Saltzman, who wanted to create a film adaptation of Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger. They were artists frustrated by the lack of opportunities to tell the kinds of stories they wanted to tell, and get them screened, so they created those opportunities independently. In the ‘60s alone, Woodfall produced eight of Tony Richardson’s own films. Other significant filmmakers of the British New Wave, several of which were supported by Woodfall at some point, worked frequently throughout the late ‘50s and early ‘60s: Karel Reisz, Richard Lester, Desmond Davis, Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach, Jack Clayton, Bryan Forbes, etc. Today’s cohort is significantly less white and male — but it’s hard to pat the BFI on the back for that progress when they’ll never offer contemporary filmmakers the chance to practise and hone their craft (and thus shape and enrich our film culture) as frequently as the New Wave directors got to.

I don’t think the BFI, Film4, or the British government’s (lack of) arts money generosity is going to save British film any time soon. There are models for government arts funding that support rich and varied works — there’s plenty wrong with the French film industry, but you can’t deny that they hungrily cultivate auteurs and greenlight risk-taking films. It’s hard to imagine the BFI ever funding a debut fiction film as challenging as Alice Diop’s patience-demanding, morally murky Saint Omer (2022). Or even any film, debut or not, as challenging as Saint Omer or Julia Ducournau’s car-fucking spectacular Titane (2021) or Justine Triet’s exquisitely strange Sibyl (2020). It’s a goal to strive for, but we’re a long way from having a government-funded infrastructure that supports the regular creation of daring works.

My wish for the new year is that filmmakers in this country find canny ways to make and exhibit work within Britain — about life in Britain — without having to wait to be sanctioned by our arts funding overlords, and that we (as viewers) shift our attention to what artists on the fringes are creating. That might mean independent production companies, or it might mean experimenting with modes of filmmaking that don’t require tons of money, or any money at all (they do exist!). Whatever it is, it will require collaboration, ingenuity, and a little bit more hope for our cinematic potential than that possessed by Danny Boyle.

Purple Sea

Credit: Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed

Cathy Brennan

When I think of British film culture in the present moment, the word cosy is pretty fucking far from my mind. To be cosy is to be contented and being in such a state makes one vulnerable. It’s also not very exciting. My holiday wish would be for a new British film culture where screenings become riots, industry assholes are exposed, and institutions crumble into dust. All that may be too much to ask, so for the purposes of this piece I’ll simply wish for more curiosity from film criticism.

In a cocktail-laden conversation with fellow CYZ contributor and denpa queen Ellisha Izumi, she told me about her annual tradition of watching every Best Picture nominee ahead of the Oscars; an oftentimes gruelling task we both agreed. What I came to realise is that I don’t actually watch a lot of the tongue-waggiest films, whether they be blockbusters, award-winners or indie darlings. I still haven’t seen The Shape of Water (2017), nor Top Gun: Maverick (2022). The release of a second Avatar stirs no excitement in my breast, and the fulsome response to Aftersun (2022) has rained off most of my interest. This prompts an existential questioning over my cinephilic credentials. Am I so out of touch? And just like a certain school principal, the conclusion I come to is no, it’s the broadsheets who are wrong.

My critical practice is far better rewarded by seeking out the extraordinary in the margins. If everybody watches the same films, then you’ll get a lot of flat opinions, regardless of whether the thumb directs a film towards the heavens, or condemns it to the dirt. Going off-piste has served me and my friends well. Back in the 2019 edition of London Film Festival (LFF), I was among the early championing cries for Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca (2019). My friend Paul Farrell still talks about his experience of LFF 2018 where he spurned Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) for the Black Country-set Ray & Liz (2018), and skipped the raucous 8am press screening for The Favourite (2018) to see a firecracker in the form of Diamantino (2018). A crazy-eyed Paul coming up to me that morning in Leicester Square and saying “mate, I’ve just seen Diamantino” remains a cherished memory.

Even as festival programmers take great effort to platform underrepresented voices in filmmaking, that energy isn’t matched when it comes to promoting these films beyond festival audiences. As of writing, Miryam Charles’ unbearably personal Cette Maison (2022) only has 2 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, one from The Guardian and another from Little White Lies. Scratch around and you will find reviews in Sight & Sound and Hackney Citizen, but otherwise this is a mouse squeak from the realm of film criticism. Cette Maison is perhaps one of the finest examples of film as a personal art form to be released this year. It’s a probing expression of Charles’ grief over the horrific death of her teenage cousin Tessa in 2008. Shot on woozy 16mm film, Cette Maison functions as a fictional biography for Tessa as well as a reflection on her family’s Haitian roots. There is a sustained commitment to hybridity in the film by eliminating distinctions between fiction and documentary, the use of both French and Haitian Creole, and even the boundary between memory and fantasy. All this serves to transport you into a specific headspace, submerging you in the grasping thought processes of grief. A genuine work of art.

Another film that’s just as personal is Purple Sea (2020). Directed by Syrian artist Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed, the film is comprised of footage taken from a GoPro camera attached to Azakout’s wrist, when the boat she and other refugees were on sank off the coast of Lesbos in 2015. 42 of those refugees died. When I first saw Purple Sea it was being screened as part of the Open City Documentary Festival in September 2020. Around this time there was a shift in British media coverage as months of COVID’s domination of the newscycle gave way to a resurgence of xenophobic reporting on people crossing the English Channel in small boats seeking asylum in the UK. Some have drowned attempting to cross the channel including children. As I write this sentence at midday on 14th December 2022, BBC News is updating on an incident in which at least three people are thought to have died crossing the channel in the early hours of the morning. The reason why people make such a perilous crossing is because their lives are held with such xenophobic indifference by the French and British governments that no safer routes are made available to them.

Purple Sea depicts a rare perspective in our media landscape: that of a refugee during a crossing. A Sky News report from August 2020 demonstrates the mainstream media point of view. A posh white woman calls out to a group of Black men packed onto an inflatable dinghy for comment. On more than one occasion she refers to such sights as “unsettling” without elaboration. The people making the crossing are othered, viewed at a distance. They don’t speak like the reporter whose own voice exudes an imperial authority. A spectatorial relationship is established through such reporting. We, the presumed white British viewer, are able to project whatever we like onto these people. In Purple Sea, Alazakout’s voiceover (recorded after the boat sinking) wonders whether people in a hovering helicopter were filming the disaster and who they saw drowning: “Refugees? Criminals? Victims? Or just numbers? Fuck you all!”

Purple Sea was released on Mubi in August 2021. More desperate people had drowned trying to cross England’s moat. It was a rare and real opportunity for film critics to draw attention to a small film about an ongoing humanitarian crisis that has defined the character of 21st century Europe. Instead, it passed by with next-to-no coverage. One brief review in The Guardian, plus my review for We Love Cinema. In November that year, 27 out of 30 people on an inflatable dinghy, similar to the one seen in that Sky News report, drowned in the English Channel. It was the largest loss of life on the Channel since the International Organization for Migration started collecting data in 2014.

It would be offensive to blame film critics for such a disaster. More extensive coverage of Purple Sea on its release would not have had any impact on this crisis. But I think Purple Sea’s neglect by publications and critics is indicative of an incurious character that is dominant within film culture, one that can only engage with the political realities of our time in superficial “eat the rich, buy our shit”-style sloganeering.

Such short-sightedness is the product of a norm where we as critics try to get ahead of predetermined festival favourites, and pre-selected award show contenders, which leaves truly small films with nobody in their corner. I am just as guilty of this. While Paul was enraptured by Ray and Liz, I subjected myself to Luca Guadagnino’s self-important reimagining of Suspiria, and tried to pretend it was a work worthy of serious consideration because it seemed to be the film of the moment. Of course responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of underpaid critics. Editors for traffic-hungry publications ensure priority is given to films which have the big bucks backing them. PR companies also hold a tighter grip on a film’s narrative as it goes from festival favourite to Letterboxd classic. Critics do not matter in this environment and so there’s little material incentive to seek out the unfamiliar. We therefore get sucked into the money-driven machinations of a film industry that we should keep at arm’s length, and disingenuously puff ourselves up as artistic taste-makers or, dare I say, influencers.

The reluctance to meaningfully engage with the political and emotional dimensions of a film can at times come across as revulsion, instead prioritising some nebulously defined formal quality that make films with little buzz vulnerable to cold disregard. In Girish Shambu’s 2019 manifesto For a New Cinephilia, he characterises the old cinephilia as an insular attitude towards culture that “privileges aesthetic pleasure.” The context in which Alazakout’s footage was captured morally rules out any possibility for aesthetic pleasure. Indeed that’s what makes it such a vital film. However one review of Purple Sea casually dismissed it as an “arthouse trifle.”

Film culture would not be made more cosy if more critics seriously engaged with films so personal they cut right down to the marrow like Cette Maison and Purple Sea. But it would be far less alienating than it is now. I don’t want to read a dozen reviews about how relatable The Worst Person in the World (2021) is to millennial women, or how much of a badass dude James Cameron is for overworking VFX teams to produce his white saviour fantasy land. For Shambu, the new cinephilia should be “fully in contact with its present global moment.” I don’t think film criticism is there yet.

When thinking about this, an experience my mind keeps coming back to is queuing for an early morning press screening at that 2018 edition of LFF. The film was Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), and it was being held at Picturehouse Central. At the beginning of the year, the cinema staff had called off a strike demanding a living wage because they had been threatened with losing even more pay that the workers could not afford to endure. Waiting outside the cinema on that chilly October morning meant standing over sleeping homeless people. I remember looking around and seeing my fellow critics and cinephiles chirpily chatting away about the films they’d seen, seemingly unconcerned about the people lying next to them or whether such chatter would disturb their sleep. We were eventually let in to watch If Beale Street Could Talk and were moved by the film’s portrayal of racist inequity in 1970s Harlem, while shutting ourselves off from the reality just outside. My Christmas wish is not just for critics to show more curiosity in the films we choose to watch, but also more curiosity in how the films we watch inform our understanding of the world around us.

Bullet Train

Credit: Fuenferfilm, Tita Productions

Joseph Owen

Notes from Locarno, 2022

This year Locarno Film Festival celebrated its diamond edition: 75 years of cinema in a small town tucked between Lake Maggiore and the Swiss Alps. It’s wet and warm, mostly at the same time. Stormy weather offers language. Dark and moody, like the sky. I’ve brought a thin, waterproof poncho, and a cap. The people are rich and the food is expensive. The festival’s artistic director, Giona A. Nazzaro, is two years into his premiership, and because he has written several books on Hong Kong action cinema, attendees speculate on the programme’s tilt towards genre moviemaking. A Coke Zero costs around five Swiss francs. 

The marriage between art and commerce forms part of the festival’s conundrum. David Leitch’s fists-and-banter epic Bullet Train opens Piazza Grande, the vast plein-air cinema in the main square. It stars Brad Pitt and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. No better time than to watch Fairytale (dir. Alexander Sokurov), an absurd CGI theatre that reanimates Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin onto purgatorial ruins. None of these characters can die, Sokurov tells us, because they’ll always be alive, and because they’re already dead. 

Competition films Stone Turtle (dir. Ming Jin Woo) and Tommy Guns (dir. Carlos Conceição), one Malaysian and the other Portuguese, confront the nature of violence by appealing to the mode of revenge thriller. Stone Turtle is about how men hurt women; Tommy Guns is about how soldiers colonise countries. Both intersperse ethnographic scene-setting with category stylings: the former employs a Groundhog Day mystery; the latter evokes the horror latent in the return of the repressed. A critic I speak with suggests that these films illustrate a prevailing, even permanent, “gentrification of genre.” I wonder if this phrase is right, wary that the artistic predilections of directors, programmers, festivals and audiences generally tend to fluctuate and dissipate, so that in time they can be resurrected.  

A Perfect Day for Caribou (dir. Jeff Rutherford) concerns the misery handed from father to son: how intergenerational failure deepens and transforms as time passes. A middle-aged man, Herman (Jeb Berrier), balding but otherwise hirsute, sits in his pick-up truck, recording a suicide note for his estranged son, Nate (Charlie Plummer). Nate calls to reconnect, setting in motion a subsequent two-hander of “remember when,” held across a sprawling backdrop of Oregon hills, peaks, and plains. Shot in black and white, the screen appears in a cramped 4:3 ratio, shading with irony the wide expanses of terrain and jagged rises. The concentrated, tasteful framing of situations, objects, and characters is distracting: the bisected cemetery where Nate arrives in his car; the display of household goods tied to Herman’s truck. The inarticulate dialogue insinuates authentic portrayal but is novelistic. Plummer has a difficult role as a young man struggling to reconcile with his wounded patriarch: his strained, tilted head, his self-conscious mumbling, and the inevitable moment of his climactic anger. This sad, lonely outsider is a classic figure illustrating the film’s own derivative nature. To derive is no bad thing, but the inspired moments in this work are purely imaginative. One abrupt shot of a family unit—Nate, Herman, and a woman whom they briefly encounter—offers a striking alternative reality of lives redeemed, or at least not yet destroyed.

Medusa Deluxe (dir. Thomas Hardiman) is a slick, shallow, serpentine debut feature high on bombast and short on plausibility. This is filmmaking as elevator pitch: a murder mystery set during a regional hairdressing competition, suddenly capsized by a gruesome scalping, igniting a carnival of restless, bickering grotesques. These wretched souls point fingers and elude interrogation, slinging blame into a cyclone-whip of opprobrium. This movie is not a polite retread of the static, classic whodunnit; rather it is a roving visual slalom, an ostensibly “one-take” showcase for prominent cinematographer Robbie Ryan. The cast is without household names, so Ryan’s bravura camerawork is the star performer, tagging his lens onto rival stylists and their coiffured models. The technical work is impressive, the acting haphazard, and the plot nonsensical. The film likes to insist on how fun it is: this tendency culminates in an encore dance number that’s valedictory and unearned. The snippy, quickfire dialogue is generally overengineered, thwarting the viewer’s amateur-detective efforts to decipher the killer or understand motivations of the accused and accusers. 

Human Flowers of Flesh (dir. Helena Wittmann) is a work heavy on images and light on exposition, harbouring a tendency to meditate rather than explicate. The story (as much as it is revealed) concerns Ida (Angeliki Papoulia) and her polylingual crew as they sail from Marseille to Corsica to Sidi-Bel-Abbes, following the trail of the French Foreign Legion. Their motivation for this trip is not just historical; it is spontaneous. The six-strong group possess an occasional curiosity: bodies of water constitute a stage upon which to wander and contemplate, the promise of an endless horizon. These people embody the romantic attitude, quoting poetic passages from Marguerite Duras, offering sparse narration to life on deck and onshore.

This is a film about looking. Ida leads the troop of five men (an ironic comparison Wittmann insinuates) across a rocky cliff-face. They observe the boat from afar, established within a glorious seascape. When the viewer sees them, we are afforded an abridged perspective. Wittmann, as cinematographer, deploys severe styles of framing: her camera follows only the succession of feet as they negotiate the coastal terrain. Elsewhere, the filmmaker tends to abstract picture-making, showing comparably small organisms on separate trajectories: a snail on its sticky path towards some watermelon; a spider cocooning a fly in its web; nebulous bacteria gestating under a microscope. Other shots are more conventional: white buoys are match-cut to nautical portholes.

Wittmann hangs her captain’s hat on a homage to Claire Denis’ 1999 film, Beau Travail, whose direct and literal influence extends to the port of Marseille, shadowboxing on the sand, and pedantic bed-making. Denis Lavant’s character, Galoup, is extraordinarily reintroduced. His short scenes—standout, comic, kinetic—break the formal austerity, reimagining the film’s unhurried treatise on colonial power, mythic legacy, and histories of extraction and conflict. These themes find a vessel in the figure of Galoup, presumed lost to a cinematic past, now juggling three eggs and acting the clown. This belated revelation expresses a kind of beauty, and it is even more striking given the meticulous, undulating visual grammar that preceded it. Galoup never died, I suppose, because he’ll always be alive, and because he’s already dead.

Cinema Year Zero is volunteer run. Our goal is to pay writers a fair fee for their work. So if you like what you find at Cinema Year Zero, please consider subscribing to our Patreon!