BFI LFF 2019: Previews (2-5 October)

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project is a documentary that seeks to explain a wealthy woman’s compulsive recording of the multi-channels of US TV for posterity.


by Alexa Dalby

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Marion Stokes was a Philadelphia librarian and outspoken campaigner who married wealthy John Stokes, in an interracial love match on which his first family seemed reserved in their comments. Thereafter, her project was to record on the technology of the time – VHS tapes – the news and occasional other programme on each of the many US TV channels on her constantly playing TV sets. When she died, there were over 70,000 tapes that she stored in a separate apartment that her son was eventually able to donate to a museum of cultural history.

She was an obsessive, yet also she was rightly aware of the importance of preserving the everyday fabric of our lives. Things that we de-clutter ourselves of without a second thought today are actually the museum artifacts of tomorrow that will tell the story of our long-dead society. The documentary never really gets to the bottom of what motivated her so strongly – maybe her one-woman archive can’t be explained – or shows us enough of the historic broadcasts she preserved.

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 2 and 4 October 2019.

Axone is a contemporary comedy drama about the struggle of immigrants to reconcile their traditional culture in modern India that has global relevance.

Immigrant Song

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

In the melting pot of multicultural India in Delhi, a group of young migrant workers from the remote northeast near the border with Myanmar are determined to cook their traditional dish of axone (a foul-smelling delicacy of a stew of smoked pork and fermented soya beans and other local ingredients) to celebrate the wedding of one of the young women, despite the hostility of their neighbours and their objections to its pungent lavatorial smell.

There’s an underlying clash of culinary cultures, religions – Christian/Hindu – ethnicities and wedding traditions as well as cultural misogyny. Axone is a film that reflects the antipathy, even the violence and danger, but also the friendship facing immigrants wherever they are and the lasting effects it has on them. Though it’s billed as a comedy, it’s more of a fascinating, contemporary comedy drama.

Axone screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 2 and 3 October 2019.

Öndög a warm, witty human story set on the Mongolian steppes, whose characters transcend their geography and whose humanity defies their dying out like the dinosaurs.

Stepping Out

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

An öndög is a fossilised dinosaur’s egg: they are still to be found on the Mongolian steppes, where dinosaurs roamed before they died out, and are highly prized. And the film celebrates a long-established way of life that is close to the rhythms of the natural world, through the trigger of an unnatural event: the discovery of the dead body of a naked woman. The central character is a no-nonsense, camel-riding, shotgun-toting local herdswoman, self-sufficient and happily living alone in her yurt, who is ordered to protect from wolves the naive young policeman who has been left alone on the steppes to mind the body until it can be taken away for a postmortem.

The cinematography is stunning. Human beings are specks in the vast flatness of the steppes as they play out their stories. The detail of the routine of the rich traditional lives of the local people as it contrasts with the monotone of the town is fascinating: looming in the distance you can see the encroaching industrialisation. Öndög turns out to be a warm, witty human story, whose characters transcend their geography and whose humanity defies their dying out as the dinosaurs did.

Öndög screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 2 and 4 October 2019.

Clemency and The Warden contrast the US and Iran on the ethics of the death penalty: messy, unpredictable humanity versus sterile, implacable bureaucracy.

Give Me Mercy

by Alexa Dalby


The Warden

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Here are two dramas with contrasting attitudes of how East and West, Iran and the US, treat their death-row prisoners. Clemency focuses on the effect on the prison warden (governor) herself, in her professional and persona life, sensitively played by Alfre Woodard. She has seen too many executions yet as a woman in her position she cannot show compassion in case it is interpreted as weakness. When she has to oversee the execution of a convicted killer who is clearly innocent, she and we question the ethics of the inexorable system she is part of.

Set in the Shah’s Iran of the 1960s, The Warden is set in a remote prison about to be demolished. While the prisoners are being transferred to a new prison, one of them, a farmer due to hang in three weeks, goes missing and is assumed to be hiding within the empty prison. As in Clemency, he is clearly an innocent man. To save his job, the warden (governor) must find him before his escape has to be reported. The film is basically a search for the man, with the complication of a female social worker who is trying to save him, yet the trajectory is very different from that of Clemency: it’s messy, unpredictable humanity versus impersonal, state bureaucracy.

Clemency screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 2 and 4 October 2019. The Warden screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 3 and 5 October 2019.

A Pleasure, Comrades! is the very funny recreation of a glorious, failed socialist revolution in Portugal in 1975.

Blue Remembered Cooperatives

by Alexa Dalby

A Pleasure, Comrades!

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

A Pleasure, Comrades! draws on the testimonies of young revolutionary volunteers from all over Europe who flocked to join communes in Portugal after the overthrow of its authoritarian ruler Caetano, deposed in a coup during the Carnation Revolution, to help the country create a new socialist society. But, comically, they were city dwellers completely ignorant of everyday life in the rural communes who hosted them: they had to learn to speak Portuguese, milk a goat – and cut their long studenty hair. And in trying to impose their concept of women’s liberation and feminism, the young women shocked the traditional agricultural village society.

However, the most comical and charming thing about A Pleasure, Comrades! is that it’s a drama not a documentary in which all the characters are played by people of the age that those youngsters and country people would be now, similarly to Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills. It’s a salutary and very funny experience to see the excesses of youthful enthusiasm enacted by actors in their sixties and seventies behaving like teens and twenties and it gives A Pleasure, Comrades! an entirely fresh, satirical perspective.

A Pleasure, Comrades! screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 3 and 4 October 2019.

The Antenna is a dark, body-horror, sci-fi comment on freedom of speech in Turkey.

In the Gloop

by Alexa Dalby

The Antenna

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Set in an apartment block that’s wired for surveillance, as transmissions infiltrate people’s homes and a black slime oozes through the walls, The Antenna turns into a shocking allegory about a contemporary Big Brother.

The Antenna screens at the BFI London Film Festival on 3 and 4 October 2019.

Join the discussion