These are the BFI LFF 2021 films that reach the parts of the world that mainstream films don’t – these films show the kind of lives and the kind of societies that a festival like this gives you the rare chance to see on screen.
London Film Festival 2021 Roundupby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Nana Mensah’s debut film stars the director herself as a Ghanaian PhD student in New York, whose mother dies suddenly, leaving her a friendly neighbourhood Christian bookshop cum community centre. Because of the people running it brings her into contact with, she has to reconsider her life and come to terms with her Ghanaian heritage. This forms the backdrop of an affecting story about the immigrant experience and the American Dream, which bears comparison with Ekwa Msangi’s film Farewell Amor. Queen of Glory doesn’t quite tick every box it strives for but nonetheless is a sensitive tale about family, self, and grief.
An eccentric photographer, his eager assistant, a jaded make-up artist and a bored model gather for a fashion shoot in a London warehouse. Or so it seems until one of them goes missing mysteriously and the film segues into something pretentiously different, intended to jolt the audience out of its complacency at the earlier scenes. It feels like a very clever, satirical student graduation film and is directed by Marcos Mereles.
Set in the 1980s and the present day, with a prologue set centuries in the past, it’s about a couple of Ojibwe boys from a reservation who cover up the murder of a classmate, then carry guilt over their shared participation in that crime into adulthood. Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr is an American and Ojibwe filmmaker from the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin. His debut feature was screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. The assimilation or otherwise of Native Americans into contemporary American society and their unhappy choice between a life of loss of culture or a life of marginalisation is clearly an issue that resonates deeply in the US conscience, which, though possible to empathise with, makes it somewhat distancing for UK audiences.
Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa’s stunning documentary features a cache of newly restored documentary footage, plus a brand new audio soundtrack, complete with a dense soundscape and some reconstructions. The film reconstructs the historical context of this tragedy through archive footage documenting the German occupation of Ukraine and the subsequent mass murder of Ukrainian Jews. Transposed to the present day, it could not be more relevant.
The film begins with a surprise: Cariño (Natalie Morales, also the director) has been secretly hired by wealthy Will (Desean Terry) to teach Spanish to his husband Adam (Mark Duplass). It’s a big investment for both Adam in Oakland and Cariño in Costa Rica: 100 lessons conducted online, which is basically two years of weekly classes. It’s a typical film made during lockdown as the story is told through the screen time of the physically distant pair, who never meet. The film is divided into thematic “lessons” explained by English and Spanish intertitles, and those boundaries help give the film structure and a discernible sense of time, of an unexpected tragedy and its aftermath. The snappy script questions how we present ourselves, how others judge us and how unaware it’s possible to be of someone else’s problems when we are focused on our own. Implicit is the discrepancy between First World and Third World problems. Language Lessons premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.
Dominican Republic filmmaker Ivan Herrera has joined forces with artist Clarisse Albrecht to create a thoughtful meditation on the diasporic connections between Africa and the Caribbean. Bantú Mama follows the fate of Emma (Clarisse Albrecht), a French woman of African descent who travels from France to the Caribbean, where she gets arrested for drug trafficking. Escaping custody, she accidentally meets and finds refuge with teenagers T.I.N.A (Scarlet Reyes), Artur Perez ($hulo), who live with their younger sibling Cuki (Euris Javiel) in an unnamed neighbourhood, presented as one of the most dangerous of Santo Domingo. Fending for themselves, with a dead mother and a father in jail, the teenagers mostly keep Emma at arm’s length, absorbed by their own social worlds, either making street music or trying to make ends meet; while she forms a bond with Cuki, with whom she spends most of her time indoors, trying to hide from the police. The film mostly explores Emma’s shifting relation to the children and their desire to escape. Bantú Mama aims to stage a ‘re-encounter’ between Africa and the Caribbean through the growing connection between Emma and the children, one in which Senegal becomes a site of possible return. Glimpses of France and Senegal frame a story not elsewhere told on screen, which unfolds largely in the Dominican Republic.
Essentially, Briar Hill’s film is a talking-heads-and-archive-footage documentary about the Greenham Common women’s peace camp as told by some of them and stirringly narrated by Dame Glenda Jackson. The stories of the activism itself, which changed the course of history, and how it changed the lives of some of the women who took part, is very, very moving.
A young director is determined to complete his first feature despite resistance from censors, slimy producers, and even his own cast and crew. Myanmar director Maung Sun’s film feels as if it is born out of his experience of filmmaking under very difficult conditions but it turns into a caper movie – maybe that trivialisation was that all he was allowed. The title is a saying that describes how quickly money runs out. In the film it does so metaphorically and literally.
A school’s spirit-crushing interior mirrors the frosty weather outdoors in Ferit Karahan’s sparse and brutal Anatolian drama. Kurdish boys, forbidden to speak their own language, are there to be indoctrinated into Turkish society. When one of them falls ill he is neglected by uncaring teachers, leaving it to his schoolmate to try frantically to get help. The film is clearly the result of painful personal experience: it is unarguably heartfelt and deeply upsetting, by extenstion saying a lot about any nation’s treatment of minorities.