BFI LFF Perspectives: Laughing When the World’s on Fire
Nathan Nelson
Chronicling the collapse of creative industries and other troubled futures at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, as reviewed by five of our writers.

THE CHAMBERMAID (LA CAMARISTA)
Dir. Lila Avilés (Mexico-USA)

Review by Ania Ostrowska

This accomplished debut feature by Lila Avilés offers a glimpse into the life of Eve, a maid in an upscale Mexico City hotel. Shot on location in Hotel Presidente InterContinental, the film rarely ventures outside its interiors, creating a sense of confinement reinforced by the repetitious tasks performed by the titular chambermaid. It’s only from her regular phone calls that we learn that Eve lives far from the hotel and has a four-year-old son, looked after by the woman on the other end of the line.

The film subtly comments on the class gap between the hotel staff and guests, some of whom are only inferred from the items they leave behind. As Eve delivers an endless stream of toiletries to a demanding guest, we learn that her own flat has no shower; while she can never make it home in time to tuck her son to sleep, she does favours for wealthy mothers.

Gabriela Cartol carries the film, making Eve a multi-dimensional and very human character. The workers here are not idealised: while they share moments of solidarity and tenderness, ultimately everyone is looking out for themselves, bartering goods and hoping for promotion, often at the expense of others.

In preparation for making this film, Avilés (a stage actor, theatre producer and opera director) befriended some hotel maids, watching them work for months. The film’s observational realism is masterfully framed by cinematographer Carlos Rossini, an award-winning Argentine/Mexican documentary filmmaker.

THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER 
Dir. Sara Colangelo (USA)

Review by SU Ahmad

In his most famous work, Deschooling Society, Croatian-Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich (1926-2002) argued children are today confronted with an education system that confuses process and substance, often at the expense of creative output. Critiquing modernisation and institutions, Illich argued we are schooled to confuse ‘teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, and fluency with the ability to say something new’.

Based on the 2015 Hebru language film of the same name, director Sara Colangelo’s Kindergarten Teacher explores similar themes.

Kind-spirited teacher Lisa Spinelli (Maggie Gyllenhaal) leads a demoralised existence, lamenting the education system’s crushing of creativity. She directs some of her frustrations towards her household, for though her children achieve good grades, they never quite appear to think. Her children, in turn, feel Lisa’s sentiments reflect her own lack of success.

One day our caring teacher comes across a five-year-old prodigy, Jimmy Roy (Parker Sevak) with a knack for poetry that verges on the magical. It is at this point things begin to change. She recognises Jimmy is not in an environment that values his talents, let alone nurtures them; for soon, our young poet’s imagination will be schooled to accept service in place of value. Swiftly, what begins as an innocent endeavour becomes a dangerous obsession to protect the child from an inevitable creative descent, culminating in a masterful final scene.

STAN & OLLIE
Dir. Jon S Baird (UK)

Review by Louis Bayman

There are some films that simply don’t try too hard to be flashy (no car chases, explosions or nudity), don’t have any political messages, and make no attempt to innovate or claim artistic greatness. Stan & Ollie is one such film, and I would thoroughly recommend it.

After a brief prologue at the height of their fame, in a Hollywood backlot in 1937, the action cuts to 1953 under a rainy Tyne Bridge, as the world-famous Laurel and Hardy find themselves down on their luck, reduced to touring second-rate theatres in the British provinces in the hope of raising enough interest to get another film into production.

The background may be drab, but the relationship between the two leads sparkles, with John C. Reilly as the affable Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as his weary, workaholic counterpart Stanley Laurel. Coogan has clearly found his late-career niche in the double-act balance between banter and bad-temper previously explored alongside Rob Brydon in The Trip.

But the film really takes off when it turns into a double-act double-act after their wives arrive in tow, played wonderfully by Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda. Their relationship is funny, annoying and genuinely touching – this lovely film captures the emotional range of the lost world of the variety theatre, whose end it chronicles.

FREEDOM FIELDS
Dir. Naziha Arebi (Libya)

Review by Zainab Rahim

Screening at its second ever festival, Freedom Fields is a documentary feature that deserves every second of the prolonged applause it received after the credits rolled.

Director Naziha Arebi met her Libyan family for the first time in 2012 after the revolution – and she decided to stay. What she discovered on her journey was a women’s football team like no other. Arebi’s camera is up close and personal – it’s a non-voyeuristic participant in this cross-section of Libyan society, which includes the middle class, the refugee, the unmarried, the trainee doctor and more besides.

What Arebi manages to do so spectacularly is to treat these differences as natural and incidental. You never question why one of the players has suddenly started to wear a head covering, how a younger player from Twergha sprints through her refugee camp every day, or how a woman can study in the cramped conditions of a tent. Halima is warm, loveable and melodramatic – banging out a remarkable rendition of Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ in one hilarious scene. Fadwa is calm and wise, yet fierce, never hesitating to speak truth to power.

Under constant sounds of bullets and bombs, and in the face of the authorities’ misogyny and incompetence, you cannot help but feel jubilant with these determined women. Watch it when it comes back to the big screen.

FIVE MEN AND A CARAVAGGIO 
Dir. Xiaolu Guo (UK-China)

Review by Rukiya Gadid

This is a documentary style film by London-based Chinese writer and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo, who was inspired to make a film after reading Walter Benjamin’s essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

At the Q&A following the film, Guo revealed that she tried to capture the themes of the essay in film, without much success. It was at her friend’s 40th birthday party that she came upon the perfect subject matter. Her friend Vanni, whose birthday it was, was given a four-foot reproduction of Caravaggio’s painting, Saint John in the Wilderness. On the packaging, Guo recognised the town in China where it was made – a town famous for its generation of painters.

The documentary neatly captures the commercial demand and supply chain of reproduced art through this small transaction from East to West, putting faces to supplier and buyers. The documentary creates a deeper appreciation for the journeys of our daily transactions: there is a human behind every purchase.

The copy brings to life Benjamin’s concern in his essay that a reproduction, however beautiful, is devoid of ‘aura’ or soul, as the motivations of its creation are economical and emotionless. So when the painting arrives in London, Vanni and his friends are quick to point out its many flaws. But for Vanni, it is not beauty or even artistic appreciation he wants, but rather what the original symbolises to him.

This is a low budget film that shows the connection of our small isle to the wider global chains of commerce. It was shot in the months leading up to the Brexit referendum giving everything a sense of poignancy and isolation.

AMRA AND THE SECOND MARRIAGE
Top of Form

Dir. Mahmoud Sabbagh (Saudi Arabia)

Review by SU Ahmad

Amra and the Second Marriage is the bizarre second effort of director Mahmoud Sabbagh of Barakah Meets Barakah fame.

The film tells the story of Amra, played by Alshaima’a Tayeb, a devout, had-working middle-aged Saudi woman challenged with the prospect of her husband taking a significantly younger and more glamorous second wife.

Saddened and in disbelief, initially she prays to Allah to guide her husband in the right direction. To hilarious effect Amra frequently visits a shifty looking imam to aid her efforts, though this theme is drawn out and becomes tiresome. While Tayeb does a stellar job, she is let down by the remaining cast; from a two-dimensional mother-in-law capable of precious little other than shouting, to an unconvincing best friend fixated on black magic. Amra’s unlikeable children too, are seemingly unable to display a remotely normal range of human emotion.

Though the plot starts well, it takes a downward trajectory, with unexpected jolts of absurdism materialising clunkily well into the film. Any criticism, however, should be administered with the understanding that the Saudi film industry is fledgling and all those involved have relatively little experience owing to a decades-long ban on cinema and harsh censor boards. Testament to this is the fact that the protagonist had no prior acting experience, and was in fact picked by the director from his friends’ circle.

At the premiere, Sabbagh highlighted some of the constraints he was working with by telling a comical story about his first film Barakah meets Barakah. Upon release, while cinemas remained banned, the Saudi national airline bought the film. He soon discovered that some nationals were taking short domestic flights in order to watch it.

THE WILD PEAR TREE (AHLAT AĞACı)
Dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan

Review by Louis Bayman

Sometimes it’s hard to work out why exactly a film just doesn’t quite work – all the elements may be there, yet somehow it ends up less than the sum of its parts. The eagerly anticipated The Wild Pear Tree will go down as either a misstep by acclaimed Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, or the beginning of a serious artistic decline.

An aspiring novelist who won’t study hard enough to pass his teaching exams contends with the disappointments of small-town life, compounded by his charismatic father’s inability to escape his gambling habits. Ceylan plays here to his strengths, demonstrating the grandeur and icy stagnation of a landscape both social and natural in the Anatolian interior, evidenced so well in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and Winter Sleep.

He retains his ear for the subtle poignancy and demeaning vanities that make our common existence such a solitary disappointment. Yet the spectacular moments of sweeping camera movement, or sudden jolts from dream-like reveries, feel like impositions, making up for a basic lack of emotional involvement. The women are either stupid, annoying or elusively fatale, lacking the sense of affection between the male duo, and the end result feels like Ceylan by numbers.

WHAT YOU GONNA DO WHEN THE WORLD’S ON FIRE?
Dir. Roberto Minervini (Italy-USA-France)

Review by Zainab Rahim

After filming for over 150 hours in black and white, mostly in 2017, Roberto Minervini ends up creating a poignant yet discomforting slow-paced documentary that goes to the heart of a black Louisiana community.

What You Gonna Do When the World’s On Fire? retains the intimate, somewhat gritty lens, of Minervini’s film The Other Side which I saw in 2015 – this time focusing on black struggles. The camera poetically follows three main groups: two young brothers trying to enjoy their leisurely hours without being shot; the New Black Panther Party, a small grassroots group who feed the homeless and support families facing racial attacks; and the very powerful, kind Judy, whose own difficult life experiences are revealed as the film goes on.

It’s painful but deeply important viewing. We were lucky to have Judy speak to us after the film, to explain ongoing drug abuse, imprisonment and other social issues her family and community are facing. One particular point she made struck a chord with me: they were willing to let this [white] man film so intimately because the community already feels dead, or dying, inside.

MIRAI
Dir. Mamoru Hosoda (Japan)

Review by Zainab Rahim

Mamoru Hosoda’s animation opens within the idyllic Grand Designs-style home of an architect and his wife. The peace is soon shattered unceremoniously in this modern space by none other than their four-year-old son, Kun.

Kun ceases to be a happy child when his newborn sister Mirai arrives. The feature film pretty much rests solely upon his tantrums. Each fit takes him into a fantasy world where he is taught a lesson by a mysterious relation from the past or future and, on a few odd occasions, this is done in a brilliantly nightmarish imaginative way (see the aquarium and Tokyo train station sequences).

Also titled Mirai of the Future and Mirai No Mirai, his relationship with his sister is a key theme, alongside traditional ideas of noble lineage. It lacks the charm or coherency that you’d find in an animation like Studio Ghibli’s My Neighbour Totoro. But there is something that caught my attention: the children around me in the audience were having strong belly laughs at all the silly moments, even though the film was in a different language to some of theirs. Maybe this film is simply for them.