On the one hand, it’s generally advisable to get things off to a good start, right? On the other, isn’t onwards and upwards a much more appealing trajectory? Wouldn’t it be nice if I could have it both ways, have my cake and eat it. But, alas, my luck wasn’t quite in this year, my fourth at the BFI London Film Festival, held every October in the British capital and this year celebrating its 60th edition. Hooray for the BFI! Boo for me. After three years of getting things off to a good start, I guess it’ll have to be onwards and upwards from here.
Before you start accusing me of being a miserable bitch, I ought to inform you that… I welcome such accusations as they are entirely accurate and indeed rather flattering, all things considered. Rising at 4:30am is sure to make one pretty fucking dour, that’s certain, although plied with sugar free energy drinks and hopped up on the prospect of watching 23 of the finest films of the year over the next 10 days raised my heartrate and my spirits alike, and it was off to London I went, by taxi, by bus, by plane, by train, by tube and by foot. Not by donkey, though. Not this year. Blame Brexit.
Indeed, you know things are going well when your train’s delayed and you don’t give a shit, and you know things are going brilliantly when you’re me and you don’t give a shit. I picked up some doughnuts at London Victoria and made my way to a new residence in an old neighbourhood. A tad trepidatious about staying in an unfamiliar hostel, my qualms were quashed upon arrival, as my new surroundings are entirely adequate, with good Wi-Fi and curtains around the individual bunks so I feel like I did when I was a wee kid in the pushchair with the clear plastic cover over me when it was raining. I’ve been searching for this feeling for 24 years, people. Truly, London is the city of opportunity.
And you know things are going entirely miraculously when your first movie of 23 is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Believe the hype, snitches, this one’s a keeper. There was that fluttery sensation in my chest again, that enraptured palpitation that I last felt at this same festival last year, watching Todd Haynes’ Carol. Moonlight is a bona fide beauty, emotionally astute and multi-textured, written and directed with astounding assurance and sensitivity, and a vivid, engrossing, enormously affecting experience for anyone who can relate to any of its topics. To put it another way, think about how many Academy members are gay, black drug dealers with junkie mothers, no fathers and a significant stint in juvie behind them, and then you’ll know how many Oscar nominations this is gonna get.
Q&A sessions after the screenings are becoming increasingly commonplace at the festival with each new edition. See, cos now they know I’m coming. Writer and director Barry Jenkins was present, as promised, but he was accompanied by co-writer Tarell McCraney, and cast members Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris and André Holland. They were the five best-looking people in a room of hundreds. The ovation was the longest and most passionate that I have yet witnessed in any of my visits to the festival. Although neither questions nor answers provided much insight into further interpretations of the film (which is less an intellectual experience than it is a profoundly emotional one, and thus gets away with this), all five spoke warmly and professionally about the process. McCraney spoke of the autobiographical nature of the story, utterly evident in the film, and Jenkins spoke of how he found it remarkably similar to his own life. He listed his influences, from Claire Denis’ Beau Travail to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Three Times and to the works of Wong Kar Wai, who likewise made memorable use of Caetano Veloso’s ‘Cucurrucucú Paloma’ in his gay romance Happy Together. And Harris related details of the extraordinary process of her involvement in the film, which started with a lie, as producer Jeremy Kleiner fibbed to her that Jenkins had seen all her works and personally wanted her for the part of the protagonist’s drug-addicted mother, and concluded with a rapid-pace three-day shoot while in town on the press tour for Spectre. The audience also learned of the fact that Jenkins refused the individual actors appearing in only one section of the film’s three-part structure to meet their counterparts from the other sections, emphasizing the need for each performer to bring an untainted authenticity to their work.
Moonlight was screened in a new, temporary cinema, the Embankment Garden Cinema in Victoria Gardens on the north bank of the River Thames. It’s an impressive structure, though not quite as impressive as Odeon Leicester Square. I’m unintentionally getting the Oscar contenders out of the way early, for the most part. And this was when the day went downhill, for any number of reasons. Ways to rattle Paddy Mulholland: 1) Take away his food. No time to eat. Not good. 2) Take away his time. No time to work. Have to cram it all in tomorrow morning. Less sleep. Not good. 3) Take away his tickets! Where’s my ticket for film #3? It’s not in the bundle the cashier printed out earlier! Where the fuck is my ticket? Not good. 4) Take away my electronic devices. Battery saver turned on on both laptop and phone. Not a socket in sight. Not good. 5) Take away my bearings. No idea where the next cinema will be. Won’t have long to get there. And now it’s dark. Not good. 6) Take away my hairband. This is an emergency. My hairband is my life. I’m not even playing here. Seriously not good.
I found my hairband, which was good. And I found my way to the cinema, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, which was good. And I found my ticket, because they had it saved for me at the box office, which was good (although why they had it there remains a mystery). I didn’t find any food, but I did find a beer, which was good. I didn’t find a good film, however, in Daouda Coulibaly’s debut feature-length film Wùlu, and that sucks. I wanted my 2016 LFF programme to be the broadest in scope – films from Mali, Niger, Afghanistan, Philippines (all six continents are represented in total), animations and documentaries, long and short, films by men and women both, a variety of styles and genres etc. And this Malian production was a promising addition to that programme, representing the first film from a young director, profiling a society that’s grossly under-represented in contemporary cinema, and well-received by critics at its premiere at TIFF last month. But I found Wùlu trite and unambitious, a rote crime thriller with a predictable plot trajectory, little in the way of subtext or contextual insight, solidly mounted but amateurishly acted. Its position in the film landscape for the year is indubitably valid, by mere virtue of the uniqueness of its perspective and the honesty with which it delves into the social and political conditions of West Africa at present, but it’s a simplistic, underwhelming film, and by no means deserved of the comparisons some have made to Scarface.
Coulibaly was joined by Inna Modja, the musician who plated Aminata, the sister of the drug-smuggler protagonist, in her first role. Their Q&A was, in fact, the most informative of the day for me, even if it failed to improve my opinions on the film. In his introduction prior to the film, Coulibaly stated that, although many of us may not be familiar with Mali, he was sure most of us were indeed familiar with drugs. Turns out he’s a pretty intelligent guy! The process of getting Wùlu produced was revealed to be a laudable feat in and of itself as the writer and director elaborated on the experience at great length, showing a fantastic grasp of English (his third language), though running my day even further toward the 24-hours-awake mark. But I can’t complain – I didn’t have my script for a film warning Mali and the world beyond of the dangers of the drug crime situation there upturned by a coup d’état, I didn’t have to contend with the Ebola crisis six months before filming, I didn’t have to relocate six of my seven weeks’ shooting to Senegal after an attack in March 2015! Kudos to the team for turning out such a slick piece of work, which was co-financed by a wide variety of groups, including several French companies such as Ciné +, and the European Union! Dear Europe, how I’ll miss you! Coulibaly mentioned the impetus behind his artistic endeavours, as a lack of understanding about themes and events that he wants to explore in his output, and to remind the world that Africa is not another planet, that what happens there is only mere miles away from what happens elsewhere on Earth.
I found some food, which was good. And I found a socket in my sealed-off bunk, which was good. And now, the next morning, I’ve found the time to get this work done, which is good. But I didn’t find films of the kind of quality that I’d expect from this festival. It’s not the BFI’s fault, nor even the filmmakers’, nor even mine – it’s just circumstance that today was, on average, the worst day for films that I’ve had in three years and one day of the LFF. Onwards and upwards, then. Tomorrow is a much surer thing: Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Claude Barras’ My Life as a Courgette, and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle. Looks like I won’t be missing Europe for long!
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