I open my final London Film Festival 2017 dispatch with egg on my face. I cast yesterday’s blame on my boyfriend after we showed up to the first screening of the day late. In truth, it still really was his fault, but, as we know now more than ever before, truth is a subjective concept, one prone to endless adaptation. Today’s blame lies solely at my feet, currently shuffling this way and that to avoid the eggy drops descending from my face. I was late to today’s first screening too, and Thomas had nothing to do with it.
As Afghanistan toils in turmoil, day after day, year after year, struggling against itself for control over what it means to be an Afghani, and over a most rich, historic culture that’s rapidly being demolished in the present day through these struggles, it has fallen to the West to spread the world. Two female European directors take upon them the cause of illuminating international eyes to that culture as it still exists, albeit in fragility, in 2017. You’re possibly familiar with Cartoon Saloon, the production company whose first and previous two films The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea (both Tomm Moore, the latter among my 2014 LFF titles) received Oscar nominations for Animated Feature. A similar fate is being predicted for The Breadwinner, the Irish animation house’s best film to date, directed by Nora Twomey. This is a warm-hearted, cautiously optimistic film about the importance of storytelling and its role in maintaining whatever cautious optimism may endure through times whose troubles seem never to cease. A young girl in Kabul poses as a boy in order to earn her family a living after her father is unjustly imprisoned by the Taliban; the film is written by Anita Doron and Deborah Ellis, adapted from Ellis’ novel. With fervent artistic invention and integrity, Twomey’s film touches upon each and all of the screenplay’s underlying thematic drives with subtlety and surety, imbuing every traditionally-animated frame with levels of political and emotional depth befitting the film’s charming, expressive visual style. The Breadwinner sees a nation undergoing the latest in a long line of damages, though these perhaps more dangerous, more injurious, more permanent than any before – it’s a film of fearful uncertainty, remarkable resolve, and inspiring hope. As is written prior to the end credits, “Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that makes the flowers grow, not thunder”.
The LFF screen brought me to Afghanistan last year, through Shahrbanoo Sadat’s Wolf and Sheep, though that was, in fact, filmed in bordering Tajikistan. And yet the country’s cinema is alive and semi-well, if one goes by the local infamy enjoyed by its best-known domestic talent, Salim Shaheen. He presides over a film industry that barely even exists – ‘Nothingwood’ as it is known, and Nothingwood is the title of Sonia Kronlund’s unique and highly entertaining documentary of Shaheen. The acclaimed radio journalist knows Afghanistan well, but the rest of the world knows all too little about this one-man movie-making powerhouse. He writes, directs, produces, stars in, oversees the production of virtually every element of all of his dozens upon dozens of features, every one micro-budget B-movies made by a band of amateurs on the fly, yet providing Shaheen with an extraordinary status in his country’s society. His is a simple, friendly process, and Kronlund does her finest as a journo, stepping back to achieve something similar in concept, though radically different in its result. His films are grand inflations of themselves, humble in every regard yet wholly unwilling to admit to such humility; hers is unassuming and honest, a fine work of documentary filmmaking with arguably too little willingness to shed its own, somewhat oppressive humility. Kronlund’s portrait of Shaheen is unvarnished and unedited, and completely fascinating as such – he’s a bizarre, beguiling, sometimes suspicious figure, seemingly transparent to all who wish to see beneath the surface of his crazy character, yet so bafflingly multi-layered as a personality that one hardly knows whether or not to trust what that transparency reveals.
I’ve rarely been so glad to have had so long between one screening and the next as I was en route to film #25 of my #LFF2017 schedule, the last on my list: Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here. By now, I’ve become well-enough accustomed to public transport in London as to know my way to the Rich Mix cinema in Shoreditch pretty comfortably, though I ended up one stop short due to closures on the Overground. I’m an expert at reading the Tube Map, but an utter embarrassment at reading any other type of map, so off I ambled in entirely the wrong direction, and had to consult roadside and Google maps multiple times before arriving at my destination with a lot less time to spare than I’d initially envisaged having. The only benefit by now is that the unrelenting chafing from the long walk has successfully worn down the flesh on both inner thighs to such an extent that I’m only five years and 65 failed diets away from finally fitting into my skinny jeans again, so that’s good.
Also, Rich Mix is a really pretty cinema, even if the walk from entrance to screen is so labyrinthine they literally have a red line on the floor guiding you to the correct room. It’s a walk not unlike those taken by Joaquin Phoenix’s hitman in Ramsay’s film, through corridor after corridor, each stained by scarlet in one spot or another. This is a lean, sinewy little bloodletter of a movie, unforgiving and brazenly unappealing, right up to its unconvincing non-conclusion. Ramsay takes all the supposed commercial promise people foolishly saw in her last feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, filters it through her disastrous experience while attached to Natalie Portman Western Jane Got a Gun, and spits out this scuzzy exercise in callous cruelty, without even so much as the conviction behind that cruelty to let us, her audience, bask in it too. It feels like a film produced solely for its own formality, and amid its portrayal of people semi-communicating through non-conventional means, its own communication of self is as unsure as Joe Bini’s jittery editing, as discordant as Jonny Greenwood’s score. It’s maybe the closest thing to an exploitation film as the modern age is capable of creating, a rumination not on violence but on the ways of violence, shod of irony and simplicity, and still bracingly simple in its essence. As much as it’s possible to love something as vicious and cold as this, I really did love it.
And so my London Film Festival 2017 journey reaches the end of its long red line, not with a grand climactic flourish, but with a swift, abrupt, premature thud. Kind of like this article.