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November 1, 2012

London Film Festival Round-Up Part 1

By Spear's

This is our first instalment of our London Film Festival Round-Up. Today Amir Feshareki reviews Beasts of the Southern Wild, Reconversion, Wadjda and My Brother the Devil.

This is the first instalment of our London Film Festival Round-Up. Today Amir Feshareki reviews Sutherland Trophy winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, as well as Thom Andersen’s first release in almost a decade, Reconversion, and two first features: Wadjda, directed by Haifaa Al Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female director, and Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil.

IT WAS ANNOUNCED—exactly halfway through this London Film Festival, the 56th edition—that Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s 2007 animated feature Persepolis had been selected as the best from a shortlist of past winners of the Sutherland Trophy, awarded annually to the most original first feature at the LFF. As the recipient of a kind of Sutherland of Sutherlands, Persepolis will be the subject of a special presentation at the BFI on 5 November. It fully deserves it. It’s astonishing. It’s one of those miracles of a debut that comes along once a decade, maybe, if we’re lucky.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (★★★☆☆; out now) which won this year’s Sutherland over an elaborate supper at Banqueting House last Saturday evening, won’t be troubling Persepolis for the accolade any time soon, but together they would make a quite beautiful double bill on the innocence and experience of the child’s eye view.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Set on a flood plain somewhere near New Orleans—we’re never really sure where: does this place even exist? Or is it all in the mind of its six-year-old narrator, still reeling after a traumatic loss?—Beasts of the Southern Wild is a daring, drug-trip of a debut that, in its confluence of scenes and impressions, absorbs some of the great recent myths of that landscape—The Sound and the Fury; The Night of the Hunter; the elysian fields of A Streetcar Named Desire—and recalls, of course, Katrina.

It’s a story of beasts and men: as untamed as a hallucination, as much in thrall to its influences as it is eager to innovate, as full of affection as it is full of conviction. Its ragged, dog-eared edges just about contain a lead performance by the beyond-her-years Quvenzhané Wallis, one of those actresses who possess an innate hauteur that dictates to the camera, from her side of the lens, where it shall focus its gaze.

Watching Wallis I was reminded of something Joan Didion once said about why she writes. I could never do Didion justice in paraphrase; I will reproduce her words in full:

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‘Writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind. It’s an aggressive, even a hostile act. You can disguise its qualifiers and tentative subjunctives with ellipses and evasions, but there’s no getting around the fact that setting words on paper is the tactic of a secret bully, an invasion, an imposition of the writer’s sensibility on the reader’s most private space.’

Except, here, Wallis writes with her face. And we, in return, have our perspective irrevocably altered.

Later, in the festival’s final days, I came across one of the more curious entries in its Experimenta strand, and something that underscored this ontological shift for me. What will be Thom Andersen’s first theatrical release since 2003’s rapturously Los Angeles Plays Itself, Reconversion (★★★☆☆) is a slenderer but no less inquisitive riff on his previous city symphony. The location, this time, is Porto; the subject, Eduardo Souto de Moura.

Really, it is more of an echo chamber piece: sights, sounds, quotations loop to make a quite beguiling visual document of an architect and his city. At one point, I was jolted into a recollection of Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, that vast intervention of an installation from Tate Modern’s Unilever Series whose unkind scar is still visible on the floor of the Turbine Hall.

Eventually, Reconversion culminates in an extended conversation between Andersen and Souto de Moura. The architect addresses me—it feels that way anyway—when he declares that ‘a writer is not a job; it is a way of life.’ Needless to labour the point: this was a remarkably self-soliloquising LFF all round.

Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda

Among the other first features shown in competition, Haifaa Al Mansour’s Wadjda (★★★☆☆) and Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil (★★★☆☆; out 9 November) were, I’m sure, close runners-up for the prize.

The first film to have been shot entirely within Saudi Arabia—and by the country’s first female director—Wadjda, the story of a schoolgirl, a bicycle, and a speech recital contest, feels like a lost Italian neorealist picture relocated to present day Riyadh. And it is heartfelt. It isn’t without its moments of longueur, but that’s to be expected from something that could only ever exist in the grey areas around the boundaries.

Sally El Hosaini’s My Brother the Devil

El Hosaini, who took the Best British Newcomer award for My Brother the Devil, shares Al Mansour’s gently subversive approach, even if their films explore very different locales. Her debut is less assured than Al Mansour’s. Is it a London gangland saga? A state-of-the-city treatise on film? A My Beautiful Launderette-esque take on awakened sexuality?

These shifts in tone are never reconciled with each other, it has a pretty awful title, and the whole thing is never quite sure of itself. Its camera, however, knows exactly what it’s doing. At dusk, El Hosaini’s east London skyline is a bruise: all pinks and purples, blues, browns, and blacks. Only by nightfall does El Hosaini’s Hackney-fetish pay dividends.

Read more by Amir Feshareki

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