Gilbey on Film: A guide to the London Film Festival

Here's a tip - take a risk and avoid the big names.

This is a sad year for the London Film Festival, which bids farewell to Sandra Hebron, the energetic and inspired artistic director who has overseen (and improved) the LFF since 2003. It appears that responsibility for the festival is to come under the remit of BFI Southbank. Does that sound like madness to anyone else? As Hebron herself wrote in 2008: "There's a lovely notion that we somehow knock the festival together in a couple of months, whereas in fact we spend January through to August selecting the programme, and the whole year planning." Of course, Hebron's departure comes in the context of hard times at the BFI, which we have already reported. All good things are eventually butchered beyond recognition by funding cuts, as the saying goes.

The programme for this year's festival has just been published, and I have managed to find time to select ten promising highlights, in between picking through the brochure's pages searching for obscene acrostics aimed at Ed Vaizey.

To anyone looking to make their festival-going as cheap and profitable as possible, I would offer the same advice as usual, born out of attending the LFF while a penniless student: steer clear of most things safe and starry, since those films are bound to (a) already have a distributor and (b) already have a release date, often not long after their festival screening. With tickets running to as much as £14 (or £18 for galas), why bother shelling out to see We Need to Talk About Kevin or The Black Power Mixtape 1967 -- 1975, which open several days after playing at the festival? (It's also worth noting that other high-profile festival selections such as Anonymous, The Ides of March, The Future, Wuthering Heights and the closing night film, Terence Davies's The Deep Blue Sea, open within a month of the LFF ending.)

Take a risk instead on something from the selection below. Booking opens to BFI members on 14 September, and on 26 September for everyone else.

This Is Not a Film
The director Jafar Panahi (The White Balloon, Offside) has been banned from filmmaking by the Iranian government for 20 years, and is currently serving a six-year prison sentence. His latest film, shot entirely inside his own apartment and with Panahi before rather than behind the camera, was screened at Cannes only after being smuggled into France on a USB stick buried inside a cake and posted from Iran.

Faust
Aleksander Sokurov's take on the Faust legend won the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion this month. Accepting the award, he had a message that the coalition government would do well to hear: "Culture is not a luxury! It is the basis for the development of the society."

I'm Carolyn Parker Into the Abyss -- a Tale of Life, a Tale of Death Whores' Glory
Three documentaries. The first, directed by Jonathan Demme, follows a New Orleans woman attempting to return home in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In the second, Werner Herzog interviews two men on death row. And in the third, which won the Special Orizzonti Jury Prize at Venice, Michael Glawogger contrasts three examples of prostitution in Thailand, Bangladesh and Mexico.

Lawrence of Belgravia
A profile of the eccentric Brummie singer-songwriter Lawrence Heyward, lynchpin of the bands Felt, Denim and Go-Kart Mozart, has been responsible for some of the wittiest, most exciting music in recent British pop. Easily the equal of a Jarvis Cocker or a Morrissey, he is an outcast whose mysteries will likely remain intact even after this documentary.

Crulic -- the Path to Beyond Dreams of a Life
Moving to the outer fringes of documentary, these two features suggest something of the stylised investigations of The Arbor or Waltz with Bashir. Crulic -- the Path to Beyond is an animated feature narrated from beyond the grave by a Romanian man who died on hunger strike in a Polish prison; the picture assembles the pieces of this factual case. The British feature Dreams of a Life also does some detective work of its own to conjure a portrait of a woman whose body had lain undiscovered in her London flat for three years.

Rampart
Two reasons why expectations are high for this thriller about a violent cop resisting expulsion: first, the screenplay was co-written by James Ellroy; second, it reunites actor Woody Harrelson and director/co-writer Oren Moverman, who worked so compellingly together on The Messenger.

This Must Be the Place
I have yet to be convinced of the talents of the Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino (The Family Friend, Il Divo). But stills of a back-combed, near-unrecognisable Sean Penn, who plays a reclusive rock star hitting the road, not to mention the prospect of a David Byrne score and cameo appearance, have convinced me to give Sorrentino another chance.

The London Film Festival runs from 12-27 October

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser