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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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon