Preview: Ten of the best at this year's London Film Festival

Tickets for LFF 2013 go on sale on this Thursday (12 Sept). Our film critic Ryan Gilbey picks ten of the most promising films from this year's line up.

With booking for this year’s London Film Festival opening to BFI members on Thursday 12 September (and to the public on Friday 20 September), it’s time for the customary lucky-dip round-up of some of the most promising titles in the programme. As usual, I’ve tried to exclude the big, headline-grabbing movies that will doubtless be sold out within seconds, or which go on release anyway within a few days or weeks of being unveiled at the festival.

The opening film, Paul Greengrass’s factually-based Captain Phillips, which puts Tom Hanks at the helm of a US container ship hijacked by Somali pirates in 2009, will be hitting cinemas nationwide a week later, where you can see it for a fraction of its £32 Opening Night Gala price. Similarly, why grab a two- or three-week jump on Stephen Frears’s Philomena (which won Venice’s Best Screenplay award for Jeff Pope and star/co-writer Steve Coogan, and opens on 1 November) Alfonso Cuarón’s admittedly long-awaited Gravity (8 November), this year’s Palme d’Or winner Blue is the Warmest Colour (15 November) or The Selfish Giant (25 November), the Oscar Wilde-inspired new film from Clio Barnard, director of the visionary semi-documentary The Arbor? Go digging instead.

Surprisingly, neither of the films which took the top prizes last weekend at the Venice Film Festival are currently to be found on the LFF horizon—Golden Lion winner Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA, a documentary set on and around the Grande Raccordo Anulare (Rome’s ring road), and the runner-up, Tsai Ming-liang’s Jiaoyou (Stray Dogs), which Nigel Andrews of the Financial Times described as “a kind of madly lyricised Lear of the Taipei underworld.” But there is always time for last-minute additions, even outside the Surprise Film category (which tends to be reserved for something English-language and broadly audience-pleasing: last year the slot was taken by Silver Linings Playbook). Below are ten try-your-luck picks, some big, some small, taken from those titles already confirmed for the 57th London Film Festival:

At Berkeley

Master documentary-maker Frederick Wiseman takes four hours to explore life at Berkeley University as it is shaped and threatened by budgetary cuts of more than 50 per cent.

Computer Chess

Andrew Bujalski is one of the progenitors of the US indie “Mumblecore” movement (along with Greta Gerwig and director Joe Swanberg, whose new film Drinking Buddies is also in the LFF). I’ve heard great claims made for his 1980s-set study of chess geeks developing a computer program that can trounce a human opponent at the game.

Eastern Boys

Writer-director Robin Campilo usually co-writes and edits with Laurent Cantet, branching out every now and then with his own work. He made Les Revenants, which inspired the recent hit TV series The Returned, and now he has directed this drama about the relationship between a middle-aged French man and a Ukrainian teenager.

Exhibition

The only title on this list that I’m not recommending sight unseen is this creepy but compassionate third feature from Joanna Hogg (Unrelated, Archipelago), about an artist couple preparing to sell the spectacular Modernist home in west London that has been their protective shell.

Great Passage

The compiling of a new dictionary over 14 years is the starting point for this humorous tale from Japan. The LFF brochure calls it “Dickensian.” That’s enticing enough for me.

Kon-Tiki

The incredible story of Norwegian explorer and anthropologist Thor Heyerdahl, who set out in 1947 on a hazardous raft-trip from Peru. A Canadian friend said of one CGI-enabled sequence in the film: “For a moment, I felt the way I did seeing movies as a tyke, awestruck at the cheap thrills movies can provide.”

Night Moves

Kelly Reichardt frustrated as many viewers as she impressed with her doggedly realistic western Meek’s Cutoff (for the record, I was in the latter camp). Her new film is a thriller about environmental activists played by Jesse Eisenberg (who can also be seen in the LFF in Richard Ayoade’s The Double) and Dakota Fanning.

12 Years a Slave

Rave reviews have flooded in from the Toronto Film Festival for the third film from British artist and director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). This reportedly powerful slavery drama stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch.

Under the Skin

An obvious pick, perhaps—I selected it at the start of this year as one of the films I was most looking forward to in 2013—but the polarised reaction from Venice to Jonathan Glazer’s adaptation of Michel Faber’s novel about a predatory alien (Scarlett Johansson) has surely only inflamed the sense of anticipation.

We Are the Best!

There was relief at the festival press launch when a trailer for this comedy-drama about a female, teenage punk band in 1980s Stockholm indicated that the filmmaker Lukas Moodysson, here adapting a graphic novel by his daughter Coco, had returned to the wit and energy of his early features (Show Me Love—aka Fucking Amal—and Together).

The London Film Festival runs 9—20 October.

Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose film "At Berkeley" will play at the LFF on 12 and 14 October. Photograph: Getty Images.

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