Return of the Native

With low-budget, politically searching British pictures, foreign-language movies and restored classi

There is an undeniable glamour to a film festival such as Cannes, even if the pleasure of treading the red carpet in the wake of Jean-Luc Godard or Cameron Diaz is shared with thousands of other journalists, film-makers, salesmen and distributors. Against the backdrop of the shimmering Mediterranean, the event has an allure which translates well into the countless publicity shots that proclaim its success as the best-known market place for movies outside the United States.

Cannes is the film festival as big business. Yet the one crucial ingredient of a successful business - the paying punter - scarcely registers in the heady round of premieres and parties. The same cannot be said of the London Film Festival, which opens this month. This is an event for the genuine fan, and it aims to create more of them. Less austere than this year's heavyweight festival in Edinburgh, it has its prerequisite clutch of attention-grabbing art-house premieres, starting with Mike Leigh's Vera Drake (starring Imelda Staunton in the title role, it was lauded at the Venice Film Festival) and including the latest Woody Allen, Melinda and Melinda (hailed as a return to form for the neurotic American director). Above all, however, the London festival presents the best of world cinema, including British films that are unlikely to get widespread distribution.

At the forefront of this category is Yasmin, the latest micro- budgeted venture from the director Kenny Glenaan and the writer Simon Beaufoy, best known for The Full Monty - that rare thing, the global British hit. Yasmin is the story of a young, westernised Muslim woman who is forced to reassess her life by the hostile reaction of her white workmates after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Alarmingly, it is based on real-life stories that emerged during a year of workshops with Asian communities in Yorkshire.

The film is painful, though often funny, as Yasmin rails against the feckless member of an extended family from Pakistan whom her father has arranged for her to marry. Yet she eventually comes to defend her husband when he is wrongly arrested as a potential terrorist. The scenario was based on the true indignation of an Asian woman who was married off to an "illiterate goatherder". In the film, the man steals a goat and keeps it in the backyard. In reality, the goat was kept in the house. "That's the thing about real life - it's often completely unbelievable," says Beaufoy.

Glenaan, whose picture Gas Attack won the Michael Powell Award for best new British feature at the Edinburgh Inter-national Film Festival in 2001, admits that it was initially diffi- cult to persuade the communities to talk. "There was a level of suspicion at the beginning. People didn't want to hang their dirty linen out in public." When they did talk, the participants - many of whom appear in the film - gave unsettling evidence of how dangerously alienated British Asian Muslims have become.

The original idea for Yasmin sprang from the Channel 4 documentaries department, which contributed to the film's £1m budget. The concept was to investigate, through drama, the race riots that rocked Bradford in 2001. The issue of terrorism was considered after British Muslims carried out a suicide mission in Israel. "The further we went into that community and the more we talked, it seemed absurd," says Beaufoy. "They knew as much as we did about suicide bombers." What came to fascinate him instead was the ques- tion of identity in the wake of 9/11. "We went there to write a film about a cultural clash, and it turned out to be more a film about loyalty and an examination of what it is to be British, and what a complex thing that is if you're not an Anglo-Saxon middle-class male."

As a white, middle-class male raised very near to where filming took place, Beaufoy believes that the gulf between white and Asian communities is as wide as it has ever been. "I grew up in Keighley, three miles away, and I hadn't touched upon [these communities] at all because the separateness of their life and my life was total," he says. "It still is to a great extent."

One 20-year-old man told Glenaan and Beaufoy he felt his skin was like the Star of David that marked out Jews in Nazi Germany. "I wish I was gay, because at least I could hide that," he said. Community leaders reported that young Asian people, despite being born in Britain, believed they were not allowed to belong - and that the resent- ment and suspicion of the neighbouring white population had increased since al-Qaeda became internationally feared as terrorists. "It's like being Irish in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s," Glenaan observes. "You're guilty until you're proven innocent."

Films such as Melinda and Melinda or Jonathan Demme's remake of The Manchurian Candidate will help promote interest in the programme of the London Film Festival. But according to Sandra Hebron, the festival's artistic director, many of the 180 features are pictures that audiences would not otherwise get to see. "They are films that are about a little bit more than being purely entertainment," she says. "The festival has a responsibility to encourage audiences to take chances on things that they wouldn't necessarily think about seeing."

With even the highbrow Venice cinema bash accused of screening too many American movies this year and Cannes shocking its more traditionalist adherents by showing Shrek 2 in competition, the London Film Festival looks oddly out of place, trusting there will be audiences for a largely non-American mix of contemporary European cinema, low-budget British movies and restored archive classics.

Yet attendances have been rising in recent years. "If you look at what audiences will go and see year round now, they're more adventurous than they used to be," says Hebron. The team behind Yasmin certainly hope so. "I don't think any film has ever changed the world, but hopefully what we are trying to do is very simple," Glenaan says. "To give people some dignity."

The Times/BFI 48th London Film Festival runs from 20 October to 4 November at venues across the capital. For tickets, call 020 7928 3232 or visit www.lff.org.uk

Louise Jury is arts correspondent of the Independent