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Frame By Frame: A Global Selection From The BFI London Film Festival
Nick MacWilliam , October 9th, 2015 06:41

Nick MacWilliam casts his eye over the line-up of this year's BFI London Film Festival - on now - and makes a selection of some of the politically relevant films from around the world that you should be watching

With a top-end penchant for glossy dramas loaded with recognisable stars and a pricing structure to keep the riffraff away, the London Film Festival is often perceived as possessing some pretty solid establishment credentials. But away from the big hitters that you will no doubt hear a lot more about in the run-up to awards season, the festival boasts a diverse selection of films and documentaries that span the globe and cover a broad range of critical issues.

With British politics having taken a sharp turn in recent weeks and months, it’s an opportune moment to look at some of the political content of this year’s festival. Here’s a cross section of some of the films and topics involved:

Afghanistan

Frame By Frame is the debut feature from co-directors Alexandria Bombach and Mo Scarpelli. It follows the work of a number of Afghan photojournalists striving to build a free press in the war-ravaged country. The social and cultural rebuilding of Afghanistan is led, rather than by the puppet government, by a civilian population whose lives have been uprooted, destroyed and then painstakingly reassembled across more than three decades of conflict. Developing an independent citizen’s media is a vital step on the road to democracy, yet throughout Afghanistan there exist powerful factions determined to suppress all forms of collective organisation.

Films smuggled out of Afghanistan during Taliban rule showed a ruling body carrying out executions in the national stadium and implementing an ultra-conservative state that banned all manner of activity and individual freedom. As underlined by another film at this year’s London Film Festival, He Named Me Malala, it was women who most suffered under the Taliban, horribly discriminated against at all levels of society. But when it comes to documenting the reality of life under war-torn or repressive states, it is invariably those in the streets - the people - who are best positioned to transmit such realities into a common narrative with which many can identify and empathise.

The effectiveness and importance of photojournalism has inspired many filmmakers in the modern era. In 2012’s Five Broken Cameras, Palestinian Emad Burnat centred on his family’s experiences in the face of Israeli aggression in the West Bank, 2003’s War Photographer followed US photojournalist James Nachtwey and his work in, among other places, Kosovo, South Africa, Indonesia and Palestine, The City of Photographs looks at the courageous work of photo-activists in Pinochet’s Chile (more of which below), and The Mexican Suitcase tells the story of the photojournalists Robert Capa, Gerda Taro and David Seymour, who voluntarily headed to Spain in the 1930s to document the abuses being committed by Franco’s armies in the Civil War.

80 years on from the Spanish Civil War, Frame By Frame shows how photography remains a powerful tool of counter-repression.

Mali

While photography represents a critical platform through which resistance can be developed and people mobilised on a broad level (think of the recent image of the dead child on a Turkish beach), for those living under repressive governing systems the cultural form through which identity is most powerfully expressed is music. When music is silenced by the authorities its power increases exponentially, as a symbol of unity and defiance against totalitarian control. This was a central theme of one of the 2014 LFF’s most praised films, Timbuktu, in which the occupied Malian city found itself under sharia law, with brutal punishments handed out for arbitrary indiscretions and a crackdown on simple pastimes, such as football, gathering and, yes, music.

Although a drama, Timbuktu was set in the 2012 conflict in northern Mali that brought waves of jihadists to the desert region. This year, the festival returns to the theme with the documentary They Will Have To Kill Us First: Malian Music In Exile. The occupation forced many musicians to flee, as radios and instruments were destroyed in the drive to eradicate regional identity. But with Mali’s traditions as one of Africa’s most distinctively musical cultures, this would be resisted as an attack on the people themselves.

Among the musicians to take part in the film are Moussa Sidi, Khaira Arby, Amkoullel and Fadimata Walet Oumar. Their sound underlies a popular determination to not be broken by the imposition of a ruling structure they neither elected nor supported. And, of course, the tunes are fantastic.

Chile

They may be at markedly different career stages but, in Patricio Guzmán and Pablo Larraín, the London Film Festival will host two of the filmmakers to have most closely addressed the military dictatorship of General Pinochet in their native Chile.

For over four decades Guzmán’s films have dissected the human rights abuses and economic shock doctrines of Pinochet’s rule, with his 1970s trilogy The Battle Of Chile examining the social and political conditions that resulted in the overthrow of the democratic socialist president Salvador Allende and the installation of a military regime which murdered, tortured and disappeared thousands of people (one of whom was Jorge Müller Silva, Guzmán’s cinematographer on The Battle Of Chile).

The 74-year-old Guzmán’s new documentary The Pearl Button serves as a companion piece to 2010’s award-winning Nostalgia For The Light. Whereas Nostalgia... paralleled mankind’s search for meaning in the universe with families scouring the Atacama Desert in northern Chile for remains of their disappeared loved ones, The Pearl Button is situated at Chile’s other geographical extreme, the icy and arid wilderness of Tierra de Fuego, where Pinochet’s victims were disposed of at sea. With Nostalgia For The Light one of the most acclaimed documentaries of recent times - it manages ‘to transcend politics and perhaps even history itself’ said The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw - The Pearl Button furthers Guzmán’s exploration of memory against the cruel backdrop of Pinochet’s crimes.

In the case of Pablo Larraín, his new film The Club is the first since the dictatorship-set trilogy of dramas that culminated with 2012’s Oscar-nominated No, in which Gael García Bernal played an advertising exec charged with coordinating the publicity campaign to vote Pinochet out of power. Larraín’s previous films Tony Manero and Post Mortem centred on disturbed individuals who reflected the violent social environment they inhabited. The Club addresses the other pillar of Chilean conservatism - the Catholic Church - in a dark and bitter portrayal of an institution that has long imposed its dominant will on society. For a man whose parents are both high profile MPs in the far-right Independent Democratic Union party in Chile, which places both the Church and the General on golden pedestals, Larraín’s films are deeply critical of the powerful reactionary forces which still hold much sway in Chile.

Italy

With the ongoing tragedy of the thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean Sea, attempting to flee conflicts and economic conditions imposed by the governing world order, there is much interest in Mediterranea, the new film from Italian director Jonas Carpignano. His decision to employ dramatic narrative to tell this story in no way lessens the impact of an issue that should be at the forefront of current political discourse but which continues to be addressed from the bottom up, as organisations and individuals mobilise in attempts to counter the government’s woeful and callous response to the crisis. With the extent of those dying reaching such high numbers that it serves elite interests to dehumanise the victims as much as possible, films like Mediterranea become important platforms for critical thought and opposition, due to the consciousness they are able to induce in their audiences.

Ayiva and Abas are two young men from Burkina Faso who decide to cross desert and ocean in order to reach southern Europe. But beyond the perils of the journey itself lie a series of social, cultural and political factors that increase the pressures of attempting to construct a new life under alienating circumstances. Faced with hostility upon arrival in Italy, Ayiva and Abas represent the many people demonised by a governing narrative that, instead of seeking constructive solutions to the crisis, seeks to widen division and intolerance.

By using amateur actors, some of whom have had similar experiences in real life, and handheld cameras, Carpignano creates a high sense of authenticity. It is a film which deserves to be seen, and further confirmation of the shameful spinelessness of the official response to the situation. This is an issue that is not going to go away without major international reform, no matter how much the Tories and their media lackeys attempt to distance themselves - and us - from collective responsibility.

Iran

The mainstream media repeatedly exposes itself as a tool for maintaining elite control. One particular grievance - and there are a lot (don’t get me started on the so-called progressive media’s coverage of the Labour leadership election) - concerns the representation of large parts of the Islamic world as overrun with jihadists hellbent on the destruction of, well, everything. Iran is a case in point. Mainstream narrative would have us believe it is a land heaving with radicalised extremists keen to press the apocalypse button. Quick: let’s bomb them in the name of peace.

But you know what? Watch too much Iranian cinema and you may even get the idea that, whisper it quietly, Iran is a normal country populated by normal people who do things like go to the cinema and hang out with friends. It may be governed by reactionary dogma (umm, should we bomb ourselves in that case?) but this impacts far more on the lives of actual Iranians than those of us in the relative comfort of Britain and the wealthy cadre of nations. In recent years, Offside told us that Iranians like football, Persepolis told us Iranians like going to parties and listening to punk-rock, This Is Not A Film told us Iranians want to tell their stories, and No Land’s Song told us they want to play music.

If you need to nurture your inner-Netanyahu that, actually, Iran does want to blow up the world, you’re unlikely to find much to enjoy in Taxi Tehran, winner of the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Festival. Set almost entirely within the cab of director Jafar Panahi’s alter-ego, the film allows for a playfully microcosmic examination of Iranian society, as it offers up a diverse array of characterisation and social interaction. Having previously made the aforementioned Offside, about a group of women dressing as men in order to attend a vital World Cup qualifier, and This Is Not A Film, the clandestine documentary on his arrest and trial, Panahi is no stranger to antagonising the ruling system. Taxi Tehran is the next step in the career of one of world cinema’s most vital and daring filmmakers. Someone buy Rupert Murdoch a ticket

For screening information for the BFI London Film Festival, see the website here

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