Famous throughout Britain for its multicultural population and its legendary curry houses, Bradford is a small city with a long history of punching above its weight. Nestled in the hilly northern English county of Yorkshire, this former powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution is now home to the UK’s only National Media Museum, the futuristic multi-screen complex that hosts the annual Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF). Four years ago, Bradford also became the first city in the world to be designated a “Unesco City of Film”.
Running until Sunday, the 19th annual BIFF includes mainstream fare such as Mira Nair’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Michael Winterbottom’s The Look of Love. But the heart of the festival is its menu of cult features, experimental shorts and low-budget documentaries, including a trio of striking films with strong links to the UAE and the Middle East.
“I personally like to champion genuinely independent and low-budget filmmaking from all over the world,” explains the festival co-director Neil Young. “Documentaries always reflect what is going on in the news and, of course, we are now in the midst of a real blizzard of non-fiction – and fiction – films tackling Arab Spring subjects.”
Young says he looks for “originality and boldness” in choosing films, qualities that are certainly evident in two Tunisian documentaries making their UK debuts in Bradford. The more experimental of the pair, Babylon, is a guerrilla-style insider’s portrait of a makeshift refugee camp on the Tunisian border erected to house citizens fleeing from Libya’s brutal civil war in 2011. The three directors – Youssef Chebbi, Ala Eddine Slim and the single-named Ismaël – take the bold decision to include no subtitles in a fractious real-life human drama that includes Arabic, English, French, Bangladeshi and various African languages. The result is a real-life Tower of Babel, but also an impressive and immersive social document.
Cursed Be the Phosphate is also Tunisian, though it received post-production money from the Abu Dhabi Film Festival where it won the 2012 prize for Best Documentary from the Arab world. Dense with poetry and music, this highly polished piece of polemical protest cinema revisits a dark episode from the dying days of Ben Ali’s regime, a 2008 crack-down on protesting workers in the phosphate mining town of Redeyef. Tunisia’s first popular uprising since gaining independence helped inspire the wave of Arab Spring revolutions two years later, but it ended with many protesters being jailed, tortured or killed.
“These events were a turning point in the history of Tunisia”, claims the director Sami Tlili, whose family comes from the region. Tlili is angry that justice still has not been done for the mineworkers and their martyred sons. “This revolution has been betrayed by people who have nothing to do with freedom and democracy and who have not participated in the revolution,” he says. “This is what is disgusting. People who participated in the revolution and who have paid the expensive price have harvested nothing. The revolution is not complete. The road is still long.”
Another very different film with UAE links premiering in Bradford is I Have Always Been a Dreamer. Titled after a quote by the legendary American motor-industry tycoon Henry Ford, this fascinating tale of two cities compares the depopulated, decaying streets of downtown Detroit with the booming urban landscape of Dubai. The director Sabine Gruffat, a US-based academic, began shooting her engrossing documentary essay before the global financial crash. Midway through the process, it became a kind of cautionary tale about urbanisation in an age of boom and bust.
“We live in a global world now,” Gruffat explains. “Whether we see it or not, places such as Detroit and Dubai are connected, whether it be through capital flows or ideology. The film shows old models that keep getting recycled. What are cities for? Who are they for? I think we need to ask that. Boom-and-bust towns all share similar qualities. These places are not meant to stick around.”
While Cursed Be the Phosphate has won prizes in Abu Dhabi, Babylon and I Have Always Been a Dreamer are yet to screen in the UAE. Both are challenging documentaries, but deserve to be seen by a wider audience. Today Bradford, tomorrow the world.
• For more information, visit www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/bradfordinternationalfilmfestival
Indian cinema at the BIFF
The city of Bradford has one of the largest populations of British Asians in the UK, most of them with Indian or Pakistani heritage. Reaching out to this audience and beyond, this year’s BIFF includes a chronological strand dedicated to 100 years of Indian cinema with accompanying talks, exhibitions and events. “It’s great to be able to salute the rich flavours of Indian cinema in this its centenary year,” says the festival co-director Neil Young. “I know that Bradford audiences flock to Bollywood movies at the local multiplexes – I’ve done so myself. This is a great opportunity to both celebrate that particular style of filmmaking while also shining a light on the other currents of the national cinema, from silent groundbreakers to politically charged documentaries to shoestring-budgeted independent fare such as Manjeet Singh’s Mumbai’s King, which I like to call Slumdog Millionaire without the millions.”
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