Can the 57th British Film Institute’s London Film Festival (LFF) emulate the success of last year’s edition? The 2012 event – the first to be held under the stewardship of the former director of the Sydney Film Festival, Clare Stewart – was almost a total sell-out, boasting 151,000 attendees, a 13 per cent increase. That was an Olympic year, of course, when the UK was on a high. But with tourism still benefiting from a post-Games bounce, 2013 could be another hit.
The LFF was already in rude health when Stewart was appointed, but the energetic Australian still saw room for improvement. She spread the festival across a larger number of venues, which now total 15, in different parts of the city, and, controversially, divided the programme into nine themed strands: Love, Debate, Dare, Laugh, Thrill, Cult, Journey, Sonic and Family. Although some cineastes protested that this cheapened the event, the Australian insisted that the categories would make the programme’s contents clearer for visitors not au fait with current trends in world cinema, and encourage people to take risks with their choices. Attendance figures and audience feedback from last year suggest that she was right.
With 235 feature films and 134 short films from 57 countries on offer, most visitors will be happy for any help they can get when making their selections. But buyer beware: the headings are merely signposts, and can lead to unexpected destinations. As Stewart herself pointed out, some of the films in the Love category aren’t exactly heart-warmers. “There are definitely some very adorable romantic films in there, but it’s a very dark section this year,” she told the London Evening Standard. “There are a lot of films that look at intense and sometimes quite dysfunctional family relationships which have love at the centre of them but might not necessarily result in happy-ever-after endings.”
Even the two Tom Hanks films based on real-life stories provide some yang as well as yin. By all accounts, Paul Greengrass’s curtain-raiser Captain Phillips is a tough, edge-of-the-seat re-creation of the 2009 hijacking of an American container ship by Somali pirates, with Oscar-worthy performances by Hanks and the newcomer Barkhad Abdi. While, at the opposite end of the spectrum, the closing film Saving Mr Banks casts Hanks as Walt Disney, opposite Emma Thompson as P L Travers, the English author of Mary Poppins.
Other gala screenings include Steve McQueen’s harrowing drama 12 Years a Slave (walkouts were reported during some of the tougher scenes in Toronto), Alfonso Cuaron’s heart-stopping space thriller Gravity, Ivan Reitman’s mature domestic drama Labor Day, the Coen brothers’ melancholic comedy set in New York’s 1960s folk music scene Inside Llewyn Davis, Cannes top dog Blue Is the Warmest Colour, and Ralph Fiennes’ second directorial outing, The Invisible Woman.
The Middle East and India will have a strong presence in several sections, including Debate, a strand dedicated to films focusing on pressing issues of our times. Janafar Panahi and his frequent collaborator Mohammad Rasoulof, who have both been banned from filmmaking by the Iranian authorities, lineup with their respective features, Closed Curtain and Manuscripts Don’t Burn.
Panahi’s film is his second since the ban, and playfully speaks to his own sense of isolation; Rasoulof’s is a fiercely and directly political rebuke to the regime’s attempt to silence him. In fact, much of Manuscripts was shot covertly in Iran, with a cast and crew who remain largely anonymous in the credits to protect them from reprisals by the Iranian authorities.
Elsewhere, Ahmed Abdalla’s competition film Rags and Tatters remembers the heady days of the start of the Arab Spring in early 2011. Rather than taking us back to Tahrir Square, however, the film focuses on an escaped prisoner on the lam in a country he no longer recognises. Change is also at the heart of Ladder to Damascus, the first film in a decade from the acclaimed Syrian director Mohamad Malas, who subtly confronts the traumatic civil war tearing his country apart through a love story.
Cultures clash in a gentler way in May in the Summer, from the Palestinian-American writer-director Cherien Dabis, who makes her acting debut, while the first-time Lebanese filmmaker Amin Dora’s Ghadi is a delightful contemporary fairy tale about a father and son.
Other films from the regions include The Lunchbox (India), The Past (France/Iran), Omar (Palestine), Siddharth (Canada/India), From Gulf to Gulf (UAE/India), Electro Shaari (France/Egypt) and Jeevan Smriti (India).
Meanwhile, the hunt for Osama bin Laden, already a subject of dramatic features and TV series such as Zero Dark Thirty, Code Name Geronimo and Homeland, is explored in documentary form in the US/UK/Afghanistan co-production Manhunt. Using Peter Bergen’s book Manhunt: The Ten-Year Search for Bin Laden from 9/11 to Abbottabad as his guide, the former war correspondent-turned-filmmaker Greg Barker takes us behind the scenes of the CIA to meet the real people involved in finding and capturing the Al Qaeda leader. Made with unprecedented access to CIA analysts, case officers and rare archive footage, this promises fascinating viewing.
On screen, the 57th LFF looks set to be one of the strongest editions. There will be plenty of glamour, too, with the likes of Scarlett Johansson, Carey Mulligan, Daniel Radcliffe, Isabelle Huppert, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson set to walk the red carpet.
• The BFI London Film Festival runs from tomorrow to October 20. For more information, visit www.bfi.org.uk/lff