Callie Petch at BFI London Film Festival 2017, Day 10

You Were Never Really HereThe Big Bad Fox and Other Tales, and Abu.

I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to talk to other people whilst I’ve been at the Festival, this year.  As previously mentioned back on Day 6 when I related my account attending one of the Filmmaker’s Afternoon Teas, I have severe anxiety and it flares up especially bad when I’m surrounded by large groups of people I don’t know in a place I feel like I don’t belong.  Until only very recently, I had incredible difficulty even asking my friends if they wanted to hang out and do stuff, so you can probably imagine how hard it is for me to work up the nerve to talk to random people, particularly since quite a lot of people at the Festival appear to know at least a few others and keep bumping into them.

Last year, I think I talked with maybe three other people the entire time I was down here, and one of those was a friend of mine from university who lives in London and came to see me on my last day.  I didn’t mind, largely because I was too enraptured by the experience of being here itself and the films on display.  Though there were the occasional moments where I did feel out of place, when I was surrounded by people who were friends with each other and talking at length about non-festival films I hadn’t seen.  But this year, I resolved to at least try a bit more.  I was hoping I’d be able to come with a friend of mine in the first place, but she had prior arrangements she couldn’t get out of.  So maybe talking with others would help alleviate any potential feelings of fraudulence or loneliness and distract should the line-up underwhelm in any way.

And it’s been going well.  I’m not suddenly a super-chatty Callum, who bounds up to any and everyone with confidence and conversation coming out of the wazoo, but I have been trying.  There was the aforementioned Afternoon Tea that I would have never even so much as have considered in previous years, yet turned out really well.  I engaged in a good back and forth with those who joined my screening of Three Peaks over the divisive ending, chatted with a few others before my Félicité screening, got sat next to one of the Festival’s programmers, Manish, for Brawl in Cell Block 99, and he graciously swapped seats with me so my weak knees could have an aisle seat.  Plus, I’ve also repeatedly run into a very nice woman during the Festival who’s been doing the Professional Film Critic thing for 16 years now, working for a respected outlet (whose name now escapes me but starts with “Evening”) and having to juggle her responsibilities covering the festival with the “day job” of writing up the week’s cinema releases.  She’s been a lot of fun to talk to, and has very gladly tolerated my continued presence in her time at the Festival, and it’s all helped me feel slightly more like I do belong here, even if we only exchanged names once (which means that I’ve completely forgotten it because I am awful with names).

There’s no larger point to this intro, in case you’re wondering, I’m just writing about it because I want to.  I warned you from the outset that this series would be equal parts Consumer Advice Arts Criticism and Self-Indulgent Holiday Photos, you can’t demand a metaphysical refund now!  You knew what you were getting into!

Right, as for films on the last day of official Press Screenings (barring Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri on Sunday morning), let’s begin with the sole big name of the day’s slate: Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (B, verging on a B+).  Now, full disclosure, everything I say here is subject to change.  More than anything else I have seen this festival, and I am including perennial bar-setter The Breadwinner in this statement, I was gripped to the screen.  Arrested.  Incapable of looking away.  Ramsay directs the everloving fuck out of this thing, grabbing the attention from minute one and refusing to let you so much as blink until the last cut to black.  Despite the arthouse pretensions, she has crafted a lean, muscular thriller, that is relentless in its efforts to keep your eyes locked on it.  I wanted to look away multiple times, in the same way that I did with Brawl in Cell Block 99 despite that being far more graphic, yet I physically could not.

The details of this thriller are at once stripped down and straightforward, yet numerous and deliberately obfuscated.  There’s a man, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix), although Joe is such an intentionally generic name that it might not be real and honestly doesn’t matter either way.  In any case, Joe is a wounded beast of a man.  Actually, scratch that, he is a wounded beast of somebody’s worst nightmares.  He doesn’t appear to have a life when we meet him, save for his aging and somewhat senile mother (Judith Roberts), and anything that he cared for or loved or provided him with anything that could even slightly resemble a drop of humanity left a long time ago.  All that’s left is rage.  Pure, disassociated, pleasure-less rage; born from the PTSD we are left to infer came from his abusive father, his tours of the Middle East, and some kind of child trafficking discovery he made at some point.

Joe channels that rage and trauma in two ways.  The first is inward, in a deeply-hopeless constantly suicidal state, bringing himself right up to the edge of death multiple times during our brief encounter with him, as he chants the abusive words of his father – stand up straight, don’t be such a fucking pussy, be better goddammit.  He recreates his attempted suicide by suffocation throughout the film, the one he tried as a child and the one that his father went through with himself, before stopping at the last moment for reasons that are never made clear.  The second is outward, where he uses his deliberate, passionless control for violence and immense physicality to rescue kidnapped children from sex slavery for miniscule amounts of cash.  He is as coldly dispassionate as one can be on these jobs, meandering at a terrifyingly measured pace, always dispatching those inside with a hammer, the same type that his father used to beat him with, and he leaves no trace and zero witnesses.

So why does he do this?  Joe is not exactly chatty during the film’s first half, but the first (and only significant) injury he gains during the second half, where everything goes horrifyingly wrong, forces him to remove a tooth and renders him pretty much incomprehensible.  Ramsay, for her part, plays with structure and time to such an extent that the flashbacks I keep making reference to only appear in vague sharp jump-cuts; loaded imagery with a tonne of potential symbolism and explanation, yet placing the entire onus on the viewer to make the connections.  Describing Joe as a walking nightmare is actually an apt descriptor for the film itself.  It’s a waking nightmare, operating on a dream logic of its own accord where absolutely nothing feels right even before we go face-to-face with the sickening underbelly of sexual abuse, and you cannot make it stop no matter how much you want it to.  That’s why I almost completely bought the giant fake-out at the film’s end, because everybody else’s nonplussed reactions in the background were completely in keeping with the subtle off-ness of everything else.

And just like a particularly vivid nightmare, there’s the creeping sense in the aftermath that much of it was all build-up and almost zero pay-off.  Ramsay returns to the same stylistic technique she utilised during an earlier sequence of Joe going to ‘work’ to build anticipation for a huge blow-off… only to have all of the violence and resolution happen off-screen.  Joe himself is even hurt by this, like something fundamental to his way of being has been taken from him.  He breaks down, at least as much as somebody like Joe can break down.  But why?  Ramsay refuses to spell it out, much like she refuses to spell out the motives behind the villains, much like she refuses to spell out Joe’s past, much like she refuses to spell out anything about this movie.  And yet the results are still utterly hypnotic and breathlessly intense, regardless of whether or not there is meaning going on under the surface.

This is why I need to let You Were Never Really Here sit with me for a while longer.  I saw somebody on Twitter describe it as “the action-thriller as anxiety attack,” and it’s the perfect descriptor for the thing.  Ramsay’s filmmaking is tight, compact, and viciously uncompromising, but the deliberate abstraction and obfuscation of the underlying symbolism and theme is also leading me to question what the film is trying to say, and if it’s even saying anything at all.  So I need time, but that’s ok because, GODDAMN, I will not be forgetting this one in a hurry.

As for the others: I got royally screwed over by London’s ever-wonderful Tube system this morning, so I ended up being too late to get into G Funk, which I’m majorly disappointed about since I was really intrigued by it and the public screenings all clash with other things I need to do here at the Fest.  I was in a slightly sour mood to start things off, then, and The Big Bad Wolf and Other Tales (B) turned out to be just the tonic required to counteract that sourness.  The film is a French animated Children’s anthology, based on co-director Benjamin Renner’s (one of the directors responsible for the Oscar-nominated Ernest & Celestine) illustrated Children’s book of the same name, and was initially envisioned as a series of half-hour TV specials.

That mode of adaptation was scrapped, obviously, and instead turned into the film I saw, with each of the three stories linked together by the framing device of it all being the work of an amateur theatre group that we see in each of the stories – they all take place on or around the same farm, characters wander into and out of each other’s stories, and there is a natural progression in time as the seasons change from mid-Summer to Christmastime – but the remnants of an extended TV special remain.  I don’t mean this as an insult, for the record.  In fact, the pleasures of The Big Bad Fox are directly tied to its simple, modest, breezy nature.  These are stories that are light, with little to no stakes, and based around farcical misunderstandings that are almost as old as Comedy itself.  Big Bad Fox does not aim high, and carries no pretensions at trying to change the landscape of animated storytelling like your Kubos or your Breadwinners or your Inside Outs.

But it works, completely.  The total innocence, the fully uncynical wholesomeness and modesty of the film is charming, relentlessly so.  The art style is simple, deliberately resembling the illustrated children’s book the film has spawned from, but effective, with huggable character designs and great attention paid towards the warm mixing of colours.  Whilst the comedy comes fast and breezy, where every punchline can gain a laugh well in advance of it happening and then another laugh once the guessed punchline occurs.  To go back to the “scrapped TV specials” fact, I was put most in mind of those seasonal one-off animated family specials that the main broadcast channels create every now and again.  I have a real soft spot for those – I friggin’ adore most of those Peanuts holiday specials, after all – so The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales left me grinning for every last second of its 83-minute runtime.  Sure, this entire film is the equivalent of a pathetically easy lay-up or open goal for me and my interests, but I am fine with pandering so long as it is explicitly done for my, and only my, benefit!

Whilst for the evening’s Public Screening, the joys of comp-d tickets allowed me to take a chance on a documentary that intrigued me but whose press screening ended up being overruled by the need to see The Killing of a Sacred DeerAbu (B) is an extremely personal film, delving fully and completely into the life of its director, Arshad Khan, and is about himself.  He, to you and I on the outside, is not an especially noteworthy guy who hasn’t exactly done anything spectacular, which is something that Arshad – who is just charm and intelligence and cuteness personified, by the way – noted in his post-film Q&A.  This turns out to be one of the many points of the film, however, giving us an insight into the fairly ordinary life of a Pakistani ex-pat growing up in his home country during the dictatorship of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq throughout the 80s, his parents’ disillusionment and dwindling fortunes in the 90s, necessitating their emigration to Canada, and how both they and the country they’ve moved to change in hateful regressive ways post-9/11.

But there’s one other fact about Arshad that I left out of that previous paragraph, one that also forms a core tenant of the film and drives a wedge between himself and his family: Arshad is gay.  It’s something he subconsciously realises at an early age, but that the conservatism of Pakistan at the time, and even his rather liberal-leaning parents, equate to being on the same level as a rapist or a paedophile, instilling a deep sense of shame within him over something that, despite the beliefs of his parents, he has no control over.  Things don’t get much better when he makes it to Canada, either, as both straight and homosexual circles relentlessly judge and Other him for not being right enough for their tastes.  And that’s all without also taking into account that, once he moves to Canadian High School, he is the only South Asian kid in the area, which is another reductive label thrown onto the pile.

Abu, therefore, is largely a film about identity, and trying to figure exactly what that identity is and reconcile with it in the face of society at large and a contentious relationship with one’s parents.  Arshad largely tells the story of his and his family’s life via extensive home video footage, as his father adored technology in his earlier life so they were always filming stuff, supplemented by the occasional animated visualisation of more abstract passages, interviews with his supportive academic older sister and his contentious mother, and clips from various movies that act as metaphors for the narrative we’re following – pulling the double duty of displaying Arshad’s love for film and, in the mixture of both South Asian and Western clips used, demonstrating the variety of media displayed in Pakistan and how rarely we in the West depict people like Arshad in deep sympathetic ways.  Arshad’s narration keeps things light – arguably too much so, there’s a really horrifying thread about his family’s history as sexual abuse survivors that’s initially crashed into straight after an unrelated joke – and the whole film is a fascinating and really likeable watch.  Raw and personal, yet sweet and linked to the world at large.

Tomorrow: we take our chances in the Rush Queues.

Callie Petch is really fucking on.

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