BFI London Film Festival – An Exploration

Rakshita Patel
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The 57th BFI London Film Festival opened this week on Wednesday 9 October 2013. The festival runs for 12 days and the programme includes 235 feature films and 134 short films from 57 countries around the world. It is the UK’s largest public film event.

As someone who loves films truly, madly, deeply, the London Film Festival is one of the key highlights of my yearly calendar, and I have been attending for a number of years. I wanted to write about why I love the festival from the point of view of someone who is passionate about film.

The London Film Festival was established by a group of film critics in the early 1950s. Their aim was to create a new film festival aimed at the general public, to give audiences a chance to see films that would not otherwise appear in British cinemas. To begin with, the films screened as part of the London Film Festival were the best of the films that had already been screened at other European film festivals, including Cannes and Venice. The original ambition is what makes the London Film Festival unique – this is a film festival designed for, and aimed at, the general public, not the film industry.

The BFI London Film Festival in now in its 57th year and, whilst much has changed over the years, it remains first and foremost a film festival for the general public, where film audiences are given a chance to see a whole range of films which may not otherwise get a UK release.

The London Film Festival has grown hugely in size and status over time, and it now screens world premieres and is attended by large numbers of film professionals and journalists from all around the world. Its Opening and Closing Galas are world premiere screenings taking place at the Odeon Leicester Square, and are major red carpet events attended by the film’s cast and creatives.

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As a lover of film, what I value and appreciate about the London Film Festival above all else is that it gives me an opportunity to see a whole range of diverse films which I would not get the chance to see otherwise. That often includes smaller independent UK and US films, European and World cinema, documentary features, and classics.

The other aspect of the London Film Festival that I truly value are the post-film Q&As with directors, writers, and actors, often impromptu; and the extensive programme of talks, lectures and masterclasses that run alongside and complement the festival. Attending these Q&As and events really deepens my understanding and appreciation of film and film-making and I enjoy hearing directors, screenwriters, and actors talking about their craft.

It is really difficult to choose a few films to highlight from such a wide-ranging and diverse programme but I have chosen to focus on a few Gala films and films I have booked to see. This makes for an eclectic selection.

Unusually this year, Tom Hanks is the lead actor in both Opening and Closing Night Galas, although the films are very different. The Opening Night Gala was Captain Phillips, a dramatization of the 2009 hijacking of a US container ship by a crew of Somali pirates, directed by Paul Greengrass, with Tom Hanks playing Captain Phillips. The Closing Night Gala is Saving Mr Banks, the true story of Mary Poppins’ journey to the big screen, with Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney and Emma Thompson playing PL Travers, the author of the original novel who travels from London to Hollywood to participate in the development of the screenplay.

I have selected a further four Gala films to write about. The American Express Gala is Philomena, directed by Stephen Frears. It is the true story of an Irish Catholic woman, played by Judi Dench, who decides to find her son more than fifty years after she was forced, as an unmarried mother, to give him up for adoption. Steve Coogan plays Martin Sixsmith who reluctantly agrees to meet Philomena and hear her story. Together, Philomena and Martin then embark on a journey to find her son.

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The Accenture Gala is 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen. It is an account of slavery in pre-Civil War America. Solomon, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a free man in New York but is brutally abducted and sold into slavery. He is sold to an abusive plantation boss Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, and as Epps spirals into madness, Solomon and his fellow slaves are subjected to escalating bouts of violence.

The American Airlines Gala is Gravity. Medical engineer Dr Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock, is on her first space mission under the command of astronaut Matt Kowalsky, played by George Clooney, making his final flight before retirement. But, during a routine spacewalk, satellite debris crashes into their shuttle, leaving the craft severely damaged and their means of communicating with earth destroyed. How will they survive and return home?

The Festival Gala is The Invisible Woman, directed by Ralph Fiennes. It tells the story of the secret affair between Charles Dickens, played by Ralph Fiennes, and the young actress Nelly Ternan, played by Felicity Jones, which started at the height of his career, when she was just 18, and lasted until his death. These were the four Gala films that caught my eye.

I have booked to see seven films as part of the London Film Festival, all of which I am very excited about seeing. I am featuring them to give readers a flavour of the richness and diversity, the depth and breadth, of the films on offer. The Double stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon, a browbeaten office clerk, who finds his world is turned upside down by the arrival of a confident and ambitious doppelganger. Transposing the action from 19th century Russia to modern-day America, this film adaptation of Dostoevsky’s celebrated novella is a contemporary update of a literary classic.

Omar is a powerful love story set against the backdrop of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; a gripping thriller that sees a young Palestinian try to evade the Israeli security services while earning the love of his girlfriend. The Kill Team is a sensitive, shocking exploration of US war crimes in Afghanistan against Afghan civilians, focusing on the whistleblower who brought the war crimes and murders to light. May in the Summer is a comedy about the travails of a Christian Arab-American writer and her attempts to marry her Muslim boyfriend against her mother’s wishes.

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Tom at the Farm follows Tom, who travels to the countryside of Quebec after the untimely death of his boyfriend for his funeral. Upon arriving at the family home of his late partner, Tom slowly realizes that the romantic nature of their relationship has been kept a secret and finds himself involved in a dangerous game of deception.

Night Moves is a taut political thriller. Radical environmentalist Josh (Jesse Eisenberg), society drop-out Dena (Dakota Fanning), and ex-marine Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) execute a meticulously planned act of eco-terrorism. Following their clandestine operation, they separate and resume their regular lives, but the media frenzy that follows reveals the unintended consequences of their actions. The focus is on why each individual took action – what ignites protest and is it ever truly selfless?

Locke focuses on how Ivan Locke’s hitherto rock solid life slowly falls apart during a drive from Wales to London. Structural engineer Locke (Tom Hardy) is as solid as the concrete that he pours for a living. But we follow Locke’s drive and see how one mistake has caused his life to completely fall apart. I will be reviewing those films that inspire and move me so watch this space!

Given that finances are very tight for most people at the moment, including me, I would argue ticket prices for the London Film Festival are very good value for money. Whilst tickets for the Gala screenings can be expensive (£32 for the Opening and Closing Galas, £26 or £20 for the other Galas), tickets for the other screenings are reasonable (£16 or £12.50 depending on the venue) and weekday matinees at all venues are just £9. Tickets are still available for many screenings and a returns queue opens 30 minutes before each screening at the Box Office at each venue.

If you are based in and around London, and you have never been to the BFI London Film Festival, I would highly recommend you give it a whirl and go and see a film that you would not normally see. I am fairly certain that once you have tried it out, you will become hooked, and will keep returning year after year. That is what happened to me!

The BFI London Film Festival runs from the 9 to 20 October 2013 in venues across London.

About Rakshita Patel

Raks was born and brought up in Birmingham but has lived in London for over 20 years. She works in the public sector but her real passions are campaigning and culture - specifically theatre, film and TV. Her interests are eclectic and diverse and include LGBT, race, equalities, theatre, film, TV, politics and current affairs. Twitter: @MycroftBrolly

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