BFI Festival London: What’s Hot

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Direct from the red carpet, Deputy Film Editor tells us what’s hot at London’s BFI Festival. Fast becoming one to watch on the international circuit, this year sees Suffragette cause controversy as things take a swing for the political…

As I write, this year’s BFI London Film Festival is in full swing. Hollywood royalty such as Helen Mirren and Benedict Cumberbatch have graced the red carpet. Over three hundred films and documentaries will be screened for the 59th celebration of cinema in the capital – eleven days that will brighten any mood as the gloomy autumnal weather intensifies. Yet, for all those front pages flaunting the chiselled cheekbones and glamorous gowns of the rich and famous, the 2015 event has proved to be one brimming with political subtext, asking us to challenge the whole industry, not just the choice of premiere attire.

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Trumbo has got the critics talking. Bryan Cranston, a man revitalized by his Heisenberg days, portrays the acclaimed screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, blacklisted for his Communist leanings in McCarthyist America. Thankfully, such concerted censorship is not commonplace in the U.K. at present, but the massacre at Charlie Hebdo earlier this year has kept issues of free speech current. He Named Me Malala, a documentary about the Nobel Peace Prize-winning teenage campaigner, has also proved thought-provoking. Though the frankness and bravery of the seventeen-year-old are successfully conveyed, some have noticed a sensationalist tone indicative of our social media-obsessed world.

Festival director Clare Stewart initiated industry introspection with her bold statement declaring 2015 ‘the year of the strong women’. The studio establishment has long been plagued with accusations of gender imbalance. Last year, leading screenwriter Aaron Sorkin announced that ‘there just aren’t that many tour-de-force roles out there for women’. It is highly appropriate for Stewart to have championed the film Suffragette, which opens the festival. Though predominantly following a fictional character – Carey Mulligan plays a laundress at the heart of everything at the turn of the 20th century – it has earned many plaudits for its graphic depiction of the suffragette movement. A stellar cast, including Meryl Streep, has certainly added to Suffragette’s gravitas. Streep plays the role of Emmeline Pankhurst with the aloofness required for such a titanic figure.

However, it is the production of the film that has stirred the most interest. Abi Morgan is a very accomplished screenwriter – she penned the Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady – but it is unusual to see such big-budget dramas primarily in the hands of women. Sarah Gavron directs and Alison Owen produces. Such an enterprise should become the norm and not a ‘passion project’ that takes ten years to produce. Protests at the premiere by the organisation ‘Sister’s Uncut’ indicate that inequality persists. That night, over a hundred women stormed the red carpet in a campaign against domestic abuse. There have also been worries that the influence of non-white activists has been ignored. But if those in power, as Helena Bonham-Carter acknowledged, continue to create material that provokes such ardent responses, then that disparity will continue to garner necessary attention.

In short, if not the BFI Festival, follow the Tribeca, Sundance and Cannes Film Festivals over the coming months. The London event continues to show that problems within the film industry can reflect our society’s wider difficulties. At universities like ours, it is easy to lose sight of these issues. Cinema, when consumed in such a concentrated manner, can help burst the bubble and provide a refreshing alternative outlook.

Photograph: Sam Hughes (derivative by RanZag)

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