When the philosopher Gilbert Ryle wrote that a foreign visitor to the University of Oxford, on being shown the colleges, the playing fields, the libraries, and so on, might be forgiven for asking, “But where is the university?”, he was also describing the sensation experienced by a visitor to the BFI London Film Festival.
It’s far from clear that “London Film Festival” constitutes a unit rather than a handy banner under which to mount a large number of screenings, debates and talks, and this looks set to be exacerbated by the festival’s new director, Clare Stewart, who seems keen to erode the vestiges of geographical unity. The LFF started in 1957, coinciding with the opening of the National Film Theatre, where events took place. To fit in more screenings, the festival crept over the river, into the West End, but in recent years it has been allowed to sprawl to South Kensington, Brixton and Croydon, and, this year, to Hackney, Shoreditch and Islington.
The added venues risk making the LFF feel less like the firmly centred public film festivals held every year in Berlin, Edinburgh and Karlovy Vary and more like, say, the Cultural Olympiad – sprawling and attention-grabbing but hard to pin down and considerably less than the sum of its parts.
But then film festivals, although they usually start out with a particular identity, have a way of reducing themselves to their parts – the highlights, the “premieres”, “gala events”, and so on. The LFF started as a “festival of festivals”, showing work from Cannes and Edinburgh that Londoners might not otherwise get a chance to see, but it dropped that identity long ago and now cares a great deal about premieres and discoveries. This year, the LFF has 14 world premieres, which is more impressive than it sounds since only one of them is likely to attract attention on the strength of the film itself – Crossfire Hurricane, a documentary about the Rolling Stones, a band that in their 50 years of existence have been the subject of documentaries both transfixing (the Maysles’ Gimme Shelter) and bemusing (Godard’s One Plus One).
The most important gala events, the opening and closing nights, are a little underwhelming. The opening film, Frankenweenie, a digitally animated horror comedy directed by Tim Burton, hardly looks set to change the world, and goes on general release only a week after its festival showing.
The closing film, Mike Newell’s adaptation of Great Expectations (also broadly Gothic, and featuring Burton’s partner Helena Bonham Carter), is a suitable choice for a film festival taking place in London in Dickens’ bicentenary year, but the film was received without much enthusiasm at Toronto and San Sebastián.
But there are reasons to be cheerful. Stewart has made some alterations that will create a more streamlined and signposted festival. There are several new screening strands: “Dare”, for example, promises “films that take you out of your comfort zone”, of which You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet, from Alain Resnais, now 90 years old, is the most intriguing; “Love” includes, among other films, Michael Haneke’s Amour, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and Like Someone in Love, the new film from Abbas Kiarostami.
It might be said that the old categories, such as “New British Cinema” and “Cinema Europa”, were more useful but the change recognises that there are more subtle and imaginative ways of arranging films than by national boundaries. By opting for – admittedly overlapping – descriptive headings, Stewart goes some way to evoking a republic of film where resemblances have more to do with sensibility than origin.
Another beneficial change to the festival’s existing structure, one that will give it a greater purpose and personality, is the emphasis on prizes. In the past, regular festival visitors were not made especially conscious of which films were in competition. This time, the prizes have each been given a strand to themselves, making them a more central part of the festival.
The resurgence of the documentary in the late 1990s staggers on, and this year the Grierson Award offers the by now familiar array of industry exposés, portraits of obsession and eccentricity, and biographies of cultural figures (cartoonist Ralph Steadman, activist Angela Davis, drummer Ginger Baker). The First Feature Competition, the strand showing films eligible for the Sutherland Award for directorial debut, is dazzlingly, if a little suspiciously, international, with films from Saudi Arabia, Russia, South Africa, India, Japan, Brazil, Sweden, Serbia, as well as the UK and the US. (There are films from 68 countries in the festival overall.)
As for Best Film Award (bafflingly given to We Need to Talk About Kevin last time round), it seems to have been handled well. There is little repetition of films that were prominent at other festivals, and the shortlist has been kept to a sensible 12. This year’s Cannes showed 22 films in competition for the Palme d’Or, which suggests that the prize is being used as an inducement for directors to show their work. The LFF has shown more discrimination and offers a far greater percentage of genuine potential winners. Among them are new films from Jacques Audiard (Rust and Bone), François Ozon (In the House), Michael Winterbottom (Everyday), Martin McDonagh (Seven Psychopaths), Deepa Mehta (Midnight’s Children) and – for my money, a strong contender – Pablo Larraín (No). But the quality of the best film is only one of many factors that will determine the success of the new regime at the LFF.
The 56th BFI London Film Festival in partnership with American Express runs from October 10-21. bfi.org.uk/lff