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The best under-the-radar films to see at this year's London Film Festival

Riz Ahmed stars in Encounter at London Film Festival 2021

The London Film Festival 2021 has begun. And, despite the pandemic-hit, semi-distanced festival that took place last year, it feels like an important comeback. With fans across the country flocking to see Daniel Craig’s final James Bond film outing, there could be no better time to celebrate the sheer joy of the collective cinema experience.

There are huge premieres featuring big names. Benedict Cumberbatch is already getting Oscar buzz for his role Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. Idris Elba, LaKeith Stanfield and Regina King are rewriting the Western rulebook in Jeymes Samuels’ stylish The Harder They Fall, based on the real life stories of African-American cowboys. And Frances McDormand and Denzel Washington star in Coen brother Joel’s The Tragedy of Macbeth.

But the London Film Festival is about so much more than the galas, the glamour and the glitz. So we asked Festival Director Tricia Tuttle for some offbeat films and series from LFF 2021 to watch out for…

Encounter

“Michael Pearce’s second feature, following Beast in 2017, stars Riz Ahmed. It is really wonderful – a genre film of sorts. I won’t say too much about the plot but it’s post-alien invasion and is essentially a road movie about a father who is ex-military and becomes convinced his ex-wife has been taken over by aliens. So he goes to rescue his young sons and goes on the run with them.

“From that point, the film opens up in really unexpected ways. It’s really fabulous. Pearce and co-writer Joe Barton [who wrote the brilliant BBC series Giri/Haji] play with your assumptions and expectations in an interesting way to create a beautiful, resonant film about contemporary culture and parenthood.”

TBI: Why have horror and genre films had such a resurgence in recent years?

“Part of it is that there’s a generation of artists who are now in their late 30s, 40s or early 50s who grew up watching the genre films and horror films that there were so huge in the 1970s and 80s. That has to be embedded in their creative consciousness. But also it’s a production issue and a funding and financing issue. Dramas are not as predictable for financiers. But if you have a genre film, it makes it easier to bring an audience to that story. And from creative point of view, I think you have always been able to bring big ideas on contemporary culture and politics into those narratives.”

She Will

“This is a really exciting feature from a Franco-British female filmmaker, Charlotte Colbert, who you might know as a multimedia visual artist. This is her first feature and it’s a Gothic story of a bitter ageing actress who goes to Scottish countryside for a retreat… and she ends up not being as isolated as she thought she was!

“So there’s a lot about witchcraft and ways in which women hundreds of years ago were persecuted as witches. It’s a beautiful story of female solidarity. Malcolm McDowell is in it, Rupert Everett has a great sort of campy, twisted role. It’s really impressive debut feature.”

The Rope

“I also want to highlight that we’re screening series as well as films. So we’ve got eight series ranging from high end television like SUCCESSION and [upcoming Disney+ series] DOPESICK to a super low budget Argentinian web series. The Rope is in our Culture strand.

“It’s a weird, atmospheric supernatural French horror about a group of scientists on a remote outpost in a forest who discover a rope and decide to follow it to the end. And after day one, they realise that they can’t fine the end. They set out again on day two. And day three. But they can’t find the end. It becomes this sort of strange Netherworld supernatural fable about looking for truth and faith and group dynamics.”

TBI: Were you keen to incorporate more TV as the line between TV and film gets increasingly blurred?

“We’re really interested, at least as a jumping off point, in exploring work that shares DNA with cinema. Authored work, work that has a cinematic quality and relies as much on visual storytelling as on dialogue. And we love following filmmakers whose work we know from cinema to their work in television.

“But there are no rules. Something like 4 FEET HIGH, which is the Argentinian web series, you can’t describe like that. We’re also really aware that increasingly, filmmakers – Jane Campion is a great example – are not confined by a particular medium. Television offers a lot of creative potential for them for long form stories. And there’s a lot of risk taking in television. So I think the filmmakers we love are moving quite effortlessly across different sort of forums.”

Prayers for the Stolen

This is a film from Tatiana Huezo who people might know as a documentary filmmaker. Her first fiction film is set outside of Mexico City in a mountain village, where you never see the cartels but you see their cars driving through the mountains. So you feel the constant threat. It’s all told from the point of view of three young girls who are best friends and it’s a really beautiful film. One of many in the last few years about the ongoing impact of gun / drug violence on ordinary Mexicans.”

TBI: What are some themes that emerged from this year’s selection?

“It’s interesting – there aren’t that many this year directly tackling the Climate Emergency but there are lots of films about fractured communities. There are lots of films that are made because filmmakers are very worried about the direction that their own countries are going in and worried about the shift to towards the authoritarian far right.”

Bad Luck Banging Or Loony Porn

“Radu Jude’s Berlinale winner is really offbeat, confrontational, funny, twisted. It’s about fear of the rise of anti-Semitism and authoritarianism in Romania and the hypocrisy on policy when it comes to sexuality and women’s bodies. It’s a response to Romanian culture – but so many filmmakers are grappling with these issues in their own countries.”

Flee

This is a brilliant animated Danish documentary. The audio is a queer Afghan refugee who has spent most of his adult life in Denmark. It should be enough that he had to leave his country but he had to embellish his story to be able to seek asylum. I think the reason they animated it is because he’s wants to protect his identity. So it’s the first time in his entire life he’s actually told this really moving story of what it means to have grown up not able to tell your story, and what it means to be a queer Arab in Denmark.”

Belfast

“Also at the opposite end of the spectrum, because it’s not political in an angry way but it engages with politics is Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST. This film is a reflection on how Branagh was impacted by the political situation in Belfast in the late 60s when the Troubles really erupted in his local community and fractured his family and community. So that’s dealing with politics and in a more oblique way.”

Was there a collective sigh of relief when the Bond Box Office figures were released?

I’m out of that loop. So I’m grateful for Bond, but it’s not a part of the London Film Festival experience and I’ve just had my head down here. I know my colleagues at the BFI are really thrilled with the figures, which were even better than Spectre. So I think there was a collective sigh of relief and maybe a collective sense that audiences are going to come back because we give them great cinema.

“But if you talk to anyone who works in the part of the industry that I do, which is independent cinema, international cinema – so the likes of BFI Southbank, Home in Manchester, Watershed in Bristol, Sheffield Showroom, our meat and potatoes is the kind of work I really believe audiences will always want to come to the cinema to see. Those films have been crowded out by screen space being taken over by bigger films. But people have felt positive this year. Because even at 30% or 50% capacity, these screens have stayed open when they can and seen great audience figures.”

TBI: What have you kept from the hybrid festival during lockdown? Has that forced you to speed up the evolution that was already underway?

“That’s very astute of you to notice because since 2013 we’ve been trying to take a film or two out outside of London every year. The BFI is a UK wide organisation. And it’s really important for us to open up the festival to audiences. So that was not something new. But previously we did it with single moments like Peterloo being screened at Home in Manchester.

“So the that was already in our long term planning for London Film Festival. We wanted to find ways to make the festival more accessible. But never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that in two years, we’d be take that model of one or two films a year to something like we’re doing now. We have 16 films going around the country to different partner venues plus 27 on the BFI Player. So it exploded the possibilities for working with venues outside of London.

“And also virtual premieres. We tried before but there wasn’t the appetite. Now, because there’s been so much experimentation in the last 18 months, some rights holders are happy to go on that journey. I think that’s a really positive step for audiences.

“Because you’re not going to stop people watching on platforms. Younger audiences particularly don’t understand why they can’t decide when and where to see something. But there is data that under-16s see more films than older audiences and go to the cinema more as well. So there is evidence that it’s not diminishing their appetite for going to the cinema. I believe that the more you see great work, the more you want it to be part of your everyday experience.”

TBI: What are the emotions for you bringing big audiences back in for London Film Festival 2021?

“I was lucky to go to Cannes Film Festival and was a little bit freaked out to be sitting in a 2000 seat cinema with loads of people. It was a little bit weird because we hadn’t done it in a while. But the health and safety protocol was excellent and the second I sat down and the lights went down, I felt really euphoric. It felt so good. I’ve seen the same film at home and then seen it play with an audience and there is definitely something that happens with each audience.

“I love when we have filmmakers who have gone all around the world and shown their film to different audiences – and they talk about how different their film plays, how differently they view it, depending on who’s watching it. That brings an electricity to an experience for people watching it. It’s a very live art form, even though people don’t think it is.

“I think it’s so important that we share stories and that we have cultural conversations around some really difficult social political issues – but also that we laugh together, we cry together, and do all those things that create community and create bonds between us.”

The London Film Festival 2021 runs until October 17

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