Film Festivals need debate to survive. Creating discussion is something festivals strive for, be it through real life documentaries or fiction features, experimental filmmaking or controversial topics. Debate surrounding cinema is never more engaging and hard-hitting than when the real world is reflected back at us on the big screen, ranging from Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal and fall from grace, to 116 year old films following the Suffragettes and their fight for the rights for women to vote. From controversies in the Chilean Catholic Church, to the campaign for gay rights in India, and the everyday lives of prostitutes in Morocco, the Debate Strand is controversial, groundbreaking and thought provoking cinema at its best.
The Program (Stephen Frears, UK-France, 2015)
Lance Armstrong: one of the most, if not the most, recognisable names in cycling, and never short of a column inch or two. Collaborating with screenwriter John Hodge (Trainspotting), director Stephen Frears returns to London Film Festival once more, this time charting the rise and rise of Armstrong to near canonisation, and his subsequent fall from grace following the news that he was a doping cheat.
Ben Foster plays Armstrong with zealot-like intensity, beginning in the 90s when he was a practically unknown cyclist setting out on his first Tour de France, oozing raw ambition and ego to burn whilst being interviewed by sports reporter David Walsh (Chris O’Dowd). The Program charts his road to success and rise to fame, until he comes up against the ultimate enemy: his own body and mortality when he is diagnosed with stage three testicular cancer. In a testament to the power of human will and determination Armstrong recovers, and goes on to found US Postal, one the most successful road racing teams ever. But was it all too good to be true? You bet it was! Chris O’Dowd’s stunning performance as David Walsh perfectly captures the conflict and struggles of a man who risked everything to prove Armstrong was a doping cheat, in this fast paced, thrilling, ride.
Aligarh (Hansal Mehta, India, 2015)
Possibly the most compelling, riveting and touching film on the everyday gay male experience in India, Aligarh follows Professor Siras as he is suspended from his job at Aligarh University after photos surface of him in bed with his Rickshaw driving male lover. When ambitious, young journalist Deepu hears of Siras’s story, he heads to Aligarh University to meet with the shy and embarrassed intellectual. After carrying out a more detailed investigation Deepu discovers that the university are behind the break-in and photographing of Siras and his lover. Following these revelations Deepa and LBGT activists convince Siras to challenge his suspension in the high court, and thus become the spearhead of the fight for gay rights in India.
The Apostate (Federico Veiroj, Spain-France-Uruguay, 2015)
Fusing comedy with existential midlife crisis, The Apostate follows Gonzalo, a thrity-something year old drifter who has once again failed his university course, has a strange relationship with his cousin Pilar, (who also has a boyfriend) and an attraction to his neighbour Maite whose young son he tutors. In an attempt to make a statement to his conservative Christian family, Gonzalo seeks to become an apostate from the Catholic Church, but soon finds himself in a bureaucratic struggle with an institution that always seems to be one step ahead of him.
Arianna (Carlo Lavangna, Italy, 2015)
Born out of a documentary Lavangna made of a real-life case of a seemingly ordinary Italian family, Arianna follows the titual teenage girl plagued by emotional and physical insecurities as she sets out on a mission to discover her sexual identity during a family holiday to Lake Bolsano. Putting an intriguing twist on the usual coming-of-age dramas, Arianna is the story a troubled teenager attempting to deal with the usual problems of being a teenager, as well as the discovery that her parents have been lying to her about who she is her whole life. In Arianna not everything is as it seems.
Chronic (Michel Franco, Mexico-France, 2015)
After disturbing and stunning audiences at London Film Festival in equal measure with After Lucia in 2012, Michel Franco returns to the festival with his depiction of a full-time carer for terminally ill patients. In this uncompromising study of grief and isolation, David is a carer for the terminally ill, unwavering in his devotion to his work, but it comes at the price of his own personal life. With each new patient, David develops a closeness and attachment to them which borders on unhealthy, and at times sociopathic. Intimate and disturbing, in long measured shots with an air of clinical execution about them, Tim Roth’s performance as a David brings a sense of empathy and humanity to the complex character of David, and an unconventional heart to this unconventional film.
The Club (Pablo Larraín, Chile, 2015)
Critically acclaimed for his previous features including Post Mortem (2010) and No (2012), Pablo Larraín’s latest feature The Club scooped the Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Berlinale Film Festival (Berlin International Film Festival), with its tale of morality, controversy and the past catching up with you. In one of Chile’s sleepy coastal fishing towns, 4 men share a house with their housekeeper and the greyhound they are training as a race dog. In truth these are 5 former members of the Catholic Church – 4 defrocked priests and a former nun – who are about to have their lives disturbed following the arrival of their new lodger. The shamed former clerics are forced to relive the sins (ranging from baby stealing to child abuse) they thought they had left behind, violence ensues, which leads to an investigation by the church who are trying to clean up the often abusive actions of its members.
Less anti-Christian and more a critique of the Chilean people and their culture of complacency and concealment, where it is believed wrongdoers can get away with anything they want, The Club is gripping, controversial and fearless.
Dégradé (Tarzan and Arab Nasser, Palestine-France, 2015)
A group of women gather in their local salon to get their hair done, discuss their problems and catch up on the week’s gossip, one of them wants to look good for the young, handsome lawyer handling her divorce, and another is trying to get rid of her troublesome boyfriend, and so on. From melodramas to chick flicks it is a trope almost as old as cinema itself, but the thing that sets Dégradé apart from the rest of them is its setting: The Gaza Strip. Instead of leaving the salon and going back to their normal routines, the women will end their day with power cuts, outbreaks of violence from rival militant groups, and the mysterious case of a stolen lion. Mostly confined to the salon, which becomes increasingly claustrophobic as the action outside develops, Dégradé is a testament to the women of Gaza, their defiance, determination, kookiness whilst living in one of the most extreme environments in the world.
The Hard Stop (George Amponsah, UK, 2015)
(In association with Mobo Film)
In August 2011 Mark Duggan was shot dead in a ‘hard stop’ police procedure, Duggan’s death sparked the UK’s most violent riots since the 1995 Brixton Riots. In The Hard Stop director George Amponsah follows Duggan’s friends and family over 28, filming in and around the Broadwater Farm area of Tottenham where Duggan was killed, telling the side that has been rarely heard in the British media in the past 4 years. In particular Amponsah focuses on two of Duggan’s closest friends Marcus Knox and Kurtis Henville as they come to terms with events and try to move on with their lives, discussing the discrimination they face from the police, the media and others on a daily basis and the impact Duggan’s death has had on their community.
Make More Noise! The Suffragettes in Film (Programmed by Bryony Dixon & Margaret Deriaz, UK, 1899-1917)
When the Suffragettes set out to secure the vote for women and change the lives of millions of women their key tactic was “Make more noise”, speaking out at public meetings, making a stand in theatres, marching on the streets and disrupting the elections. First Wave Feminism grew up alongside cinema, and with the development of video cameras came a new tactic for the Suffragettes, get in front of the cameras. Make More Noise! is a collection of 21 short films from the BFI Archives charting the rise of the Suffragettes and how the birth of cinema became an important weapon in their arsenal.
A Man for All Seasons (Fred Zinnerman, UK, 1966)
In an adaptation of Robert Bolt’s play of the same name, A Man for All Seasons is a six time Academy Award winning film, frequently seen on lists of the top 100 films of all time, focusing on Sir Thomas More, 16th century Lord Chancellor of England. When Henry VIII attempted to divorce first wife Catherine of Aragon, More was required to sign a letter asking the pope to annul the King’s marriage, which he refused to do and resigned his post rather than declare Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church of England.
A Man for All Seasons has been digitally restored from its original film negative by MTI Film, Chance, Cinetic Inc and Delux, and is also screened as part of the Treasures Collection.
The Measure of a Man (Stephane Briza, France, 2015)
(La Loi Du Marché)
Another film with a very topical subject matter is Stephane Briza’s The Measure of a Man which follows the life of Thierry, a middle-aged man who has been unemployed for more than two years as he tries to get back on the career ladder, make ends meet and learns more about life. Selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the film eventually won the award for best actor, Vincent Lindon as Thierry, an Everyman Hero whose story has been seen all too often across the globe in the last decade. As well as the difficult financial position created by unemployment, the film also explores the dehumanising effect unemployment can have, and how some people are forced into moral conflict and have their very identity stripped to fit in with approved corporate guidelines.
Mediterranea (Jonas Carpignano, Italy-France-USA, 2015)
(In association with Mobo Film)
The migration of people fleeing the war torn Middle East in search of a better life in Europe has filled our Tv screens and newsstands for almost all of 2015, it has divided nations and continents, prompted kindness and generosity that could warm almost all the coldest of hearts, and shown the ugly, racist side of many a media outlet.
Jonas Carpignano’s feature length debut explores this topical issue through the attitude of immigrants, host countries and the problems that result. Mediterranea was developed from an earlier short film of Carpignano’s A Chianna and is based on real life accounts, starring a mostly unknown cast who have experienced the same problems as the film’s central characters. Two young men from Burkina Faso who leave Africa in search of a new life in Italy, but find their trip to be more difficult and hostile than they could ever have imagined.
The Memory of Justice (Marcel Ophüls, UK-Germany-France, 1976)
Another feature from the Treasures Collection The Memory of Justice was inspired by Telford Taylor’s book Nuremburg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, and Taylor is interviewed throughout the film. After the Vietnam War Marcel Ophüls set out on his most ambitious project, to trace the moral legacy of the defining crimes and conflicts of the 20th century, beginning the Nuremberg Trials in 1946-7, moving on to look at the French attempts to keep Algeria and scrutinises America’s involvement in Vietnam. Told through newsreel footage, interviews with witnesses, survivors, descendants, lawyers, prosecutors and defendants, Ophüls looks at the issues of guilt and responsibility (or lack of) in supposedly ethical Western societies. As well as examining how different groups judge one and other, The Memory of Justice also points out what is possibly the most disturbing and frightening fact of any society, at any time: any group in power can commit these acts of war and terror.
This epic, compelling and fascinating film has been restored from its original 16mm negative by the Academy Film Archive, in association with Paramount Pictures and The Film Foundation.
Much Loved (Nabil Ayouch, Morocco-France, 2015)
Nabil Ayouch has long since established himself as one of the Arab world’s most distinctive and daring filmmakers, so it should come as no surprise that his latest, controversial offering Much Loved has been met with outrage in its country of origin – Morocco.
Much Loved is a bold, searing and no-holds-barred look at the prostitution industry in Marrakesh, exposing the glamour and the dangers of the profession. Focusing on four female prostitutes: Soukaina, Noha, Randa and Hlima, the film also explores police corruption and the abuse and exploitation the women face at the hands of pimps.
Amongst the clientele is Ahmed, who seems the perfect client for Soukaina, seemingly impotent he refuses sex in favour of reading poetry to her, but she soon learns that nothing is as simple as it first appears and that everything has its price.
What Our Fathers Did: My Nazi Legacy (David Evans, UK, 2015)
When screenwriter and human rights lawyer Philippe Sands was researching the origins of international laws, he came across Niklas Frank and Horst von Wächter, two men whose father’s were both high ranking Nazi officers during the Second World War. Frank’s father was executed after being found guilty of war crimes at the Nuremberg Trials, and von Wächter’s operated in occupied Poland, but both men have polar opposite views of their fathers. Frank condemns his father’s actions and position as a Nazi, von Wächter cannot think of his father as a mass murderer. The two men travel across Europe with Sands to Poland, where most Sands’ own family were murdered by the Nazis because they were Jewish. This gripping, haunting and devastating documentary forces all three men to examine their past, their families and the past and present of Europe, and the conflicting versions of the truth that emerge.
My Scientology Movie (John Dower, UK-USA, 2015)
In collaboration with director John Dower, Louis Theroux travels to Los Angeles to explore something he has had a long-standing fascination with: the Church of Scientology. After his request to enter the Church’s head quarters is refused it becomes clear Theroux won’t take no for an answer. With the help of ex-members of the Church of Scientology, he uses actors to portray the some of the incidents people have experienced as part of the church to try and help audiences better understand how the organisation operates.
The result is a script that is stranger than fiction, with some moments worthy of a big budget Hollywood script, and a good dose of humour when it becomes clear that the church as in turn making a film about Theroux.
Nasty Baby (Sebastian Silva, USA-France-Chile, 2014)
Successful Brooklyn based artist Freddie is obsessed with babies, he and his boyfriend Mo have recruited their best friend Polly to help them have a baby. But with this decision comes a long list of problems including how to impregnate Polly, pressures of Freddie’s new art installations and what Mo’s conservative family will make of the arrangement. If that is not enough to contend with the trio then find themselves victims of harassment from a man named The Bishop, the life the three of them have built comes under threat.
Paulina (Santiago Mitre, Argentina-Brazil-France, 2015)
In a re-working of Daniel Tinayre’s 1960 modern classic La Patota, Santiago Mitre brings us a striking fable for a contemporary Argentina. Paulina, a young lawyer in Buenos Aires decides to quit her promising career in law, much to her father’s disapproval, and move to a remote town near the Argentine-Paraguayan boarder to teach in a high school. However a violent attack tests Paulina and those around her, and the difference between practise and principle is brutally tested.
Originally screened as part of International Critics’ Week at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the both the Nespresso Grand Prize and the FIPRESCI Prize, Paulina is unflinching in its portrayal of such a difficult subject matter and the moral complexities that surround it.
The People Vs Fritz Bauer (Lars Kraume, Germany, 2015)
(Der Staat Gegen Fritz Bauer)
Fritz Bauer was a German judge and prosecutor, passionate about obtaining compensation for victims of the Nazi regime he risked everything in the name of justice and played a huge role in the instigation of the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials (also known as the Second Auschwitz Trials). The People Vs Fritz Bauer follows Bauer and his fight for the truth when he discovers that Adolf Eichmann (who oversaw the death of millions of Jews in Auschwitz) is hiding in Argentina. At a time when the Federal Republic was desperate to leave its Nazi era firmly in the past, Bauer was deeply mistrustful of the German justice system, and instead went to the Israeli secret service Mossad to help, and in doing so committed treason.
Gripping, moving and thrilling, The People VS Fritz Bauer recounts the tale of a man who refused to give up, refused to abandon people who had suffered at the hands of the Nazis, and risked everything (including his own life) in his pursuit of the truth and bringing former Nazi’s to justice.
Salaam Bombay! (Mira Nair, India, 1988)
Now a critically acclaimed and award winning director, in 1988 Salaam Bombay! was Mira Nair’s debut feature film, taking audiences on a tour of Bombay’s (now known as Mumbai) backstreets to tell the story of India’s street children. Nearly 30 years on with the Dharavi in Mumbai now one of the biggest slums in the world, the film is just as relevant today as it was when it was released. With a script produced following workshops with street children (some of whom were then cast in the film) Salaam Bombay! explores the issues facing street children in India, including prostitution and drug cartels. The colours, sights and sounds of Mumbai are seductive and captivating, but Nair never romanticises the realities of 1980s Bombay, instead the film gets under the skin of the city, the result is emotional and disarmingly authentic, this is Slumdog Millionaire, without the millionaire.
(T)ERROR (Lyric R Cabral, USA, 2015)
Shot over two years with unprecedented access to an FBI counterterrorism sting, (T)ERROR follows Saeed ‘Shariff’ Torres, an ex-convict with a rather colourful past. After working for the FBI for more than 20 years as a counterterrorism informant, Shariff is left with a choice, stay at home and raise his son or take on one last high stakes job, his speciality: infiltrating terror networks and befriending suspects. Shariff is encourage to befriend Khalifah, a young man from Pittsburgh who is known for using social media to voice his support of extremist and militant groups. When Khalifah starts to wonder if he is the victim of entrapment, the filmmakers reach out to him (unbeknown to Shariff and the FBI) and begin to tell his story as well as Shariff’s.
This compelling and unsettling documentary, tells a story of cat and mouse, and takes a look at the murkier side of US Law Enforcement agencies in the ongoing “War on Terror”.
Taklub (Brilliante Ma Mendoza, Philippines, 2015)
Tuklab examines the Filipino city of Tacloban as its inhabitants deal with the aftermath of Typhoon Yolanda in 2010. The entire city was left devastated by the typhoon, but the worst hit were its poorest coastal communities, Taklub opening scenes take place in these communities. The film paints a beautiful portrait of hope and compassion of the human spirit, as the residents begin fundraising to help victims, and begin to rebuild their communities. In circumstances where the odds are stacked against them: large ships washed ashore, infrastructure destroyed and thousands of people still missing, Taklub pays a moving and interesting tribute to the power of determination and the ability of the city’s poorest communities to rebuild themselves where many would have given up.
Taxi Tehran (Jafar Panahi, Iran, 2015)
In 2010 Iranian film director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to a 20 year ban from making films, but that hasn’t stopped him and Taxi Tehran is the third feature film he has made since his ban began. Whilst his previous two films were made in secret, Taxi Tehran was filmed out in the open on Tehran’s streets. Shot entirely from within the taxi cab, Panahi stars as a new taxi driver and films the wide range of passengers who travel in his taxi in one day, including a woman visiting a shrine, a man selling pirate DVDs, and a liberal teacher.
The film won the Golden Bear at this year’s Berlinale Festival, however along with his ban on making films Panahi is also banned from travelling outside of Iran (except to make the Hajj Pilgrimage, or to receive medical treatment), so his niece Hana Saeidi, who also appears in the film, travelled to Berlin to collect the award on her uncle’s behalf. While the film’s content tells the story of modern day Tehran, the film’s existence tells an equally important story about the power of film, and the unrelenting determination of filmmakers to continue telling their stories no matter what obstacles are put in their way.
The Last Man Standing is a Girl (Various, Various, 2014-2015)
The place of women in society has always been a very hot topic, and is often discussed on screen, this collection of 9 short films from the UK, Czech Republic, Germany, Turkey, France, Ukraine, Sweden, and Australia, takes a look at the roles of young women in contemporary society. From musical mixtapes, and figure skater auditions uniting a divided and war torn country, to women’s shelters and dangerous relationships between impressionable young girls and sinister older men, all sorts of ideas are explored in this collection of short documentaries and fiction films celebrating women everywhere.