Russell Heath – Stoke Film Theatre

I attended London Film Festival primarily to inform the Film Theatre’s programming decisions over the next year or so.
The Film Theatre is Stoke-on-Trent’s only independent cinema and our remit is to present films that would not otherwise be seen in the city and its environs. Given the limited programming ambitions of the local multiplexes, this offers us a broad scope, and we show independent films, British, European and world cinema, and everything in between. With this remit in mind, my approach to attending film festivals is to identify films with UK distribution or those likely to acquire UK distribution, and then prioritising those that require more considered decisions, or those that will benefit from nuanced or targeted programme notes.

Seemingly in common with all film festivals, this year’s LFF carried on the noble tradition of creating new and interesting approaches to queuing for admission to press and industry screenings. A knock on effect of this was to create informal networking opportunities with fellow queuers, where discussion of various films’ merits, respective venues and exhibition strategies helps to pass the time. Whether this was intended by the BFI or not, it did prove a useful arena to catch up with colleagues and fellow exhibitors from across the Film Audience Network. I also attended official networking events where conversations were productive if a little less spontaneous.

The press and industry screening programme is the most practical way of planning your viewing at LFF, but delegate accreditation also enables admittance to public screenings, where it is possible to gauge the audience for a film and its reaction to it. Realising that the Film Theatre’s audience for The Lighthouse is going to be polarised was an example of this, and I expect our audience to be very disengaged from and annoyed by the film, or captivated by it. Those planning to show the film should ensure that their programme notes clearly indicate that it is a challenging, stylised psychodrama about isolation and madness, rather than a pretty, black and white period drama about lighthouse keeping. In contrast, the audience response for Jojo Rabbit was more consistent in its appreciation for the admittedly less demanding fare.

Including pre-festival press screenings and a couple of films on the online platform, I saw 42 LFF films and expect to screen about half of them; some observations follow and others will be available in person at future hub events.

Coup 53 is an incisive and insightful documentary on the overthrow of Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953, revealing the geopolitical history of Iran through the 20th century and the West’s involvement as it does so. It may be challenging to draw an audience to a screening, but any audience it gets will be appreciative.

Those looking to lighten the tone of their world cinema offering should consider Arab Blues, a wry, undemanding, warm-hearted tale of a Parisian psychoanalyst returning to Tunis to set up her practice. Golshifteh Farahani plays Selma, whose arrival confounds a colourful supporting cast and gently satirises contemporary Tunisian society and traditions.

Judy & Punch offers a feminist take on the origins of the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show narrative; however, in doing so it contains scenes that feel misanthropic and could have been staged differently. These quibbles aside it is an interesting period piece, handsomely produced and features strong lead performances from by Mia Wasikowska and Damon Herriman.

Two low key titles I found to be diverting were, The Unknown Saint, that is perhaps best described as an Ealing comedy set in Morocco, where a thief returns to his buried loot, only to find a closely guarded shrine in its place; and Sister, a Bulgarian drama with an unsympathetic protagonist, tracing the consequences of a young woman’s compulsive lying.

I returned to Stoke-on-Trent enthused by the possibilities presented at LFF and optimistic for our 2020 programme, checking the release dates of my preferred titles on route.

Russell received a bursary from Film Hub Midlands to attend the BFI London Film Festival.

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