Witch doctors and gag merchants: the British talent set to light up London film festival

Britain’s upsurge in film-making diversity is borne out in this year’s LFF lineup, while Paddy Considine and Maxine Peake also star in big-screen premieres

A Zambian witch-doctor comedy, a serial-killer thriller set in Jersey and a drama about Jehovah’s Witnesses directed by a former member of the church are part of a exciting new wave of films by young, diverse British voices at this year’s London film festival.

Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch, Michael Pearce’s Beast and Apostasy by Dan Kokotajlo appear in the festival’s first feature competition alongside films from Israel, Spain and South Africa. The film-makers will be sharing the festival spotlight with a number of Hollywood A-listers, including Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Emma Stone.

It is hoped that the trio of films will maintain what has already been a strong year for debut features by British film-makers, with William Oldroyd’s dark period thriller Lady Macbeth and Francis Lee’s Yorkshire-set gay romance God’s Own Country having already proved popular with critics and performed well at the box office.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri.
Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Photograph: PR

This new crop of films move away from what the Zambian-Welsh director Nyoni describes as the “period dramas or gritty council estates” that usually characterise British cinema. There is a wide range of subjects being tackled, from the rural working-class stories of God’s Own Country and Hope Dickson Leach’s haunting family drama The Levelling, to the global tales of I Am Not a Witch or My Pure Land, a Pakistani western directed by British-based film-maker Sarmad Masud.

“I think people are realising that films do need to break down barriers,” says producer Stephen Woolley. “It’s all part of being unique and original. Part of that is giving prominence to voices that have been silenced for years and years. We need to reflect society and what cinemagoers want, which is originality and a different perspective on the world. You can’t keep flogging the same stories, the same characters.”

Woolley attributes some of the credit for this to the British Film Institute, which in 2014 introduced new requirements for any film seeking lottery funding. Productions were required to demonstrate diversity both behind the camera and within the film itself, including “identity relating to ethnicity or national origins, a specific focus on women, people with disabilities, sexual identity, age and people from a socially disadvantaged background”. The Levelling, God’s Own Country and Lady Macbeth have received BFI funding under the new criteria, along with recent hits such as Ken Loach’s Palme d’Or-winning drama I, Daniel Blake.

But despite such progress, there remain areas where voices are marginalised. Of particular concern is gender disparity, with a recent BFI study showing that the proportion of female actors in British films was lower in 2017 than it was in 1913 and only 7% of films since 2000 had featured a majority female crew. Nyoni says that she hoped to hire a predominately female crew for I Am Not a Witch but struggled to find women to fill the roles. “It was a question of ‘Where are all the women?’” she says. “In short films it seems to be a bit more balanced, but when the stakes are high and when there’s money involved, the numbers seem to drop off more and more”.

Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn in Michael Pearce’s Beast.
Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn in Michael Pearce’s Beast. Photograph: Courtesy of TIFF

As well as first-time directors, this year’s LFF lineup features a number of established British names. Paddy Considine directs and stars in Journeyman, about an ageing boxer who falls into a coma after a fight, and also appears in Funny Cow, which stars Maxine Peake as a comedian making her way in the male-dominated 70s standup scene. This year’s opening gala meanwhile, is Breathe, a biopic of the pioneering wheelchair user Robin Cavendish, who is played by Andrew Garfield. The film is directed by Lord of the Rings actor Andy Serkis, another first-time director at the festival.

Oscar hopefuls receiving previews at LFF include Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which stars Frances McDormand as a mother seeking justice for her murdered daughter and Guillermo del Toro’s cold war-era fantasy The Shape of Water, which stars Sally Hawkins. Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell will be in attendance in support of Yorgos Lanthimos’s absurdist horror The Killing of a Sacred Deer, while Stone stars in Battle of the Sexes, about the notorious 1973 exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs (played by Steve Carrell).

  • The London film festival runs from 4-15 October.


Gwilym Mumford

The GuardianTramp

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