Saturday 24 March 2018

BFI Flare 2018: Documentaries

Love, Scott
Dir: Laura Marie Wayne
After a night out in a bar in Nova Scotia, musician Scott Jones was attacked. He was stabbed in a homophobic attack which left him paralysed from the waist down. The courts didn't recognise the attack as a hate crime, sentencing Scott's attacker to 10 years for attempted murder. This documentary, by a college friend of Scott's, picks up with him about a year after the attack, as he rebuilds and tries to find something useful to do in what he call his new normal.

Laura Marie Wayne's film is a tender portrait of a friend. She has access to some archive footage from Scott's childhood, which she pairs with more shot on film material to give an impressionistic feel of the past, like fragments of grainy memories that flash through the film periodically. The first present tense material takes place five days after Scott's attack, when she visits him in the hospital, and while it comes midway through the film, after we have spent plenty of time with Scott as he is now, it feels like the bridge between the past and present tenses. What's striking about this footage is how little of it is of Scott. There are snatches of hospital corridors, the floor, the walls. It's almost as if Wayne can't bear, at least in the first moments, to see her friend in pain, to see him helpless.

Of course, Scott isn't helpless. Not only is he facing up to the challenges of the aftermath of his attack, he's trying to use his voice in helpful, hopeful, ways. He's founded the Don't Be Afraid campaign, named for what he said in hospital when asked what he'd want people to know in the wake of what happened to him. Through that group he leads a choir and does public speaking. We see all of this in the film, from small events like a choir rehearsal to much bigger moments like a speaking event that, in one of the film's most moving moments, becomes the first time Scott stands in public since the attack. Scott seems to have perspective on what happened, but we also see, that that's a process that continues for him, especially in relation to the perpetrator. In another of the film's wrenching moments, Scott reads a letter he's written, asking his attacker - Shane - if they can meet.

This is a moving and inspiring story, told articulately by Scott, his sister Sherise and by Wayne's camera. It's also a beautifully shot film, full of evocative images, whether it's the grainy moments of the past or the sequence of Scott being carried on a friend's back, down to a quiet piece of countryside he thought he'd not be able to access again after his paralysis. It's well worth seeing on a big screen. 

The 34th
Dir: Linda Cullen, Vanessa Gildea
In some ways, it surprises me that the batlle for equal marriage rights for gay and lesbian couples is one that is so recent - or, in many countries, current. It seems like such an obvious imbalance, and so clear that there would be no demonstrable effect on anyone other than the gay and lesbian couples wanting to be married, that it feels like an argument that should have been had and won generations ago. But that's a view from outside the LGBT communities, from a liberal family.

The 34th covers the battle for full marriage equality in the Republic of Ireland, via the 34th amendment to the country's constitution, beginning with the court case brought by Katharine Zappone and Ann Louise Gilligan, who married in Canada in 2003, to have their marriage recognised by the Government and the tax office and ending with the 2015 referendum on the constitutional amendment.

The film itself is very straightforward: a series of talking heads interviews with the key people in the marriage equality movement, mixed with well chosen archive footage, tracking the 12 year journey to victory in well told and often deeply personal detail. It's an important document of a movement that achieved seismic social change in a country where religion remains so powerful that it seemed very possible that that change would never be allowed to take place.

The 34th is interesting, it's emotional and it has a story worth telling. The last twenty minutes in particular, from a speech by two adult children of gay couples at the constitutional convention to the celebrations after the referendum was won, put a lump in my throat. What it's not is cinema. Produced by an Irish television company, the film never really transcends its small screen feel. The visuals are funtional; they tell the story, but aren't especially striking in and of themselves.  That's not entirely a bad thing, this film will likely land on the BBC's Storyville series, or some similar strand, and it will be well worth watching there, but I'm not sure you need to rush to a cinema for this one. 

Friday 23 March 2018

BFI Flare 2018: My Days of Mercy

Dir: Tali Shalom-Ezer
At every American prison that has them, executions tend to be greeted with two opposing protest groups. On one side are the victim’s advocates groups, who protest in support of the death penalty, on the other the anti death penalty groups, advocating for the prisoners and protesting the use of execution as a sentence. My Days Of Mercy finds two young women from opposite sides - Pro death penalty Mercy (Kate Mara) and anti death penalty Lucy (Ellen Page) - first finding connection and then perhaps love across this political divide. It’s a complicated relationship, all the more so because Lucy’s father Simon (Elias Koteas) is on death row for murdering his wife.

Ellen Page and Kate Mara have been offscreen friends for some time, and have apparently been looking for a project to act in together for several years. Some might find it disappointing that their first project (which they also co-produced) isn’t a Tiny Detectives movie, but My Days Of Mercy gives each of them one of their most interesting roles, well drawn characters and a relationship to invest in.

Lucy and her family - older sister Martha, played by the always excellent Amy Seimetz and a younger brother Benjamin (Charlie Shotwell) - are the film’s main focus. As her father’s case comes down to the wire and an execution date looms, their lawyer, Weldon (Brian Geraghty) is hopeful that there may still be avenues to explore for getting Simon, who Martha believes is innocent, more so than Lucy does, off death row and maybe completely cleared. These scenes are my main sticking point with My Days of Mercy. At a script level I didn’t buy the derisive way that Lucy treats Weldon, nor the way that he offers so few caveats when talking about the potential effects of ‘new evidence’ on Simon’s case. I’m not sure, from Geraghty’s performance, how competent we’re supposed to read Weldon as being. 

Outside these scenes though, the family dynamic is believeable. Even when there is tension between them, you get the sense that Lucy and Martha are close, that they love each other and their younger brother. There is an ease about the way Page, Seimetz and Shotwell work together that gives scenes in their RV, as they travel to and from execution protests, the familiar feel of a typical family road trip which, to some degree, they are for these characters.
Ellen Page is an actress I’ve always liked, but I’ve not cared for some of her recent films. My Days Of Mercy, for the first time in a while, uses her really well. Page’s Lucy is tough, smart, witty and loving, often in the same moment. Page often shows us how Lucy is hiding hurt, it’s not just in the moment when she first tells Mercy about her father, we see it throughout, notably in the moment she’s saying goodbye to Mercy after they have spent the night together, and doesn’t want to show her unwell little brother either that she’s hurting, or what her relationship with Mercy really is. Page plays Lucy’s outward emotions well, but it’s the way that she always lets us see under the surface that impresses.

Kate Mara has the smaller part, and Mercy is seen entirely in how she relates to Lucy. It’s here that Page and Mara’s off screen friendship pays great dividends. The two play off each other beautifully, their obvious affection for each other seeming to lift both of their performances. The relationship between Lucy and Mercy grows credibly and patiently. It’s easy to write quirky characters. What’s harder to pull off, what screenwriter Joe Barton does well here, is to give us characters who just feel like real people in a situation that, for most of us, is unfamiliar. Page and Mara have a playful chemistry throughout, one that grows from their first drink together, to a sequence when Mercy, having upset Lucy, offers to drive her home from a protest (several states away), and into their intimate scenes.  Their connection comes across powerfully in some of the smallest moments; the silent goodbye when Benjamin is watching, Mercy taking out the hair tie to tie Lucy's hair back when hers breaks. The sex scenes are frank, but that sense of connection that carries through the entire love story between Lucy and Mercy makes them feel a little less exploitative than they otherwise might.

Director Tali Shalom-Ezer largely keeps things simple, but she finds some nice stylistic touches, like the simplicity of introducing each execution and protest with a static shot of the last meal and captions detailing the prisoner and his crime. Of course this becomes more impactful as the number of executions grows, and when we finally have to go inside the prison in the film’s last act (leading to scenes in which Page and Seimetz, in particular, are devastatingly good). The screenplay combines the political questions with the relationship story effectively, and while I think it’s clear which side the filmmakers eventually come down on, the politics are never hectoring. The way they are represented, in fact, is as more of an outgrowth of experience than of principal, and viewed like that it’s easy to see either side of the issue. This isn’t an issue movie though, and all of the politics feeds into character and most importantly into the relationship that is the heart of the film.

I would expect My Days Of Mercy to see a UK release some time around the end of the year, and it’s worth seeking out when it does.

Thursday 22 March 2018

BFI Flare 2018: Short Films Part 1

It’s been some years since I was last at London’s LGBTQ+ film festival, in fact (rather shamefully), my last one was in 2012 before it was rebranded as BFI Flare. Over the years I’ve seen some excellent films there, many of which have never seen any further UK release. This year I’m going back, with a press pass, because I feel like this is an important cinematic niche that I haven’t been exploring enough lately, beyond the limited amount of material that emerges from the festival on to UK screens.

This year I'll be attending the festival largely from home, but hopefully still bringing you plenty of coverage of interesting shorts and features.

Dir: Matt Houghton
In about 1994 my stepfather, who has been involved in farming his entire life, set up Farmline, a kind of Samaritans for Kent farmers. Landline became the first film I watched for this year's Flare because the synopsis made me think - with real pride - of what he did.

Landline is a short documentary based around calls to the Gay Farmer's Helpline, founded in 2010. Each vignette is narrated by a caller as we see beautifully shot images that unfold the story in impressionistic form. There are moments that feel hopeful; a brief story told over images of the aftermath of a party, of a farmer who found more support than he expected when he came out, but more common are the bittersweet stories or the ones that prove just how far we have still to go in terms of acceptance.

The callers speak with candour, and director Matt Houghton treats their stories with a moving tenderness. For me, the story that hit hardest is about a Welsh farmer  who speaks of a man he met in tai chi class. After spending a long time talking after classes, he would have to remind this man to go home to his wife and kids. The image of the two of them sitting together laughing, set against the cut to the farmer sweeping out the animal pens alone, is completely wrenching.

A beautiful film and a valuable one, in that it might help to bring extra publicity to an excellent service, Landline says more in ten minutes than many features manage in two hours.

The Sermon
Dir: Dean Puckett
Nostalgia is everywhere at the moment. Many films are trying to recapture something of the past, but I often find myself feeling that something is missing, that there is a lack of authenticity. In looking to the folk horror of the late sixties and seventies, The Sermon doesn't suffer from that problem. From the texture of the visuals to the choice of aspect ratio, right down to the font chosen for the titles, this could sit alongside something like The Wicker Man and not feel out of place.  

The sermon of the title is being given by the religious leader of what appears to be a very insular, conservative, religious community that has recently discovered that one of its members is a lesbian. The sequences of the woman being taunted, tied to a frame and having fruit thrown at her are straight out of The Wicker Man, but it's some of the more directly horror inflected imagery; the presence lurking in several shots around her young lover Ella (Molly Casey), that really struck me. These brief and creepy shots reminded me of the vampiric character from Valerie And Her Week Of Wonders, but their purpose is a little different here than the entity that wants to seduce and corrupt Valerie.

I don't want to go into what happens, but there is a rumbling tension throughout, accentuated by a pipe organ and synth led score by Bizarre Rituals. The images are striking, with a frequent emphasis on looming figures (the priest, the two boys who see Ella leaving her lover's home, the figure by Ella's side) and the composition is often as beautiful as it is unsettling. The film doesn't firmly locate itself in time, and while the style looks backwards the film's concerns are, in some communities, still current.

This is a striking and haunting calling card for director Dean Puckett, I hope people get to see it projected, and that there is a feature film in his not too distant future.  

Landline and The Sermon both screen in the Altered States shorts programme, on Saturday 24th and Sunday 25th of March