London film festival opens as a ‘symbol of resistance’ | Film

This year’s BFI London film festival is a symbol of resistance for an industry that has been “absolutely battered” by the Covid-19 crisis, according to its director, who said cinema may change forever because of the pandemic.

Tricia Tuttle, the London film festival’s director since 2018, said this year’s edition had taken on a greater “symbolic significance” because of the impact of the pandemic.

On the eve of the festival, which opens on Wednesday with Steve McQueen’s new film Mangrove (part of his five-film Small Axe anthology series), many film jobs hang in the balance after Cineworld announced 5,500 job cuts in the UK as its sites close and several anticipated Hollywood releases have been pushed back to 2021 and 2022.

“The film industry is going through so much tumult,” said Tuttle. “Last week Bond was still coming out, Cineworld hadn’t closed, huge numbers of jobs weren’t at risk. Now they are and it just shifts overnight.”

This year’s London film festival has been pared back because of coronavirus. There are 60 features compared with 233 last year, and 54 of those will be delivered via the BFI Player, the BFI’s streaming platform.

The lead-up to the festival has seen it focus on the online programme’s accessibility, and Tuttle said it could play a role in future editions alongside physical screenings. “I don’t think we’ll go back to exactly the same way of working but being in cinemas is massively important,” she said.

There are physical screenings taking place at the BFI Southbank and in partner cinemas around the country, including Queen’s film theatre in Belfast, Chapter in Cardiff and Home in Manchester.

Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite.
Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan in Ammonite. Photograph: Courtesy of TIFF

Tuttle said safety procedures at those screenings would include physical distancing, digital ticketing rather than paper, and a rule that masks must be worn throughout screenings.

As at the Venice film festival, which took place in September, many foreign film-makers will not be attending, with directors and actors filming short introductions and Q&As that will play after and before screenings.

Film-makers who do attend will give a “simple wave from the stage”, according to Tuttle, with the red carpet not featuring this year.

Other films in the programme include Regina King’s feature film directorial debut One Night in Miami, Venice Golden Lion winner Nomadland, Ben Sharrock’s refugee drama Limbo, and Lovers Rock, another of McQueen’s Small Axe anthology. The closing film will be Ammonite, starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan, the second feature from God’s Own Country director Francis Lee.

Tuttle said that McQueen’s Mangrove, which is a drama about the real-life story of the Mangrove Nine case, has “more resonance than ever” in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the international protests after the killing of George Floyd.

She said: “It’s a cultural indictment as well because you feel, even though it was 50 years ago, when you watch Mangrove, this is still happening; the Windrush scandal being an obvious recent example in the UK.”

Tuttle added that the London film festival had to do better when it came to supporting black British film-makers, but the overall effort needed to be industry-wide and carried out sustainably with public investment.

Frances McDormand in Nomadland.
Frances McDormand in Nomadland. Photograph: Courtesy of SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES/AP

The director said that one positive that could come out of the pandemic was that smaller, independent cinemas could become community focal points and that art house film could see a renaissance.

“If I’m going to venture some sort of prediction for the future, I think we could see a second rise of the importance of local independent cinemas and what role that they play culturally within local communities,” she said. “I think that could be a sort of positive outcome.”

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