London Film Festival: Five directorial debuts to get excited about

Ava (Léa Mysius)

Ava is a 13-year-old French girl who, while on holiday on the Atlantic coast with her mother and baby sister, learns that she is going to lose her sight sooner than expected. When it becomes apparent that her mother won’t provide the support she needs, Ava decides to take matters into her own hands – and steals a big black dog belonging to a boy on the run.

If the script doesn’t quite explore Ava’s loss of sight enough, the film’s resonant imagery, shot on gorgeous 35mm, make it a fittingly sensory experience. First-time director Léa Mysius is clearly a talent to watch out for, but it’s Noée Abita’s strikingly authentic performance that makes this unique, occasionally dreamlike coming-of-age story well worth a watch.

The Wound (John Trengove)

Every year in the Xhosa community of rural South Africa, a group of young ‘initiates’ are taken up a mountain where they are assigned a ‘caregiver’ who will oversee their transition from boy to man, by way of ritual circumcision.
The Wound sees Xolani returning to the mountain, where he hopes to reignite his secret relationship with fellow caregiver Vija. Though Xolani’s dreams to run away with Vija are impossible as it is in the hyper-masculinised community, things are made even more difficult by the presence of initiate Kwanda, a city boy staunchly opposed to the Xhosa practices who is quick to catch on to Xolani and Vija’s forbidden desire.

Unsettling and never easily rewarding, John Trengove’s debut is a fascinating and poignant examination of gender, class and sexuality in a place where modernity and tradition are irreconcilable. It’s held back a little by pacing issues, especially towards the end, but the engrossing performances (Nakhane Touré as Xolani is a quiet miracle) carry it through.

Most Beautiful Island (Ana Asensio)

Luciana, recently arrived to New York as an undocumented Spanish immigrant, spends her days balancing a degrading flyering job (which requires her to dress in a chicken costume) with a childminding gig with the middle class kids from hell. When she is offered a lucrative job opportunity – stand around at a party and receive a few thousand dollars – Luciana is in no position to decline. To say what awaits her there would be to ruin the suspense the film is built on, but suffice to say writer, director and lead actress Ana Asensio have delivered a politicised thriller to rival Get Out.

There’s no doubt that Most Beautiful Island is a horrible film: it’s disturbing, twisted and at points almost unbearably tense. As such, it’s certainly not for everyone. However, as an ingenious parable and horrific account of the female immigrant experience, it’s a powerful and necessary indictment of Trump’s America, and well-worth seeing.

I Am Not A Witch (Rungano Nyoni)

In rural Zambia, quiet eight-year-old orphan Shula, for reasons that can only be described as questionable, is accused of being a witch. In the eyes of the local police force, her silence confirms her guilt. After a brief ‘trial’ involving a chicken she is taken to a witch commune where she is presented with an impossible choice – stay a witch or become a goat.

Shula is effectively subjected to slavery by government official Mr Banda, who carts her out to settle local disputes, perform spells and appear on a talk show where she is used to sell magical eggs. Despite the serious critiques of corruption and misogyny, the film has a sharp satirical wit – “freedom of speech should not be misused!” explodes the moronic Banda when it is suggested that he might be exploiting the child. Director Rungano Nyoni has an eye for arresting images, and David Gallego’s evocative cinematography gives this fairy tale turned social satire a welcome surreal edge.

Lucky (John Carroll Lynch)

The first directorial outing of actor John Carroll Lynch is also the last film for veteran actor Harry Dean Stanton, who died last month. And as far as swansongs go, this couldn’t be more fitting. Lucky is not only a film about coming to terms with death, but its meandering plot also sees Stanton return to the desert he was last seen roaming in 1984’s Paris, Texas – the film which gave him his first leading role and established him as one of the great character actors.

At times, there’s the worry that the film walks a fine line between touching and affected. Luckily, Stanton’s natural and endlessly sympathetic performance pulls it towards the former; and we’re able to revel in the mundanity of his character’s life, featuring morning exercises, philosophical musings in a bar and an impromptu a cappella song (in Spanish!) at a child’s birthday. Lynch makes full use of Stanton’s wonderful face, and gives him a worthy send-off.

Image: 61st BFI London Film Festival

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