The London Film Festival is past the half-way point this week, and, as mentioned before, my, how she’s grown. Glamour, great titles, razamatazz, premieres, Leicester Square: you couldn’t ask for much more from a city festival.
You could, however, ask for a better year for UK cinema. 2009 has been a rocky road for the nation’s film-makers. The bigger, banner titles have been disappointments – dare we mention The Boat That Rocked or even Dorian Gray? And critical favourites such as The Damned United failed to connect with wider audiences in the UK, netting just $3.5m (see also Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric suffered a similar fate, taking $2.2m, while Fish Tank is currently out on small, limited release).
As the year draws to an end, we can look forward to the difficult Harry Brown, with a strong central performance from Michael Caine; Stephen Poliakoff’s Glorious 39,which falls largely flat, andJulian Fellowes’ From Time To Time, which is sweet but hardly ready to set the world alight. Awards hopes must rest on Bright Star, Jane Campion’s UK/Australian co-production going out on November 8.
More worryingly, the indie sector has seemed moribund, with title after title falling by the wayside. Nothing really emerged from Edinburgh, apart from Shane Meadows’ Le Donk – not originally intended as a commercial release – while in London, 44-Inch Chest doesn’t look like the way forward either (there are still a few more titles to come, however, including Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy). Where is 2009’s Shifty?
In the midst of this perplexing drought, there is some good news, however. One surprisingly strong title in London is Mugabe And The White African, a documentary shot undercover in Zimbabwe. While that might understandably indicate poor quality images, directors Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson have delivered a strong cinematic effort, both in terms of visuals but also in their framing of the story.
Mugabe follows 75-year-old Mike Campbell, a white farmer under siege from Mugabe’s corrupt administration, as he takes the premier to the South African Development Community’s human rights tribunal in Namibia in a desperate last-ditch attempt to keep his land. Delays blight the process, and all the while Campbell, his son-in-law Ben Freeth and young family, are vulnerable to attack from Zimbabwe’s ‘war veterans’.
There’s some extraordinary footage in here, and the film-makers have framed it in a way that is dramatically satisfying. It even gives the viewer hope, when there really is none, at least in this dangerous “waiting game” while Mugabe still rules. Mugabe And The White African was selected for the International Documentary Association’s (IDA) Oscar-qualifying screening. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t make the Oscar shortlist and fly Britain’s flag at the Academy Awards next February.