London Film Festival: Well Crafted Cinema

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The London Film Festival showcased many films that will delight radicals, says Simon Philip.

Films offering a social and political critique were much in evidence at this year's London Film Festival. The tone was set by the sharp eyed opener of the festival, The Last King of Scotland by Kevin Macdonald. The film takes a wry and then damning view of Ugandan President Idi Amin - one of many dictators who rose to power with the backing of British imperialism - and his reign of terror.

In the film Buenos Aires 1977 by Israel Adrian Caetano, an amateur goalkeeper is whisked off the streets for alleged left wing involvement by the dark glassed thugs working for the Argentinian military dictatorship. The tension gets cranked up to a terrifying level as he, among other young detainees, is trapped in a charnel house of torture and psychological abuse. It's a horror movie crossed with a political thriller - a vivid reminder of the time when thousands of people disappeared after being snatched by the security forces. It is another glowing testimony to the growing politicisation of Latin American cinema.

Ghosts, from the documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield, is a simple but poignant fiction partly inspired by Hsiao-Hung Pai's Guardian articles about the avoidable tragedy of 21 Chinese workers who, in February 2004, lost their lives while picking cockles for slave wages in Morecambe Bay. Its focus is the backstory of a Chinese migrant and single mother, played by the non-actor Ai Quin Lin, who's seeking work in Britain to support her family. The title Ghosts certainly refers to the thousands of migrant workers working in the worst conditions in Britain. Broomfield shows the stark economic reality of their lives, and by doing so the film discloses its quiet rage.

Another film with barely disguised rage but encased in a fascinating story is Barakat - the tale of a doctor looking for her husband who has been abducted by an Islamist group during the civil war in Algeria in 1990. In the words of Barakat's director, Djamila Sahraoui, it is "a women's story that plays in a country racked by violence".

Politicised documentaries for the cinema are also an increasing trend in these critical times. The US vs John Lennon is a brilliant and inspiring documentary of Lennon's political relationship to the revolutionary left and his harassment by the US state. Once the authorities realised Lennon was intending to hook up with political activists such as Black Panther leader Bobby Seale the FBI had him in their sights. One of the documentary's directors commented that the film was made ten years ago but couldn't find a distributor. Eventually, as the political situation changed, they managed to get it distributed.

Another interesting documentary is Black Gold. It not only explores the global coffee industry - and promotes fair trade coffee - but also examines issues around rampant international capitalism. The demand for cappuccinos and the expansion of Starbucks continues but Ethiopian farmers suffer from the low prices imposed by the commodity markets. This details in a non-hectoring way how the exploitative trading of this valuable commodity is stunting the development of one of the poorest countries in the world.

Italian director and political activist Nanni Morreti's The Caiman combines a trenchant exposé of Silvio Berlusconi's corrupt regime with a more personal and familiar story of a b-movie director whose life falls apart during a divorce. The film was a cause célèbre in Italy for its sustained attacks on Berlusconi. By a happy coincidence he was voted out of power two weeks later. Whatever the inherent problems with the film's uneasy relationship of parallel tales, it has moments of great ironical humour and a strong performance from the lead, Silvio Orlando.

The British contingent was well represented in the films I was able to catch. Red Road is a simply bravura piece of filmmaking from Andrea Arnold. When a CCTV operator detects an ex-convict recently released from prison she embarks on an intimate journey of revenge and dark, unnerving moral choices.

The semi-autobiographical This is England is Shane Meadows' most fully realised and powerful film to date. With its well organised script, note perfect naturalist acting and serious humanist tone this will be worth catching on release. It's 1983 and 12 year old Shaun is bullied at school for his flared jeans. He is taken under the wing of a group of skinheads. Few films have shown how the camaraderie of a gang actually works as well as this. The impact of the arrival of the National Front supporter splits the gang and from thereon a tragedy lies lurking in the corner.

A seminar devoted to one of the major themes of the festival was entitled Narrative and Social Criticism. Panel members included Nanni Moretti and Mat Whitecross, co-director of Road to Guantanamo. Unfortunately the presentation and discussion were not as thought provoking as promised. Nevetheless Moretti had his own thoughts on the subject of political cinema. His view was to reject the more agit-prop cinema of the 1970s for a renewed appreciation of 1960s auteur cinema. He admired the filmmakers who looked at both sides of the question - he was dissatisfied with and wanted to challenge both the film tradition and society that they had inherited, and wanted to conceive of a new cinema and society.

Moretti's concern was also that films should work as well-crafted projects with strong stories and not promote themselves simply on the political subject matter alone. If this is the case then many of the films I saw, despite the lack of the formal innovation of the 1960s, passed that criterion with flying colours.