51st London Film Festival

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The London Film Festival kicked off in mid-October with over 150 films from across the globe. A common thread is the desire to express the uncertainties of the modern world.

The festival opener was David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, a gangland thriller about murder and prostitution in the Russian mafia. Cronenberg attaches his visceral interest in the human body to some spectacular scenes of violence on the streets of east London. But despite capturing well the oppression of young prostitutes, this film has a disappointingly old fashioned view of immigrant crime and melodramatic goodies vs baddies scenarios.

A triumph among the big budget releases was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (directed by Andrew Dominik, whose previous work includes Chopper), in which Brad Pitt, as the legendary gunslinger, and Casey Affleck, as the man who killed him (and in the process himself), go well beyond any faith in heroes or anti-heroes, civilisation or frontier.

But what is striking about the festival this year is the amount of direct politics that's both angry and impatient.

Last month's Socialist Review mentioned the Hollywood films now engaging with the nightmare of the "war on terror". There is also Sean Penn's Into the Wild about a man who drops out of first Gulf War era US society to search for happiness.

Sick of a stream of blockbusters, Hollywood's stars are more than ever willing to put their clout behind controversial filmmaking. Regarding Iraq, Brian De Palma's Redacted won spontaneous applause at its opening public screening. Named after the censoring practice of deleting words in documents, Redacted tells the story of a unit in Baghdad who rape a schoolgirl and burn down her home, a crime to which the whole confusing logic of war has led.

In a remake of his 1989 Vietnam film, Casualties of War, De Palma here goes for a rawer, direct use of the soldiers' own video diaries, a French anti-war documentary, and various Arabic and English language websites. The use of different media indicates the political power of new technology, with a final succession of photographs - including the infamous Abu Ghraib shots - showing the extent of suffering in Iraq.

Among the closing applause in the screening I attended, an audience member shouted, "It's about time!" and I left to hear the ushers discussing how such horror is inevitable when you wage war. Let's hope it achieves a similar effect on general release.

Britain's Nick Broomfield dramatises events that left 24 Iraqis dead in Battle for Haditha, an incident referred to as Britain's My Lai, and reported to work as a contrasting companion piece to Redacted.

Penny Woolcock's Exodus also premiered here. It is set in Margate in a not too distant Britain run by a racist right wing demagogue. The biblical story of Moses is updated for "the world we live in", in the words of the director, as the leader's son starts a revolt in a mass refugee/concentration camp.

The standout British piece so far has been In Prison My Whole Life. The film follows William Francome, born on the night Black Panther Mumia Abu-Jamal was arrested for killing a white policeman in Philadelphia. The documentary follows the racism that has condemned Mumia to death row for an entire lifetime. Its great strength lies in stylishly and engagingly encompassing a whole history of black radicalism, met with a repression that resembles nothing less than civil war.

The violence seen in Abu Ghraib was exported, claims the documentary, from the prison system of the US. Interviewees include Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Mos Def, Snoop Dogg and Steve Earle (and the soundtrack is one of the great pleasures of the film). A brilliant and moving documentary that will soon be on the schedules of activist film screenings nationwide.

Talk of a Romanian new wave continues with Palme D'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, a realist, bleak look at an illegal abortion in Romania in the 1980s.

California Dreamin' turns a farce on a factory strike, black marketeers, and a convoy of US soldiers stuck in small-town Romania during the Kosovo war, into a viciously bitter satire of US foreign policy. This outstanding comedy is sadly the last testament to director Christian Nemescu, killed in a car crash while finishing the film.

The Egyptian police state is questioned in Chaos, and Persepolis brings to the big screen the cartoon story of the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. My Brother is an Only Child follows the divergent paths of two Italian brothers through the political crises of the country post-1968 and Michael Haneke has taken the intriguing step of remaking his own Funny Games in Hollywood.

Finally the acclaimed Brazilian television series City of Men gets the big screen treatment in a film of the same name. Made by the directors of the stunning tale of Brazilian slum life, City of God, the television spin off won huge audiences in Brazil, making the new movie one to watch.

Anyone impatient for sharp and entertaining drama can rest assured - a great year at the cinema awaits.