Feature 25th Leeds International Film Festival
As the city’s major film festival reaches a quarter of a century, Nick Rowan investigates the cinematic delectations that are on offer by means of celebration
Feature: 25th Leeds International Film Festival
It’s a fairytale. A young man, a complete unknown, is cast as Heathcliff in a big-screen production of Wuthering Heights. The young man in question is James Howson, from Leeds, and he stars in the Opening Gala showcase at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival, now in its 25th year.
Howson was selected from thousands of hopefuls by director Andrea Arnold (Red Road, Fish Tank) and local casting director Gail Stevens, whose credits include Trainspotting, The Descent and international blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire. Reports suggest that Stevens and her team had scoured the streets of Yorkshire towns and cities until they found the right man.
Howson’s Heathcliff (originally set to be played by Michael Fassbender) is entangled with Kaya Scodelario’s Cathy Earnshaw. The film is a UK production based on Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel, which has been adapted a number of times, most famously in William Wyler’s 1939 version starring Laurence Olivier.
Having premiered earlier this year at the Venice Film Festival, where Robbie Ryan’s cinematography won the Golden Osella, this is your chance to see if Andrea Arnold can maintain the phenomenal standard she established with her haunting debut Red Road (2006), laced with loneliness and its technological twin the CCTV camera, and more recently a rare portrayal of female adolescence in Fish Tank (2009).
Like Katie Jarvis in Fish Tank and Anton Corbijn’ Control (2007, starring then-unknown Leeds actor Sam Riley), the casting story adds an additional level of intrigue to the film. Will Arnold’s decision be vindicated? You can find out on Thursday 3rd November when the festival opens with Wuthering Heights being shown in the Town Hall.
The Special Events, such as the Opening and Closing Galas and the horror movie marathons, the Day of the Dead and Night of the Dead, are only a small part of what LIFF25 has to offer. The Official Selection contains 12 films competing for the Golden Owl Competition. Emerging directors are featured in the Open Wings category whilst the Retrospective Selection centres on Magyar Masterpieces and the films of Krzysztof Kieslowski.
Perhaps the key to the ongoing success of the festival is combining a wide breadth of sources with a keen eye for innovation. Selections taken from recent years include the sublime Persepolis (2007), Lukas Moodysson’s Together (2000) and an animated retelling of the first Israeli/Lebanon war, Waltz With Bashir (2008). These are just some of the films that we know about, and the real magic of the festival is uncovering a film that you never even knew existed but remains with you.
From recent programmes, that could have been a hit such as the 2009 Opening Gala, Jane Campion’s Bright Star or 2010’s The King’s Speech, through to spellbinding foreign documentaries like 2005’s Toro Negro, which followed a washed-up Mexican bullfighter with all-manner of personality flaws. The scope this year is as broad as ever and is a credit to the festival programmers, headed by festival director Chris Fell.
Beyond the Official Selection, there is the Fanomenon horror selection, the comics and animation convention Thought Bubble, the documentary showcase Cinema Versa, Cherry Kino which is the home of experimental cinema, and perhaps the hidden jewel of the festival, Short Film City.
Short film as an art form is often a difficult sell. Other film festivals such as Bradford’s have often prefixed feature length films with a short, but LIFF has used a competition format to great effect, combining multiple shorts together in categories such as British, International, Animated and critically Yorkshire – the festival helps to promote local talent and not just those that have progressed on to a big-budget production.
This year’s crop includes Long Distance Information in the British Short Film Competition, which stars Peter Mullan. Mullan also starred in Paddy Considine’s striking debut short, Dog Altogether, which premiered at LIFF in 2007 and has recently been expanded in to the feature-length Tyrannosaur. Although one benefit of the format is that you’re not obliged to watch a single idea play out for two hours, the most surprising element is how frequently the shorter length and a tiny budget produces more ingenuity and better entertainment than a $200m Hollywood juggernaut.
The International Short Film Competition frequently throws up utterly mesmerising offerings from lesser-known European countries. The experience of encountering such a diverse group of creative individuals in such a concentrated fashion comes highly recommended.
When it comes to horror movies, people tend to either be drawn in or fleeing in fear. This year, Fanomenon tests even the most bloodthirsty with Night Of The Dead XI, starting at midnight on Saturday 5th November at the Hyde Park Picture House. The gruesome selection includes Canadian battle of the beasts Monster Brawl and Japanese splatter-fest Helldriver. As always, Night Of The Dead is a test of both your endurance and your sanity.
Elsewhere the horror selection also includes the first two of Sigourney Weaver’s quartet of Alien films - Ridley Scott’s nerve-destroying Alien (1979) and James Cameron’s bigger-budget, gun-toting ass-whupping sequel, Aliens (1986). Move fast to get tickets for Old Boy director Park Chan Wook’s Short Cuts (HPPH, Wednesday 16th November), which combines three short films from the man that redefined South Korean cinema in the last decade.
Those non-fiction fanatics, Cinema Versa offers three categories – Underground Voices, Music On Film and Special Events. From Underground Voices, Gianfranco Rosi’s El Sicario: Room 164 immediately catches the eye from its promo shot of a masked man in a motel room. The man is a contract killer, Juarez, who claims to have killed hundreds of people. He found religion and now lives as a fugitive, under the constant threat of the $250k bounty now placed upon his head. The film is shot entirely within the motel room, as you begin to get an idea of the killer inside.
From the Music On Film Section, comes PressPausePlay – an investigation in to the impact of the digital revolution on culture. How has the dissemination of the means of production and distribution altered our creative endeavours? Contributors include musical agent provocateur Bill Drummond and the film also assesses cinema and art & design.
The most recent Sheffield Doc/Fest illustrated that non-fiction film is in rude health. The range of Special Events on show here in Leeds include a guest lecture by consultant psychiatrist Peter Byrne (Monday 14th November) at the Town Hall where he will discuss and deconstruct how mental illness is portrayed across a wide range of films. The talk links in to the Retrospective classic showings of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) elsewhere at the festival.
The entire Cherry Kino programme is available free of charge this year, thanks to a partnership with East Street Arts and ISIS. The screenings offer a gateway in to non-mainstream cinema and the filmmakers that use unconventional methods to create their work.
Although for some the term experimental will trigger alarm bells, these abstract and often surreal films often look to explore other artforms, using the medium in enterprising ways. There is also the opportunity to participate in Super 8 and 16mm workshops, for those more creatively inclined.
Venues participating in this year’s event include long-running collaborators such as the Hyde Park Picture House, the Town Hall and the Vue Cinema in The Light, as well East Street Arts, City Varieties, University of Leeds, Saviles Hall, Granary Wharf and the HiFi Club. As well as the films, talks and workshops, the festival has a number of tie-ins with local businesses and a special bar in the Town Hall’s foyer area, which will be offering samples from their sponsors.
A welcome feature that relates to audience feedback from initial showings are the additional screenings that are arranged during the course of the festival. To keep up-to-date with the latest news, make sure you check the festival website (www.leedsfilm.com) where you can also view any amendments to the existing schedule. There will also be a Film Festival Extra flyer in circulation this year, highlighting this information.
If you act quickly you can also take advantage of the Early Bird festival pass. For those heavily in to their cinema, this offers the opportunity to access any screening during the entire festival and provides reductions on any major events. Until 6pm on Monday 24th October, these are available for £80 for a single pass or £140 for a double pass. After this date the prices go up to £95 and £170 respectively.
One such major event is the appearance of Paul Merton at the Town Hall on Wednesday 9th November, presenting a number of silent cinema classics accompanied by pianist Neil Brand and the Prima Vera Social Club Band. Harold Lloyd will be hanging from the clock in Safety Last! and there will also be excerpts from greats such as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin.
Having witnessed the majesty of live-accompaniment before at the Hyde Park Picture House, we can heartily recommend the experience both as a blast from the past and as fantastic entertainment in itself. One note of warning: Regular ‘talkies’ just aren’t the same afterwards.
Thought Bubble is celebrating its fifth birthday this year and includes a three-day academic conference and a two-day comic convention. In recent years comics have received greater critical respect especially after the adoption of the longer form graphic novel.
The graphic novel is now integral to cinema, from direct adaptations such as Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Ghost World, Sin City and the aforementioned Persepolis through to movies that look like they should have been graphic novels such as Super.
The programme is shot-through with workshops, interviews and master classes where you can learn more about your favourite illustrators, writers and characters. Write comic books off at your peril, they are providing cinema with a fresh burst of energy and their striking visual style has been thoroughly co-opted by the mainstream.
Much like the festival’s Opening Gala, the Closing Gala recognises a rising star in British cinema, the Turner Prize-winning artist and now film director Steve McQueen. Hunger (2008) showed a harrowing portrayal of Bobby Sands’ 1981 hunger strike and established McQueen as one of the emerging talents in UK cinema.
The film was recognised by British cinema magazine Sight & Sound as the Best British Film of 2008. Hunger also won the prestigious Caméra d’Or prize at Cannes for first-time directors. Thus, McQueen’s second film Shame has a lot to live up to.
Shame reunited director McQueen with actor Michael Fassbender (who played Sands in Hunger) and the combination are set to produce another electric piece of cinema. The plot centres on Fassbender’s character Brandon and his inability to control his sex life. His younger sister, played by Carey Mulligan, moves in to his apartment and their world begins to disintegrate.
Starting and finishing with major UK films is a statement of intent by the Leeds International Film Festival. The festival guide describes 2011 as “the best year for British film in living memory”. No one is likely to repeat Colin Welland’s oft-quoted phrase “the British are coming” anytime soon, but if the UK can hold on to the likes of Andrea Arnold and Steve McQueen as well as Shane Meadows, Neil Marshall and Richard Jobson, then there should be a steady stream of excellent feature films emanating from these shores.
Historically the talent-drain from Britain to Hollywood has been fairly constant across the years. Just recently British directors such as Danny Boyle and Paul Greengrass have established themselves as major players. This year’s LIFF is noticeably lacking in major new American movies.
There are screenings of Jeff Nichols’ latest Take Shelter and a trademark US indie offering in New Jerusalem (starring Will Oldham), but perhaps the gradual integration of European television shows like Denmark’s The Killing and French cop drama Spiral might signal a wider acceptance of foreign language film. There’s a whole world of cinema out there. Why restrict yourself to one point of view, after all it was over 60 years ago now that Rashomon demonstrated there is more than one side to every story.
LEEDS GUIDE TOP 5 RECOMMENDATIONS
22nd Of May – various showings
Belgian director Koen Mortier deploys a multitude of cinematic techniques to convey the horror associated with an explosion within a suburban shopping centre.
Juan of the Dead – Part of Day of the Dead, Saturday 12th November, City Varieties
Juan of the Dead is the first film from Cuba to be independently released outside the country in 50 years. If that’s not enough to sell it to you, then there are also the zombies and the upcoming apocalypse.
Persepolis – various showings
Who would have thought that an animated film that lasts only 96 minutes could provide you with a fresh impression of an entire country and its people?
Shame – Closing Gala, Friday 18th November, Town Hall
Steve McQueen’s new feature combines the best acting talent around and is almost certain to have you gripped throughout.
The Gravedigger - various showings
Hungarian cinematographer Sandor Kardos adapts a short story about the eponymous stranger as the onset of a plague in town coincides with his arrival.
LEEDS FILM– A HISTORY
How did Leeds International Film Festival become the largest of its kind in England outside of London? The festival started life at the Hyde Park Picture House back in 1987 and has become a key cultural event in the city to the extent that even a seasoned observer such as Ken Loach has said, “Every city should have a film festival like Leeds.”
LIFF is less about the black-tie events and showbiz red carpet photo-shoots, more based around the diverse programming and the films themselves. Funding for this year’s festival is provided by the BFI (British Film Institute), the MEDIA Programme of the European Union, as well as Screen Yorkshire.
The city itself can also lay claim to being the location for the first ever motion picture, when Frenchman Louis Le Prince shot sequences including shots of Leeds Bridge from a single lens camera in 1888. Unfortunately he mysteriously disappeared in 1890 on a train bound for Paris before he could publicise his invention.
As it is, it was left to Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers to claim the credit for inventing motion pictures. Le Prince will never be forgotten in Leeds though and a blue plaque was installed near to the bridge to mark the occasion.
Leeds International Film Festival has been described by The Guardian as “the jewel of the North” and Leeds Guide would wholeheartedly agree. We hope that you enjoy this year’s programme, whether that be within the grandeur of the Town Hall or the more traditional setting of the city’s cinematic home; the Hyde Park Picture House, which opened almost 100 years ago.
Posted on Thursday 20th October 2011
Sending you to Twitter, hold on...