01 April, 2010

Festival Highlights: Part two - Four Lions

On Day 8 of the 16th Bradford International Film Festival, its Director Tony Earnshaw took the floor for the second time that evening to introduce what was for me the highlight of the festival: the UK premiere of Four Lions, the highly anticipated, inaugural feature length comedy from satirist Chris Morris, best known for TV series Brass Eye which sparked controversy and polarised opinion.

I attended what was supposed to be the UK premiere, after its initial screening at Sundance Festival back in January, but our Film Department managed to add an earlier 'preview' screening in an attempt to meet demand, which itself sold out in less than two days!

It was fitting that the premiere should be held in Bradford, as Morris spent a lot of time here doing research in the preliminary stages of the project, and believes that "coming to Bradford is almost a kind of homecoming for the film". A lot of the cast are from the area, many of whom were in attendance (along with the producers and writing team) for the screening and subsequent Q&A.

I had heard a mixed reaction from film critics after Sundance, but if my expectations as a fan of Morris' work were too high, the man himself delivered a cutting preamble from his wife which served to neutralise my anticipation: "Even if it's really s***; well done, you've made a film," a statement which turned out to be far from the truth. The laughs had already begun.

The 'Four Lions' of the title are a group of would-be jihadis: Omar, Waj, Fessal, Barry and Hassan, technically a fifth lion, but brought in at the last minute before the final showdown. We follow Omar (Riz Ahmed) and Waj (Kayvan Novak) as they flounder through training camp only to be sent home after inadvertently scoring an own goal, watch the band of fools hatch and invariably botch up plans, and their final bungled attempt to strike a blow for Muslims around the world at the London Marathon.

One journalist suggests that Morris has "taken on arguably the most bad-taste subject imaginable", but surely it is one of the most pertinent in today's Britain with its multiculturalism and accompanying divisions. Morris observed that "We are not very good at understanding across a cultural divide." But Four Lions goes further by illustrating the divisions within communities, for example, in the tumultuous relationship between Omar and his devout Muslim brother, both of whom are exposed as having misguided opinions. Challenging our assumptions, the most destructive of the group is in fact white Muslim convert, Barry (Nigel Lindsay).

In typical Morris fashion, no-one is safe, and he questions not only the sense of the protagonists but those who are charged with demobilising the cell, via the police team who are equally incompetent. What comes into play is the judgement brought down upon our own misconceptions, and as the film unfurls, you realise that the film's focus is upon cultural and group identity in general, rather than a commentary on the Islamic religion in particular.

The research Morris spoke of shows throughout the film. Although the characters are ridiculous, they are believable and amiable - testament to this fact was the gasp from the crowd at an unexpected death, which I felt was directly related to the audience's empathy.

After the film, Morris and members of the cast and crew answered questions about the problems of raising money for such a project, and the creative process behind writing collaboratively with Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong, the writing team behind Peep Show (also in attendance). Actors Riz Ahmed, Kayvan Novak and Arsher Ali (Hassan) spoke of the sense of generosity and friendship between cast members.

Not surprisingly, however, the majority of the questions focussed on the potential offence and controversy surrounding the film. Morris decried that nothing he has done he would classify as controversial, and in answer to whether he is mocking Islam, he is "certain in [his] mind that's not what's going on." He thinks that the idea of offending people is just boring, and he would rather delve into a subject to try and understand it from a particular position. Comedy is as good a vehicle as any for doing this, and takes nothing away from the intelligence apparent and important cultural commentary throughout the film.

Morris had a self-confessed 'Richard Attenborough' moment when he took the opportunity to thank the crew and brilliant actors he had the opportunity to work with: "I didn't want this evening to pass without making that rather gushy but sincere remark." Reviews from the audience reported that Morris was warm and personable with anyone who wanted to talk to him.

This was deservedly the most successful premiere in Bradford International Film Festival's history. I'm still not tiring of its endlessly quotable lines. Go and see this film when it is out on general release in May.

The National Media Museum will be screening the film from 7 May, and is the only place in Bradford you’ll be able to see it on release!

Festival highlights: Part one

Bradford International Film Festival is regrettably over for another year, and what an 11 days it's been! We've seen Oscar nominees and BAFTA winners, actors and film industry luminaries, both home grown and international. It feels like it's finished before it's even begun, and as usual I didn't have time to go to half the films or events I planned on attending.

If you missed any of the highlights, not to worry! We recorded audio and video footage during some of the events, and can now give you the opportunity to watch selected clips from the comfort of your own home (or desk, or bus, or train...)

The first Screentalk took place on Friday 19 March, the first full day of the festival, when we welcomed a truly international special guest: Fernando Meirelles, director of City of God and The Constant Gardner (both of which were shown as part of Fernando's first retrospective outside his native Brazil).

Fernando was recently described as "one of the ten greatest directors working in the world today". He joined Professor Lúcia Nagib, director of the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds, and personal friend of Fernando, to discuss his career and answer questions.

As a special treat before the interview began, the audience were shown clips of Fernando's early work in commercials/documentary-mockumentaries, and heard about his accomplishments in Brazilian television, into which he "injected so much life and dynamism".

Despite his self-confessed shyness, Fernando is shown to be passionate and very funny indeed. During the evening, he told the story behind "the most expensive joke in history". It occurred during the filming of Blindness, when Gael García Bernal's improvised impersonation of Stevie Wonder cost the production thousands of dollars in music rights!

On the 6th day of the festival we were joined by Imelda Staunton, acclaimed actress who has appeared in countless films, most notibly Vera Drake, a performance which earned her a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination.

Imelda sat in conversation with Phil Penfold and discussed her career in theatre, television and films. She has a vast repetoire at her fingertips, so it was an absolute delight for the audience, particularly any burgeoning actors, to hear wisdom imparted directly from the mouth of one of Britain's most beloved character actresses.

In this clip you can watch Imelda discussing necessary adour in the early stages of an acting career, and the prudence she showed once hers had begun, the differences between 'then' and 'now', and the challenge of finding a decent musical!