Leeds International Film Festival 2023

by Philip Gillett Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 18 minutes (4456 words)

Insallah a boy, Courtesy of MAD Distribution

2023 has been designated the Year of Culture by Leeds City Council. The sector is a major employer in a city with four universities and a cultural quarter, the latter being home to a theatre, a music college and a dance centre. A cinema would make a welcome addition, but at least the venerable Hyde Park Picture House has reopened after a renovation. It is one of the venues for the film festival, which is longer than in previous years. I tried to see as many of the Official Selection of new films as possible, though Poor Things (Yorgos Lantimos | Ireland, UK, USA | 2023) eluded me, being sold out for both screenings.

Goodbye Julia, courtesy of MAD Distribution

The film which won the audience award was Goodbye Julia (Mohamed Kordofani | Sudan, Sweden, Germany, Saudi Arabia, France, Egypt | 2023). This is the writer-director’s feature film debut, the first Sudanese film to appear in the Official Selection at Cannes and only the second film to represent Sudan at the Oscars. The location is Khartoum in 2005, before the secession of South Sudan. The situation is tense with riots and the sound of gunfire. Mona is an affluent Muslim singer, though her husband Akram refuses to let her sing after their marriage. She is distracted while driving and knocks down a boy. He is unhurt, but in a state of shock Mona drives away. Julia’s husband follows her on his motorcycle intent on confronting her. Given the tense political situation Akram panics and shoots Julie’s husband dead. Mona is filled with remorse and employs the Christian Julia as a servant while paying for her child to go to school. A friendship develops between the two women to the point where Julia persuades Mona to sing again. Their new relationship is tested when the truth is revealed. The personal drama is played out in a country divided between the Muslim (Arabic) north and the lower class Christian (African) south. An illuminating and moving film.

A complement to Goodbye Julia is Inshallah a Boy (Amjad Al Rasheed | Jordan, France, Saudi Arabia, Quatar | 2023), another feature film directorial debut and the first Jordanian film to be selected at Cannes and submitted for the Oscars. Narwal is a Muslim widow with a daughter at school. Because she has no male child and her husband left no will, her brother-in-law Rifqi can lay claim to her flat. He also wants the pickup truck her husband was buying from him and on which he owed four payments. Her hopes of keeping her home rest on a positive pregnancy test, which will give her a breathing space. She persuades her Christian employer’s daughter Lauren to take the test in Narwal’s name in return for help in procuring an abortion. The consequence is that Narwal loses her job when her employer finds out. Even Narwal’s brother Ahmad, who is initially sympathetic, becomes impatient when she refuses to give up the pickup. The film portrays a woman with few rights in law or in a patriarchy, but who refuses to give in to circumstances. She is last seen learning to drive the pickup.

Less subtle but equally powerful is Sira (Apolline Traoré | Burkina Faso, Senegal, France, Germany | 2023), which won the 2023 audience award at the Berlinale. Sira is a teenager, who travels with her nomadic Muslim family to her marriage to the Christian Jean Sidi, despite reservations on the part of both families. On the journey militant Islamists attack Sira’s family. The leader of the rebels kidnaps Sira, rapes her and leaves her to die in the desert. Instead she makes her way to the rebel camp. There she hides nearby, stealing food and water from the camp at night and making herself known to the women, who are kept as sex slaves. Meanwhile her intended bridegroom sets out to look for her in an unconvincing narrative strand. The film relies on maintaining tension, which weakens in the cause of a happy ending.

Another strong woman appears in Mambar Pierrette (Rosine Mefetgo Mbakam | Cameroon, Belgium | 2023). Pierrette raises her three children alone as well as looking after her mother and working as a seamstress. She is sustained by her Christian faith. Mbakam has a documentary background and this film has a documentary feel. Fate seems against Pierrette, who is robbed of her money, while her shop and her home in a slum district are flooded. The film lacks what Hitchcock would call a MacGuffin. Pierrette gets on with things, which is admirable, but not enough to sustain a feature film.

The four films show aspects of a religious culture: patriarchal in Goodbye Julia and Inshallah a boy, perverted in Sira and consolatory in Mambar Pierrette. The overriding influence of religion is apparent in two further films. Toll (Carolina Markowicz |Brazil, Portugal | 2023) follows single parent Suellen, who works as a tollbooth attendant in Cubatão, an industrial city near Sao Paulo. Her 17-year-old son Antonio is gay and occupies his time being an influencer and posting videos of himself lip-synching Dinah Washington recordings. This is wrong in the eyes of Suellen. To pay for his conversion therapy she becomes involved with a gang of modern highwaymen, who steal from car drivers and their passengers. Her rigid religious and cultural beliefs lead her into a moral morass, where the end justifies the means. The ‘therapy’ offered by the youthful European pastor provides sly humour as the participants model genitalia in Plasticine. The only result of the therapy is that Antonio finds a male lover in the group.

Kidnapped, Courtesy of Curzon Film-maker

Kidnapped (Marco Bellocchio | Italy, France, Germany | 2023) offers a more explicit critique of the Roman Catholic Church and is based on a true story. It is 1858 and a maid claims to have baptized a Jewish baby Edgardo in secret because he was dying and she wanted to save his soul. When this becomes known to the Papal authorities, the child who is now six is taken from his family and raised as a Catholic, despite the efforts of his father and the Jewish community. Criticism from across Europe and America only convinces Pope Pius IX of the rightness of his actions, the irony being that he is in debt to the Rothschilds. So successful is the Church that the adult Edgardo becomes a priest. When the populace rebels against Papal rule, his allegiance remains to the Church. His father is dying and to the anger of his family Edgardo tries to baptise him. Like most Italian films doing the rounds of festivals, this is a sumptuous production, which looks like a baroque painting brought to life. Whether this suits the grimness of the story is debatable. Music is important in establishing the mood. When the child Edgardo is taken from his home by boat, Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead accompanies the scene. Is a point being made, or did the conjunction of image and music prove too seductive to omit? Shostakovich was no stranger to authoritarian government and one of his most anguished musical utterances — his string quartet no. 8 — accompanies later scenes of the film. It emphasises the darkness of the story from our point of view rather than Edgardo’s and is its spareness is at odds with the film’s opulence? The events depicted bear comparison with the Dreyfus affair, though it would be interesting to know whether children of other religions were treated similarly.

Two coming-of-age films appear in the official selection. Tiger Stripes (Amanda Nell Eu | Malaysia, Taiwan, France, Germany Netherlands, Singapore, Quatar, Indonesia | 2023) has a debut feature film director. It was a prizewinner at Cannes and is Malaysia’s first entry for the Oscars. 12-year-old Zaffan is portrayed early on as a rebel in her conservative Muslim school, when she removes her headscarf in the toilets. Her parents are equally conservative, which results in tension at home. Things change when she is the first of her peer group to reach menarche. Her female teachers are unsympathetic; the other girls shun her, regarding her as dirty. She is seen writhing on the floor in a fit, which spreads to her classmates and her teacher. Carol Morley explored mass hysteria in a girls’ school in The Falling (2014). Eu abandons this plot strand and with an abrupt change of mood we are presented with Zaffan as an animal that shins up trees, grows claws and has glowing eyes. The film loses its focus on an isolated girl and repressive cultural norms as horror alternates with normality. Tiger Stripes has been censored in Malaysia on undisclosed grounds. The director has disowned the cut version, which ‘misses the joy of being a young girl in Malaysia’ (Variety 2023b).

How to Have Sex, Courtesy of Mongrel Media

A different coming of age is presented in How to Have Sex (Molly Manning Walker | UK, Greece | 2023). 16-year-old school leaver Tara goes to Greece with two classmates and is determined to lose her virginity. She succeeds, but the moment is not as life-changing as she hoped: after drinking too much she remembers little of the occasion. The most haunting scene is when the holiday ends and she and her two friends go to the airport. While they can look forward to university life, Tara’s examination results are poor. Her disappointment and lack of hope are apparent in the expressive face of Mia McKenna-Bruce as Tara. Un Certain Regard winner at Cannes, the film has been widely praised by British critics for its photography and acting as well as exploring the issue of consent. Alternatively it might be seen as a riposte to films such as The Inbetweeners Movie (2011), which present a similar narrative from a male perspective. Will How to Have Sex be seen as groundbreaking in future years? It will be interesting to follow the response to the film when it is released in the USA, where films such as The Edge of Seventeen (2016), Lady Bird (2017) and Blockers (2018) have already explored the female point of view.

Kiddo, Courtesy of Studio Ruba

Road movies solve the problem of maintaining a narrative by having disparate events strung along the journey. In KIDDO (Zara Dwinger | Netherlands | 2023), 11-year-old Lu is in a children’s home, where she hears that her lost mother is coming to visit. Her mother Karina appears in a rusting American car, but an afternoon visit turns out to be a drive to Poland to collect the money stashed in the family house. Karina regales her daughter with invented exploits of her career as a Hollywood stuntwoman, while Lu is torn between supporting her wayward mother and keeping the children’s home informed about what is happening. The film reverses the usual roles of mother and daughter. We can enjoy the journey and there is time to explore the mother-daughter relationship.

The Sweet East, Courtesy of Utopia Distribution

The Sweet East (Sean Price Williams | USA | 2023) in common with How to Have Sex marks the directorial debut of a cinematographer. Lillian is on a school trip to Washington, DC, which is disrupted by a police operation against a sharpshooter. Her rescuer is anarchist Caleb and the pair return to his collective. Thereafter she stumbles into a white supremacist training camp and encounters Lawrence, an academic who is sympathetic to right-wing ideas. She takes part in a film made by two black film-makers, whom the white supremacists kill during the shoot. Her rescuer is a backwoodsman, who takes her home to Vermont and is content to keep her locked in a shack. When she escapes, she wakens to find a monk looking down at her. He contacts her parents and Lillian’s journey is over. The overall impression is that the east coast is home to a collection of eccentrics, amiable and otherwise. The odyssey is held together by Talia Ryder’s performance as a girl who accepts whatever comes her way. Paul Grimstad’s music contributes to an appealing film.

Flashbacks can be tricky. The art is in making clear what is a flashback, so that the narrative is not disrupted. There are devices for signifying that a passage is a flashback (Maria 2021). If overused they become clichés, though the current tendency to dispense with them can create its own problems in differentiating flashbacks. Several of the films in the festival exemplify the risks. In I Used to be Funny (Ally Pankiw | Canada | 2023), stand-up comedian Sam Cowell learns that 14-year-old Brooke, whom she cared for two years earlier, is missing. Sam helps in the search, while dealing with her own PTSD. Writer and first-time director Pankiw presents an interesting story, though relying on frequent flashbacks makes audiences work hard to follow the narrative and lessens the film’s impact.

The same might be said of The Queen of My Dreams (Fawzia Mirza | Canada, Pakistan | 2023), which is a debut for the director. Set in 1999, Azra (Amrit Kaur) lives in Toronto with her female partner. When her father Hassan dies unexpectedly while visiting Pakistan, Azra goes there, encountering her conservative mother Mariam, who moved back when her marriage broke down and with whom the westernised Azra has a strained relationship. The film follows her increasing appreciation of her mother’s position through their shared love of Bollywood films, while flashbacks show the carefree days of the relationship between Mariam and Hassan before they moved to Canada. Kaur plays the young Mariam as well as Azra, though the distinction between the two characters could be clearer. Adding to the mix are flashbacks to Azra’s early life in Canada. Flashbacks are integral to the film, though as with I Used to be Funny a second viewing might give a greater appreciation of the nuances and make the flashback structure clearer.

Monster (Hirokazu Kore-eda | Japan | 2023) relies not so much on flashbacks as rerunning events from different points of view in Rashomon fashion. Single mother Saori complains to the school about the bullying of her son Minato by his teacher Mr Hori. A rumour that Mr Hori frequented a hostess club seems to confirm her view that he is unsuited to teaching. The headmistress is reluctant to go beyond a formal apology, but Mr Hori claims that Minato is bullying another pupil. The same scenes are run from Mr Hori’s viewpoint. This is another complex film, which merits a second viewing. A similar technique is used in The Delinquents (Rodrigo Moreno | Argentina, Brazil, Luxembourg, Chile | 2023). The bank heist is straightforward, but the sequel proves complex. Rerunning events from a different viewpoint provides a denouement, but in this case a clumsy one.

The Settlers (Felipe Gálvez Haberle | Argentina, Chile, UK, Taiwan, Germany, Sweden, France, Denmark | 2023) is another debut by a writer-director. It has the tropes of a Western, though this is a film about colonisation, a subject which has become a regular feature of festival fare. The setting is southern Chile. Landowner Menéndez wants access to the Atlantic and despatches three men to achieve this. What appears to be a mapping expedition turns out to be a violent appropriation of land from the indigenous population. The film’s final section is a flash-forward to when the land is colonised. The trappings of urban life are evident including a train service. Menéndez is questioned about his behaviour, but he seems unworried. Mixed-race marksman Segundo is the only survivor of the trio and shows little desire to talk about his experiences. As a critique of colonialism the film has little new to say, but its effects on South America have been neglected on film.

Sweet Dreams, Courtesy of lemming film

The colonial legacy appears again is Sweet Dreams (Ena Sendijarevic |Netherlands, Reunion, Indonesia, Sweden, France | 2023). The setting is Indonesia in 1900. Sugar plantation owner Jan drops dead after his regular visit to his concubine. His wife orders her son Cornelius accompanied by his pregnant wife Josefien to come to Indonesia and run the business, which they do reluctantly. The trouble is that Jan’s will leaves everything to Karel, his son by his concubine. Cornelius plans to kill Karel and sell the unprofitable plantation. The workers are already rebelling. The scene is set for a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. The film looks sumptuous recalling last year’s Pacification on a similar theme of colonialism under pressure. The failure of the enterprise is mirrored in Josefien’s appearance. Mud, pregnancy, sweat, sunburn and a fine crop of mosquito bites soon have their effect on the elegant but haughty woman who arrives at the plantation.

The Monk and the Gun, Courtesy of Films Boutique

The spread of Western values is at the heart of a satire from an unexpected source. The Monk and the Gun (Pawo Choyning Dorji | Bhutan | 2023) charts the country’s transition from a monarchy to a democracy in 2006. The film shows the problems beginning with registering the inhabitants. A mock election is held to show people how to vote. An American gun dealer comes to a village where a rare American civil war rifle is located, but before he can buy it, the owner gives it to the Lama. Why should a monk want a gun? The dealer suspects some form of armed insurrection and offers two AK-47s in place of the rifle, but to no avail. The film shows a country coming to terms with modernity, but as one young mother points out, she likes her lifestyle, so why should she change it? We discover what the Lama intends to do and we may sympathise, but is he resisting the inevitable?

There has to be a film set in New York and this year’s offering is Mutt (Vuk Lungulov-Klotz | USA | 2023), which is the writer-director’s feature debut, Feña is a trans man, who in the course of 24 hours meets three people from his past: former boyfriend John, his sister Zoe and his father. In a tender scene he asks John to turn away when he takes off his wet top, though his modesty is undercut by playing the scene in a launderette. They spend the night together, revealing Feña’s ambivalent feelings. His sister has run away from school and their parents are estranged, which presents him with problems when she appears at his flat. His father comes to stay. He is hostile to Feña’s transition, which provides the film’s most dramatic confrontation. There is an excess of saying rather than doing, but this is gritty view of big city life and gender fluidity.

Feel-good films are welcome during an intense bout of cinema-going. Zazie dans le métro (Louis Malle | France | 1960) is well known as an early work of Malle, though we have an opportunity to see it on the big screen. The sense of childhood freedom and the dawning of the French New Wave, a progenitor of the Swinging London films, make watching Zazie a liberating experience in a cynical age, when attitudes to safeguarding children have changed. At least traffic jams remain a constant feature of Parisian life.

One role of festivals is to introduce audiences to forgotten gems. With the support of the Dutch Embassy a range of Dutch films were screened in Leeds. Little seen outside the Netherlands is Fanfare (Bert Haanstra | Netherlands | 1958), which according to IMDb (n.d.) is the second most successful Dutch film at the box office (topping the list is Paul Verhoeven’s A Turkish Delight from 1973). The sight of a cow gliding forwards and then backwards brings Roy Andersson to mind. The solution is that this is a Dutch village with no roads, so everything is transported by canal. The village band is entered for a competition, but ill feeling between two band members runs out of control. This is a good-natured comedy in the tradition of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) with mainly visual gags. It may not be profound, but you leave the cinema feeling happy.

The Breaking Ice (Anthony Chen | China. Singapore | 2023) is set on China’s northern border, where young tour guide Nana shepherds tourists around the small town of Yanji in winter. One of the party is the solitary Haofeng, who loses his phone. Nana helps him, breaking the ice, and introduces him to her Korean friend Xiou, who works in a restaurant. Each of the trio feels unfulfilled and they bond, aware that like ice this bond may not last. This is an appealing and lyrical film of young people with dreams of the future, which owes a debt to Jules et Jim (1962) (Brzeski 2023). The Disney moment in the visit to a national park is an aberration. Politics remains in the background, except when the trio take a trip to the North Korean border. Chen has settled in Hong Kong and is working on a script set there (Shackleton 2023). Coincidentally Nomad (Director’s Cut) (Patrick Tam | Hong Kong | 1982), was screened in a 4K restoration. This was a work of the Hong Kong New Wave, with a fragmented, urgent style where Chen is lyrical. In spite of differences in treatment the subject matter of both films has similarities. In Nomad there are four young people, two male and two female, two rich and two poor, who hang out together enjoying each other’s company. The infiltration of Western values is evident in their music and attitudes. There are nods to British rule in such details as driving on the left and a glimpse of a Belisha beacon at a pedestrian crossing. Politics only become explicit when a former Japanese boyfriend of one of the girls appears after deserting from the Red Army. This changes the tone of the film, as the quartet’s idyll comes to an abrupt end. If Chen completes a Hong Kong film, the comparison with Nomad will be fascinating.

Also in the feel-good category is The Holdovers (Alexander Payne | US | 2023). In a prequel to the festival screening Payne explains that he tried to create the look of a 1970s film, complete with scratch marks on the opening credits and actors with haircuts of the time. The year is 1970. Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti) is a grumpy teacher in a New England boarding school, who is disliked by colleagues and pupils alike. He stays at school over Christmas with the caretaker (an underwritten role) and Mary the grieving school cook, whose son was killed in Vietnam. The only pupil left behind is the prickly Angus Tully. The film charts the gradual understanding between pupil and teacher. This is a funny and poignant film about a man who has never fulfilled his ambitions and a boy who has yet to find a direction in life. It will make a worthy Oscar contender.

Inevitably there are disappointments in a festival. One was Anatomy of a Fall (Justine Triet |France | 2023), which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Married writers work in a winter chalet. There are tensions between them. The husband Daniel falls from an attic window and is killed. Was his death an accident, did wife Sandra murder him, or did he commit suicide? We are in the upper-middle-class milieu beloved of French film-makers. This is not to denigrate the film, but it is a crowded field meaning that the bar is high. Sandra is arraigned in a long and unconvincing trial scene, during which the details of the case are raked over incessantly before she is found not guilty. By the two hour mark I was past caring.

In All of Us Strangers (Andrew Haigh | UK, USA | 2023), Aiden meets Harry, his neighbour in a block of flats and a relationship develops. Aidan’s parents are dead. He returns to the house where he lived as a child to encounter them as they were thirty years earlier. This is Terence Davies country and self-consciously arty. Haigh has ventured into other subjects such as Lean on Pete (2015), but All of Us Strangers is a reversion to the claustrophobic gay milieu of Weekend (2011). The Japanese short story on which the film was based has been filmed as The Discarnates (Nabuhiko Ộyashi | Japan | 1988). Screening this as a companion piece would have made an interesting comparison.

Female directors are much in evidence, which is an encouraging trend and in part accounts for the number of films about single mothers. There are fewer films from the USA this year, which is likely to be the consequence of the screenwriters’ and actors’ strikes. The increasing number of contributors to co-productions is noticeable, which throws up some odd bedfellows. Status may be involved in including a country’s name on the credits, but a more likely explanation is the need to cast the net wider for funding: Variety (2023a) explores the process. This could be a healthy trend, so long as financing does not determine content. Some of the most interesting work comes from left field, notably Goodbye Julia (Sudan) and Inshallah a Boy (Jordan). Film-makers in countries suffering the vicissitudes of war strive to maintain civilian institutions as a sign of normality and to offer an interpretation of events, so it was good to include work in the programme from Burkino Faso (Sira) and Ukraine (La Palisiada, which I was not able to see). It would be interesting to know what is happening in Russian cinema, but we shall have to wait for that. The involvement of the Dutch Embassy is an innovative development, which other countries might emulate. Such a cultural exchange benefits both sides. No film in the Official Selection tackles the challenges of climate change: at present films on that topic have to be sought in the documentary and sci-fi strands, though this is likely to change in future years. I look forward to future work from the many first-time directors whose talent was on display. The future of film is in safe hands.

Works Cited

Brzeski, Paul, (2023) ‘Anthony Chen on The Breaking Ice, his cinematic love letter to China’s youth,’ The Hollywood Reporter, 19 May, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-news/anthony-chen-interview-breaking-ice-film-china-1235496122, accessed 4 December 2023.

IMDb, (n.d.) ‘Fanfare, trivia’, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051600/ accessed 23 November 2023.

Maria, (2021) ‘Everything you need to know about creating flashback sequences’, Filmstro blog, 31 December, https://filmstro.com/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-creating-flashback-sequences, accessed 23 November 2023.

Shackleton, Liz, (2023) ‘Anthony Chen talks Sundance title Drift, upcoming projects and plans to shoot in Hong Kong’, Deadline, 19 January, https://deadline.com/2023/01/sundance-anthony-chen-drift-cynthia-erivo-memento-1235227002/ accessed 23 November 2023.

Variety, (2023a) Tiger Stripes is highly developed product of indie film support system’, May 18, https://variety.com/2023/film/asia/tiger-stripes-indie-film-support-system-1235615916/, accessed 23 November 2023.

Variety, (2023b) ‘Tiger Stripes director Amanda Nell Eu denounces Malaysian censored release of Oscar-hopeful film’, 19 October, https://variety.com/2023/film/news/tiger-stripes-director-amanda-nell-eu-denounces-malaysian-censorship-film-release-1235761726/ accessed 23 November 2023.

Philip Gillett is an independent writer on film and author of The British Working Class in Postwar Film (MUP, 2003), Movie Greats: A Critical Study of Classic Cinema (Berg, 2008), a re-examination of the film canon, Film and Morality (CSP, 2012) and Forgotten British Film: Value and the Ephemeral in Postwar Cinema (CSP, 2017), and Film and the Historian: The British Experience (CSP, 2019).

Volume 28, Issue 2-4 / April 2024 Festival Reports   leeds international film festival