BFI London Film Festival Adjusts Lineup With Film Shortage

The late-summer reactivation of the film festival circuit presented fest directors and programmers with an array of challenges, both expansive and re­­strictive. On the one hand, they’ve had a bounty of withheld titles to choose from; on the other, the industry stasis of the past six months has put any number of previously expected projects indefinitely out of reach.

2020’s London Film Festival, in particular, has felt the domino effect of the year’s other cancelled and compromised events.

A predominantly public-oriented affair, the LFF has always placed less stress on major world premieres — though organizers often manage to secure a heavyweight or two — than on cherry-picking the best the year’s other festivals had to offer, and bringing those highlights to British audiences for the first time. What happens to a festival of festivals, then, when the fests haven’t come through?

As this year’s LFF lineup (running Oct. 7-18) demonstrates, director Tricia Tuttle and her staff have decided on a mixture of pragmatic downsizing and resourceful experimentation — yielding
a festival that may appear more low-key than past editions, but shows the lights still on at its organizing body, the British Film Institute.

In other words, it’s business as usual, but completely different. Physical screenings will still proceed at the BFI Southbank but, continuing a hybrid model recently used by the Toronto Intl. Film Festival, a rather larger audience will be able to view films via the BFI Player streaming platform. This year’s edition mostly retains the programming structure introduced by former fest director Clare Stewart in 2012 — theming films by such categories as Love, Dare, Debate and so on — but applies it to a significantly slimmed-down selection of around 60 features.

Gone is the usual headlining range of starry red-carpet gala premieres; ditto the extensive juried competition shortlists. Instead, in keeping with the festival’s overriding for-the-people spirit, awards for best film, documentary, short and XR project from the entire program will be determined by the viewing audience through online voting. Greater public accessibility and engagement in exchange for a more modest lineup — it’s altogether a very 2020 compromise.

And yet a measure of glitter endures. The program may have it discreetly listed in the two-film Family section, but the festival has nabbed the world premiere of Pixar’s much-anticipated animated blockbuster “Soul” — London’s highest-profile first-dibs coup in many a year. The Jamie Foxx- and Tina Fey-voiced comedy was to have premiered at the ill-fated Cannes Film Festival back in the spring; in this respect, London, which usually feasts off the French fest’s highlights for its lineup, has actually gained a small boost from Cannes’ cancellation.

“Soul” provides a rare shot of Holly­wood pizzazz in a festival whose inter­national outlook is even more pronounced this year — with represented nations running the gamut from Kenya to Argen­tina to India to the Philippines — along with its commitment to elevating homegrown filmmaking.

As usual, British productions bookend the fest. Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove” — the second feature-length episode of the artist-filmmaker’s “Small Axe” TV project — will open proceedings. (The first, “Lovers Rock,” is duly featured in the Love section.) The closer, meanwhile, will be Francis Lee’s romantic period drama “Ammonite.” In choosing stories of Black protest and same-sex love, from Black and queer filmmakers, respectively, to bracket the festival, programmers have pointedly underlined the BFI’s pledge to promote more diverse storytelling and talent. (That said, the female director count, while making up a third of the feature selection, is a notch lower than in previous years.)

McQueen and Lee’s films premiered at the New York and Toronto festivals, respectively: even if on a smaller scale, the LFF has maintained its role as a snapshot of the year in festival programming. From pre-lockdown times, Sundance is represented via such selections as Miranda July’s quirky “Kajillionaire,” Josephine Decker’s speculative Shirley Jackson biopic “Shirley” and Garrett Bradley’s doc “Time,” a heartrending protest against the injustices of the U.S. penal system. Berlin has donated the likes of Christian Petzold’s mythical update “Undine,” Abel Ferrara’s bizarro headtrip “Siberia” and the dynamite Riz Ahmed showcase “Mogul Mowgli.

Fresher in people’s minds are a host of titles from the recent Venice-Toronto-New York run, none more gilded than Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland,” which has thus far racked up Venice’s Golden Lion, Toronto’s People’s Choice Award and a surfeit of awards chatter since its early-September premiere. For Zhao’s film, London represents another stop on its peripatetic international journey; for London, its inclusion is a vital indication that, after a testing year of uncertainty and compromise, the festival still has its finger on the pulse.

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