Perhaps the greatest thrill of attending a film festival is the opportunity to make exciting new discoveries for yourself, before your expectations can be shaped by critical consensus or marketing hype. But the experience can turn bittersweet if it transpires, months down the line, that there are no plans in place for your festival favourites to see the light of day in regular cinemas, or even on VOD.
While some high-profile films tour festivals to build hype for an impending release, many others premiere with no distribution deal in place. Most of the bigger festivals double up as sales markets, with buyers rushing between screenings in a frenzied attempt to identify and acquire hot-ticket titles. Naturally, this competitive environment tends to favour films from established talents, and those with an obvious commercial hook. While Netflix and other VOD platforms have, in recent years, increased opportunities for emerging and independent filmmakers to share their work with a broader audience, it remains the case that numerous stellar titles continue to slip through the cracks after successful festival debuts.
Here then, are 10 of our favourite films from the 2017 festival circuit which, halfway through 2018, are still regrettably without a UK distributor. Here’s hoping that this is one list that won’t stand the test of time. PO’C
Angels Wear White
Director Vivian Qu
This bracing exploration of sexual assault in a Chinese coastal town premiered in Venice last September, but swiftly took on a new urgency as it played at further festivals in the ensuing weeks and months, as the #MeToo movement gained traction across the globe. Blending unflinching social realism with noir thriller tropes, its director Vivian Qu spins a gripping, multi-stranded tale of endemic corruption and misogyny. Her film is told largely from the perspective of Mia (Wen Qi), an undocumented teenager working in a sleazy motel, who one night oversees the check-in of a man travelling, somewhat suspiciously, with two young girls.
Qu mercifully skims over the specifics of what takes place in the motel, fixating instead on the explosive aftermath – not only are the girls underage, but their assailant is a prominent police official. By honing in on the minor misdemeanours and perceived complicity of her female protagonists, Qu delivers a potent, and extremely timely, indictment of victim-blaming culture. PO’C
- Angels Wear White screened at the 61st BFI London Film Festival
Directors João Dumans and Affonso Uchoa
This quietly mesmerising portrait of modern Brazil delights in gently subverting your expectations. Its opening scenes centre around Andre (Murilo Caliari), an inexpressive teen eking out a mundane existence in the industrial city of Ouro Preto. Sent one day on an errand by his health-worker aunt, he discovers the notebook of factory labourer Cristiano (Aristides de Sousa), currently lying comatose in hospital. As Andre pores over the scattershot memoir, the film reveals Cristiano as its true protagonist, and we embark on an epic cross-country road trip with the enigmatic nomad.
As he drifts between jobs, friends and lovers without any discernible plan, we witness a life unwittingly shaped by Brazil’s political and economic instability. Inevitably, his youthful joie de vivre gives way to an encroaching sense of disillusionment, but moments of deadpan humour, and frequent musical interludes, keep the tone bittersweet rather than despairing. A sublime slice of poetic realism. PO’C
- Araby screened at the 61st BFI London Film Festival
Beauty and the Dogs
Director Kaouther Ben Hania
What starts out as an exciting student party leads to a nightmarish experience after a young woman, Mariam, is raped by local Tunisian police officers. Director Kaouther Ben Hania makes the move from documentary to fiction with a confrontational drama based on real-life testimony collected by journalist Ava Djamshidi and a 2013 novel entitled Guilty of Having Been Raped.
Hania investigates the appalling way women are put on trial for simply reporting a crime. She chooses not to show the assault, instead taking the viewer through the aftermath and rigmarole of reporting the rape with tense and disorientating long shots. Over the course of the night, Mariam’s psychological state shifts through shock and shame to determination, as she is tested by a system that doesn’t seem concerned with her plight. Lead actor Mariam Al Ferjani turns in a nuanced and powerful performance to convey her character’s arduous experience of aggressive questioning and victim blaming. KM
Director Hong Sang-soo
At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, prolific Korean director Hong Sang-soo showed two films, Claire’s Camera and The Day After. The first is a fun and brisk affair starring Isabelle Huppert as a tourist who dresses like a gumshoe detective and insists on taking photos with her instamatic camera, and Min-hee Kim as a weary film sales agent who is inexplicably fired from her job.
Both actors had had films showing at Cannes the year before, when Hong took the chance to cast them together. The result is this film-about-filmmaking, which not only satirises the industry but also captures the strange mood of exhaustion and excitement behind the scenes at the festival itself. Hong has always been a master observer of human interaction, and he really nails Cannes here. The sunshine, the seaside, the booze and the endless meetings – as well as the willingness to communicate despite language barriers – are all imparted to gently amusing ends. KM
The Desert Bride
Directors Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato
The star of Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria (2013), Paulina García, turns in another endearing performance as 54-year-old housekeeper Teresa, who goes on a road trip across the Argentinian desert after she’s made redundant. Uncertainty about her future sends Teresa into a tailspin of self-discovery where romance and mystery blow in on a mighty gust of wind. An unplanned stop-off in San Juan, near Vallecito, leads Teresa to learn more about the legend of La Difunta Correa, the unofficial patron saint of travellers, truck drivers and farmers. In the mid-1800s the ‘deceased Correa’ is said to have gone in search of her sick husband at war, with babe in arms. Before she located him, she died, but her child was found alive and well.
It’s gorgeously directed by Cecilia Atán and Valeria Pivato, who conjure up an enchanting ambience packed full of breathtaking scenery, flowing fabrics and intimate interior shots. Teresa’s frightening voyage to reinvent herself in her 50s is hugely moving and invigorating. KM
Directors Marco Dutra and Juliana Rojas
This multi-award-winning, genre-hopping oddity was perhaps the most delightful dark surprise of last year’s festival circuit. Set in a disconcertingly otherworldly São Paulo, it sets out its stall as an off-kilter lesbian romance, with a bond forming between white expectant mother Ana (Marjorie Estiano) and her black domestic helper Clara (Isabél Zuaa). But as Clara attempts to navigate the strange power dynamic that defines her new relationship, it becomes increasingly apparent that Ana is concealing a grave secret.
From here, the film oscillates between ripe melodrama, urban fairytale and supernatural horror, with a smattering of musical numbers thrown in for good measure. What’s most impressive is the way in which these disparate elements cohere to heighten the underlying human drama. As outlandish as it often is, Good Manners remains rooted in Clara’s challenging reality as a gay, black, working-class woman in a city of haves and have-nots. PO’C
- Good Manners screened at the 61st BFI London Film Festival and BFI Flare 2018
Director Gillian Robespierre
The second film from Gillian Robespierre, the director of 2014 ‘abortion comedy’ Obvious Child, turns back the clock to 1995, before mobile phones took off and when taking a social media break equated to removing your watch and not checking your voicemails. Robespierre once again pairs up with actor Jenny Slate and co-writer Elisabeth Holm, and though the hook isn’t so groundbreaking, the sex lives of three generations of flawed women living in New York are sensitively and wittily handled. Slate plays older sister to Ali, who discovers her father (John Turturro) is having an affair, and as the two work out how to break it to their mother (Edie Falco) their sisterly bond strengthens.
This charmingly observed comedy offers feelgood dancing to PJ Harvey and joyful family singalongs to Steve Winwood, with the intuitive writing delivering a stirring emotional payoff in its portrayal of the fraught and generous mother-daughter relationship. KM
Director Wang Bing
It’s understandable that UK distributors have so far proven unwilling to take a punt on Wang Bing’s 2017 Locarno Golden Leopard winner. Despite enthusiastic critical support, it’s the very definition of a hard sell – an unflinching, austere documentary charting the agonising dying days of a woman with severe Alzheimer’s. But those willing to embark on this daunting journey will be rewarded with a work of uncomfortable intimacy and haunting potency.
Set in a rain-soaked Chinese fishing village, the film reveals precious little about its protagonist, making it clear from the outset that this a film not about a life being left behind, but about the cruel, and somewhat anticlimactic, inevitability of death itself. Lingering close-ups of Mrs Fang’s face are interspersed with relatively soothing scenes of her male relatives fishing and gambling, and thus the gap between abject horror and mundanity begins – gradually – to close. Despite its inherent challenges, it’s a relatively accessible introduction to slow-cinema master Wang, clocking in at a lean 86 minutes – in stark contrast to his widely revered 2003 feature debut, the nine-hour industrial epic West of the Tracks. PO’C
Director Atsuko Hirayanagi
The title of Atsuko Hirayanagi’s debut feature sums up how you may react to the protagonist of this tender character portrait – whether it’s with astonishment, exasperation or tenderness. Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), is stifled by her office job, bored of Tokyo and lonely. She lashes out at her colleagues and is generally made to feel worthless for being a single woman. That is, until her niece suggests she take over the non-refundable English language lessons that she wants to drop. Setsuko agrees and is greeted by a new moniker, a blonde wig and Josh Hartnett as a heartthrob teacher who she develops a crush on. After he disappears, she sets sail to LA in search of him…
In a similar manner to Kumiko the Treasure Hunter (2014), Hirayanagi’s humorous and eccentric approach allows ample room for its themes of loneliness and depression to be thoroughly explored. The result was a highlight of the Cannes Critics Week sidebar, but no takers for a UK release as yet. KM
Taste of Cement
Director Ziad Kalthoum
Lots of documentaries have depicted the lives of Middle Eastern migrants in the last few years, but this contemplative portrait of Syrian workers exiled in Lebanon is surely among the most distinctive and most sumptuously cinematic. In exquisitely composed shots, it captures the backbreaking efforts of labourers constructing a seafront tower block in Beirut, which makes for a strangely beautiful spectacle at first, with sweeping drone shots and much of the action unfolding against a cloudless blue sky. But, gradually, the full extent of the appalling conditions faced by the workers becomes apparent. Placed under a 7pm curfew, they spend their evenings in makeshift underground dorms on the building site, with little to do but watch news reports of the atrocities of the Assad regime.
In several jolting sequences, Kalthoum cuts between footage of the men diligently at work, scenes of Syrian tanks trundling through decimated streets, and anguished individuals in the immediate aftermath of a bombing. What emerges is a vivid picture of the senseless cycle of destruction and reconstruction across this blighted region, which is all the more powerful for the film’s narrative sparseness and Kalthoum’s unsentimental direction. PO’C