Last year’s Glasgow Film Festival was one of the final film festivals in the world to proceed as planned as an in-person event, concluding just 3 days before the World Health Organization declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic. In the 11 months since, British film festivals have shifted to largely online models, with some physical cinema arrangements depending on their timing in relation to eased restrictions. 

GFF 2021 – taking place from 24 February to 7 March – was planned to be a locally physical and nationally digital hybrid in the spirit of last October’s London Film Festival. In light of current lockdown measures that hasn’t been possible, yet Glasgow’s now fully online programme remains an exciting prospect. The selection may be much smaller in quantity compared with a traditional edition, but the quality in the curation is still there in spades.

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Bookends

The festival opens with the UK premiere of Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, which has earned raves since its Sundance 2020 launch, picking up Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations in the run-up to a likely prominent appearance at the Oscars. Led by Steven Yeun, it follows a Korean family starting a farm in 1980s Arkansas.

Closing the festival is the UK premiere of French drama Spring Blossom, about a platonic bond between a Parisian teenager and a 30-something actor. It’s the directing, writing and screen acting debut of Suzanne Lindon, who has only just turned 21.

Launching pad

Once rarely concerned with premiere status beyond something being a UK or Scottish bow, GFF has, in recent years, presented the very first public screenings of a number of features that have gone on to wider distribution and further success. That continues in 2021, and it’s not just films with a local flavour. A Canadian-Japanese co-production, drama Dreams on Fire – the feature directing debut of Philippe McKie – promises a vibrant, hypnotic look at the subcultures of Tokyo’s underground dance community.

On the local front, GFF has the world premiere of Nick Moran’s Creation Stories, ahead of Sky Cinema distribution in the spring. Co-written by Irvine Welsh, this biopic of Creation Records boss Alan McGee (Ewen Bremner) looks at his role in launching such acts as Primal Scream, Oasis and My Bloody Valentine.

Creation Stories (2021)

Alastair Cole’s Iorram (Boat Song) is the first feature documentary presented entirely in Scottish Gaelic, and explores life among the Outer Hebrides’ fishing community. Elsewhere, one of Scotland’s most celebrated painters, the recently departed James Morrison, receives tribute in Eye of the Storm, Anthony Baxter’s documentary about the man and his work. As part of the Scottish Documentary Institute’s emerging talent initiative Bridging the Gap, 4 new shorts, presented together, also have their world premiere at GFF this year.

Another documentary highlight, Poly Styrene: I Am a Cliché – co-directed by the musician’s daughter, Celeste Bell – dives into the life, legacy and influence of the first woman of colour in the UK to front a successful rock band, in the form of punk mavericks X-Ray Spex.

Spotlight

In lieu of a traditional retrospective programme, a dig into film history can be found in Welcome To, a new programme with a focus on Black Scottish stories. The public element of the programme is divided into 2 categories: one showcasing Black women filmmakers and another presenting documentaries that serve as an archive of Scottish Black history. Adura Onashile’s BFI Vision Award-supported short Expensive Shit is included in the former.

Each year, GFF’s Country Focus strand highlights new output from a specific filmmaking nation. It’s South Korea’s turn this time, with the 5-film selection including thriller The Man Standing Next, the country’s submission for best international feature film at the upcoming Oscars.

Fright nights

The Old Ways (2020)

FrightFest’s event at GFF would ordinarily involve a takeover of Glasgow Film Theatre’s biggest screen for 2 full days. In February 2021, the theatrical screenings are out of the question, but the (mostly) horror film selection remains in its late festival slot to see things out with some scares.

One standout we’ve already seen in advance is The Old Ways, from director Christopher Alender. A unique spin on the usual format of exorcism or possession horror films, The Old Ways – which largely takes place in forests just off the Mexican port city of Veracruz – is primarily told from the perspective of the (seemingly) possessed party: Cristina (Brigitte Kali Canales), a Mexican-American journalist returning to her ancestral home with figurative demons that could well be more literal ones.

Pick and mix

There’s not enough space here to fully delve into the entirety of GFF’s 60-plus film line-up – it’s worth taking the time to browse the whole programme yourself. That said, here are some select highlights from the rest of the offerings, based on what we’ve seen early or growing critical buzz.

Limbo (2020)

One of the toasts of the London Film Festival, there’s another chance to catch Ben Sharrock’s poignant comedy-drama Limbo, about refugees waiting for asylum approval while housed on a remote Scottish island. Further south when it comes to British stories is A Brixton Tale, which explores a star-crossed romance between young people from 2 very different worlds within London.

Portrait of a Lady on Fire breakout star Noémie Merlant shines in Zoé Wittock’s Jumbo, an unforgettable oddity about a shy young woman who falls in love with an amusement park ride. Another potent debut feature comes from Greece: Christos Nikou’s accidentally timely Apples is a deadpan comedy concerning a pandemic that causes abrupt amnesia.

Winner of Berlin 2020’s Golden Bear, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil, an anthology feature, explores the realities of life under an autocratic regime. In the Serbian film Father, a parent deemed unfit embarks on a 300km walk to plead his case. In City Hall, Boston’s local government gets the epic-length documentary treatment from Frederick Wiseman.

An explosive Danish dark comedy about conspiracies and grief, Riders of Justice, from Men & Chicken director Anders Thomas Jensen, features Mads Mikkelsen at his best. And from Hungary, Lili Horvát’s noir-tinged Preparations to Be Together for an Unknown Period of Time has earned strong notices for more than just its striking title.