What to watch at LFF: experimental films with a window on political conflict

Turbulent historical moments and complex political situations are seen differently in a number of the short films and features in this year’s Experimenta programme.

11 October 2022

By Helen de Witt

As if No Misfortune Had Occurred in the Night (2022)
London Film Festival

Despite being dormant during the pandemic, cinema has now risen from its hibernation, or at least its time on the living room sofa. And cinema has changed. It always has and always will change. Transformation is part of the core of its being. We continue to see new cinemas emerging from countries with no cinematic tradition, and new waves from those that do. 

This gives great hope for the medium and the meanings it can create for us, especially in an increasingly troubled world. Cinema, through the way it transforms itself, can speak of regret and renewal. It can meditate on old states of affairs and anticipate new ones. It’s through cinema as a witness that we can come to understand the significance of the world around us and everything it contains. Through new visions and new versions, we learn to challenge received ideas and repudiate redundant political dogmas. 

Unsurprisingly, given our dangerous times, what we might call the cinema of conflict features significantly in the Experimenta selection at the BFI London Film Festival this year. Many of these films question names and stories we might normally take for granted. Through them we see and hear others differently, mediated through the imagination of artists and filmmakers. Perhaps, one of the most haunting is Larissa Sansour and Soren Lind’s As if No Misfortune Had Occurred in the Night, an Arabic language opera screening as part of the Some Say the Devil Is Dead shorts programme. Beauty and sadness combine in a mournful meditation on inherited trauma that began in the violence of the First World War and has affected Palestinian reality and the whole region since. In the same shorts programme, A Sod State by Eoghan Ryan dissects the Northern Ireland Troubles through a political theatre of archival absurdities. It’s narrated by a sinister animated pig, which pours scorn on religious and political authority figures. 

45th Parallel (2022)

Lawrence Abu Hamdan exposes the division of a line drawn on a map in 45th Parallel, also part of the Some Say the Devil Is Dead programme. Hernández vs Mesa was a judicial case covering the fatal shooting of an unarmed 15-year-old Mexican national by a US Border Patrol agent. Mesa’s bullet, which crossed the US/Mexico border, began to implicate missiles fired in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Somalia and Libya. If this murder could be tried in a US court, so could over 90,000 drone strikes. 

Another world-changing historical moment is the focus of Aziz Hazara’s Takbir. Filmed on the night of the Taliban’s victory in Kabul, the imagery stirs up memories of the array of foreign occupiers of Afghanistan, and the many invasions we have witnessed via the moving image in the past and, tragically, continuing in the present. 

Chants from a Holy Book (2022)

A deeply seductive film that takes on complex histories is Cesar Gananian and Cassiana Der Horoutiounian’s Chants from a Holy Book. It reconstructs in five parts the powers that come together to create revolutions, specifically how protests toppled the political oligarchy in Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution. Here, each segment represents one element that precipitated that social change and suggests connections between them. 

Adonia Bouchehri’s richly surreal Blind Yellow Sunshine (screening alongside the feature The Blue Rose of Forgetfulness) takes on Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. An all-pervasive yellow demarcates a space of overbearing heat and loss of control where people struggle to relate to their environment. The symbolism exposes how our subconscious anxieties can reappear as destructive forces. 

I’ll Be Back (2022)

I’ll Be Back! by Hope Stickland, a short film screening in the programme Thinking Around and Outside, explores the metamorphosis of Haitian revolutionary François Mackandal, alongside an exposé of western institutional collecting practices derived from the era of colonial pillage. The film shifts formats as it goes back in time, unsettling the perceived categories of myth, fabulation and history written by the victor.

The films in Experimenta are not elite or niche. Nor do they support only radical and marginal positions, as sometimes artists’ films are characterised. Instead, they are vital for everyone seeking rich cinematic experiences that speak to the contemporary world as a witness, an interlocutor. Films with different voices can help our understanding of the complexities of big histories and small stories, and often overturn them. They can shake up our imagination, delve into our consciousness. They can move us inside ourselves.

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