And the winner is… Aftersun

Charlotte Wells reflects on winning the Sight and Sound Best Films of 2022 poll with her debut feature, and the importance of naivety to her process.

20 December 2022

By Charlotte Wells

Aftersun (2022)
Sight and Sound
Charlotte Wells

Never again will I be as delightfully naive and oblivious to the prospect of critical response as I was when Aftersun premiered at Cannes in May. In the course of the film’s seven-month edit, as we calibrated the layering of narrative elements and the unveiling of character, we often discussed the film’s legibility but never wondered if it would be ‘liked’. Perhaps that was because we never imagined very many people seeing it; or because in my experience of sharing my short films, I’d observed that they engender an intense response in only a small percentage of people. Those people typically had personal experience of the subjects depicted on screen, which gave them the confidence to walk the narrative tightrope of subtlety and lack of conventional exposition that cost me everybody else. Yet those three short films convinced me that connecting meaningfully with a few rather than superficially with many was enough.

Perhaps in Aftersun’s case its popularity has had something to do with the film’s expression of grief, or the messy, inherently impossible-to-grasp subject of mental illness. Perhaps it’s to do with the film’s release not long after the years of COVID isolation; or perhaps it’s the product of long-term collaborations deeply rooted in trust and mutual artistic ambition. Perhaps it was the Macarena! Or maybe it was simply having more time in process and on screen. But this time around the few became the many, and whatever the reasons it has made for a moving, magical, entirely surreal, sometimes overwhelming, everywhere all at once six months.

The film has also coincided with the release of several other personal/autobiographical/auto-fiction/loosely-inspired-by-my-own-life films, made by directors ranging from peers to the more established to the legendary. I have no idea how long these films have been in gestation or whether the self-reflection that the early pandemic forced upon us inspired some of these projects. Could it be coincidence? I don’t favour the term ‘autobiographical’ in regard to my own work, but I do respond to ‘personal filmmaking’, and I think that term could well describe many of my favourite films. I think the focus on these kinds of films right now is not solely a reflection of their abundance, but of the impulse, strengthened by social media, to draw straight lines between artists and their work. This has been the trickiest terrain to navigate in the past six months, because Aftersun is deeply personal and yet all I ever expected to share about it was held within the film itself.

Yet in return for my sharing a personal film, many people have shared their own stories and expressed appreciation for what Aftersun has meant to them. Just as before these continue to be the most rewarding moments in all of this. Topping the Sight and Sound 2022 poll? It’s the sweetest cherry on a very tall cake and, despite my most sincere gratitude, an honour that tomorrow I will endeavour never to think of again. Why? Because to face that blank page in the near future I will need to conjure as much of that naivety as I had before once again.

The 50 best films of 2022

From Iranian runaways to Indian revolutionaries, Tom Cruise’s flyer to Brazilian gasolinheiras – the 50 best films that more than 90 of our critics saw in cinemas, at festivals and online in 2022.

The 50 best films of 2022