As we continue to doggy-paddle our way towards spring and (we hope) better times ahead, thanks are due to all those beavering away to bring us high-quality home entertainment. The latest Filmwire includes some great Midlands festivals, a choice batch of new streaming titles and a chat with Kit de Waal and Dean O’Loughlin about their new, defiantly Brummie venture.
FILM OF THE MONTH
In an online world where companies like Netflix categorise films as ‘content’ to satisfy the almighty algorithm, the carefully curated catalogue of MUBI has been a breath of fresh air during the pandemic. The past few months has seen MUBI double down on offering up fresh, powerful and often pleasingly eccentric works of cinematic art, and this March the superb new documentary from Oscar nominated director Gianfranco Rosi is added to their roster. Filmed across the Middle East over a three year period, including Syria, Lebanon and Kurdistan, Notturno offers quiet snapshots of people trying to live their lives with the fog of war hanging over them. No voiceover, no formal interviews, no narrative. Most importantly, it never feels like Rosi is exploiting tragedy for artistic gain. Notturno is a melancholy reminder of the personal stories behind the broad strokes headlines, offering striking images and lived experience akin to photojournalism, but filmed with a painter’s eye.
Available from 5 March on MUBI
Former bank robber Nico Walker’s debut novel Cherry was a recent word-of-mouth hit, so it was inevitable that Hollywood would come a-calling eventually – although less inevitably, in the form of Marvel super-directors Joe and Anthony Russo. Casting babyface Tom Holland as a drug addicted soldier-turned-criminal with PTSD is…well, a choice, but perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the fact that a book rife with toxic masculinity has been adapted by two female screenwriters, Jessica Goldberg and Angela Russo-Otstot.
Available from 12 March on Apple TV+
With Nomadland, director Chloé Zhao blends fiction and reality to tell a very timely story – that of an entire American generation, largely in their 60s and 70s, whose lives were thrown into turmoil by the 2008 financial crash, leaving them to roam the country in camper vans. The always formidable Frances McDormand stars, although much of the rest of the cast are non-professionals taken from the nomadic world Zhao’s film examines, giving a quiet authenticity to a film that takes the temperature of our times without ever jumping on a soapbox.
UK release date 19 March
A Glitch In The Matrix
Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 delved into a myriad of conspiracies surrounding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – but Ascher dons an even bigger tin foil hat for his latest, which examines the ‘theory’ that our entire existence is a computer simulation. Tongue isn’t as firmly lodged in cheek as you might imagine, A Glitch In The Matrix taking the idea largely at face value as it deals with wild pronouncements about simulated reality from the likes of Philip K. Dick and Elon Musk, as well as the real life case of a killer using the ‘Matrix Defence’ whilst on trial for the murder of his parents. Screening now on BFI Player, Curzon Home Cinema, iTunes, Sky Store and more
The United States vs Billie Holiday
Lee Daniels makes a belated return to awards season with a new biopic of Billie Holiday, although it’s star Andra Day who’s getting the Oscar buzz for her exceptional turn as the outspoken jazz singer, whose uncompromising protest song Strange Fruit riled up the US authorities. The success of the film lies in how Daniels and Day ensure that Holiday isn’t deified, but instead depicted as a flawed woman whose stellar career deserves to be remembered not only for the music, but also for being a key part of the American civil rights movement.
Available from 26 Feb on Sky Cinema
Don’t expect subtle satire from this devilishly enjoyable Netherlands horror. The points made here are as blunt as the violence in Ivo van Aart’s film, as we witness Katja Herber’s columnist finally snap after a torrent of online abuse that causes her to visit bloody retribution on her online critics. But sometimes a sledgehammer approach can be horribly satisfying, and so it proves here, bolstered by a vein of deliciously dark comedy. It certainly won’t be the last (or best) word on how social media has decimated human interaction, but it’ll do very nicely for now.
Available from 12 March on iTunes, Sky Store and more
Lee Isaac Chung mines his own childhood for this exceptionally well received family drama that depicts everyday life for a Korean American family in 80s small town Arkansas. A sun-dappled tale that never shouts when it can whisper, Minari is a beguiling experience that offers another deceptively subtle turn from Steven Yeun, following his excellent work in Lee Chang-dong’s Burning. Some will find it’s all just a bit too loose and meandering, but this is filmmaking with soul, and suggests even greater things to come for Chung.
UK release date 19 March
ONE-OFFS & SPECIAL EVENTS
Queer Is In The Heart
SHOUT Festival will be delving into the history of disco for this online event on 20 February as part of LGBTQ+ History Month, which includes a screening of Josh Leach’s brand new animated music video for a song taken from Midlands singer Tom Aspaul’s recent album Black Country Disco. Hosting duties will be performed by Coventry drag queen Ibi Profane.
Colour Box Online: With A Little Help From Our Friends
Another delightful collection of short films for all the family, which have been cherry picked from across the globe by Flatpack’s Colour Box team. Hosted by Sarah Hamilton-Baker, this time round the theme is friendship – but get in quick, because they’re only available until this Sunday.
Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme 2021
In normal times, the likes of Derby QUAD and the Leicester Phoenix would be playing host to the annual Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme – but these aren’t normal times, so this year’s selection will be available online free of charge, running from 19 February to 10 March. Films on offer include Labyrinth Of Cinema, the final film from the late director Nobuhiko Obayashi, and the wildly entertaining supernatural treat Not Quite Dead Yet.
Slapstick Film Festival 2021
Watching classic silent comedy online seems almost like a perversion, but Bristol’s long running Slapstick Festival has had to adapt to the pandemic just like everybody else. Running from 1 to 7 March, events include comics Stewart Lee and Matt Lucas talking about some of their favourite silent comedians, a celebration of the work of female stars Josephine Baker and Clara Bow and a rare screening of the 1923 Douglas MacLean film Bell Boy 13, restored from the only remaining 16mm copy.
Conceptual artist Stine Marie Jacobsen offers up some extracts from her new film Body Weather on 10 March, a work commissioned by Loughborough University to examine the perceptual experience of risk, drawing on a number of workshops she organised with neuroscientist Aleks Berditchevskaia. Jacobsen and Berditchevskaia themselves will be on hand to introduce each excerpt.https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/body-weather-premiere-discussion-tickets-140072459497?aff=ebdssbonlinesearch
The Art of Oppression
New Art Exchange in Nottingham host an online YouTube screening on 11 March, premiering a new documentary entitled The Art Of Oppression which follows three artists who explore belonging, loss and identity trauma. Director Patricia Francis and the artists featured will also be talking about the film afterwards.
Borderlines Film Festival 2021
Borderlines Film Festival returns with a virtual line-up from 26 March until 11 April. The selection wasn’t confirmed at the time of press, but if previous years are anything to go by, expect a deluge of previews alongside a smattering of classics.
Women’s Adventure Film Tour
Mark International Women’s Day on 8 March with this line-up of adventure films featuring thrill seeking women paragliding, mountain biking, mountaineering and plenty more. Ticket holders also get a 90 day free trial for the ADVENTURE+ streaming service, featuring a whole lot more death-defying activity.
Black Country Touring: Let’s Talk Film
Running sporadically until the end of March, this collection of online screenings and live discussions touch on all parts of the Midlands, including input from the organisers of the Birmingham Indian Film Festival, a chat with Sandwell filmmaker Billy Dosanjh and a look at women in film with insight from Kelly Jeffs, head of the Wolverhampton Light House.
Launched last year during the first COVID-19 lockdown, Portopia Productions is the brainchild of author Kit de Waal and her brother Dean O’Loughlin, who appeared in series two of Big Brother. Based in Birmingham, the company’s remit is to counteract the glut of London-centric productions by developing and filming stories that derive from the Midlands. We talked to Kit and Dean about their hopes for Portopia, as well as how their own upbringing in Birmingham has moulded their writing.
So what were the seeds for the launch of Portopia?
Dean: We just found more and more that the ideas we were putting forward weren’t getting traction with broadcasters. And I think our ideas weren’t getting through because we champion the working classes, and our take on race can also be a stumbling block for them. Me and Kit are both half Irish and half Caribbean, and broadcasters need easy boxes to put things into. Is this a white show, or a black show? Is this Top Boy, or is this Doctor Foster? Whereas we tell white stories, black stories, Chinese stories, Asian stories, and that all comes from living in Birmingham, which I think is actually one of the very few cities that is genuinely multi-cultural, as in properly integrated and successfully so. So after four years of not getting anywhere, we thought that having our own production company would be a conduit straight to broadcasters.
Kit: We actively want to be outside London, to pull away from the London centric nature of a lot of film and TV in the UK. You find that companies in London think there are certain places which are ‘okay’, like Manchester or Newcastle, or the nice spa towns like Bath and Harrogate. Birmingham – the whole Midlands, in fact – isn’t one of them. But we’re determined to change that. I did a BBC2 show with Mary Beard recently, and I was saying to her that the only time you hear the Brummie accent on telly is when a character is thick or uncultured. Which is, of course, utter bollocks.
When you’re pitching ideas and stories, do you find that the word ‘regional’ is a dirty word?
Kit: Definitely. To lots of people, ‘regional’ is making a ten minute documentary about canal barges in Kidderminster. It just means, ‘Let’s throw them a crumb, we’ll make the serious stuff elsewhere’. It’s down to people like us to change that, to demonstrate the breadth of talent and experience there is in Birmingham and beyond.
Dean: The other thing you find when you’re pitching drama is that these companies just won’t accept a corporate, high flying series set in Birmingham. It could be about bin men, maybe. Me and Kit are both very partisan about this kind of thing – but four years of going to London for meetings is enough to make anybody partisan!
You recently worked together on scripts for the Sky/HBO series The Third Day. How was that experience?
Dean: [Series co-creator] Dennis Kelly worked in such a different way to us for The Third Day. If we’re Kraftwerk, he’s Miles Davis. A great quote from him was when we first started working together, I asked him what happens in episode six, and he said, ‘Your guess is as good as mine’. It’s a very fluid, flexible, jazzy approach that he has to writing. Him and [co-creator] Felix Barrett gave us a real freedom.
Kit: We’re nobodies compared to where Dennis and Felix are. The respect and inclusivity they showed us was just amazing. We could have said anything in those meetings, and it was taken seriously. That’s a real tribute to people working at the top of their game who have given a chance to two complete unknowns.
You say you’re both ‘nobodies’, which is exactly the kind of self-deprecating thing somebody from Birmingham would say. Do you think that’s often why Birmingham doesn’t get the credit or respect it deserves, because of its residents’ deadpan humour?
Kit: Absolutely. I remember going to Manchester before the pandemic, and there’s a sign that says something like – ‘On the sixth day God created Manchester’. That’s how people in Manchester think of themselves. And Liverpool too. And they’re both great cities. But you would never say that in Birmingham.
Dean: That sign would last five minutes in Birmingham. It would be fucking scrap metal down Taroni’s.
Kit: And yet, it’s such a great city to come from. There’s no humour like the Brummie humour. If you ever think of getting above yourself, spend a couple of weeks here, and you’ll soon find out who you really are.
Kit, your novel My Name Is Leon is currently being adapted by Shola Amoo for the BBC. Will you have any input into that?
Kit: When you sign an option, you sign your story away. It’s gone, which isn’t easy. You know that when you hand it over, it will be a very different beast. It would take twenty hours of TV to show the entirety of the book. I’ll end up seeing it when everybody else does, I won’t get a pre-screener from the producers or anything. They don’t really care what you think, they bought it. But we’re adapting a couple of books too, so we understand that process.
How do you think your own upbringing in Birmingham has influenced your writing?
Dean: We were raised in a terrace in Moseley and it was a really cold house. Our dad would have a paraffin heater in the room with the TV in, so if you wanted to be in the warm room, you had to sit and watch the films he was watching. Without talking. So there’s us at nine or ten years old watching complicated films like The Maltese Falcon or The Conversation in complete silence, under threat of being cast out into the cold kitchen. It was a very brutal kind of film school, but it made us deconstruct films, because at any moment our dad might ask us what’s happening. Who’s the killer? What just happened? It infused into us the rules of filmmaking, even though I didn’t use those rules until I was in my fifties. Plus our dad only watched good films. He was like an enigmatic Barry Norman mixed with Reg Varney from On The Buses. (pause) And Idi Amin.
For more information about Portopia Productions, head to www.portopiaproductions.com.
SHORT OF THE MONTH
A variation on Short of the Month sees the camera turn its focus onto a series, which started life as a short. Summer Camp Island is the brainchild of animator & illustrator Julia Pott – we’ve been following her career ever since her uni days at the RCA, and unsurprisingly she’s gone on to great things. Although it’s billed as a ‘children’s series’ on BBC iPlayer, don’t let that put you off – there’s much to be enjoyed here whatever your age.
One of the SCI episodes also features in our bimonthly family shorts screening which is currently available until Sunday (21 Feb) night here.