In 2002, which now feels like a lifetime ago, I was given the opportunity by Walter Donohue at publisher Faber and Faber to write a book examining an exciting new wave in Mexican cinema1. The wave was spearheaded by Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón, Alejandro González Iñarritu, and Carlos Reygadas, who were making either their first or second features. It became clear in the process of writing the book and interviewing key personnel that underpinning a bold and confident form of filmmaking that spoke directly to Mexicans seeking to see their lives and experiences authentically represented on screen were a number of other intrinsic factors. The producer, Rosa Bosch, whose credits include The Devil’s Backbone, described this aspect as alchemy, with “pieces falling together at the same time. How can you effectively explain other essential moments in film history? Sometimes these things are just moments in time, linked to specific political, social, or cultural situations. It’s not only that there were filmmakers. There were also actors, cinematographers, production designers and producers.”2
Claude Chabrol was dismissive of the notion of waves or movements in cinema, proclaiming in response to questions relating to his association with the French New Wave that “There are no waves, only the ocean.” In fact, when I interviewed Cuarón, who has just triumphantly returned to working in his homeland with Roma after a successful Hollywood sojourn, he was of a similar mind, even going so far as to repeat verbatim Chabrol’s quote. And yet there was at least an acknowledgment of the alchemy Bosh referred to. What stands out for me now in hindsight in regard to the favorable coagulation of factors is her reference to “political, social, or cultural situations” and it is this I have been thinking a lot about in considering the recent critical and commercial success of a number of breakout films to have emerged from the independent British and Irish landscape.
As a cinema exhibitor and curator in the United Kingdom I have witnessed first-hand in the last 18 months a number of films by first or relatively newly emerging filmmakers that have been incredibly impactful in terms of the connections that they have made. What unifies them is not only their ambition but also the sheer diversity of their makers and of the audiences with which they have connected. In October 2017 Ben Roberts, the director of the British Film Institute Film Fund, outlined important new guidelines that fed directly into BFI 2022, the organisation’s five year strategic plan to shape the next chapter for UK film, television, and the moving image. Citing the influence and impression of Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Julia Ducorneau’s Raw, Roberts spoke of the need to “Recognise that the best creative voices don’t come from the same place” and of the need to use Lottery funding to “Support a broader range of work and voices.”3 This acknowledgment has been similarly embraced by other funding agencies, including Creative England (who lead on the exceptional IFeatures scheme) and the BBC and Channel4, both of whom are major investors in British and Irish filmmaking.
The BFI also identified five key cultural objectives for any project that they would consider eligible for Film Fund monies. These were: the support of early careers of ambitious filmmakers; the support of work with cultural relevance or progressive ideas; filmmaking that takes risks on talent, form, and content; work that recognizes the quality of difference—in perspective, in talent, in recruitment; and an increase in the number of active projects originated by filmmakers outside London and the south-east. Arguably, the most striking films to have recently emerged from the independent sector all satisfy the aforementioned objectives and as a result we find ourselves in a genuinely exciting moment for cinema in which we have a plethora of voices and perspectives.
Gender disparity is very much at the forefront of these conversations relating to culture and society. This article emerges in the midst of festival season, with Venice and Toronto fresh in the memory. To return again briefly to Mexico, many were struck by the comments of 75th Venice jury president Guillermo Del Toro, who tackled head-on the subject of the role of film festival directors to do more in terms of gender parity and diversity in general in light of criticisms of Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera for the dearth of female directors in official competition (there was just one, Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale). “I think the goal has to be clear and has to remain 50:50 by 2020,” commented the director, referring to an equality charter launched at Cannes this year by Thierry Frémaux, Directors’ Fortnight artistic director Édouard Waintrop and Critics’ Week artistic director Charles Tesson, and subsequently signed by other high profile festivals including Locarno and London, with London recently announcing a 50:50 balance in their competition titles. “Many of the voices that should be heard, need to be heard. It’s extremely important to call it out and to question it, and to name it and to make it known. For many decades, if not centuries, gender disparity has not been called out. It’s not a controversy – it’s a real problem. It needs to be solved with strength and resolve.”4
A stunning debut by Hope Dickson Leach, The Levelling (2016),is representative of an increased number of striking independent films from these shores to have been directed by a woman. It is also a regional work set in a rural community and less concerned with urban, metropolitan London life. The film’s protagonist is a young trainee veterinarian who returns to her family farm after the mysterious suicide of her brother. Against the backdrop of the floods that devastated her home, the woman, brilliantly played by Ellie Kendrick, confronts her estranged father in an attempt to uncover the truth. Shadowed by ill-remembered conflicts and unspoken regrets, the pair set out to heal their fractious yet still loving relationship. A film with an incredible sense of character and place, it’s also a work in which the director allows silence to hang heavy in the air to convey stilted communication and fractured family ties. Clio Barnard achieved something similar with her atmospheric and quietly compelling and multi-layered drama Dark River (2017), another tale of skeletons in the family closet partly inspired by Rose Tremain’s novel, Tresspass. With only her third feature, Barnard, whose work takes in docudrama (The Arbor a look at the work of working class Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar) and social realism (The Selfish Giant) has established herself as one of the most urgent voices in the contemporary British firmament.
Offering a feminist slant on the horror genre, Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016) follows Ruth, a pregnant woman whose misanthropic unborn baby starts communicating with her from the womb. Holding society responsible for the absence of a father, the baby coaches Ruth into brutally murdering a number of unsuspecting but often deserving male victims. Struggling with her conscience, loneliness, and a strange strain of prepartum madness, Ruth must ultimately choose between redemption and destruction at the moment of motherhood. Written, directed by, and starring Lowe, who completed the film during her own real-life pregnancy, Prevenge offers a nightmarish but also very funny twist on post- and antenatal stress and depression. The film’s expression of a very genuine fear of motherhood was to be echoed in other more recent horror films including this year’s A Quiet Place and Hereditary. There are also traces of it in The Escape (2017), especially in the brilliantly shocking sequence in which an increasingly suffocating Gemma Arterton screams at her young children, “Why don’t you ever listen you fucking idiots?
Perhaps one of the most truly singular works in this recent renaissance comes courtesy of Zambian-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni and her ground-breaking first feature, I Am Not a Witch. Sharply satirical and boldly provocative, the film garnered incredible praise and attention when it was launched in 2017 at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. When eight-year-old Shula turns up alone and unannounced in a rural Zambian village, the locals are suspicious. A minor incident escalates to a full-blown witch trial, where she is found guilty and sentenced to life on a state-run witch camp. There, she is tethered to a long white ribbon and told that if she ever tries to run away, she will be transformed into a goat. As the days pass, Shula begins to settle into her new community, but a threat looms on the horizon. Soon she is forced to make a difficult decision—whether to resign herself to life on the camp, or take a risk for freedom. Moving and occasionally surreal, I Am Not a Witch meshes spellbinding storytelling and a hugely distinctive visual aesthetic with flashes of anarchic humour. Nyoni is most certainly a bracing and fearless new voice.
Released relatively recently, and another debut feature, Deborah Haywood’s Pin Cushion (2017) draws on personal experience in a heartrending tale about strength, resilience and vulnerability. Single mother Lyn causes her teenage daughter Iona endless embarrassment. Iona tries to make friends with the popular girls in her class, but peer pressure and naivety mean her desire for acceptance has terrible consequences. Now that Lyn can no longer be best friends with her adolescent daughter, she too looks for new social contacts, only to encounter the same problems, which leads to her seeking solace in a colourful and chintz infused fantasy world. Think Yorgos Lanthimos meets Michael Haneke with added knitting, Pin Cushion proved a little too challenging for some tastes. A work that is unsparing in its desire to observe the flaws of its characters and to offer an unforgiving portrait of the more vindictive side of human nature, it has at its core a heart stopping central performance from British character actor Joanna Scanlan. Newcomer Lily Newmark, portraying a teenager with a deformed spine and learning disabilities matches Scanlan and radiates a marvellous, child-like optimism that tempers the film’s more abrasive edges.
Scottish filmmaker Peter Mackie Burns marked his transition from shorter projects to features with Daphne (2017), a tightly focused, remarkably authentic character study of the eponymous, brittle 31-year-old Londoner. Daphne has sort of given up on people as she goes through the motions of her busy life, working as a cook in a fashionable London restaurant and enduring a series of drug and alcohol-fuelled romantic hook-ups. She resists genuine intimacy in her few friendships and rejects her mother as she attempts to engage. When Daphne, who those resistant to the film criticized for having a gilded existence, witnesses a violent robbery, she’s thrown into chaos and finally begins to confront the person she’s become. Cut from the same explicit, ironic, confessional cloth as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s BBC TV series Fleabag and featuring a warts-and-all female character developed by leading actor Emily Beecham in conjunction with writer Nico Mensinga, Daphne offers us a female protagonist who can be as fiercely unlikeable as she is compelling to watch. Concluding with a single-take shot that tentatively suggests a way in which the central character may move forward, Burns’s setting of the film’s denouement to the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason” is bittersweet indeed.
The female gaze is similarly central in acclaimed theatre director William Oldroyd’s Alice Birch scripted Lady Macbeth (2016), a relocation of Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to 19th-century North Eastern England. A Gothic tale about a young woman (Florence Pugh) trapped in a marriage of convenience whose passionate affair unleashes a maelstrom of murder and mayhem on a country estate, the film stands as one of the most commercially successful products of the micro-budget IFeatures scheme and is a work of remarkable resourcefulness and invention. With formal overtones of Dreyer’s Ordet, this incredibly primal work plays out like an early century film noir with increased racial and class overtones. Pugh is fantastic in the central role, a little ball of evil bending the universe and its subjects to her own decree. Oldroyd beautifully balances the dichotomy between the wilds of nature and the chilly symbolism of the patriarchal manor, conjuring a gothic tale of repeated betrayal that is as enthralling as it is disturbing.
Francis Lee’s God’s Own Country (2017) is perhaps the signature title in terms of its progressive and open response to class, race and gender and in terms of the extent to which it permeated both public and critical consciousness. Trailing a blaze at international film festivals, the film went on to gross almost £1million at the UK box office. Set in the remote farming country of North Yorkshire, where former actor Lee was born and still lives, God’s Own Country focuses on Johnny (fast rising newcomer Josh O'Connor), who numbs the frustration of his lonely existence on his family's failing farm with nightly binge-drinking at the local pub and casual gay sex. When a handsome Romanian migrant worker (Alec Secareanu) arrives to take up temporary work on the farm, Johnny suddenly finds himself having to deal with emotions he has never felt before. As the two begin working closely together during lambing season, an intense relationship starts to form that leads to a newfound maturity and sense of purpose.
Rather erroneously compared to Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, this feels like the most modern of British love stories and also offers a riposte to the notion that the British countryside is a bucolic haven of calm and serenity. It’s a portrait of the grit and squalor of rural life that owes a little to Andrew Kötting’s This Filthy Earth and to Paul Wright’s archive compendium, Arcadia. Francis Lee’s film has its own archive moment: Super 8mm footage of bygone summer harvests. A film that is rooted in realism, it is nonetheless a work permeated by hope and the notion that love and a sense of future need not be doomed, but rather can flourish when hearts and minds are mobilised and unified in acceptance and openness.
It is of course impossible to mention each and every recent British and Irish independent film of significance and so titles such as Sanctuary (2016) by Len Collins; Gareth Tunley’s The Ghoul (2016); Notes on Blindness (2016) by Peter Middleton and James Spinney; and Possum (2018) by Matthew Holness are mentioned here in passing only. As is NFTS graduate Michael Pearce’s Beast (2017), a film that explores the theme of the darkness that lives within us all against the somewhat incongruous background of Jersey, a tranquil, conservative island with its own sinister secrets. Influenced by European crime thrillers, and specifically the work of, yes, Chabrol, the film is told explicitly from the perspective of its female protagonist, vividly brought life by Jessie Buckley.
The final word then goes to Daniel Kokotajlo’s Apostasy (2017). This fresh and unadorned first feature carries an unmistakable note of authenticity from its very first scenes. Set in a Jehovah’s Witness community in Oldham, the film’s strength and power lies in its directness and remarkable sense of balance and objectivity and in the incredible performances of newcomers Molly Wright and Sacha Parkinson as two daughters raised in The Truth. Shooting in Greater Manchester, Kokotajlo, a former Witness, guides us through the emotional depths of a family whose hearts are fractured by colliding beliefs and offers not only a remarkable and nuanced depiction of a community rarely depicted on screen, but also of a hierarchical organization whose foundations have their roots in patriarchy.
There is a sense that all of the aforementioned titles, and a fair few I have neglected to mention, have set something of a template in terms of the aims, objectives and ambition of contemporary UK independent cinema. Soon-to-emerge films such as Sink by Mark Gillis, William McGregor’s Gwen and photographer Richard Billingham’s Ray & Liz certainly seem to affirm that wave or ocean, there is most assuredly alchemy at play.