We’re attending the Leeds International Film Festival 2020, which – thanks to the fantastic LIFF online player – promises another year of diverse films and shorts across a variety of genres, mediums, and topics, even as we’re all socially distancing. Here are our week one highlights from reviewer Chris Haigh, focusing on the festival’s main selection of movies.
Sun Children (2020)
A tale of hardship and survival amidst crippling poverty, Sun Children is a well-crafted story about a quarter of petty-criminal adolescents who find rhemselves going undercover in a private school in order to claim the treasure requested by a sinister mob boss.
The latest effort from Iraqi director Majid Majidi, Sun Children might initially seem on paper nothing more than a darker version of The Goonies, but it is in actuality a striking and emotionally resonant piece as we follow a group of children forced too quickly to become adults, and a school principal fighting to keep his school and his mission alive against all odds.
Leading the film is Ali, a miniature gangster himself and desperately alone, seeking a way to provide a home for his mother who is currently encased within a psychiatric ward. The performance here by Roohollah Zamani is nothing short of stunning, as Zamani’s Ali manages to be simultaneously a wide-eyed innocent and a world-weary soul, a capable adult and a lost child in equal measure.
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That’s no criticism of the rest of the cast, as Sun Children has a solid, pleasingly talented collection of actors. The fact that most of the actors here were sourced from the local Tehran region and were non-professionals makes their work even more extraordinarily affecting, but the film squarely belongs to Zamani and his tortured, exhausted protagonist.
Sun Children offers a lot to the patient viewer, one willing to invest their time in this particular tale; one which slants towards tragedy but which highlights the hardships and loss that the life of a child in Tehran can consist of. The film is appropriately dedicated to the 152 million children forced into child labour, and while Sun Children doesn’t provide a lot of easy solutions nor happy endings to the characters’ situations, it provides an outlet for their stories which is high praise in itself.
High Ground (2020)
The beginning of Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s film High Ground opens with the terrifying and grisly massacre of a group of Aboriginal Australians in the years following World War I. Out of this haunting opening sequence, our two leads emerge from the bloodshed: ex-sniper and war survivor Travis, a grizzled, haunted man, and Gutjek, a young boy who was the sole survivor of the massacre, now captured and raised by the very people who slaughtered his people.
Amazingly enough, this character study isn’t the entire plot of the film. It instead jumps forward twelve years, changing and evolving into something resembling a revenge thriller, as an older, adult Gutjek is forced to team up with Travis in order to hunt down his uncle who is rightfully furious after the slaughter of his family.
It’s an intriguing concept for a film, one which explores abuse and revenge and the sins of the past, and is masterfully helmed by Johnson’s direction and by a pair of bravura performances in Simon Baker (The Mentalist) as the glassy-eyed Travis, and Jacob Jr. Nayinggul as Gutjek. Gutjek is a boy torn between two worlds, acting as both Travis’ protege and his family’s advocate and translator all at once, someone whose journey and path lie key to the film’s narrative.
The supporting cast is excellent – Callan Mulvey positively simmers as the sinister Eddy while Caren Pistorius quietly shines as the sympathetic medic Claire – and the direction and cinematography are of a standout quality, showing the glorious wonders of the outback, so much so that it becomes a character in itself, reflecting the film’s twists and turns and growing darkness.
It goes without saying that the respectful inclusion of Aboriginal beliefs and culture, and their consultation throughout the entire filmmaking process helps elevate High Ground into something special, for as much as it shines a light onto the mistreatment, abuse, and murder of indigenous Australians, it too reflects back onto our current worldview, suggesting that such atrocities are not as far in the past as we might believe, and that it remains up to us to help prevent them. In this High Ground is a triumph, and will leave the viewer eager to see what Johnson helms next.
Black Milk (2020)
A contemplative film that explores the ties of sisterhood, family, and belonging, Black Milk follows a pair of estranged sisters – the independent, confident Wessi and the traditional, thoughtful Ossi – who are reunited when Wessi decides to leave her adopted home of Germany and return to her ancestral home in Mongolia, reuniting with her family and finding herself re-learning the traditions that once held great importance.
Well-crafted and visually stunning with its collections of barren, sunlit vistas and ochre-dark night skies, Black Milk‘s strengths ultimately lie in the sisters’ relationship, once strained and now edging, however painfully, towards something akin to reconciliation.
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Director Uisenma Borchu, who also wrote the script, takes on the role of Wessi, a dynamic and engaging heroine who finds herself at odds with her old community and their attitudes towards sex and sexuality. Wessi is unapologetic about her desires and about pursuing who she wants – something brilliantly contrasted with her sister Ossi (a warm and wonderful Gunsmaa Tsogzol) who is pregnant throughout the film.
More complex and emotional than its opening scenes might suggest, Black Milk is an engaging, quiet drama about the ties that bind and how, for better or worse, they can remain into our present relationships. The relationship between Wessi and Ossi remains the emotional core of the film, a pair of sisters once together, then divided, and now drawing close to one another once more; a visual motif of circles driving this home until the film ends with the two sisters, embraced and united, surrounded by a literal circle in the sand, bringing things to a close, right back to where they started in the first place.
Two of Us (2019)
A beautiful story of two souls in love, Two of Us follows lovers Nina and Mado, who have been in a secret relationship for many decades, always managing to find a way to live across the hall from one another but have also never had the nerve to tell their loved ones, namely Mado’s grown-up son and daughter, even as they plan to uproot their lives and move to Rome together. However when a medical tragedy strikes, it’s up to the two lovers to navigate the new boundaries and dynamics of their relationship, all while keeping their relationship hidden from the people around them.
The film is anchored by a pair of delicate performances by Barbara Sukowa and Martine Chevallier as Nina and Mado respectively. Even though it’s Sukowa’s Nina who we spend most time with as she tries to find time with her one true love, Chevallier’s performance as the injured, sometimes silent Mado is arresting and powerful, with an incredible talent of projecting so much feeling into a single expression. The rest of the cast is able support and Feneghetti’s direction runs the gamut from dynamic roving shots through crowded markets to the beautiful stillness of two lovers holding one another in the darkness, intimate and erotic and sweet all at once.
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It’s an unusual, but satisfying film, one which manages to take the central premise of a couple in love and draw out a more complex, thrilling narrative, one that blends genres and makes the love between Mado and Nina thrilling and heartfelt.
It’s a story that is rooted in and born out of its queerness – you could hardly see a heterosexual couple pull off this premise – and it’s uplifting to see the central pair’s love celebrated by the camera and by Feneghetti’s sensitive direction. Much like the golden light that suffuses much of the film, Two of Us is endlessly warm and heartfelt, a testament to the enduring power of love and a refreshing story that’s more than worth the price of admission.
Check back next week for the second part of Chris’ reviews, where he’ll be looking into the other slates at Leeds International Film Festival. Let us know in the comments what you think about the festival’s films, and if there are any others you would recommend!