The 58th London Film Festival brought us a plethora of début gems and world premières, exploring the ebbs and flows of life. Here we take a look at some of the lesser-known highlights, and the fresh perspectives that they offer.
Night Bus (dir. Simon Baker, 2014)
While the luminous London conduit that carries both the title and plot in this charming, micro-budget British production may appear to be the star of the show, it is not. Night Bus is instead something of a variation on a bildungsroman - since the continually flabbergasted bus driver (Wayne Goddard) is our only mainstay - whose attraction lies in the organic interactions between the bric-à-brac of passengers, and their largely-improvised dialogue.
Dominic Bartells' cinematography, admittedly, draws the eye to the lemon yellow of the double-decker's familiar seats and lends a strange poignancy to the warning signs that proclaim: "Mind your head." But Night Bus is no holy motor, nor a heavenly vessel. What Londoner Simon Baker has achieved on his directorial debut is a neo-realist, not-quite Chekhovian drama that acts as a sort of light-hearted social commentary on contemporary London, and the melting-pot microcosms that chunter through its tarmac veins.
Over the course of a rain-swept Friday night on this N39's journey to Leytonstone, we encounter audacious fare-dodgers, hyper-competitive city-workers, neurotic spouses, panic-stricken tourists, and plenty of inebriated revellers. Their tales are revealed in a pleasingly-pinballing portmanteau, but as in real life, these narratives inevitably collide: lung-busting arguments break out, the seeds of romance are sewn, and depravity reserved only for late-night public transport ensues. Different languages and accents crescendo to a dizzying cacophony, and all the while, the bus driver maintains a deadpan despair evocative of another, well-known, sinking ship.
The problem is that these characters are no more than sketches, albeit it surprisingly rich ones. As Clive James' original jazz score creeps to the metropolis' nocturnal rhythms, we are only afforded ephemeral snapshots of their lives, which means our emotional engagement has a glass ceiling. Night Bus does, however, encourage a healthy perspective on the context of stranger's behaviour, and the fact that the self-funded feature was filmed over a single week makes it a considerable, auspicious achievement.
Décor (dir. Ahmad Abdalla, 2014)
In some ways, the role of science fiction is to explore and entertain alternate realities. It allows us to consider the implications of a different world, and thereby our own. The same could be said of 35-year-old Egyptian director Ahmad Abdalla's dreamlike and diaphanous Décor, which certainly does not fall within the received realms of that genre, but remains a thought-provoking meditation on female agency, desire, and the fallibility of memory.
Décor is an unsettling psychological drama about the strong-minded Maha (Horeya Farghaly), a talented film set designer who is working on a commercial B-movie in Cairo with her affable husband Sherif (Khaled Abol Naga). The production is a tough slog - with Maha only sleeping a few hours a day - especially as the director, usually working for the festival circuits, aims to broaden his appeal. Maha is forced to compromise on her high standards, and the ensuing stress leads her to imagine herself living in the movie's lead role, a humble housewife to the portly Mostafa (Maged El Kedwany). Or so it first appears.
Are these fatigue-induced hallucinations, a longer-term loosened-grip on reality, or perhaps an immersion into the cineaste Maha's ceaselessly playing classics? The gradual, lingering pace of Décor gives enough time to both parallel lives as to suggest that one is not more real than the other. But Abdalla's refusal to elucidate a solution is both a source of virtue and at times a somewhat testing use of poetic license, while the shifts between the real and imagined are disorientating and relentless.
There is a delicate layering to the film written by Cairo 6, 7, 8's (2010) Sherin and Mohamed Diab, while the soft, bleached monochrome not only pays homage to the 1940s Egyptian films of Faten Hamama and Omar Sharif, but suggests a spectrum approach instead of dichotomous thinking. Working for the first time with a budget over a million dollars, Abdalla's 119-minute feature is original, inventive, and draws a performance from Farghaly befitting of the screen heroines before her.
The Immortalists (dir. David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg, 2014)
Fountains of youth and holy grails aside, life everlasting is not a topic that we often seriously consider. Yet, David Alvarado and Jason Sussberg's co-directed debut The Immortalists is a brilliantly bizarre, endearingly quaint, and fascinating documentary about the eccentric scientific community trying to make life eternal. It throws into doubt the dictum that death and taxes are life's only certainties.
The film follows Bill Andrews, an ageing American molecular scientist and ultramarathon runner, whose methods vastly differ from his Cambridge counterpart Aubrey de Grey, a defiantly bearded, beer-swilling biogerontologist. Both of these exceptional scientists propose sophisticated theories about extending human life - which the documentary explains in eminently lucid layman's terms, with the help of excellent infographics - but there is one rather large obstacle: Andrews' and de Grey's theories are in direct conflict over the role a teasing enzyme called Telomerase.
As one might imagine, the moral and social implications of this complex science are compelling, however, it is the idiosyncratic personalities of - and competition between - these remarkable scientists that takes precedence. If Andrews' story offers pathos through his father's increasing Alzheimer's, cancer-suffering colleague and waning personal health, de Grey's brings the peculiar: a self-described "poster boy" of the scene, the polyamorous, al-fresco lovemaker eventually retreats to live in a Californian forest.
The Immortalists is a fertile, enlightening film that doesn't forget to entertain, but its brevity - at only 78 minutes running time - means the wider implications of this controversial fringe of scientific research are somewhat glazed over. As the movie points out, successful experiments on mice have reversed ageing, but while science is progressing at an exponential rate, the question becomes not can, but should we? Alvarado and Sussberg avoid taking a distinct position, and the documentary is all the richer for it.