Experimental films to see at London Film Festival

Spite Your Face

Spite Your Face / YouTube

We look at some of the more out-of-the-way offerings at this year's BFI London Film Festival

The London Film Festival runs from Wed 4–Sun 15 October, and among the highlights are some sure-fire crowd-pleasers. One film which has to be destined for wider release is Battle of the Sexes, from Little Miss Sunshine's Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, which features Emma Stone and Steve Carell as warring tennis stars Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. If adrenaline-fuelled terrorist-nobbling is your thing, there's 6 Days from Kiwi director Toa Fraser, a dramatisation of the 1980 Iranian embassy siege, with Mark Strong as a police negotiator, Jamie Bell as an SAS team leader and Abbie Cornish bringing the pluck as the BBC's on-the-spot Kate Adie. Other attractions include a full restoration of Terry Gilliam's gloriously insane solo directorial debut Jabberwocky, with Michael Palin slogging through gallons of mud, blood and medieval awfulness; Sally Potter's terse and witty bitch-fest The Party, in which Kristin Scott Thomas hosts a get-together that's somewhere between Bunuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage; and another restored classic, Powell & Pressburger's enchanting and bittersweet ode to British-American relations, A Matter of Life and Death.

But what about the more left-field stuff? The festival's Experimenta strand brings together films which change the way we look at movies, and these are what film festivals are really about: the stuff you'd never see anywhere else.

At least one of these films has become startlingly timely. Kevin Jerome Everson's Tonsler Park is a documentary filmed at polling stations on the day of the 2016 US general election, following the work of the largely African-American staff as they set up the stations and the voters come by to cast their ballots. What makes it timely is that the stations are all in Charlottesville, Virginia, the staunchly liberal university town where, in Aug 2017, a demonstration by white supremacists erupted into violence which climaxed with a vehicular assault that killed one counter-protestor and injured 19 more.

Other films are less directly relevant, but no less suggestive. Emily Wardill's No Trace of Accelerator is inspired by a series of mysterious fires which broke out in the French town of Moirans-en-Montagne in the 1990s, provoking an outbreak of collective fear when townsfolk came to blame the fires on new power lines. Hemlock Forest by Moyra Davey is a personal essay film, in which the filmmaker herself considers her own work along with that of Norwegian autobiographical novelist Karl Ove Knausgård and the Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. While Davey was making the film, Akerman took her own life, which provoked Davey to enlarge the scope of the film to more general reflections on life, mortality and Akerman herself.

Kamal Swaroop's 1988 Om Bar-B-Dar, the tale of a small boy in an Indian town and his eccentric family, was never officially released in its native India back in the day. Multiple screenings in international film festivals cemented its reputation as a surreal cult masterpiece, and only in 2014 was it finally released in Indian cinemas. Isaac Julien's 1996 Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Masks has been given a full digital remaster, giving viewers a welcome look at Julien's unorthodox exploration of the work of the great Algerian theorist of colonialism (played by Colin Salmon, who went on to Bond movies and US TV before recently appearing as a fictional version of himself in Aziz Ansari's Master of None).

The Experimenta special presentation is another creative portrait of a culture hero. Shirin Neshat's Looking for Oum Kulthum is about the legendary Egyptian singer, songwriter and actress (1898–1976), an icon of 20th century Arabic culture; one commentator said 'Imagine a singer with the virtuosity of Joan Sutherland or Ella Fitzgerald, the public persona of Eleanor Roosevelt and the audience of Elvis and you have Oum Kulthum.' Neshat's film imagines an exiled Iranian woman director trying to make a biopic of Kulthum, and revisiting her own attitude towards the star in the process.

Equally adventurous is The Pure Necessity, an inspired reworking of Wolfgang Reitherman's 1967 Disney favourite The Jungle Book. Belgian artist David Claerbout and his team removed the human characters and the anthropomorphism, letting Baloo, Kaa, Colonel Hathi & co be themselves without all the Mowgli-related nonsense.

Finally, and circling back to the question of relevance, Scottish artist Rachel Maclean's Spite Your Face is on show. This lush, acerbic fairy tale was commissioned for and first shown at the Venice Biennale, and fittingly enough in these times where truth seems to be at a low value, it tells the story of Pinocchio, the wooden boy with honesty issues.

For more from the Experimenta strand, the BFI London Film Festival website has the full programme.

The BFI London Film Festival

Annual London film festival showing movies from across the world.