By Alex Harper
During her speech at the opening night gala, International Programmer Jessica Kiang may have unsuspectingly set the theme for the 23rd Belfast Film Festival. Discussing the opening film, Andrew Haigh’s domestic fantasy All Of Us Strangers, she noted the powerful symmetry of opening this years gambit with a film led by Irish stars Andrew Scott and Paul Mescal, when Mescal’s Oscar nominated breakthrough Aftersun had in fact closed the festival the year prior. The loop closes over: endings pave the way to new beginnings. And no better way to express that intent by starting with the ethereal and heart-rending All Of Us Strangers; a film where Scott’s lost screenwriter harnesses new conversations with his long dead parents (Claire Foy and Jamie Bell), who appear seemingly alive and well still living in his childhood home, to give him the courage to seek a new relationship with Mescal’s charming loner. Haigh is no stranger to the festival— each film since his sophomore Weekend has featured at the BFF. And while unable to attend, he provided a video message to the crowd, even sending greetings to his partner‘s family from Carrickfergus. (Cheers erupted from a small pocket of the room.)
Endings begetting beginnings. Established auteurs nestled alongside emerging talents. International darlings of the festival circuit and the newest offerings of the local industry. Some of the most challenging filmmaking being preceded by warm and earnest introductions by the staff: whether that be Kiang’s friendly offer to debate with anyone the questionable finality of the ending of Kore-Eda Hirokazu’s beautifully judged Rashomon-esque mystery Monster; or, when faced with technical difficulties for providing the audience with a winner’s speech, taking the no-stress, no-nonsense solution of a voice message and a microphone so no-one would miss out. That was the spirit of the 23rd BFF. A relaxed space to explore some of the years finest local and international filmmaking, ranging from larger screenings at the SSE complex to more intimate affairs in the arthouse cinema-come-University-lecture-hall at Queen’s Film Theatre. And all in between, including a dog-friendly screening at the Black Box of Robert Lakatos’ talking canine satire Whose Dog Am I?
The international festival was a particular gem in BFF’s crown this year, with a number of brilliant acquisitions. Cannes 2023 Palme d’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall (Justine Triet) headlined the second day, providing the audience with a magnificently knotty courtroom procedural about a writer (Sandra Hüller) accused of murdering her husband with minimal concrete evidence; as the prosecution begins to dissect her marriage and womanhood to try and sway the jury. As Kiang mentioned, there was debate in Cannes over whether Anatomy or another standout was the worthier of the Palme d’Or— Jonathan Glazer’s icy Holocaust anti-film The Zone of Interest. Also starring Hüller as a Nazi commandant’s wife, Zone of Interest mines horror from the mundanity of a family’s life on the outskirts of Auschwitz. Horrors only heard or alluded to yet never shown, in one of the quietest and most profound screening’s I have ever born witness to. Of the more surprising screenings on offer was from 2021’s Berlinale Golden Bear winner Radu Jude, with the Romanian New Wave provocateur’s new film Do Not Expect Too Much from the End of the World. A modestly attended screening that ultimately proved raucous, Jude’s gleefully mischievous yet scorching social examination proved a wonderful return to the BFF.
Programmer Rose Baker’s crop of local films demonstrated the same cyclical theme of the festival, not least in arguably its two centrepieces. The Pierce Brosnan led and Terry Loane directed The Last Rifleman saw a packed event at a special gala screening for the good-natured WWII remembrance road-movie; a closing bow before its streaming debut. While conversely, a work-in-progress screening and case study was provided for expected future hit Kneecap, Rich Peppiat’s origin story to the political, incendiary Irish language rap trio of the same name. The same precursory treatment was implemented for Aislinn Clarke’s Fréamhacha in the New Irish Shorts section; alongside Ian Hunt Duffy’s Double Blind and the verified crowd pleaser that was Dominic O’Neill’s Haunted Ulster Live, a playful, local spin on the iconic Ghostwatch. The festival also saw the inauguration of its “Long Short Weekend”: a celebration of in-competition, local and showcased short films from a plethora of emerging talents through animation, live-action fiction and art-film. While the talents are too many to mention, most notable among them is the triumphant return to the festival of Ross White and Tom Berkeley with The Golden West after their Oscar triumph in the live-action short category this spring.
While the 23rd BFF celebrated local and international filmmaking throughout, there was the small matter of celebrating certain filmmakers with retrospectives and rewards. John Sayles and Maggie Renzi were in attendance for a retrospective of their works, with presentations from Lone Star to The Secret of Roan Inish and panels with the two creatives. Winners from the international competition, focusing on directors first or second feature films, were afforded the platform to speak on their films. Best Performance went to Eka Chavleishvili for a wryly funny, vindicating turn in Elene Naveriani’s late blooming coming-of-age tale Blackbird Blackbird Blackberry. Pham Thiên Ân, winner of Cannes Camera d’Or for best debut, was the winner of Beat Craft for his assured directing of Inside The Yellow Cocoon Shell— an otherworldly tale of a man travelling Vietnam with his nephew and the body of his sister-in-law told with intricate, slow but impactful long-takes. The outright winner of the category went to Mohamad Kordofani’s Goodbye Julia, a rousing and morally ambiguous thriller which reflects the lead up to the division of Sudan.
These were all announced before the closing gala presentation of Yorgos Lanthimos’ latest trip, the bawdy, feminist Frankenstein riff Poor Things. Already a Golden Lion winner in Venice and this humble writers early pick for some top prize across the major associations (Oscar, BAFTA, you name it), the film sees Emma Stone’s reanimated child-in-her-mothers-body try and experience the totality of life as a woman in a world unequipped for her curiosity. It was fascinating listening as an audience calibrated to Poor Things humour, initially hesitant or confused and eventually laughing in uproar, often at Mark Ruffalo’s turn as 2023’s anti-Ken. It also marked a fitting conclusion to the festival— not only ending with a film surely set to lead the oncoming awards circuit, but also closing the loop on the established theme. What better way to end before the next year than with Emma Stone’s face staring out, a character surviving both physical and ego death not only to be reborn, but to thrive doing so.