Film & TV

BFI London Film Festival 2020- Editors’ Picks

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Kajillionaire (by Miranda July)

By Pui Kuan Cheah

★★★★

I started off my virgin London Film Festival experience with the film Kajillionaire, directed by Miranda July, which turned out to be a fairly tragic film, with comedic coating around it. I went in knowing almost nothing about the film, and I think it’s best watched without prior knowledge to really be invested in the story (and its ending). Throughout, the film brings up a few deep questions, such as: what/who makes up a ‘family’? How much can a certain parenting style affect a child? What exactly is a ‘normal’ family and who decides what that is?

It features A+ performances from Evan Rachel Wood (Old Dolio), Debra Winger (Theresa), and Richard Jenkins (Robert) as a family plotting a heist, and Gina Rodriguez as vivacious Melanie whom they meet on the plane. If you’ve seen any interviews or public appearances of Rodriguez, you’d realise how charismatic she is, which made her the perfect choice for the character of Melanie. Of course, it also goes without saying that Wood did a phenomenal job as eccentric Old Dolio, a character unlike anything Wood has played before.

This combination of actors, according to July, wasn’t what she was expecting at the start but felt definitely worked out well in the end. It isn’t your typical heist film – it is a heist film with heart. If you’re able to give it a watch when it becomes available for purchase on video-on-demand, I could not recommend it enough. 

Following up with Kajillionaire, I watched the YouTube stream of BFI’s Screen Talk with July herself. I felt that this was an insightful addition to the online version of LFF, given that most of us wouldn’t have been able to be in London to view these films at BFI itself. Having the talk with July talking about her career before Kajillionaire, and then the film itself, allowed you to understand specific processes and decisions made throughout the conception and production of the film. Talk about enabling greater appreciation for the art form.

The accessibility of this year’s LFF is unparalleled. Even if you didn’t want to spend a few pounds on tickets to access the feature films and short films, you were still able to gain access to long-form in-depth talks with film creatives – directors, actors etc. – which can be educational in itself. These included “The Female Horror Renaissance”, a panel discussion about the rise of women creatives working in the horror genre, and “What’s Stopping Young People Getting Into the Film Industry?”.

I understand that this year’s LFF is an exception given the current global situation and hence why these are made possible, but I think it’s something BFI should consider continuing  alongside the annual festival in London, for those of us unable to make it to the city.

Fingers crossed that next year’s festival can safely go ahead as it used to though!

Mogul Mowgli (by Bassam Tariq)

By Borte Tsogbadrakh

★★★★★

This year’s BFI London Film Festival felt different, to say the least. Having attended every year since I came to university, I was quite gutted to find out that this year would primarily be a virtual experience. There’s just something quite special about watching a film premiere at a festival- wondering whether or not your chosen film is a ‘hit or miss’, speculating if there will be a Q&A session with the cast after, and most importantly if you’ll be able to get a cheeky glance of some famous actors and directors. 

My chosen film for this year was Bassam Tariq’s Mogul Mowgli, co-written, produced and starring none other than Riz Ahmed himself. The premise of the film is fairly straightforward: it tells the story of British-Pakistani rapper, Zed (Riz Ahmed), who suddenly gets struck down by a disease. However, knowing Riz Ahmed’s close involvement in this feature, I had a feeling that the film might reflect a rather personal project.

The film opens with Zed (short for Zaheer) performing his song ‘Mogambo’ at a gig in New York. Right from the start it sets the tone of cultural identity struggles experienced by second and third generation Muslim immigrants as he raps, ‘This is for the mosque and the mosh pit’. His rap persona in the film resembles his real-life rap alter ego Riz MC, with the soundtrack of the film being filled with tracks from his latest album The Long Goodbye. Each of the rap performances in the film carry the theme of what it means to be an ethnic minority in the West and this is cleverly interwoven with the fact that the arts and entertainment industries are still predominantly white and offer little diversity. 

Soon after his performance, Zed is given the opportunity to go on his biggest tour of his career so far, with his already strained relationship with girlfriend Bina (Aiysha Hart) becoming the ultimate casualty in his road to success. Before touring, he makes the call to visit his semi-estranged family in London and this is where things seem to start falling apart as the film becomes increasingly surrealistic. 

As Zed is diagnosed with an auto-immune disease that impairs his ability to walk, the cultural and spiritual difference between his Pakistani roots and British upbringing start to clash once again. His complicated relationship with his religious father (Alyy Khan) comes to the forefront as they have arguments regarding Zed’s treatment, creating a generational divide that hits close to home for anyone brought up in an immigrant family. With his health spiralling, the audience also gets to experience all of Zed’s fever dreams- all shot in a glitchy, claustrophobic, overexposed frame. The mythical character of Toba Tek Singh doesn’t ease any of the discomfort, instead it almost gives Mogul Mowgli a psychological thriller aesthetic, conveying the difficult topic of generational trauma experienced by ethnic minorities in a highly intimate manner. Throughout the whole film, legacy is also a big recurrent theme. This is portrayed through RPG (Nabhaan Rizwan), Zed’s cruder, younger but equally ambitious protégé. It addresses the question of how future generations of ethnic minorities are presented with the challenge of moving forward without abandoning one’s roots.

Undoubtedly Bassam Tariq did a phenomenal job at capturing all the tumultuous layers of what it means to be a second or third generation immigrant without limiting this to a monolithic experience, which I appreciate a lot.

Mogul Mowgli moved me in ways that’s too difficult to describe, once again reminding me that representation not only on-screen but in all aspects of filmmaking matters.

I highly encourage everyone to give this a watch once we’re able to go to cinemas again and I’m very glad that this was my chosen film for this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

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