London Rocks 2.0: Post-Normal Cinema

As co-Director of LRIFF, I am beyond excited for the second edition of London Rocks Film Festival. Our first festival was held in the grips of Covid19, concluding only a few hours before a national lockdown. A Blitz spirit reigned – the impression of screening films on the deck of the Titanic as the four horsemen galloped overhead, rattling Whirled cinema’s ceilings. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and this year we are back and we have grown. We have a packed 3-day screening programme of 66 films, including 3 features, in addition to over 100 films exhibiting online from 1-7 November at the Rocks Screening Room.

London Rocks is a trailblazer for progressive causes. We believe that filmmakers, regardless of age, gender, race, sexuality, budget or background, should have the opportunity to make and showcase their work. To this end, LRIFF selections hail from as many different countries and cultures as we could lay our hands on. Diversity and equality are beautiful, period, and art film will die if it doesn’t embrace equality and promote tolerance. LRIFF also has a predilection for the weird and wonderful, the bold and edgy. Our favourite films tend to explore the dark side of the moon, moral grey zones, ambiguities and home truths. While it’s often hard to say with exactitude what we are looking for in selections – we love all kinds of cinematic genres and styles – we are crystal clear about what we do not like: contrived, clichéd, mainstream bullshit. I would argue that being woke and against cancel culture needn’t be such polar positions; that in fact, it is healthy to be a little bit of both.

Film lovers are sick people

François Truffaut

9 Picks for Best of the Fest

A film that illustrates our ideal is ‘TO NOWHERE’, directed by Sian Astor-Lewis. As a writer, she is interested in exploring “complex, self-destructive characters navigating love and sexuality”, and this is perfectly achieved in her first feature. The film is a gritty, intimate day-in-the-life drama about two adolescents on the edge. At its core, it is a no-holds-barred exploration of trauma and abuse in relationships. While this is tough to watch at times, it succeeds where so many other films fail in handling the subject matter with nuance and realism. The actors are all expertly cast and directed. There is the floaty, faraway Tulip (Lilit Lesser), who is dominated by the nihilistic and tortured Finn (Josefine Glaesel), and the misfit uncle (Orlando Seale) who flits through the film on his own strange journey. The locations, the shore of the Thames, the record store, dance studio, Soho sex shop, pub and homes, add to the film’s sense of total authenticity. This goes for the narrative too, which steadily unfolds towards its finale.

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‘TO NOWHERE’ will screen at Whirled Cinema on Friday 5th November at 9 pm.

Sian Astor-Lewis won Best Director at Brighton Rocks Film Festival this year, and has picked up a raft of international awards (“Best No-Budget Feature Film” at Paris Independent Film Festival and “Best Debut Feature Film” at Sweden Film Awards). We look forward to supporting her work long into the future.

LGBTQ+ themed drama is consistently providing depth where straight romances are often lacking. ‘Lessons’ by Sam Seccombe is an outstanding example of this. The film begins with an awkward Dan and a nonchalant Tommy the morning after a one-night stand. Tommy picks up on Dan’s nerves and suspects that he hasn’t truly come to terms with his sexuality. “Are you a virgin?” he asks, half in gest. But after some protracted banter and a much-delayed breakfast, we discover that Tommy has his fair share of anger issues, and has yet to deal with a painful breakup. Gay or straight, the universality of their story hits home, and it is incredibly refreshing to watch a drama that dares to talk in such raw terms about love and loss.

Another sophisticated film in the LBGTQ+ genre is ‘CRUISING: OTHER WAYS OF LOVE’ by Abdullah Qureshi – a Pakistani-born artist, filmmaker, and curator based in Finland. Qureshi is interested in using painting and collaborative methodologies to address personal histories, traumatic pasts, and childhood memories. His film presents a stimulating series of sequences exploring Queerness from a Muslim perspective. Dreamlike and expertly lit, the first images at a fairground open up a surreal state of play that evokes an exercise in sexual magic realism. The music (by Zan) mixes a recording of queer Muslims in France talking about cruising with a cool ambient soundtrack.

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‘LESSONS’ (left) will screen on 5th November at 11 pm and ‘CRUISING: OTHER WAYS OF LOVE’ (right) on 6th November at 9.30 pm

The (unofficial) prize for most the most surreal film this year goes to the sublime ‘UNDINE’ by Sjaron Minailo. A mermaid addicted to plastic disrupts the boring lives of a burnt-out female plumber and her neighbour, a lonely philosopher. As absurd and brilliant as it sounds, it is one of those films made to defy expectations; a true testimony to the highs and lows that the fertile, liberated imagination can plumb to (pun intended). Technically, it is reminiscent of masterpieces such as Jan Lenica’s 1960s animations. ‘UNDINE’ also uses decidedly cinematic camera and editing techniques to deconstruct its own processes to enhance the viewing experience.

‘EATING CARS’, a US feature film directed by Trevor Hollen, is also a strong competitor in the surreal genre. It is the story of Max (Lexi Pappas), a failed writer, who goes in search of her estranged girlfriend while simultaneously trying to unload a large quantity of drugs she stole off her bosses to pay for a trip back East to care for her dying mother. She may, or may not, have her dead sister in the trunk of her car … ‘EATING CARS’ was filmed in a single warehouse location during in an intense 8-day shoot, and the Brechtian minimalism, the constant breaking of the fourth wall and guessing-game about what the hell is going on, draws us ever closer into Max’s mad world. The movie reminds us of Lars von Trier (‘Dogville’), as well as David Lynch at his peak (‘Lost Highway,’ ‘Mulholland Drive’). The ending has a touch of Tarantino, too. And yet our overall feeling is that ‘Eating Cars’ hails from a refreshingly new directorial voice. It left our features reviewer “totally exhausted and thrilled in equal measure” – which in our book is as good as it gets.

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‘UNDINE’ & ‘EATING CARS’ will be online at the Rocks Screening Room, 1-7 November 2021

UNINTENTIONHELL’, by London-based director Balbeer Bahi, is another exciting feature film available at the Rocks Screening Room. The film begins as a gritty tale of a grieving father (Rez Kabir) seeking revenge on the perpetrator of his daughter’s murder, but spins into a far-reaching study of guilt and declining mental health. It uses a nonlinear narrative and experimental editing effectively to impart the protagonist’s inner turmoil, leading to a violent climax that will stay with you long after viewing. A man of theatre, Balbeer Bahi’s young performers take an unflinchingly raw look at intercommunal tensions in inner London – no mean feat for a first, micro-budged feature. Please see our extended interview about the making of the film.

London Rocks feature films screening at Whirled Cinema have been selected for their impactful treatment of societal and political issues. ‘ANONYMOUS’, directed by Alasdair Mackay (screening on Saturday 6th November at 7.30 pm) is a dark and intense film dealing with mental health issues affected by addiction, ranging from domestic abuse, relationships, loneliness, violence, self-harm and sadism. The mysterious, silent protagonist and closed-door set compound the film’s sense of dire urgency, while never shutting the door on the possibility of a happier future. ‘ANONYMOUS’ is is certifiably Made in London (Ruislip area), and on crowed-funded budget of £18,000, it is born of passion, conviction, and a healthy dose of defiance.

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‘ELECTION NIGHT’, directed by Neil Monaghan (screening on Sunday 7th November at 1 pm), sees five liberal-minded friends gathering to watch the TV coverage of a UK general election. Many believe in the optimistic rhetoric from a fictitious firebrand socialist party, the Progressive Social Alliance. Others put their faith in a new populist far-right movement, the New Britain Party, headed by former newspaper baron Dominic Drummond (Bruce Payne). As violence erupts on the streets, there’s a knock on the door and three people desperately seeking shelter enter the fray, bringing society’s deep fissures across the threshold with deadly consequences. It is a starkly dystopian, yet credible portrayal of a future to be avoided at all costs.

Finally, I would like to stress that London Rocks Film Festival is not all doom and gloom! Our first screening sessions will feature incredibly upbeat responses to the coronavirus pandemic. Our documentary series showcases amazing tales of humans triumphing over adversity. A standout short doc is ‘FLUFFYPUNK’, by Thomas Harman, about the life of stand up poet and comedian Jon Seagrave. The film shows how an outsider whose personal integrity playfully rages at the world and the socio-political climate can grapple with insecurity and personal issues, while also – and above all – being a great dad. ‘FLUFFYPUNK’ is a tender film and Jon Seagrave a loveable and inspiring guy.

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‘FLUFFYPUNK’ by Thomas Harman will screen on Saturday 6th November at 2 pm

These are but a few handpicked highlights from London Rocks 2021 Film Festival. Our jury, composed of academics, filmmakers and actors from London and across the globe, is tirelessly deliberating to pick this year’s awards winners. Cue for drum beats, suspenseful music and the distant sound of fanfare.

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