BFI London Film Festival: Compelling docs with a running theme
The 60th anniversary of the BFI London Film Festival has plenty of blockbusters and A-list stars on the bill. But away from the glamour of the red carpet and beyond the award-chasing works of Damien Chazelle and Ben Wheatley, the programme features a number of compelling documentaries focusing on the plight of dislocated populations across the globe.
Chasing Asylum, a documentary featuring clandestine footage taken in detention centres on the islands of Nauru and Manus, has already won critical acclaim for its depiction of the Australian government’s immigration policies and the appalling and inhumane treatment inflicted upon refugees.
No journalist has ever been allowed to visit the centres, which makes director Eva Orner's footage all the more compelling. Both camps are far from Australia: one in Nauru, a small, impoverished Pacific island republic, and the other in Papua New Guinea.
Orner, an Academy and Emmy award-winning documentary-maker, calls Chasing Asylum "the film Australia doesn’t want you to see".
The documentary gained notoriety last week when it was projected onto the outside of the Australian high commission in London in a guerrilla screening intended to force Canberra to acknowledge the film's content.
"Projecting our film on the Australian high commission isn’t just a stunt," said Orner.
"Despite us continuously asking the Australian government to comment on the claims made in our film about what’s happening on Nauru and Manus islands, the only time our politicians will comment is when the international media run the story, specifically The Guardian, the BBC and the New York Times. But even then, they refuse to engage properly: they’ve never answered the claims we make in the film.
"By projecting our film on to the high commission building in the centre of London, I’m hoping to goad Alexander Downer, the Australian high commissioner to the UK – who was an architect of the Pacific Solution and is a vocal supporter of them – to finally engage in a debate about what’s going on in them,” she said.
Described as a "90-minute compendium of shame, captivating for the wrong reasons," by The Guardian, Chasing Asylum has two screenings during the festival and will be released to a wider audience later this month.
Away from the harsh realities of refugee life, On Call looks at the work of those who deal with the effects of migration on a daily basis. The exquisitely measured, softly engaging documentary observes the events at a suburban Parisian doctor’s office, where free consulting services are offered to immigrants from around the world.
Alice Diop's film, which also has its UK premiere at the festival, represents the views of those sympathetic towards the plight of refugees while criticising a world where hardship is never shared, only endured in isolation.
Another to have its UK premiere in London this month, The War Show is an intimate portrait of the Syrian conflict between 2011 and 2013 told from the perspective of a former radio DJ and her artist and activist friends.
Shot and narrated by Obaidah Zytoon in conjunction with Danish filmmaker Andreas Dalsgaard, it ruminates on the everyday experience of Syrians beyond the 24-hour rolling news coverage.
"It’s very important to understand what the people sitting in a dinghy crossing the Mediterranean, what this person is fleeing from," Zytoon says. “What life does this person have? What kind of person are we talking about? And what was wonderful for me, seeing the footage for the first time, was to see that there was a group of friends that were totally like my own friends."
Following on from The War Show's key themes, Farouk, Besieged Like Me is an affectionate portrait of Syrian-French writer and publisher Farouk Mardam-Bey.
Filmed by Syrian documentarian Hala Alabdalla in the intimacy of Mardam-Bey's kitchen, the documentary unpicks questions of belonging and the role of language in today’s conflicted times.
The BFI's London Film Festival runs until 16 October, with screenings across the capital.