It may be called the Mostly British Film Festival, but the cinematic event features pieces from English speaking countries around the globe, including Ireland, Australia, India, South Africa and New Zealand. Screening at San Francisco’s Vogue Theatre from Feb. 9 to Feb. 16, the festival centers a diverse array of stories that may have otherwise escaped an American audience.
While Shaunak Sen’s “All That Breathes” documents the lives of two brothers who run a bird hospital in India, Payal Kapadia experiments with audio storytelling in “A Night of Knowing Nothing.” The Mostly British Film Festival will also screen the anticipated “Emily,” which tells a partially fictional story of “Wuthering Heights” author Emily Brontë.
This year, arts reporters Hafsah Abbasi, Piper Samuels and Megha Ganapathy screened select films from the festival before it made its way to the Vogue Theatre. Here’s what they watched.
“All That Breathes”
The final frames of Shaunak Sen’s lyrical documentary “All That Breathes” are punctuated by the following elegy: “You don’t care for things because they share the same country, religion or politics. Life itself is kinship. We’re all a community of air.” It’s a sentiment that is as much a plea to hegemonic institutions as it is a synthesis of the ideological ambitions behind Sen’s feature.
“All That Breathes” focuses on two brothers — Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad — who run a bird clinic that has saved over 20,000 black kites, a species of Indian bird. As kids, the two would toss up meat to feed these birds of prey — for sawab (an Islamic term indicating reward for positive deeds), and for joy. Since then, they’ve observed the steady environmental degradation that has hit the skies and the streets of New Delhi. Seeping into this spotlight is the increasing prevalence of institutional and interpersonal violence against Muslims, arising from the growing pervasiveness of Hindu nationalist rhetoric in India. In enriching the brothers’ story through his understanding of the political as personal, Sen crafts a portrait of the brothers’ relationship with the raptors that is indelibly intertwined with the brothers’ environment. Just as the birds wade through the pollution, Saud and Shehzad withstand the same, in addition to the anti-Muslim massacres encroaching on their neighborhoods.
“Violence is always an act of communication,” Shehzad says. Perhaps what’s most poignant about “All That Breathes” is that it presents the hope that cross-species and interspecies affection can replace it.
— Hafsah Abbasi
“A Night of Knowing Nothing”
Payal Kapadia’s “A Night of Knowing Nothing” is an experimental, collage-style film that tells the story of a group of film students in India, focusing on the cohort’s revolutionary leftist and liberal politics and weaving in the protagonist’s melancholy narration of her letters to an estranged lover.
The unnamed protagonist, who the audience knows as L, has an unmistakable voice, both in terms of the wistfulness of her writing and her unique, soft yet raspy cadence. The other students’ voices in the film are bold, assertive; they are concerned with the burden of history and with questions of legacy, justice and privilege. L’s voice, on the other hand, has a soft thoughtfulness. It is tinged with love. She asks, sheepishly, if the strike the students took part in was worth it. She talks about kisses and dreams of making films. This stark contrast between the quality of voices drives much of the film. In parts, the link between the two is coherent and clever, though in others it is slightly disconnected and unrefined.
There are pockets in which the film shines, including a moment where a film student watches a French movie on their laptop. The room is cluttered and a photo of Godard is framed amongst more personal memorabilia. This feels like a significant nod to the global education these students receive — the irreverence of the French New Wave feeling so closely linked to the pride in which these students protest against the government.
Perhaps most significant of all is the scene in which the students celebrate Indian film star Madhubala’s birthday. They sing the lyrics, jab pyaar kiya, toh darna kya (when there is love, why fear?), which feels like the closest possible thread to cohesion in a film that attempts to tell a story of youth, love, cinema and politics.
— Megha Ganapathy
Set in a small Irish fishing village, “God’s Creatures” constructs an atmosphere so oceanic you can almost smell the oysters as they’re hoisted across the screen. But there’s something fishy (pun intended) about the town’s breezy serenity. Known for his endearing performances as Calum in Charlotte Wells’ introspective film “Aftersun” and Connell in the touching miniseries “Normal People,” Paul Mescal plays an esteemed brute named Brian O’Hara who has just returned home from a mysterious voyage in Australia. But despite the warm welcome his character receives from fellow fishermen, partway through the film, Brian is accused of rape.
His accuser, Sarah Murphy (Aisling Franciosi), is a beautiful yet shy singer who works at a seafood processing plant alongside Brian and his mother, Aileen O’Hara (Emily Watson). A trusting and devoted parent, Aileen immediately assumes her son’s complete innocence. But as ominous landscape shots and a menacing score add tension to this once quaint beach town, the audience is left to wonder whether Aileen’s convictions were too presumptuous.
The film asks a loving mother to question her loyalty — to grapple with the prospect of raising a villainous son. It’s a scary thought, but one many parents must face if they seek to recognize children for who they are. With thick Irish accents, vintage set decor and a profoundly relevant storyline, “God’s Creatures” professes that the philosophies of the #MeToo movement should extend beyond Hollywood, reaching villages, countrysides and oceans alike.
— Piper Samuels