It ain't all over-priced tickets and arty black and white films about salmon.
Every year the BFI takes over what seems like half the cinemas in London, replacing a lot of the usual October stuff (usually early awards hopefuls and messy blockbusters too late for the summer), with over 200 totally mad and varied festival movies. The assumption usually is that these are arty-farty prestige films aimed at critics, pretentious students, and people who willingly spend more than £5 on a bottle of wine, but that’s really not the case at all. The LFF is here to bring quality filmmaking of all kinds to the masses, and it’s not as pricey as you might think either.
2018’s turnout alone brought everything from hardcore 80s-style Nic Cage horror Mandy, to tiny Essex-set rap drama Vs., to a bunch of serious Oscar contenders (Widows, the Suspiria remake, and The Favourite to name literally just three), and a documentary about the legend of Bill Murray. It’s not always high-art. And if you’re under 25, there’s a bunch of £5 tickets too. If you’re over that – yes some of the evening showings can be mega money, but if you’re clever with your scheduling, you can usually still manage to swing plenty of seats for less than your standard Central London multiplex price.
Heading in to see a movie at LFF is a little different to the usual cinema experience too. A lot of the venues are the same (the BFI even builds a pop-up screen in Embankment park which is pretty special), there’s still the standard mortgage-inducing popcorn and you are still expected to sit down and shut the hell up once the film starts. But then, the filmmakers themselves usually show up to say hey beforehand, and to answer a few questions after; there’s a certain formality to the proceedings that you don’t normally get (there’s usually a red carpet floating around), and pretty much 95% of the screenings seem to totally sell out. And then there’s the programme itself, which is aimed just as much at challenging you as it is entertaining.
I’d be lying if I said that every film I’d ever seen at the LFF over the last seven years has been a “must-see”. They don’t always picks the most crowd-pleasing movies out there, and you do have to give the programme a proper look-over to get to the stuff that really appeals to you – I’m sure the programmers themselves would happily admit this too. But that’s kind of the point; there’s a bunch of different strands, each with different genres and different audiences in mind. London’s huge and if you’re gonna provide something for everyone, there’s going to be a lot to sift through.
Back in 2012 I was at a screening of a Sundance favourite from that year, Compliance, at the now-demolished Odeon West End, and a lot of the crowd went nuts; groaning, leaving en masse, tutting so loudly you couldn’t hear the dialogue. Turns out it was a pretty upsetting film for some people and a lot more controversial than I expected – half the sold-out seats were empty by the end. It wasn’t an easy movie by any stretch, but I like to think that the people who did stay to the credits (myself included) got something significant out of the whole experience.
And then this year brought Luca Guadagnino’s remake-in-name-only Suspiria – a totally bonkers witch movie set in 70s divided Berlin that hit so hard I had to spend nearly an hour in a Pret around the corner dragging myself back to sanity with cheap filter coffee. On the way out of Harry Wootliff’s Only You the entire audience seemed to be trading tissues to combat the tears. Jim Cummings’ Thunder Road caused the crowd to yoyo so much from laughter to cold, contemplative silence that when it ended, everyone just sat, very, very still most of the way through the credits.
We’re here to celebrate cinema and this is it, really, in its purest form. Collective experiences with total strangers over powerful, challenging, meaningful films. I haven’t seen Compliance since that screening six years ago, but I still remember exactly how it made me feel. What that room felt like to be in. I can’t say the same for whatever I caught on Netflix last week.
So when LFF 2019 rolls around in just under a year’s time, trust the programmers; challenge yourself. Pick a film that sounds up your street, chase a cheap ticket if you need to, but just give yourself that first sacred LFF experience. Whatever the outcome, you won’t ever forget it.
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