Go to any film festival around the world, and you’ll encounter the same hierarchy of condescension. More interesting than the films in the main competition are those in the experimental sidebar, you’ll be told; and more interesting still, are the films found in the classic cinema retrospective. This considered, it is interesting to look at the London Film Festival, a spectacle that is very much about new cinema, as a site for the presentation and discovery of old movies. Smuggled inside the thematic strands are those new restorations of oft forgotten classics, the festival’s self-proclaimed ‘Treasures’. In this year’s festival, three punchy, political feature debuts released over three consecutive years at the tail end of the 1960s, stood apart from the pack.
“Am I not in the land of the free?” Med Hondo’s Soleil O sees a Mauritian man (Robert Liensol) arrive in France, full of hope and expectation only to see his positivity beleaguered and battered, worn down by the prolificacy of the persecution, both passive and active, physical and verbal, directed towards him. Immediately evocative of Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, which tells a similar story from an inverse gender perspective, Hondo’s film is, despite the depth of the barbarity displayed, a much wittier and more discursive affair than Sembene’s film, though no less angering or brilliant.
Part essay, part narrative feature, Soleil O shows, amongst other things, the sting of language but also it’s ability to empower. The “words loaded with dynamite” that are directed towards the migrant serve not to dehumanise him, nor to dissuade him from settling in Paris, but instead to radicalise him. Coming together with the other members of this frustrated “black invasion”, he finds a immigrant community unified in the need to fight the various forms of racial prejudice and economic exploitation they find themselves victim to. In dialogue with this newfound community and with the viewer, he stings back, voicing an acerbic, biting and ultimately revolutionary monologue that animates the film, matching the energy conjured by the striking image-making and jaunty score.
Similarly spirited, Humberto Solas’ near three hour epic triptych Lucia tells a tale of Cuba in three parts, through three girls named Lucia living in three disparate eras (1895, 1933 and 196-), each a juncture of national political significance. Each is different in style and in tone, but with an arc as grand and sprawling as the last. The first adopts a high melodramatic silent-cinema mode to tell the tale of an aristocrat who falls for a mysterious foreigner amidst Cuba’s Spanish occupation, only to find that his dramatic seduction is a plot for information only she holds. The next, more contemporarily styled and fluid segment, features another discontented socialite, the wife of a disillusioned revolutionary who finds that the bureaucracy he worked to create is just as corrupt as the government he fought to bring down. In the third section, vital, energised and almost slapstick in style, a post-revolution newlywed lives under the controlling thumb of a husband who hasn’t “moved with the times”, failing to benefit from any of the perks of a new and free society.
In each, a bravura display of filmmaking prowess, idea-packed and statement-making, exploding with invention and creativity. Looping, balletic camerawork in the first part gives way to more considered, controlled composition in the second, and the third act sees a return to dynamism, full of long-takes and dramatic motions. All told, Lucia is a bold and vital film that shows three stages of liberation, three eras of political instability and social upheaval, and all of the drama, complexity and majesty therein. Building in excitement and vigour, by the end it seems like a film that is bursting at the seams. As the captive Lucia eventually rebels, excitingly and energetically, escaping into the salt flats in a final sequence that feels iconic, this wide reaching film - made by Solas when he was just 27 years old - reaches brilliantly histrionic levels. A enigmatic, peculiar final image involving a small girl in a big headdress and a small goat, distracts but does not detract.
Right from the arresting and profound opening sequence - a cycle of clean cut, gender-indeterminable bodily closeups, pale slices of entangled porcelain skin seen in high contrast black and white, abstracted from their owners, made sensual and pure - Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses sets out to disrupt proceedings. A genuinely underground film, much discussed but rarely seen, it is difficult to describe, a constantly collapsing series of sequences - most fictional but some resembling something closer to documentary - that together offer a vivid, impressionistic cross-section of a 1960s counterculture, one that is resolutely strange and militantly queer. A film of collisions, it showcases the vibrant, transgressive coming together of Tokyo artists, performers and dilettantes, a kind of Shinjuku equivalent of Andy Warhol’s Factory gatherings, sordid and beautiful.
Spiralling outwards from two central characters, cross-dressing bar hostess Eddie and Guevara, a filmmaker with a false moustache and an array of Jonas Mekas quotes at his disposal, the film builds up something of a narrative, a stilted romance between Eddie and the cabaret manager he works for and a paranoid mystery that never quite reveals itself. In-between, a barrage of ever transforming images: sex scenes, bar brawls, underwear dance parties, fights with pop guns and word balloons, inter title provocations, conversational diatribes and to-camera interviews with participants; and then, a cataclysmically violent, surreal finale, a logical conclusion to all of the madness that has come before. “All definitions of cinema have been erased. All the doors are now open,” Guevara announces at one point, evoking Mekas again, fitting for a film of such originality and openness. Try as you may to avoid this hubristic line of thinking, maybe the festival purists are right, maybe old movies are where to go, even at LFF. Funeral Parade of Roses alone contains more invention and excitement that can be found in most of the festival’s new films put together.
This article was originally posted on the Shooting People blog.