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An Open Mind is a Learning Mind.

I’m one of those people who needs to write. I’d go so far as to say my health – perhaps my very survival – depends on it. That isn’t me trying to sound melodramatic.

No, I, like many other writers, consider writing not simply a hobby or a method of making money, though it can and does fit easily into those categories. When I say I’m a writer, I’m saying it is as important an activity as eating or sleeping; to go without it for too long leads to moodiness and agitation.

Naturally with writing, one also ends up reading. To write means to record ideas on paper, and one can’t do that unless you’ve first gathered inspiration to form ideas worth recording. Ideas, information and knowledge are things I’ve treasured along with writing from a young age. In more recent years I’ve also become passionate about the importance of establishing the difference between ‘opinion’ and ‘fact’, whether historical or current, and the methods by which we go about establishing said distinction. Do you believe stuff based on evidence? What, in your mind, constitutes evidence? Hint: it isn’t always what people try to say it is.

To think about this is, I think, especially vital in the age of the Internet, where we’re exposed at ease to many opinions often presenting themselves as fact, and vice versa. Unless you want to believe everything, or nothing, or just stick to the inherent bias you grew up with, then you had better develop an eye for what constitutes evidence and a good argument. There’s a lot of bullshit out there, but that’s not to say I don’t value the Internet extremely highly; it has led to my generation becoming arguably the most open-minded of any generation before us. Growing up with so many easily accessible ideas around us has, in general, been healthy.

I find it hard being around people who do not care about these things, who may accept ‘truths’ just based on bias rather than applying critical thought; I find it offensive, and insulting, to see and hear that kind of thing in my presence. I’m not easily offended but this, you could say, is one of my ‘triggers’. Journalistic integrity and freedom of speech are two of the absolute pillars of a free-thinking society, while censorship lies at the opposing end of the spectrum (to be clear, by censorship I do not mean age ratings on products like movies and video games, which are often helpful and entirely necessary).

In my mind the acts of writing and critical thinking go hand in hand, though I know this is not the case for everyone – as I have read plenty in which it was clear the writer was not a critical thinker. Nor must one be particularly intelligent to write a lot, though to be a good writer (volume written doesn’t necessarily correlate with quality content) requires knowledge, not only of your craft but of the world around you.

Naturally then, the best writers also tend to be among the smartest, though it would depend on your point of view pertaining to how we should judge this kind of thing. Do we judge a writer by how clear and concise their style, or by how much knowledge they communicate through it? I suppose the best of them have both qualities. I certainly like to strive for both.

I grew up in a relatively ‘free’ family environment, with parents who weren’t overly strict and didn’t force any particularly weird rules upon me. It was an environment in which I was free to play video games, watch films, and read books without having to worry about which ones were ‘banned’, though at the same time neither of my parents were especially interested in those things and did not therefore instil any inherent bias for or against either. Each medium played their part in helping me grow up relatively open-minded and with an understanding that the world was bigger than my own little bubble.

To an extent, I do consider an open mind to be a privilege; one that many other people who grow up in different family environments aren’t encouraged to have (not that I was particularly encouraged towards it, but it wasn’t heavily discouraged either). Would I really have had the same learning opportunities, the same privilege of experiencing different sides to the world at an age where my mind had not yet grown hardened to them, had I grown up in a strict religious family for example? Likely not.

I find it a great shame when parents take it upon themselves to mould their children into who they want them to be (“for their own good!”), rather than allowing that child the space to discover themselves as an individual. This doesn’t just happen within fundamentally religious families either, and it isn’t always obvious. But as the subject of religion is a sore point for many, including to an extent myself (which I will explain a little further on), let’s stick on it for a moment.

Looking across the history of Western civilisation, our society and culture in the UK, US and Europe have been moulded by Christianity to the point where people have grown up believing – often subconsciously, before coming to ‘know Christ’ and being ‘born again’ later – in God, particularly the version of him portrayed in the Bible. Horror movies and literature in the West often portray demons or the devil himself as the source of all evil. In a court of law, people must place their hands on the Bible in some vague appeal to their conscience; a reminder that God is watching and they’ll be somehow punished for not telling the truth in front of Him.

Not that I want to get too deep into that issue here; what I’d rather do is illustrate how our ability to be open-minded about stuff can be inhibited simply through the culture or environment in which we grow up. If you grew up in the UK like me, you’ll be familiar with our inherently Christian culture. The US is similar, if not worse when it pertains to a Christianised culture, though the secular/ religious divide is arguably more extreme (or at least, more vocal) there as well. The UK, while moderately liberal, is also less willing to voice concerns over things like our monarchy, when we really should.

Now, I think it’s fine for people to acknowledge they’re not ‘open-minded’ about certain things, so long as they are aware of it. PC culture would dictate that we need to be respectful of everything, to the tiniest detail, but we’re all inherently different to begin with and naturally aren’t all going to see things in the same light. Some people don’t like swearing, others do. Some of us like eating meat, others don’t. People on either side, or somewhere in the middle, should be able to live how they want. Don’t rely on the approval of others for that. Equally, don’t expect everyone to be fully accepting of it.

Each of us have our inherent biases; open-mindedness is being able to recognise that bias and acknowledge there are people who’ll be coming from a different point of view. So long as that point of view doesn’t cause or advocate harm to others – which, again, is where religion can pose a bit of a problem – there’s no reason we can’t all respect each other as fellow humans while acknowledging our differences and not getting offended over stupid shit.

My own bias plays in to how I’m writing this article. Why is it, for example, that I feel the need to say swearing is okay, when really most people don’t need to be told that to do it anyway? Or why I focus on the importance of respecting points of view other than your own? Well, it comes back, again, to religion, more specifically Christianity; a religion that did not dictate too harshly how I should live my life growing up, but did at least subtly hold me back from fully expressing myself. Looking back on it, and seeing the effect it has on others as well, it’s clear this is what it does.

The unique thing about Christianity – at least, the Protestant side of which I have direct experience – is that it does not say you must obey its rules, and yet you kind of do, because if you don’t, it means you don’t really love Jesus and will go to hell anyway. A little slip-up is okay, but you must live the correct lifestyle consistently if you’re a ‘proper’ Christian. And boy, being told you’re “not a true Christian” is regarded as the highest form of insult. It’s something they’ll use against me, to discredit my own experiences, because in their eyes only someone who was “never a true Christian” could ever wish to turn away from it.

In many cases, Christians will use that one line as an all-encompassing excuse not to truly engage with issues raised by those who disagree with them. In fact, in my years of being around Christians, I can say in hindsight that many of those relationships, in the interest of ‘accountability’, involve carefully examining each other to determine whether one is a ‘proper Christian’, and each will make their determination, whether privately or publicly, about whether someone else is.

Christianity is supposedly about choosing to do the right thing through your own free will. But free will, of course, only goes as far as our inherent bias lets it – and this religion knows that all too well. It teaches the ultimate form of bias – that when we get to heaven, we’ll want to obey God without question, out of free will, because that will be our inherent nature. For now, on earth, we must deal with our ‘sinful’ nature, which wants to do bad things against God.

I’ll continue on that diatribe another time – there is so much more to say – but for now rest assured I’ve managed, though it has taken a lot of work, plenty of inner conflict, self-justification and thorough research, to largely let go of the hold Christianity had over me growing up and even up until a couple of years ago. Which isn’t to say, of course, that I have anything against Christians as people, though they can’t seem to help but take it personally (and I suppose one can’t blame them, if they believe with honest conviction) when others tell them they think their religion isn’t true.

The single biggest factor in breaking free from the confines of certain aspects of a religion, or anything else, relies on someone being open-minded enough in the first place to even consider whether they might be wrong. Of course I’m not saying that one necessarily leads on to the other (plenty of open-minded Christians have helped carry it out of the dark ages – while many conservatives/ traditionalists/ fundamentalists would claim that’s precisely the problem), but it’s certainly rare for anyone to leave their religion unless they’re open-minded enough to consider something other than what they’ve been conditioned to believe is true. They could, having considered everything else, still settle on Christianity being the truth, and I wouldn’t begrudge them that; it’s their prerogative to believe what they want, just as it is mine.

But if you consider it impossible for yourself to be wrong about something as ‘big’, as important as this, then you’re going to see opposing viewpoints through that specific lens. And naturally you’re going to shut yourself off from learning specifically why people might hold different points of view, because in your mind, in your version of reality, they’re already wrong and you – say, through the Bible – already have all the answers you’ll ever need.

Or maybe it’s more that, deep down, you’re terrified of realising you were wrong, having to admit it to others, and the damaged relationships that would inevitably result from that. I can understand that concern. I’ve seen it before, in people who stick with the Christian lifestyle not because they passionately believe in it, but because they perceive it to be simpler than the alternative, especially if they have a family of their own or friends who look up to them for spiritual support. The amount of Christian pastors hiding this kind of secret – feeling the weight of responsibility to ‘lead the flock’ and fear of letting them down – would shock the everyday church-goer.

I have realised I may need to pad what I say a little here, for those who may not know the full context surrounding my current opinions. First, if it seems I am overly negative towards Christianity, now or at any point to come, this is not necessarily an attack on its principles or even on the faith itself. Many Christians I’ve known are the liberal type who do not adhere strictly to everything the Bible says, or take what it says literally in the face of all scientific evidence to the contrary. Those people are Christian simply because the lifestyle makes most sense to them, and that’s fine.

However, let’s bear in mind what I said about bias. I am a UK citizen, yes, but more than that: I was born and lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland up to the age of 18, at which point I moved over to England for university.

Now, I’m going to assume any potential readers won’t quite realise the significance of that, so I’ll divulge some more. In Northern Ireland, as most people will know, we have a bit of a history of conflict; a kind of Irish ‘civil war’ as such, originating from when Ireland joined the UK a few centuries ago largely against the will of the Irish people. Long story short, back in 1922 the Irish Free State was formed as Ireland won some measure of independence from Britain (though they still had to abide by an ‘oath of allegiance’ to the UK until achieving full independence via a referendum in 1937).

At the same time, the predominantly unionist (that is; loyal to the union of the United Kingdom) six counties of Northern Ireland decided they wanted no part of Irish independence from the crown, and this country itself was technically formed in 1922 as well. Republicans (that is; those who are committed to seeing a fully independent Irish republic) have always held issue with this, just as unionists held issue with southern Ireland trying to take what they saw as their British identity. Even today, Northern Ireland sits in a unique position, in which its residents can claim to be Irish or British and neither would be lying; we are, after all, entitled to dual citizenship from birth should we so wish to claim it.

A large part of the origins of that conflict between Ireland and the UK was this: Ireland was largely a Catholic country, whereas the UK, at that time in the 1700s and continuing since, was protestant. So while technically you could say that means they were both ‘Christian’, no. Trust me, growing up in Northern Ireland it’s impossible to see ‘Protestant’ and ‘Catholic’ as equally Christian. You’re either on one side or the other, and our version of ‘peace’ is tolerating the other side while those old grievances still reside in the back of our minds.

For me growing up in a predominantly Protestant area, I naturally also grew up with that bias. But now, at this stage of my life, I see it all for what it is. Some others of my generation – usually those who have not ventured outside Northern Ireland to live for any sustained amount of time – still hold that strong sense of bias, and probably always will, as I firmly believe it becomes harder and harder to let go of built-in beliefs the older you get. None of us want to feel we wasted years of our lives being wrong about something after all, so as time goes on we’re more likely to make excuses to ourselves that help us keep believing it, partly also for the pride of being known as someone who ‘sticks to their convictions’ rather than someone who ‘flip flops around changing their mind’.

The elephant in the room when it comes to religion and conflict in Ireland, of course, is the claim I made to myself and others for many years: that the violence perpetuated in the name of God was committed by those who “weren’t truly Christian”. This is like what I said before; Christians justifying actions they don’t like by those who seemingly share their faith by simply disregarding it as “not the God I believe in”. If other believers aren’t acting the way you think they should, just keep yourself happy by saying they’re not ‘proper Christians’ and move on, free of any guilt and/or responsibility on the part of your own personal faith in God. Something similar is happening on a more global scale with Islam currently, but I won’t be touching that hot topic here.

Obviously we shouldn’t paint everyone with the same broad brush. We’re individuals, and we’re human, which means we all have different tendencies. Some of us gravitate more naturally to violence, though again there are environmental factors influencing that. Still, it’s undeniable: the Irish ‘troubles’ have their origin firmly rooted not just in patriotism but in the religion that goes hand in hand with it.

Christians on the outside looking in may try to justify their own belief in the loving nature of God by claiming they don’t represent him, but that’s precisely why they were fighting. Unionists would resist Irish rule “for God and country”. In their place would you not do the same to defend your own deeply rooted convictions/ beliefs? The men on the ground, murdering each other for a higher cause, were doing it because they believed it was God’s will in both cases, on either side – and it would not have been uncommon to see those same men in church on a Sunday morning, having taken part in terrorist acts during the week and planning more for the week to come.

All of this leads up to where Northern Ireland stands today. Belfast itself is an impressively modern city, attracting tourists from around the world and parts of it, particularly the city centre, looking a world away from the depressingly grey colours associated with the 1970s. I truly enjoy being back for the most part.

But it’s not all great. Our government serves as a stark reminder of our recent history, not only in its finely balanced unionist/republican divide (to get into the intricacies of it would be too complicated a matter to delve into here) but in the hold that religion has over us. Gay marriage is still illegal and our majority party, the DUP, have vowed to continue blocking it (while consensual gay sex was only decriminalised in 1982). Abortion is only legal under extremely strict criteria, and Northern Irish women often need to travel to England for private treatment to carry one out. Bars and clubs are forbidden from serving alcohol before 11.30am (whereas in England you can grab a beer from 7am in Weatherspoon’s if you feel so inclined).

Whether you feel strongly about the above issues or not, it’s indisputable that Northern Ireland feels a little left behind, even when compared to other regions within the United Kingdom. Of course, we have enough conservative Christian unionists living here that our population is generally happy with things as they are, as they see it as sticking to the rules set out in holy scripture. For me, I feel almost embarrassed by this stuff, and can’t see myself ever coming back to live long-term in Belfast unless certain things change.

Living in England introduced me to many Christians who were more open-minded than the kind of Christianity I’d always known in my homeland. And well, I’ve simply carried on from there, never really wanting to stand still, always keen to learn more. I don’t feel any blind loyalty to one way of thinking, and I don’t consider myself a nationalist in any sense of the word.

There’s one other element that went into all of this that can’t be discarded; in fact it may be the most important one of all. I mentioned earlier, near the beginning, how films and video games had been an important part of my childhood. One can’t be truly passionate about either of these mediums without encountering other cultures in the process. Two of my favourite video games, for example, are the survival horror game Silent Hill and its classic sequel on the PS2 (both developed in Japan), which first introduced me to the subtle elements of atmospheric horror unique to Asia.

Around that time, J-horror was also starting to take the film industry by storm, with Hideo Nakata’s Ringu inspiring a 2002 Hollywood remake starring Naomi Watts. That ended up being rather short-lived, with Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) and its 2004 American remake coming along at the tail end of it, but it can be attributed to sparking my interest in Japanese cinema and, more broadly, Asian culture. Why is this significant? Well, naturally, the more you see of the world, the less you feel you lie at the centre of it. Perhaps something I read recently can help sum it up; “A stolid attachment to a monolithic set of institutional forms becomes much more difficult when one is constantly faced with the beliefs and disbeliefs of many other traditions” (from Ghosts and the Japanese, Michiko Iwasaka and Barre Toelken, introduction).

This, I believe, is why many Christians steadfastly refuse to openly engage with other ways of thinking; deep down they know it could lead to them questioning themselves and ultimately ‘losing face’ should they begin to doubt their own faith. So they build caricatures and stereotypes of other worldviews and belief systems, because that makes it easier for them to paint themselves as the ‘enlightened few’ who have the One truth. Martin Scorsese’s recent film Silence summed up the inherent cultural differences and conflicts between East and West quite succinctly I think.

Sure, Christians may go on ‘missions’ with a view to ‘evangelising’ to those caught up in cultures they see as less enlightened, but they do not truly engage with the existing culture they meet when they get there, aside from the actions one must take so as not to appear awkward – such as taking your shoes off at the door when entering a home in Japan, for example. Even at the peak of my faith I could not help but feel a little awkward and uncomfortable at the idea of ‘mission’ to spread the gospel to those we see as less fortunate than ourselves. They’d return talking about how they ‘learned so much’… but I wonder how much they did learn, really?

I wanted to set this context so that anyone reading may understand my point of view a little better. I’m not saying others who were to go on a similar journey to myself would come to the same conclusions. I know some may read what I say about religion or Christianity and say “well, that’s not my experience”, and that’s cool. This is just me. Find your own way, but don’t let that way be dictated by blind loyalty, dodgy reasoning or a fear of changing your mind. Who knows… letting go of those things may help open the doors to something new.

Film reviews

Tokyo Godfathers.

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“Being able to speak freely… is the lifeblood of love.”

If I could pick a single quote from Tokyo Godfathers – a 2003 Japanese anime set during the Christmas season – that best sums up its plot and central themes, it would be the one above. It helped to instantly shoot this film up to rank as one of my favourite Christmas movies when I watched it at a screening a few days ago.

One must understand that while this film shares the same heart as many seasonal favourites – displaying love, friendship and family – it is not one that feels it must pander to PC culture in order to portray its message. As a result it’s likely to offend anyone who prefers to spend Christmas pretending the world is lovely and inoffensive, who perhaps is happiest surrounded by people who agree with them and tell them how right they are about everything. One of the main characters is a man who identifies as a woman; who is casually and persistently called ‘faggot’ by a close friend, the second of the three characters around whom this film revolves.

They are homeless, and we’re first introduced to them at a carol service, which they’re attending merely to get the hot food on offer after the sermon. Soon afterwards they encounter an abandoned child, and the plot following on from this involves the three misfits attempting to care for the baby while finding its way home.

Each of the three – Hana, Gin and runaway girl Miyuki – have had family troubles that led to their current predicaments; over the course of the story these are revealed partly via flashbacks, alongside a series of coincidences (yes, merely pleasant coincidences) through which they are eventually offered redemption.

Strewn throughout the narrative is this sense of how important it is to communicate freely with those closest to us; and how feeling unable to do that can lead to an eventual breakdown in the relationship. This includes, of course, being able to speak freely with each other even when the end result is offence. The message resonated with me personally, and one can’t accuse it of lacking the heart I mentioned before; the idea of a strong family unit is absolutely at the centre of this movie, though it is portrayed in an unconventional manner. These three homeless characters, along with the baby they are forced into caring for, are, in their own way, a dysfunctional yet strangely lovable family.

The animation is also beautiful, with a snow-filled environment helping the film fit right in with the Christmas season. I won’t claim this is a movie for everyone – but for those who find themselves growing tired and cynical of the same sentimental, inoffensive films showing during this time of year, you may find it beyond refreshing. Otherwise, it deserves consideration among the absolute best Christmas movies to have been released in recent years.

10 / 10

Film reviews

Your Name.

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Your Name is one of those films that I feel deserves a bigger international audience than it will get (being a feature-length Japanese ‘anime’). Within a genre known for its rather fantastical concepts, this film still manages to stand out.

One might think a Japanese animated movie – the hand-drawn animation here is gorgeous – in the vein of Your Name would inevitably struggle to reach a wide audience… This isn’t necessarily true, especially in its native homeland, but admittedly there are story elements and themes at work here that anyone who isn’t accustomed to the genre may struggle to take seriously.

It involves Mitsuha and Taki, a pair of teenagers, one of whom lives in the centre of Tokyo and the other in a small village on the outskirts, waking up one morning and realising they’ve… well, kind of switched bodies. Cue a number of entertaining scenarios, including Taki’s typically teenage boy fascination with the breasts he discovers on Mitsuha’s body.

As weird and even slightly creepy as it may sound, this fits right in with the crazy world of anime. It’s not all lighthearted and cheesy either; there are points in the story that are serious and emotional. Your Name, essentially, is an unconventional romance, one that feels like such a breath of fresh air in the face of the usual fare offered by mainstream cinema. Taki and Mitsuha find themselves becoming attached to each other’s lifestyles to the point that when their switching suddenly stops, they grieve for its loss. The film then changes tone again as Taki becomes determined to find the girl with whom he had been inexplicably switching for weeks, only to discover towards the final third of the story that they have a chance to prevent catastrophe in an approaching natural disaster.

Yes, the whole thing is a little flustered, but the building tension in the film’s climactic scenes feels more real than in most other movies released this year. As a result, this is one of the year’s best, and certainly a strong contender for 2016’s best animated film. Director Makoto Shinkai also wrote the novel from which he adapted the screenplay for this film; uniquely novel and film were released within two months of each other in Japan earlier this year (the novel in June; this film in August).

Naturally one should approach the film taking into consideration their own feelings on anime. While I wouldn’t call myself the biggest ‘fan’ (a term I dislike at the best of times), I’m certainly open to enjoying it. In this case Your Name’s animation is beautifully drawn (it’s one of the most beautiful movies of the year), and the plot is also one of this year’s most original. Definitely worth checking out on Blu-ray if you missed its recent limited run in UK cinemas.

9 / 10

Previews

Preview: Shin Godzilla.

The original Godzilla, released in Japan in 1954 and rich in thematic influences from the atomic bomb that ended the Second World War, is one of my favourite films; one I can still enjoy today despite its humble special effects. So it should come as no surprise that this is one of my most anticipated movies right now.

Shin Godzilla was released in Japan back in July, and had a limited theatrical run in North America as Godzilla Resurgence. Unfortunately there’s no word on a UK/ European release yet, and as of writing it doesn’t look like there’s going to be any time soon. But I am hopeful we’ll be seeing this film on the big screen over here at some point in 2017. An imported DVD/ Blu-ray copy would be a poor substitute.

In the trailer below you can decipher Godzilla’s iconic roar, almost unchanged from the 1954 original, and a similarly refreshing vintage soundtrack that feels reminiscent of the old monster movies from Godzilla’s peak years. His design, as well, returns somewhat to the roots of the franchise (now 31 films old, including this one), though this is apparently the largest version of the creature yet.

I can’t wait for some kaiju action when Godzilla eventually finds his way to these shores again – hopefully someone at Toho gets the message.

 

Previews

Preview: London East Asia Film Festival.

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The BFI London Film Festival has just finished, and only a few days later, another film festival is set to begin in the capital tomorrow evening. This year marks the inaugural London East Asia Film Festival (LEAFF), showcasing the best of new Japanese and Korean cinema specifically, many of which will be getting their UK premieres over the next week and a half.

Now, I’m a big connoisseur of Asian cinema, as some people may know – the height of Japanese horror between 1998-2003 with the likes of Ring, Dark Water and Pulse, which mastered a sense of slow-building atmosphere and psychological torment rather than the over-reliance on jump scares in Western cinema at the time (horror movies on this side of the world have since clearly taken influence from that period), piqued my interest in horror as a superior genre. Obviously Japanese cinema – not to mention that of Korea – goes much deeper, and in the years since I’ve gained an inherent appreciation of Asian culture. So this kind of specialist festival is something I’m highly interested in, though unfortunately I’ll only be able to attend over one weekend.

This inaugural festival is revolving around a retrospective of the career of Park Chan-wook, whose new film The Handmaiden will be getting another screening following its UK premiere at London Film Festival. Also happening – one of the film events I will be fortunate enough to attend – is a screening of the ‘Vengeance trilogy’: Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, Oldboy, and the world premiere of a brand new 4K edition of Lady Vengeance. Chan-wook is one of the best filmmakers to have emerged from South Korea, and certainly is among the more talented directors in world cinema today. They couldn’t have chosen a better artist around whom to build this festival.

Here’s the trailer. If you live in or around London, or are at all interested in East Asian cinema, you may want to keep an eye out for some of these new movies. Who knows, maybe one or two of them will even end up in my ‘Best of 2016’ list.

 

Previews

BFI London Film Festival 2016 – preview.

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I’ll say it right now; there is an intriguing battle shaping up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards next year.

On one hand, the favourite (quite clearly, for a reason I’ll go on to detail); Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a musical about classical Hollywood and the kind of artistic work that the Academy usually goes for. On the other, an underdog, but almost certainly the film to win if Chazelle’s effort misses out: Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. Yes, that it shares its name with a certain other movie released in 1915 is intentional, as is the poignant choice to make it almost exactly 100 years after its namesake dominated headlines as the first mainstream American feature length film.

Now, anyone who follows the Academy Awards will know that this decision can be as much about politics as it is about finding the best film of the year. And anyone who paid attention to the controversy surrounding last year’s ceremony will also know that the issue of race has been a prevalent one for the Academy of late. In fact, it seems 2016 in general has been a year in which the issue of race has prominently reared its head, with cases of unbridled racism, perhaps naively thought conquered, regularly hitting headlines in the US and – to a lesser extent but let’s not deny the unfortunate side effects of ‘Brexit’ – in the UK as well.

So I think the Academy is set to find themselves in a rather awkward spot come January/ February time. Whichever of the above two contenders wins the top prize is likely to affect the narrative surrounding the decision, and that narrative is likely, once again, to be about race.

I said La La Land was the clear favourite. That is because I honestly believe it’s the one the Academy will choose if they are to choose honestly. Without asking themselves which one they ‘should’ choose. But there is a chance, with the racial undertones of the past year, that they will opt for Birth of a Nation, and for many people it would feel like a victory in more ways than one.

I’m of course saying this without having seen either of these films. They will both be screening at the BFI London Film Festival, which begins this evening with another racially charged movie: A United Kingdom, a British film directed by Amma Asante. When I first heard this film would open the festival, I immediately thought of how the UK had been split by Brexit in the Summer – and the title of the movie took on an almost ironic tone, as if it was pointing out to all of us that our United Kingdom was not, in fact, living up to its name in 2016.

A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike (both of whom I’m sure will feature once again in the acting categories at the Oscars – Oyelowo may well get his win this year) tells the story of the real-life romance between Seretse Khama, first president of Botswana, and Ruth Williams, a woman he met while touring in Britain and took back with him to Botswana as his bride. As one might imagine, it proved rather controversial on both sides, and with the racial tensions of today, this film may therefore be another dark horse to look out for in February.

Those are the main headliners of the festival, but not necessarily the films I am most looking forward to. From what I’ve read, heard and seen, this year’s lineup is incredibly strong, and there are quite a few on my list to check out in the coming days.

This includes new films from some of my favourite modern directors; Francois Ozon (with Frantz, a monochrome WW1-era romance), Korean director Park Chan-wook (most famous among Western audiences for 2003’s Oldboy) with new movie The Handmaiden, and Denis Villeneuve (whose next project is the Blade Runner sequel) with sci-fi Arrival starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.

My most anticipated, though, is the new film from Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa, who is making his return to the J-horror genre for the first time since 2001’s Pulse, with Creepy. Admittedly an uninspired title at first glance, and last year’s festival wasn’t exactly kind with its promised return to this genre (Hideo Nakata’s Ghost Theater was rather laughably bad and a far cry from his vintage work), but I still have high hopes for Kurosawa’s return. Pulse remains one of my all-time favourite horror movies and his films outside the genre have been almost as impressive.

Other films that have made my watch list include: Queen of Katwe, a biographical film about a Ugandan woman – Phiona Mutesi – who proves to be a chess prodigy and competes at the world championships; Graduation, for which Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu shared the Best Director award at Cannes; and Personal Shopper starring Kristen Stewart, the director of which (Olivier Assayas) shared that Best Director prize at Cannes with Mungiu. Also a few highly rated Australian films, including hard-hitting documentary Chasing Asylum (about Australia’s harsh immigration policies) and Goldstone, sequel to 2013’s underrated Western Mystery Road.

There are more, many more of course, but I’m going to leave the rest for the imagination right now. Hopefully I’ve adequately whetted your appetite for the festival. I’m pretty hyped about what awaits, a little tired already thinking how busy it’s going to be, and looking forward to the inevitable surprises beyond what I’ve highlighted here.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be a memorable festival, and an interesting few months leading up to the Academy Awards next February. Enjoy the ride!

Belfast Film Festival 2016, Previews

BFF 2016.

Belfast Film Festival pic 2.

Over the next nine days I’ll be taking some time out of my schedule to attend a whole bunch of film screenings at Belfast Film Festival – and basically write about a few of them here on this blog.

This will include highly rated Turkish-French film Mustang, one of the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Academy Awards, and Florence Foster Jenkins, starring Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, as the opening and closing night films respectively.

Other highlights that I’m particularly looking forward to include Japanese director Sion Sono’s latest eccentricity, the ‘fantasy drama’ Love & Peace; a punk rock band going up against a group of white supremacists in Green Room; Chinese crime drama Mr Six; Colombian film Embrace the Serpent, about a couple of European ethnographers venturing deep into the Amazon and ‘uncovering its mysteries’; and Traders, described as a ‘dark thriller set in recession-hit Ireland’. There’s also the typical selection of local independent and short films, some of which I plan to check out. Not to mention a retrospective of the career of British filmmaker and writer Terence Davies, including a public Q & A with the man himself and screenings of most of his films.

All round that’s quite a lot of film-related entertainment to look forward to in a nine day span. I’ll attempt to translate some of that into written form if and when I get the chance. In the meantime, check out the programme for yourself on their website.