THE LATE Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman once commented that “no art passes our conscience in the way film does and goes directly to our feelings, deep down into the dark rooms of our souls”.
His words could very aptly describe the emotive, eclectic mix of films showing in this year’s Screenplay film festival, which opened on Friday.
A powerful collection of thought-provoking documentaries and dramas which invite us to explore the pain and suffering within humanity as well as the beautifully inspiring, uplifting resilience of the human spirit.
Curators Mark Kermode and Linda Ruth Williams return as co-curators to Screenplay and as always are delighted to be back in Shetland.
As Linda explained: “We love coming to Shetland, we’ve made lifelong friends here, so it’s like being with family when we come back.
“We also have an amazing programme this year, but we always look at it at this stage and think we did good but we’re only a small part of it. Jenny Leask, the Screenplay co-curator is fantastic, and she of course has taken over from Kathy Hubbard.”
Mark and Linda are instrumental in the invitation of visiting actors and directors to Screenplay and this year have managed to persuade actor and comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar to take time out of his busy working schedule in London and come to Shetland for a flying weekend visit.
“This is the most northerly place I’ve been to which is exciting,” Sanjeev said.
“I’ve always been intrigued about the Screenplay festival and this is the first opportunity I’ve got to come here because I’m usually working. I feel more comfortable being here with a film that’s actually been out opposed to turning up and saying I did a TV show six years ago!”
Sanjeev is of course well known for his starring role in the BBC comedy Goodness Gracious Me and the British TV show The Kumars, but he gave a question and answer session in Mareel on Friday evening after the screening of the romantic comedy, Yesterday, in which he stars alongside Himesh Patel, Lily James and Meera Syal.
He describes how Yesterday is a film that “is an old-fashioned tale with a twist infused with a great energy from director Danny Boyle.”
Yesterday is a ground-breaking film in that it has not stereotypically cast an Asian actor to fill an Asian lead role, as Sanjeev explained.
“Jack Malik, the lead character could have been played by any actor but Danny Boyle wanted the best person for the job which was Himesh Patel,” he said.
“In this film, being Asian has nothing to do with the story at all.”
Blinded by the Light is another film showing at Screenplay with a strong cast of Asian actors and actresses.
Why then are there not more British made films with Asian lead roles?
Sanjeev explained: “It’s always a struggle for British Asian actors to get lead roles.
“Last month was the first time in the top ten there were two films with British Asian lead roles. They were Blinded by the Light and Yesterday. This is 2019 and it’s taken this long for this to happen and maybe it’s simply a coincidence that these two films have made this statistic.”
Sanjeev is also introducing the documentary Bollywood and Beyond: A century of Indian cinema, which shows on Sunday afternoon, exploring the dazzling yet intense world of Indian cinema set amongst a backdrop of extreme poverty mingling with extreme wealth.
Is there a possibility of Screenplay showing Bollywood films in future years? Mark Kermode has hinted that they have “talked about having a Bollywood musical strand in the festival, maybe curated by Sanjeev. Who knows maybe next year?”
Moving around the globe, from India and Bollywood, Screenplay is showing a wealth of Scandinavian produced films in the Look North section from the heart-breaking coming of age drama, Phoenix to the melancholic Inuit story of Aga, told in Yakut of ancient traditions disintegrating amongst the melting ice within the global warming modern world.
The Look South section has four films from Australia and New Zealand offering a light-hearted selection of comedies and documentary, celebrating Antipodean humour at its finest.
Perhaps the most uplifting strand of this years Screenplay is Women’s Work, a collection of seven films made by female directors. Linda Ruth Williams expressed “how important the women’s work segment is because there are so many film festivals around the world which don’t acknowledge or represent female directors”.
“More than 50 per cent of the films in Screenplay this year are by female directors,” she said.
Fortunately, there are two women directors who are visiting Screenplay this year to talk through their films. Harry Wootliff, who is giving a question and answer session for her debut film Only You on Sunday evening and Jeanie Finlay who is giving Q&A sessions with her documentaries Seahorse and Game of Thrones: the Last Watch.
Jeanie is a documentary film maker who produces inspiring intimate films exploring identity and the lives of ordinary people.
She explains how she “makes films because I want to have an emotional engagement with people. I’m interested in telling untold stories of people you may have not encountered in your everyday life.”
Her documentary Seahorse is a sensitive and emotive portrayal of a transgender man giving birth which is a subject that is fortunately reaching mainstream discussion, but is ultimately a film about humanity and what it feels like to want to have a child and be a parent.
In summary, Screenplay 2019 looks to be a festival taking audiences on a rollercoaster of emotions on a journey to the far-flung corners of the globe showing films that break down barriers and explore taboos yet also bringing joy and laughter along the way.
“Screenplay is not like any other film festival,” Linda Ruth Williams said.
“It’s got its own unique vibe. Every single guest that we’ve invited here want to come back. They all love it here. That’s what makes Screenplay so special.”
Screenplay runs from Friday 30 August – Sunday 8 September. The programme can be found online.
By Alex Purbrick