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Take five: Steve McQueen quintet crowns an art-centred London Film Festival

Turner Prize winner’s series led a programme that celebrated the electronic music pioneer Delia Derbyshire and explored an unlikely allegiance of artist and criminal

On 7 October, Steve McQueen stood on the red carpet in London’s Leicester Square as his new film Mangrove opened the London Film Festival 2020. A short walk to the west, at Tate Britain, McQueen’s epic portrait of London’s Year 3 pupils stretches from floor to ceiling. Cross the river and walk east to Tate Modern and, until a few weeks ago, one could view the first major exhibition of the artist’s work in London since he won the Turner Prize in 1999.

This, truly, is the crowning year of the London-born and bred artist’s career to date. For McQueen did not just present one film at the festival, but five. McQueen’s ambitious anthology films, which he has called Small Axe, are his most personal yet, confronting the institutional racism and poverty that was part of his lived experience as a young, working-class man growing up in Hanwell, west London, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Steve McQueen’s film Mangrove, to be broadcast on BBC and Amazon Prime, examines the trial in the early 1970s of a group of Black activists arrested in London’s Notting Hill Photographer: Des Willie; © McQueen Limited.

Mangrove, which will be available on the BBC and Amazon Prime along with the whole Small Axe series from 15 November, dramatises the true story of the Mangrove Nine, the Black activists arrested in Notting Hill in 1970—less than a year after McQueen’s birth—for apparently inciting a riot during a political protest. The trial that followed marked the first judicial admission of racial hatred within the Metropolitan Police.

This deeply evocative film, in which the drab streets of 1960s west London are made tangibly real, showcases McQueen’s incredible ability to fuse incidental details with fluent and direct storytelling. It’s a film born of tamped-down anger, but also of a searing love for the humour, style and spirit of the streets of west London. McQueen’s roots are beautifully summoned here, and Mangrove’s socio-politics are all the more powerful for it.

McQueen’s remarkable creative outpouring, seen in the wake of George Floyd’s death in the US, dominated discussions at the festival. And yet a vein of art-centred films, from contemporary documentaries to arthouse archival revivals to independent dramas, ran through the event’s programme.

The Painter and the Thief explores the relationship between an artist and the criminal who stole her work from an Oslo gallery. Photo by Barbora Kysilkova; Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The London of yesteryear is also captured in Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and Legendary Tapes, debut director Caroline Catz’s love-strewn ode to the eponymous British “psycho-acoustic” musician, famed for composing the theme tune for Doctor Who while hidden away in a BBC basement as a veteran member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The film combines rich and hidden archive with modern dramatisations (in which Catz also features) and a memorable soundtrack from the performance artist Cosey Fanni Tutti, who incorporates samples from Derbyshire’s Attic Tapes, a trove of music discovered posthumously.

Also screened at the festival was Kajillionaire, the US polymath and performance artist Miranda July’s third feature, a gentle, comedic depiction of a family of con artists as they swindle their way through life on the streets of July’s native Los Angeles. And special mention must go to The Painter and the Thief, the wry, shape-shifting film which one the best documentary at the festival, from the sophomore Norwegian director Benjamin Ree, which focuses on the young Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova, whose work was stolen from a prestigious Oslo art gallery in 2015 by career criminal Karl Bertil-Nordland. The film follows the strange happenings after Bertil-Nordland’s capture and arrest, hanging on Kysilkova’s willingness to make and maintain contact with the conflicted man who stole her work—a gesture that results in a fruitful artistic relationship. Kysilkova told the International Documentary Association that the film was motivated by an impulse to explore Bertil-Nordland’s “battles with being stigmatised” and a desire “for people to see what may happen when you get rid of prejudice”. A strange but potent telling of how, if one keeps an open mind, muses can be found in the most unlikely circumstances.

The BFI London Film Festival took place between 7 and 18 October. Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series begins on BBC One in the UK and on Amazon Prime in the US on 15 November. For details on the other films, visit bfi.org.uk