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LONDON – U.K.-based Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski‘s Ida won this year’s top prize at the BFI London Film Festival’s official competition, walking off Saturday evening with the best film nod.
The prizes were presented at a high-profile awards ceremony held at the Banqueting House, Whitehall in central London, a place normally associated with the British capital’s mayor and political dinners.
Aiming to celebrate the “most original, intelligent and distinctive filmmaking,” the best film award was announced by Philip French, president of the official competition jury, who himself was recently awarded a BFI Fellowship.
French said his jury had “greatly admired” Pawlikowski’s first film made in his native Poland by a director who came to prominence while living in Britain.
“We were deeply moved by a courageous film that handles, with subtlety and insight, a painfully controversial historical situation – the German occupation and the Holocaust – which continues to resonate,” French said. “Special praise went to his use of immersive visual language to create a lasting emotional impact.”
Pawlikowski said that people had had doubts about a black-and-white film shot with a camera that doesn’t move and actors unknown outside Poland. Some said it could turn out to be “a little bit of professional hara-kiri,” he said. “But that doesn’t seem to be the case, so I’m really relieved.”
Best British newcomer went to screenwriter Jonathan Asser for his uncompromising U.K. prison drama Starred Up, directed by David Mackenzie. The award was presented by Saoirse Ronan.
The best British newcomer award honors new and emerging film talent, recognizing the achievements of a new writer, producer, director, actor or actress.
The movie’s title refers to the practice of placing violent young offenders prematurely in adult prison. Fox Searchlight picked up U.S. rights to the Channel Four-backed movie after it screened at Telluride and Toronto earlier this year.
The jury president, movie producer Amanda Posey, noted that Asser’s original story was “told with an individual and authentic voice, at once moving, provocative and always gripping.”
Said Posey: “The material, even from a new screenwriter, was intelligent and distinctive enough to attract very high quality filmmaking talent and actors, and to help elicit extraordinary work from all involved. The whole jury felt Jonathan Asser brought a fresh, resonant and surprising perspective to a classic conflict.”
“It’s wonderful to be a newcomer at 49,” said Asser, a psychotherapist who used to work with violent gang members in the largest U.K. prison, when accepting his award. He also said that he was “very, very concerned” about the British prison system.
The jury also highly commended the performances of nominees Conner Chapman and Shaun Thomas for their roles in The Selfish Giant.
The Sutherland Award to honor the best first feature went to Anthony Chen, director of Ilo Ilo, a film billed as a devastating study of a modern affluent family and its vulnerabilities in Singapore.
The Sutherland Award is presented to the director of the most original and imaginative feature debut across the festival.
Jury president Elizabeth Karlsen said, “The startlingly assured direction and screenwriting of the winning film surprised us all. Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo also chose a domestic canvas, but the imaginative and innovative voice of this filmmaker elevated the film technically and narratively, and made us wonder at the fragile nature of family life in this modern Singapore tale.”
Chen said that he has had many challenges as well as much success with his film, including technical problems during its Cannes Directors’ Fortnight screening this year before winning the Camera d’Or award, and during another screening. “A good friend was right: We have had the worst luck and the best luck in the world,” he said about the technical problems and awards.
The Grierson Award for best documentary went to My Fathers, My Mother and Me, a portrait of Friedrichshof, the largest commune in Europe, founded by the Viennese actionist Otto Muehl in the 1970s and the devastating emotional effects it had on its residents.
Jury president Kate Ogborn said she and the jury wanted to recognize the bravery of filmmaker Paul-Julien Robert for “taking us on such a personal journey with the documentary.”
“It is a thought-provoking and disturbing film, intimate while also raising larger questions of power, parental responsibility and abuse,” said Ogborn. “The incredible archive footage combined with the personal journey of a mother and son left us disturbed, angry and feeling that this is a film that deserves to be seen by a wider audience.”
“I am speechless,” said Robert, the Vienna-based filmmaker whose documentary was inspired by his childhood years in the commune in the 1970s. “In these moments, you need the producer,” he added to applause, and he waved on-stage his producer, Oliver Neumann, who told the crowd that he was also speechless. He added that it was his first time in London. “It’s really a great city,” he said to many smiles.
Screen legend Sir Christopher Lee was on hand to pick up his BFI Fellowship, awarded to individuals in recognition of their outstanding contribution to film or television; it’s the highest accolade that the BFI bestows.
BFI chief executive Amanda Nevill said, “The BFI Fellowship is awarded to those at the pinnacle of their profession. It is a truly illustrious moment to be honoring Sir Christopher Lee for his enormous and unique contribution to film during a festival that is committed to excellence.”
Guests attending included Miranda Richardson, Rodrigo Prieto, Stephen Dillane, Saoirse Ronan, Susanna White, Jim Broadbent, Colin Salmon, Lone Scherfig, Deborah Moggach and Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt at the ceremony, which has been held as a standalone celebration the evening before the BFI Lfestival’s closing-night shindig for three years.
Among the other attendees of the awards event were American Film Institute board of trustees chair and former Sony Corp. boss Howard Stringer, BFI chairman Greg Dyke and IMDb CEO Col Needham.
The Star of London award was commissioned especially for the festival and designed by sculptor Almuth Tebbenhoff.
The awards ceremony host was Absolutely Fabulous star Joanna Lumley, who called London “the home of cinema.” She quipped that the London festival was “just that little bit more British, a little bit less embarrassingly brash.”
Drawing a comparison to one of the world’s biggest festivals, she asked if anyone in attendance had recently tried to catch a film at the Cannes Film Festival. “You have to fly EasyJet to Nice, you have to get a connecting bus service,” she said. At the London Film Festival, locals simply need to get out their subway tickets, enjoy great movies and be home in time for the late evening news show, she said.
Lumley also lauded the cinema experience as offering “total immersion” in a movie. “Who are these people who pay 20 pounds and then spend the movie tweeting and texting!?” she said.
Lumley also lauded British leading men for currently playing Spider-Man, Superman and Batman. “Christian Bale, Andrew Garfield and well, call me, Henry Cavill,” she said.
The actress emphasized that the film industry puts $7.4 billion (4.6 billion pounds) into the British economy. “Go easy on the Pinot Grigio this evening,” she recommended to the audience. “Because if you people feel a little bit groggy tomorrow morning and your work suffers, the [U.K. version of the treasury secretary] might have to sell Scotland to the Chinese.”
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