by Philip Concannon
The occasion of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games taking place in London is not just a sporting event, but also a cultural one. The London 2012 Festival will run throughout the summer and will encompass all of the arts in a series of special performances and exhibitions around the capital, with a collection of new short films by British directors being one of the most intriguing offerings. This London 2012 portmanteau film consists of four new works from Mike Leigh, Asif Kapadia, Lynne Ramsay and Max & Dania (Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini). The brief given to these directors allowed them complete freedom to produce a film that reflected London and the games as they saw it. As with any portmanteau film, London 2012 is a mixed bag, but the finished product certainly is an interesting blend of styles.
Two of the four films are black-and-white, although Max & Dania’s What If does have hints of colour in its monochrome world. Set on a London council estate, the film stars George Sargeant as 12 year-old Joe, who spends his aimless days loitering on the fringes of an older gang of tearaway kids, despite often being the target of their bullying. Lonely and resentful, Joe is at his lowest ebb when an angel appears in the unlikely guise of Noel Clarke, and proceeds to take him on a tour of the estate, to show him the possibilities that lie within his reach.
What If references classic films such as Wings of Desire and It’s a Wonderful Life, but Max & Dania, best known for their hit StreetDance movies, infuse the movie with a lively urban spirit. As he watches freerunners, skateboarders, graffiti artists, dancers and rappers, Joe’s eyes are opened to the passion and creativity that exists in his environment, and while the film might not reference the Olympics directly, the theme of pursuing excellence and finding one’s own means of self-expression is a potent one. What If has an endearing sense of optimism and it occasionally develops an infectious rhythm, but too often the film is stymied by the cumbersome narrative device Max & Dania have opted for. As the Angel leads Joe around the estate, he recites Rudyard Kipling’s poem If—, with the images cut to match the famous lines, but with Clarke’s flat delivery failing to imbue them with any sense of passion, these words never take flight as they should.
Words are at a premium in the second film, Lynne Ramsay’s The Swimmer, which is the most visually stimulating segment by some distance. In fact, the film is so striking on an aesthetic level it was only afterwards that I started to wonder if it had really achieved anything beyond dazzling the eyes. We follow a swimmer as he makes his way through the waterways of Britain, and Ramsay tries to let us share his subjective experience through Natasha Braier’s extraordinary cinematography and the equally rich sound design. Snatches of bankside conversation are heard as the swimmer’s head breaks the surface of the water and Ramsay makes use of a typically eclectic soundtrack, with snippets of film dialogue – from pictures including Walkabout and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – being added to the mix. What all of this really adds up to, I’m not entirely sure yet, but there’s something intoxicating about The Swimmer‘s poetic structure and striking imagery that makes it impossible to dismiss.
Of the four filmmakers involved in London 2012, Asif Kapadia was the last to sign up and he has stated that the short amount of time available to him influenced his decision to make a documentary, although the remarkable success of last year’s Senna may have been another factor. Like that picture, Kapadia’s entry utilises archive footage and voiceover to develop its narrative, beginning on the day the Olympics was awarded to London, which was immediately followed by a series of bomb attacks on the transport system. The Odyssey juxtaposes the build-up to the 2012 Games and the social unrest that has led to an increased sense of anger and resentment among many in the capital. He begins in a London that was looking ahead to a bright future, and ends in a city that is more divided, more disenfranchised and on the verge of some kind of tipping point.
This is a lot of ground for a short film to cover and perhaps my biggest criticism of The Odyssey is also a compliment; I’d have happily watched a longer version that could explore the various themes and ideas that Kapadia touches on in greater depth. As well as the skilfully assembled archive footage of riots, the economic collapse, terrorist attacks and the gradual construction of the Olympic Park, the film looks back at iconic moments from previous Games: Jesse Owens in 1936, Nadia Comăneci in 1976, Coe and Cram in 1984. Kapadia has a real knack for weaving together footage from a variety of sources (the film also utilises excellent aerial photography of London) into a cohesive whole, and he establishes a measured pace that quickly catches our attention and effortlessly holds it for the film’s running time. The Odyssey leaves us wondering what impact the Olympics will have on this city, and what the uncertain future holds.
If the first three films in this collection are the ones jostling for the medal positions, then the fourth, directed by Mike Leigh, is a non-starter. The director himself has been flippant about A Running Jump, saying, “The film is just a bundle of gags really, isn’t it?” – but even that assessment doesn’t prepare you for just how flimsy and slapdash it is. This is Leigh at his broadest, with the film’s cartoonish characters operating at little more than sitcom level. Eddie Marsan is the fast-talking salesman looking to sell a car – any car – while his dad (Sam Kelly) is a know-it-all cab driver who bores his passengers with inane trivia about Millwall FC and horse racing. Although a loose storyline connects these characters the film mostly consists of much running about and plenty of frantic chatter – but to what purpose? The humour is very hit-and-miss and its ties to the Olympic theme feel tenuous, with its only vague point of interest being as a stylistic shift from Leigh. Not only is this his first digital film, but the camerawork is more mobile than usual, as it follows characters who are constantly in motion, and he even incorporates a climactic helicopter shot.
Ultimately, Leigh seems out of place in this company and I would have liked to see another younger director taking his position; another filmmaker committed to creating something new rather than recycling familiar tropes from their previous works. The London 2012 Collection is a more successful portmanteau film than most, and it certainly offers something for everyone, but only three out of its four contributors really have anything interesting to say, and only three of them attempt to make us view London through fresh eyes.