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last update 17.Oct.10
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Benda Bilili!
dir-scr Renaud Barret, Florent de La Tullaye
prd Renaud Barret, Yves Chanvillard, Nadim Cheikhrouha, Florent de La Tullaye
with Ricky Lickabu, Roger Landu, Coco Ngambali, Cubain Kabeya, Paulin Kiara-Maigi, Leon Likabu, Montana, Theo Nsituvuidi, Djunana Tanga-Suele
roger (right)
release UK 18.Mar.11
10/Congo 1h25

london film fest
bendabilili While the film is a bit scruffy and unstructured, the subject matter is what grips us to the screen. It's the story of a group of physically disabled homeless people in Kinshasa who form a band to express the truth of their lives.

After hearing about the band Benda Bilili, the filmmakers head to Congo in 2005 to find them on the streets. They meet the leader Ricky and singer Coco, both disabled due to polio, and a large group of hangers-on as they live in the city streets and rehearse at the local zoo. Their songs are raw stories about their lives sleeping on cardboard and struggling with illness. But it takes four years for the filmmakers to record their music, after which the band takes Europe by storm while playing a series of festivals.

The film centres on three group members without telling anyone else's story. Ricky is the central figure, with his larger-than-life personality and fatherly relationship with everyone he meets (they all call him "papa"). Coco is a lively figure with a big personality, and that's about all we learn about him. But the main focus is on the teen Roger, who becomes an expert on a single-stringed instrument he created from a bit of wood and a tin can. The sound he coaxes from it is remarkable.

Perhaps Roger is the most interesting person here because he isn't smiley and jolly like everyone else. While the words of the songs are harsh and fiercely honest about the situation on the streets of Kinshasa, the band members laugh and tease each other continually. Roger on the other hand stays to himself, with a thoughtful attitude that's reflected in what we hear about his tough life. Even more telling is a frank scene with his mother and siblings.

The grainy photography may effectively capture the ambience, showing us a remarkable group of people in situ. But it feels somewhat haphazard, like the filmmakers assembled it from footage that was shot at random, then made what they could out of it rather than making sure they got the whole story on film. Still, it's a valuable cinematic document about life in a hidden corner of the world. And the music's great.

PG themes, some violence
27.Sep.10 lff
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4.5/5   MUST must see SEE
dir Ariel Schulman, Henry Joost
prd Andrew Jarecki, Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman, Marc Smerling
with Yaniv "Nev" Schulman, Ariel "Rel" Schulman, Henry Joost, Abby Pierce, Angela Wesselman, Vince Pierce, Ronald Pierce, Anthony Pierce
rel, henry and nev release US 17.Sep.10,
UK 17.Dec.10
10/US 1h27

london film fest
catfish This starts as a documentary about an offbeat online relationship before warping into something much more interesting. It essentially becomes a real-life thriller packed with outrageously amusing observations.

The title refers to a metaphor about how we need people around us who can keep us on our toes. Nev Schulman is a 24-year-old New York photographer who begins corresponding with 8-year-old Abby Pierce in rural Michigan after she painted versions of his photos. As Abby tells Nev stories from her family life, Nev's filmmaker brother Rel and his colleague Henry start documenting this unusual web-based friendship. And soon the paintings start to arrive in New York by the boxload, as well as songs written by Abby and her musician brother Alex.

The filmmakers follow the story chronologically, crafting an inventive narrative as Nev chats online to Abby, her parents (Angela and Vince) and especially her half-sister Megan, an artist who develops a crush on Nev that becomes mutual. But things take a turn when Nev discovers that Megan is passing off other peoples' music as her own. And other things turn out to be lies as well. So maybe this whole family is a hoax.

The twisty story is thoroughly compelling, as anyone using social websites has felt suspicions that people aren't who they claim to be. And it's thoroughly enjoyable to watch these three hilarious and extremely likeable young guys try to get to the bottom of things. When they decide to go to Michigan and get the truth firsthand, the film develops an irresistible sense of suspense. As they approach the house at 2.30am, it's like watching a reality heist movie.

Along the way, we get a surprisingly honest look at internet relationships, including a very funny scene in which an embarrassed Nev reads out a sexually charged chat he had with Megan. And the climactic meeting is like a covert operation that gets even more complicated as they try to get Angela to admit the truth. But would fabrication make their relationship any less real? Or the personal drama any less honest? And besides, this film is extremely well shot and edited, making us wonder how much of it is staged. Not that it matters when the story is this entertaining.

15 themes, language, innuendo
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dir-prd Aaron Schock
scr Aaron Schock, Mark Becker
with Tino Ponce, Ivonne Galindo, Cascaras Ponce, Julio Ponce, Moises Ponce, Alexia Ponce, Gilberto Ponce, Lupe Ledezma, Tacho Ponce, Erika Ponce, Reyna Ponce, Naydelin Ponce
circo release US 1.Apr.11,
UK Oct.10 lff
10/Mexico 1h15

london film fest
circo This straightforward doc offers a fascinating profile of a nomadic family in rural Mexico. And it really captures their hopes and fears as they struggle to maintain their old traditions in a world that's shifting dramatically.

The Ponce family has been in the circus business for more than 100 years, with various family circuses travelling from town to town. But it's getting more and more difficult for them to make ends meet. Tino runs things for his father Gilberto's Gran Circo Mexico, with the help of his brother Tacho, sister Reyna and his five children, most notably the natural performer Cascaras. But balancing circus with family life isn't easy, and Tino's wife Ivonne is finding it increasingly difficult that Gilberto's in control.

While the film starts out as a simple exploration of life on the road, it shifts along the way into both a look at a vanishing profession and a more intimate exploration of a family in crisis. The Ponce children are raised outside of the education system (they marvel at the boring lives of the kids they meet in each town), and they start very young learning how to walk on tightropes, contort their bodies and tame lions and tigers. Tino's first acrobatic performance was at age 6.

For the most part the children love this lifestyle, with its constant change of scenery, discoveries and new challenges. But there are concerns along the way, from how the boys learn early on how to seduce girls in each town to the stresses of complying with requirement that the young children attend school. Even more difficult is the clash between those who grow up in this lifestyle and those who marry in. This is a conflict between tradition and culture, and the way they grappling with decisions is thoroughly recognisable.

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers stay back, refusing to comment on the situation and letting us experience events as they happen. And besides the everyday dramas these people cope with, we also witness a marital dilemma that strikingly depicts how this way of life is at a crossroads in modern society. And how people can no longer count on their inheritance or culture to make their future secure.

12 themes, language
21.Oct.10 lff
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4.5/5   MUST must see SEE
dir Errol Morris
prd Julie Ahlberg, Mark Lipson
with Joyce McKinney, Peter Tory, Kent Gavin, Troy Williams, Jackson Shaw, Jin Hang Hong
mckinney with booger's clone release US 15.Jul.11,
UK 11.Nov.11
10/US 1h27

london film fest
tabloid The events expertly, and entertainingly, chronicled in this documentary not only feature an outrageously twisty story, but they make a serious point about our tabloid culture and the monsters it creates. Or encourages.

As former beauty queen Joyce McKinney tells her story, it becomes clear that she's playing up her dumb blonde image, painting herself as a victim of the ruthless tabloid press. But she has an IQ of 168, and her story boggles the mind. At age 19, she fell in love with Kirk Anderson, a good Mormon boy who was sent to England for his missionary assignment. Joyce thought he had been kidnapped by the cult, so in 1978 she travelled to England with an investigator, a bodyguard and a pilot (Shaw) to release Kirk from the church.

Here's the accounts diverge dramatically: according to Kirk, Joyce tied him to a bed and tried to get pregnant. But she paints their days together as a romantic getaway, claiming that he was intimidated into testifying against her in court. From here the film outlines her bail-jumping escape back to America, her elaborate disguises and her tortured relationship with British journalists. One of these (Tory) let her tell her story, while another (Gavin) exposed her torrid past as a kinky sex worker.

It's a pity that Anderson refused to be interviewed for this film, because he could have provided a telling counterpoint. On the other hand, his absence makes this film all the more compelling, as it both deepens the mystery and gives some weight to McKinney's Mormon-conspiracy theory. Clearly, McKinney is "barking mad", as Tory says, but she's also articulate and sharply funny (sometimes intentionally). So wherever the truth lies, we can't help but like her a little.

Morris assembles this with a sublime sense of style, using elements of classic films, astonishing home movies and, yes, lots of tabloid headlines to pull the story together. And then he reveals that the story doesn't end there, as Joyce talks about her experience with her beloved dog Booger, whom she cloned in Korea after he died. Honestly, combining a story of a chained-up sex-slave missionary with cloned puppies is simply genius. And it's not easy for us to pick our jaw off the floor at the end.

12 themes, innuendo, some nudity
17.Oct.10 lff
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