Temptation and Taqwacores at this year’s London Film Festival

Terms at York start late, but not quite late enough to spend a while at the country’s biggest film festival, which finishes in a few days time. Most attention at the London Film Festival is being given to the Keira Knightley-starring adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, George VI drama The King’s Speech and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire follow-up, 127 Hours. As a Londoner myself, I remember the glee I felt at discovering, aged 15, that not only could I see hip and deep indie films like Garden State months before their national release, but also that directors and stars like Zach Braff would be there to talk shop and take questions from the audience.

But underneath the more fashionable, well-known names the LFF features year after year, there are lesser-known screenings – which feature some truly diverse and unique movies from different corners of the world positively crying out to be widely seen – worthy of more audience time and critical appreciation than they are currently getting. I was lucky this summer to sneakily get my hands on preview DVDs for a couple of films that have been doing the festival circuit this year, and they are infinitely more exciting and imaginative than movies for whom festivals are all too often there as a sophisticated pre-Oscar season advert.

One of these, The Temptation of St. Tony, is an Estonian film, shot in black and white, that starts with a quote from Dante followed by a car crash at a funeral, and ends with a spot of cannibalism on an ice rink. It begins by following a middle-class, everyman office worker in the aftermath of his father’s death, but this plot seems to be submerged by a dreamlike narrative – though Tony is the protagonist until the end. It’s surreal, grotesque, absurd, apocalyptic, satirical, carnivalesque, and, above all, nightmarish. Allusive and elusive, I can’t pretend to have fully understood its complexity, but was mesmerised by its arresting images and the startlingly talented direction of Veiko Õunpuu. He’s been compared to David Lynch, but is clearly interested in a far larger and far bleaker universe.

Whereas this film was horrific, another showing at the LFF is inspiring without ever being utopian. The Taqwacores is about a Pakistani-American engineering student who, when looking for accommodation, stumbles upon a group of misfits, religiously Muslim but just as religiously individualists and punks. The film started life as a novel, originally given away for free, which invented the musical genre of taqwacore. The book’s popularity stimulated the very formation of American Islamic punk rock bands, and this adaptation continues to be both a manifesto and an analysis of the social implications of an exciting countercultural movement. I loved watching one character talk about adolescent musical discovery. The boy doesn’t just love Johnny Cash, he explains – he wants to be Johnny Cash. When he realises that that’s what his passion has come to, he’s “too wrapped up in [his] mix-matching of disenfranchised subcultures” to follow in the footsteps of his hero.

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