Our resident film critic Isabel Stevens shares top ten emerging filmmakers worth following.
Léonor Serraille (Jeunne Femme)
“My generation does not have the time just to hang out,” says 32-year-old Serraille. Her debut Jeune Femme showed just how tough life is for millennials without a safety net. In it, Laetitia Dosch plays Paula, a vivacious dynamo who wanders the streets of Paris looking for work after her long-term boyfriend breaks up with her. Serraille is the latest of a new cohort of French female filmmakers to emerge from Parisian film school La Fémis. Although they are distinct in tone and genre, Jeune Femme sits alongside Céline Sciamma’s banlieue-set drama Girlhood, Julia Ducournau’s cannibal romp Raw and Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s tender coming-of-age tale Mustang — all of them idiosyncratic portraits of rebellious young women.
Richard Billingham (Ray & Liz)
If Richard Billingham’s name sounds familiar, that’s because while he has just made his first feature (Ray & Liz), he’s more well-known for his work as a photographer including series such as Ray’s a Laugh which won the inaugural Deutsche Börse Photography prize in 1997. Ray & Liz is a highly assured and singular debut that delves into Billingham’s past. It surfaces memories of his dysfunctional childhood with his alcoholic father Ray and chain-smoking, tempestuous mother Liz. Billingham says that as he never went to film school, he didn’t know how to write a script, so he recorded what his memories looked like instead. The resulting film is an oneiric and visually majestic experience, and while it focuses on working-class lives, it’s a far cry from British kitchen sink realism.
RaMell Ross (Hale County This Morning This Evening)
Another photographer taking the leap into feature filmmaking is the 36-year-old RaMell Ross. But his route to cinema was more unusual. He first had ambitions to be a professional basketball player but injuries during his time at college necessitated a career change. “I played point guard,” he says, “so I’ve always looked at things in terms of movement and their relationship to what came before and after.” While running a youth basketball program in Alabama, he met Daniel and Quincy, the two young men at the centre of his documentary Hale County This Morning This Evening, which is in contention for the best documentary Oscar. He followed them, their friends and families for five years and his impressionistic, stream of consciousness film is an ode to the Alabama county of its title. Ross shows a black community that’s typically only seen in terms of its impoverishment, but his lyrical images reveal a beauty to the place and its people.
Maysaloun Hamoud (Inbetween)
“We will never be considered as equal, so we are in between” explains 35-year-old Hungarian-born Palestinian film director Hamoud about the title of her debut In Between. The riotous film focuses on three Palestinian women living together in Tel Aviv. And while the discrimination they face as Palestinians in Israeli society is highlighted by Hamoud, what’s notable about the film is that is above all about this band of free-spirited women and the friendship between them. Prepare for your expectations of Palestinian women to be squashed with these ladies who party hard. Sex and the City and Girls have been inevitable comparison points but In Between offers a more nuanced take on young womanhood.
Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson)
In a way 51-year-old Kristen Johnson is an established filmmaker – for 20 years she has worked as a cinematographer, making films such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and Citizenfour. But it’s her memoir about shooting documentaries – Cameraperson – that has put her on the map as a director. The film arises out of the vast trove of footage she has shot over decades around the world – in Nigeria, Yemen’s Sana’a detention centre, Afghanistan, a Muslim family’s farm in Bosnia as well as scenes from the filmmaker’s own life. There is no narration, so it’s up to the viewer to make links between scenes and question what they see. And questions are what Johnson wants as her film queries the ethics of shooting people in war zones or hospitals. It’s a remarkable achievement and will be exciting to see what her next project holds. She is currently developing an observational documentary about her father.
Chaitanya Tamhane (Court)
Bollywood or Hollywood films that look beyond the glossy, exotic veneer of India are rare. Independent Indian cinema has been on the rise these last few years, and Tamhane is one of its most exciting figures. Set in Mumbai, his prize-winning debut Court centres on the trial of a Dalit folk singer, Narayan Kamble, charged with abetting the suicide of a sewer cleaner. But Tamhane doesn’t care for the electrifying oratory of normal courtroom dramas. Instead, his attention drifts outside to survey the class rifts in society as he compares the domestic lives of Kamble’s wealthy activist-lawyer and his opposing number, the aspiring middle-class government prosecutor. Tamhane’s new project is a coming-of-age film based in the world of Indian classical music.
Emma De Swaef, Marc James Roels (This Magnificent Cake!) – co-directors
Far from a woolly yarn is the latest from Ghent-based animation duo Swaef and Roels. This Magnificent Cake! is novel in that it is a knitted animation. But that’s as cosy as it gets. The 19th century-set tale may only be 40 minutes long but its epic in its scope spanning King Leopold’s court in Belgium to his new Congolese colony. Swaef and Roels interrogate Belgium’s colonial past through the intertwined stories of five different characters: a troubled king; a middle-aged pygmy working in a luxury hotel; a failed businessman on an expedition; a lost porter; and a young army deserter. The knitted puppets give a cute veneer to the film that’s undercut by jolts of horror and surrealism. Meanwhile, bursts of dark humour make you question exactly what you’re laughing at.
Rungano Nyoni (I Am Not a Witch)
Welsh/Zambian filmmaker Rungano Nyoni’s debut I Am Not a Witch makes inspired use of nonprofessional actors she found on the streets to craft a striking fairy-tale-cum-satire about witchcraft in rural Zambian society. Taking aim too at government corruption and misogyny, the film brings to mind both Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. She boldly conjures a surreal metaphorical dystopia, where the witches are shackled by long ribbons mounted on giant reels to ensure they can’t escape. The spectacle of their white ribbons against the dusty, muted landscape is one of the film’s chilling visual punches. There are some bombastic aural stylistic choices too, with Vivaldi and Estelle rubbing shoulders on the surprising soundtrack. Showing that you don’t have to attend film school to make films, Nyoni won a BAFTA for Most Outstanding Debut in 2018 and also won the Wellcome Screenwriting Fellowship later that year.
Sandi Tan (Shirkers)
“I never thought it was that much of a possibility for me there because there were no film classes, there was no film school. You are just watching a lot of movies and making movies in your head. So I was a filmmaker a long time before I became a physical filmmaker.” It’s taken a while for 46-year-old Sandi Tan to direct a feature, but her debut Shirkers explains why. The Sundance award-winning documentary (available on Netflix) tells the story of Tan’s youth growing up in Singapore obsessed with underground culture in a place that had no culture or film industry. Shirkers was the film the teenage Tan shot in 1992 with a handful of friends along with help from their shady mentor Georges Cardona. But the film that should have kickstarted a rebellious new wave of Singaporean cinema was actually stolen by Cardona. Shirkers circa 2018 tracks down the footage and her old friends. While Tan had an incredible story at her disposal, Shirkers is notable for so much more than its sensationalist subject matter. The haunted mood Tan crafts, the way her film shapeshifts effortlessly into a road movie and her investigation of wider subjects such as the loss of youthful dreams and friendship position her as a vital new force in documentary.
William Oldroyd (Lady Macbeth)
Theatre director Oldroyd’s first feature was a taut, stripped-back tale of revenge that was quite distinct from most British costume dramas. His adaptation of Nikolai Leskov’s novella Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk relocated the action to 19th century northern England and novelly for a costume flick, peopled his story with black characters as well as white ones. The situation of Florence Pugh’s young bride – married into a loveless home and essentially imprisoned there is keenly felt by the claustrophobic cinematography and Pugh’s defiant performance. There are plenty of dark, delicious twists to come as she embarks on an affair with a groomsman. A victim, this Lady certainly isn’t. Oldroyd is now slated to direct the mafia film Body Cross about two immigrant brothers living in London who have to assassinate one of their countrymen.