Latest from Catherine Bray

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Sheffield Doc Fest 2014

26 Jun, 2014 Posted in: Events, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Catherine Bray on her top picks from the 2014 Sheffield Doc Fest: Best Film, Best Talk, Best Q&A, Best Panel and Best Party.

The Millennium Gallery

The story of Sheffield Doc Fest is one of growth. The festival has expanded exponentially in its 21 year life span, from a gathering for mainly hardcore British documentary enthusiasts to its present status as one of maybe the top three documentary focused film festivals in the world. My favourite thing about Sheffield however, is not its size, but the variety. Like SXSW, it plays host to a bewildering array of panels, talks, masterclasses and mixers, in addition to the expected films. It makes it difficult to compile a Cannes-style top ten – you’d be comparing apples and oranges. With that in mind, I’ve picked a favourite from each category instead…

Best Film: 112 Weddings

112 Weddings

The potentially twee concept of catching up with couples several years after he shot their wedding videos is anything but in the capable hands of Doug Block, who achieves a fine balance between questioning the institution of marriage itself, gently unveiling weaknesses in certain relationships, celebrating the people who make marriage work, and exploring why it so often doesn’t. It’s a clear-eyed film that comes across as neither cynical nor rose-tinted.

Best Talk: Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry's In The Best Possible Taste

Managing the nifty trick of making a huge event for a massive audience feel intimate and engaging, An Evening With Grayson Perry (plus Q&A chaired by Channel 4 Deputy Chief Creative Officer Ralph Lee) was by turns funny, illuminating and touching. If you’ve yet to encounter Grayson Perry’s particularly piquant brand of social insight mixed with a dissection of our tribal signifiers that occasionally borders on pitiless, do check out In The Best Possible Taste on 4oD.

Best Q&A: Steve James

Life Itself

One of the most personal post-screening Q&As unfolded in the humble surroundings of the Library Theatre, after Life Itself, a documentary unfolding the late film critic Roger Ebert’s life in parallel with his final months. The film itself left many in the audience wiping away a tear and as a result, this Q&A had a different tone to most: less industry-focused, more personal and clearly full of people still feeling the gap in film criticism that Ebert’s death has left.

The Crucible

Best Panel: International Distribution Strategies

Bringing together senior figures from every stage in the distribution chain, this panel at The Crucible, chaired by Film4’s own Anna Higgs, provided a comprehensive look at the challenges and opportunities opening up in international distribution as a result of changing digital landscapes. Click here to see our Storify of the panel!

Best Party: Dogwoof’s 10th Birthday

Dogwoof are the distributor for docs in the UK, so it felt only fitting that they celebrated their tenth year with a huge party featuring the Dressed Like A Girl dancers and a stage invasion. Happy birthday Dogwoof!

And finally…

Personal highlight: Beyond Clueless with live score

As well as being at the festival for Film4, I was lucky enough to be attending as a filmmaker, with the first feature I’ve produced, Beyond Clueless, getting its UK premiere in Sheffield’s biggest venue, The Crucible, with a live score from the composers, brilliant pop duo Summer Camp. Obviously I couldn’t rank a film I’d worked on alongside my other picks – there’s a small chance I might be biased – but equally it was such a magical evening, I didn’t want to leave it out entirely! If you’d like to know more about the film, check out or listen to the title track below:







Hyena: set visit

19 Jun, 2014 Productions Posted in: Edinburgh, Interview, Talent

Gerard Johnson’s follow up to his cult hit Tony is a dodgy coppers crime thriller set in West London – but it’s a world away from the likes of Guy Ritchie, Catherine Bray reports.

“This little one’s quite friendly, the little one in there.” Gerard Johnson, director of Hyena, is showing me snakes of all sizes contained within tanks in the basement of an extremely grubby former funeral parlour in West London, near Ladbroke Grove. “This one… he’s not so friendly.” He indicates a chunkier python type you wouldn’t want to tangle with. Upstairs, I’ve already taken a gander at a head on a stick, dripping blood. The severed head is of course a fake – that’s the magic of movie-making. But the snakes? The snakes are very real.

Peter Ferdinando stars in Hyena

Peter Ferdinando stars in Hyena

I’m on set for Hyena, Gerard Johnson’s follow up to his cult Dalston serial killer film Tony. This time Gerard’s swapped East London for West, but he’s remained faithful to his lead, Peter Ferdinando, who is almost unrecognisable from one film to the other, having lost about two stone of his usual weight to play Tony, and now deliberately piled two stone and a half stone on to play the lead in Hyena, for a four and a half stone difference. Think Christian Bale in The Machinist versus Christian Bale in American Hustle. As producer Jo Laurie puts it: “Peter approaches his work with as much authenticity as he can possibly put into it.” Gerard is a bit more blunt: “He’s got a big gut this time,” he chuckles, “but yeah, he’s a chameleon.”

In real life, the director and his method acting muse are cousins, and were apparently close growing up, but as Gerard remembers it, Peter knew from an early age that he wanted to be an actor, while his own directorial ambitions developed much later. “But when I did want to do my first short, it was like, well, the natural person to ask is my cousin and we just grew from there.” It’s a successful partnership thus far that looks set to grow with both men’s burgeoning careers.

Peter Ferdinando starred in Tony

Peter Ferdinando starred in Tony

Like Tony, Hyena is concerned with life on the margins outside of polite society. But where Tony was about an unassuming Dennis Nilsen type, Hyena is more concerned with those in positions of underworld power, from corrupt cops to Albanian drug lords. The concept is neatly encapsulated in the title: “Hyena, in Greek, means pig. So, this is a film about pigs, really.” That’s pigs as in police, but also pig as in male chauvinist – and of course hyena has other connotations too… “Yes, there’s also the pack mentality and the nocturnal aspects of the hyena. It’s one of my favorite animals. It’s all about these different packs. So, we’ve got the Albanians, we’ve got the police, we’ve got the Turks. They’re all in their own little packs.”

Despite the dodgy gang culture, Hyena is not a Guy Ritchie geezer caper, nor yet a wham-bam action flick. Through street casting and research Gerard is striving for a greater degree of accuracy: “What I was very afraid of is films like Taken, that have painted a very unrealistic portrait of Albanians. For a start, they don’t cast real Albanians in the parts. They cast Serbs, Croatians, and then just say that they’re from Albania.” Most of Hyena was street cast, with more experienced actors like Stephen Graham (This Is England) and Neil Maskell (Kill List) rounding out the cast.

Hyena, by Gerard Johnson

Hyena, by Gerard Johnson

It’s not just with the cast that the filmmakers are hoping to shake up conventional movie wisdom – as Jo notes, “A big thing for Gerard is to put London up there with Paris and New York – London doesn’t really get that kind of cinematic treatment as much, that loving eye.” In every sense, there’s a bit more craft to Hyena than we’ve come to expect from the genre – you won’t find any Apprentice-style stock footage of the Gherkin here. And ironically, you won’t necessarily find all that much footage of those snakes I liked so much – apparently so much has been shot, the team will need to think carefully about what exactly makes the final cut. Some of the horrors of Hyena, like the underworld violence it depicts, will remain hidden behind closed doors.

Hyena premiered last night as the opening night film at the Edinburgh Film Festival and will open in the UK in October.



Cannes 2014: top ten

26 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion

Catherine Bray rounds up her best of the fest, with films from all sections of the festival making the cut in an edition of Cannes marked by quality across a diverse range of strands and countries.

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner

Timothy Spall as Mr. Turner

As ever, the response to Cannes has been a mixed bag, with some critics declaring it a vintage year and others pooh-poohing the selection. As a relative newcomer myself – this was my fourth year at Cannes – perhaps I don’t have the long-view required to really judge the festival as a whole, but for what its worth, I thought it was a brilliant selection, particularly if you didn’t restrict your movements to the main Competition. My (alphabetical) top ten reflects this, with three films plucked from the main Competition, one from Un Certain Regard, four from a very strong Directors’ Fortnight and two from the small but perfectly formed independent strand that is Critics’ Week.

A quick note about Film4 films first: since they’ll be covered in depth elsewhere on the site and it might seem a teensy bit biased to include them objectively in our top ten(!), I’ve excluded Film4′s Cannes slate from this list, but it should go without saying that I adored Mike Leigh’s masterly Mr. Turner (featuring a richly deserved Best Actor turn from Timothy Spall), Daniel Wolfe’s gripping debut Catch Me Daddy (interview here) and Ken Loach’s heartfelt, timely and passionate Jimmy’s Hall (interview here).

But what about the rest? Without further ado, here are my favourites:

Force Majeure
Un Certain Regard, Jury Prize winner
Sweden, dir. Ruben Ostlund
Ruben Ostlund’s painfully acute comedy of human behaviour is merciless in its dissection of the morals, manners and expectations swirling around contemporary notions of masculinity and family – Ostlund is an expert in making you squirm in your seat with embarrassment one moment and laugh out loud the next.
Read the full review

Main Competition, Best Director winner
USA, dir. Bennett Miller
A brilliantly performed and elegantly suspenseful tragedy, written and directed with sure-footed grace by Bennett Miller, this is among the very finest pieces of really classic storytelling at Cannes this year and its prize for Best Director marks the first step in an award campaigns that will run all the way through to the Academy Awards.
Read the full review

Directors’ Fortnight
France, dir. Céline Sciamma
With a stunning breakout performance from newcomer Karidja Toure, Tomboy director Céline Sciamma’s gorgeous third feature is a spry and lively coming-of-age drama that oozes with character and style.
Read the full review

It Follows
Critics’ Week
USA, dir. David Robert Mitchell
David Robert Mitchell’s second feature is a spine-tinglingly creepy and fantastically enjoyable indie horror movie that has real compassion for its characters, but otherwise invokes the best of 1980s slasher flick tricks in its use of Steadicam and a synthy score to get all the hairs on the back of your neck standing up.
Read the full review

Main Competition, Screenplay winner
Russia, Andrei Zvyagintsev
Though honoured with a win for screenplay, Leviathan could easily have won the festival’s top prize – it’s a fierce epic that binds together inter-generational melodrama, a Kafkaesque fight against officialdom, black comedy, a menacing thriller and an indictment of the political and clerical classes in contemporary Russia.
Read the full review

Maps To The Stars
Main Competition, Best Actress winner
Canada, dir. David Cronenberg
I’ve already written at length about why I like Cronenberg’s Maps To The Stars but to put it succinctly, I just had such a blast watching this film, a wild Swiftean satire on a monstrous, exaggerated imagining of Hollywood, seen through a haze of ego and ambition – just don’t in go expecting anything too subtle.
Read the full review

The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Directors’ Fortnight
Japan, dir. Isao Takahata
The final spellbinding film from the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, this is a beautifully rounded and even feminist interpretation of a classic fairy story about an old bamboo cutter who findings a supernatural foundling in the forest and raises her as his own. The gorgeous Raymond Briggs style animation gives everything a picture-book feel, but the titular princess’s dilemmas are very much those of many modern young woman.
Read the full review

The Tribe
Critics’ Week, winner
Ukraine, dir. Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy
The explicitly violent boarding school teen drama The Tribe seemed like an inevitable win in the Critics’ Week strand from about 10 minutes in. It is a unique cinematic experience: no dialogue, no subtitles, no voiceover – all the speech is conducted in sign language, and yet it is totally comprehensible, an exercise in transcending language that absolutely works as a gripping narrative and never strays into gimmick or experiment.
Read the full review

Tu Dors Nicole
Directors’ Fortnight
Canada, dir. Stéphane Lafleur
A gorgeous and very amusing indie comedy shot in black and white, Tu Dors Nicole is the latest in a strand of cinema whose family tree includes Ghost World (2001) and Frances Ha (2013) – low-key female-focussed slacker comedies with an ear for the absurdities of Millennial post-adolescence.
Read our capsule review

Directors’ Fortnight
USA, dir. Damien Chazelle
Miles Teller is an actor who consistently stands out for his charisma and off-kilter charm in a number of films located far outside the festival circuit, genre-wise – films like Footloose, 21 and . With Whiplash, he really gets his teeth into a properly meaty role and is superb as an obsessively ambitious student in the Mark Zuckerberg/The Social Network vein, except that his area of special skills isn’t coding, but drum-playing, making for an unexpectedly compelling – and unexpectedly plotted – outsider-on-the-rise story. It’s fantastically accomplished work from director Damien Chazelle (born 1985).

Click here to read Film4 Channel Editor David Cox’s pick of 12 Cannes 2014 favourites

Cannes review: Leviathan

24 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Opinion, Review

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is one of Catherine Bray’s favourite Competition experiences at Cannes 2014.

Somewhere on the Russian coast, waves crash against the shore. In a slack-water creek, the skeletal hulks of long-rotted boats jut out of the water. Wind ripples across a bare but beautiful wilderness. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s regular cinematographer Mikhail Krichman captures a lovely pale quality to the light in these opening scenes – there is something distinctively northern about it. But don’t get too attached to the chilly beauty of the natural world, because Zvyagintsev is about to plunge us into a thorny tangle of human lives, in all their inglorious tragicomedy.

Leviathan is a textured and humane epic loosely inspired by both the trials of Job (“Can you pull in Leviathan with a fishhook, or tie down its tongue with a rope?”) and the concerns of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, the 17th century political treatise on the need for strong government, without which the life of the common man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is ironically inverted in Zvyagintsev’s witty drama, as the common man is crushed by the machinations of local government officials who take their cue from Moscow.

This probably all sounds very heavy going. Actually, one of the delights of Leviathan is how often it is laugh-out-loud funny in a range of registers, shifting from sly Kafkaesque satire on the bureaucracy encountered by sort-of protagonist Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) as he attempts to navigate obstructive receptionists (“I am not authorized”), stone-walling uniformed officials, and a court whose judge delivers her dialogue in a non-stop machine gun rattle of barely comprehensible speed, right through to much broader Coen brothers-esque dark farce – as found in a vodka-fueled hunting trip we know will end badly.

Yet the tragic humour, as in Dostoyevsky’s work, with which Leviathan has quite a bit in common, never entirely upstages the sense of monstrous machinations going on beneath the surface. These dark forces are represented with grotesque plausibility by Roman Madyanov  as Vadim, the local mayor who wants to force Kolya and his family out of their picturesque house without proper compensation in order to develop the land. Never has the question “Are you baptised?” sounded so sinister, but when Vadim poses this question to the lawyer fighting Kolya’s case, the implications are clear.

The contentious house itself is allowed to quietly seep into our consciousness and even affections very subtly – I was surprised by how visceral my response was to its eventual fate. It’s an effect partly achieved through editing, one of the film’s all round trump cards. Often a shot is allowed to linger longer than seems intuitive, to the point at which we move beyond our first impressions of the image, as experienced in a traditional motion picture reading, and into something more lived in, with the feel of browsing a gallery.

I’m not often a fan of so-called “slow cinema” in general, but these well-judged lingerings, situated within a larger picture than could never be accused of dragging (at times, it plays as a thriller) really connected for me. I think one reason this approach works so well is that the film as often goes in the other direction, cutting away from the action and leaving gaps in what we’ve seen where instead of amply scrutinising a minor image we’re left to imagine moments of key drama. Its an artistic strategy that ensures engagement, making us participants in the storytelling, and our reward is a rich and hugely invested experience.

As I write, Leviathan is a frontrunner for the Palme d’Or, which will be announced this evening. There are other credible contenders, but this is certainly a choice with which few could argue.




Cannes review: The Tribe

22 May, 2014 Posted in: Cannes, Cannes, Festivals, Online, Review

Catherine Bray is blown away by a Ukrainian film in the Critics’ Week strand at Cannes entirely in sign language – no dialogue, no subtitles, no voiceover.

The most unusual film I see at Cannes is a Critics’ Week triumph that also sounds like a bit of a parody of what you would expect to see at Cannes: it’s a Ukrainian film with no dialogue or voiceover or subtitles, with all speech conducted entirely in sign language. And it’s brilliant.

Set in a boarding school for deaf signers, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy shapes a narrative with an otherworldly quality to it -  the deaths, racketeering and prostitution that go on amongst the savagely hierarchical students require adults to be barely present to an unreal degree. And yet the shooting style is completely the opposite end of the spectrum – long takes observed from a clinical distance lend a sort of CCTV plausibility to the drama and give the grim violence a bone-crunching casual callousness that is difficult to watch. Michael Haneke comes irresistibly to mind, particularly White Ribbon and Funny Games, but The Tribe is ultimately very much its own thing.

The question you ask before you see the film is of course how on earth are you meant to understand the action if you don’t speak sign language? I was astounded at how comprehensible everything is, through look, gesture, atmosphere, emotion and performance. As someone who is generally a fan of smart, talky films and wise-cracking dialogue, it was a revelation – I had, truthfully, expected to be bored and yet was gripped throughout, constantly engaged in what was happening and actively enjoying the process of deciphering the interactions between the teens.

One area which unsettled me and which I’ve not completely made my mind up about was the film’s depiction of its female characters. It might sound odd to say that they were thinly drawn, given that nobody involved had any spoken lines, but their motivations remained much more opaque than the male characters. I never understood why these teens would allow themselves to be pimped by their school mates to truck drivers in dirty and dangerous conditions; it really doesn’t look like the sex involved is at all satisfying, nor the money generous.

One girl in particular suffers through some horrendous treatment and yet in subsequent scenes behaves as if nothing has happened. It’s not as if she’s repressing a horror, but as if it was nothing to her. In the context of the film’s overall nihilism and unreal setting, perhaps that’s an artistic choice rather than carelessness – the film as a whole is of such high quality, I’d really like it to be the latter.



by Catherine Bray

Catherine is the Editorial Director of Film4 Online. She started out in film journalism in 2004 as staff writer on cult movie magazine Hotdog and is co-producer on teen movie documentary @beyondclueless.

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