Film review – Elstree 1976 (Jon Spira, 2015)

Elstree 1976, the latest documentary from Jon Spira, explores the lives of ten people who were involved in the original Star Wars films as extras, supporting characters or inside costumes and thus were unseen. Catching up with them 38 years later, the film gives an insight into their respective positions in the wider Star Wars fandom universe, their take on one of the most bizarrely dedicated communities and their memories of their time on set.

The featured cast includes a mixture of actors and actresses who range from household names to people only die-hard fans will know. The ten are as follows:

Paul Blake (Greedo)
Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett)
Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter)
Anthony Forrest
David Prowse (Darth Vader)
Angus MacInnes (Gold Leader Rebel Pilot)
Pam Rose (Leesub Sirln)
Derek Lyons (Massassi Temple Guard)
Laurie Goode (the Stormtrooper who banged his head)
John Chapman (Red 12 Drifter Rebel Pilot)

For a film where it seems there is a huge difference in the interest in each of the stars, the narrative benefits by giving equal billing to each of them. But then that is the point of the film – it shows the human side of everyone involved and cross-examines the fact that the only reason they are anything more than actors is that they have been part of a great film and the fans have an unfaltering level of affection for everyone involved.

Justice for Greedo

They didn’t realise at the time but their involvement with the film would come to define their lives. It’s something that they have forever been associated with and can’t get away from, whether they like it or not.

The film opens with a humorous montage of each of their action figures, as they talk about how they feel about how they turned out (or didn’t!). There’s also a little controversy with what different interviewees believe is the right level of relevance to permit them to attend the conventions and be classed as an actor in Star Wars.

There are some moments of real emotion, just as there are moments of hilarity. Of course, they offer their own perspective on the film and provide some morsels of tales about the production, but Spira has instead made the decision to give the stories of their subsequent lives the space to breathe. This film gives them the chance to prove that they aren’t just the Stormtrooper who hit his head or the guy whose voice wasn’t quite right for Darth Vader. What makes this film work isn’t the immense details of how the most famous of sci-fi films was made. Instead it concentrates on the human side of each of the ten people we learn about.

It has been a long road to get here for the Kickstarter backers – almost two years in fact – and Jon Spira has been absolutely transparent in what must have lost him many nights of sleep through stress (the whole distribution farce is well documented on the Kickstarter campaign page). For everyone who is now able to watch it, it was well worth the wait.

Elstree 1976 is available now on Blu-ray and DVD, as well as on streaming services.

Film review – Dancer (Steven Cantor, 2016)

Documentary filmmaker Steven Cantor’s latest cross-examination comes in the form of Dancer, which tells the story of Ukrainian ballet dancer Sergei Polunin, who in 2010 became the youngest man to become the British Royal Ballet’s leading principal.

Sergei Polunin dances to Hozier

The film uses talking heads interviews blended with some exclusive home video footage to creature a portrait of a fragile artist. Polunin is shown as a man who knows little outside his art and is desperate to change the future for upcoming ballet dancers who he fears will make the same mistakes as he did. These mistakes led to him quitting the British Royal Ballet Feeling at the tender age of twenty-two, shocking the ballet world and disappointing his fans.

Most insightful are the interviews with his mother and father. Clearly huge sacrifices were made throughout his life to get him to where he is now. The film leaves it open as to whether either of them regret putting him through it, and it’s not something that ever really needs an answer. He certainly has a different life to the one he would have had if he’d stayed in Khersan, Ukraine.

The focal point of the film comes in the form of the Dave LaChapelle-directed video that went viral earlier this year. I urge you to stop reading and watch the video below on the largest screen you can find.

This video has, at last count, been viewed 16.3m times in the last eight months. That is an astonishing amount, but then it is an astonishing piece of art. It was choreographed by Jade Hale-Christophi, a ballet dancer with Polunin met at the British Royal Ballet and one of his closest friends. The purpose of the film was to announce his retirement and have that as his “final dance”, but the response was so great he decided to change tact, and instead wants to do guest appearances and one-off pieces of art.

This is a crucial thing for him. The reason he has struggled throughout his career is a lack of time to step back, ask himself what he really wants, and make an informed decision about the next career choice.

He also spoke after the screening about where ballet’s David Beckham is. I suspect after that video and this film, he need only look in the mirror to find him.

A fascinating examination of a tortured artist now seemingly on the straight and narrow.

Dancer will receive a DVD release in April via Dogwoof.

Film review – A United Kingdom (Amma Asante, 2016)

Kicking off the 2016 BFI London Film Festival in style tonight was Amma Asante’s triumphant ‘A United Kingdom’. After the glitz and glamour of the red carpet, the film’s central themes proved to be an apt starting point for a programme that festival director Clare Stewart claims will focus on diversity.

The film tells the true story of Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) and Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo). Khama is the King of Bechuanaland (the country now known as Botswana) and in 1948 he marries London girl Williams amid opposition from their families and countries, sparking a political debate that led to the country’s independence movement.

Asante is the first black woman ever to direct an opening night film at the London Film Festival, and she was keen to point out the relevance of her being the person at the helm telling this important story.

“[The Botswanians] were comforted that it was going to be told through the gaze of a woman of colour… There was relief, and of course a curiosity, as to how their country, and they as a people, would be reflected on screen.”

Pike and Oyelowo

The resulting picture is a moving portrayal of a changing time in two countries with a message that is as valid today as it was then. True, there has been much progress in the world since 1948, but looking back at the changes in the past 70 years should give humanity hope that as much progress can be made again in the next 70 years. Indeed, many comments from the stars on the red carpet referenced that there is still much wrong with the world and a film like ‘A United Kingdom’ serves to highlight that we should never give up the fight. This is a fact not lost on Asante, especially given the marginal bandwidth available in the film industry to both people of colour and women – something that should be considered one of the big talking points of this year’s festival.

Oyelowo and Pike work together perfectly, each delivering powerful performances worthy of the story they are telling. The film’s genesis lies with Oyelowo, who started writing the script six years ago after reading the Susan Williams book Colour Bar, and his passion for the story seeps into his emotional delivery.

The film perhaps suffers from appearing saccharine, with the story telling us that their love was so strong it overcame political opposition and brought a continent together. The truth is that the film isn’t too far from being perfectly accurate, with only a couple of timeline changes for the benefit of pacing.

This is a story that is one piece of a much larger puzzle that can be filled in with what can be seen as companion films: Mandela – Long Walk To Freedom (2013) and Hotel Rwanda (2011) are two good recent examples. There is a rich history that is still being written in Africa, from which deeply moving stories continue to be drawn in both film and literature.

It is remarkable that the actors and actresses involved knew little of the source material before receiving the script. It is likely that the same can be said of the many viewers this film will eventually reach – I have to admit that I was also blissfully unaware of the history of Botswana before seeing this film. Khama’s story isn’t one that has been well-documented and that is something that Oyelowo and Asante will be more than happy to rectify.

A truly important story told in such a captivating manner deserves to be seen. A wonderful start to the festival.