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From the London Film Festival: A Fantastic Woman, Roller Dreams and The Summit

‘A Fantastic Woman’

A young woman named Marina, witnesses the dramatic death of her older lover. As a transgender woman she then is then forced to experience discrimination and prejudice from her lover’s family and the authorities. As she finds it harder and harder to grieve in traditional ways, her sorrow manifests as bizarre visions and a strange compulsion

The discomfort that comes from the ugly prejudice shown to Marina and the catharsis of seeing her stand up to her oppressors is only part what the film has to offer. Far more important is the exploration of her identity and loss. Daniella Vega is extraordinary in the lead role of Marina. She carries herself with this defiant dignity and grace that confounds those who wish she would just cease to exist.

The supporting players  run the gamut of awful behaviour. There’re lots of character you’ll enjoy disliking. Gratifyingly, the ex-wife’s rationalised dislike of transgender people (“I just don’t know what I’m looking at right now”) is shown to be just as destructive and absurd as the hot headed son’s tirades. Luis Gnecco’s understated sweetness is a welcome relief. He plays Gabo, Marina’s lover’s brother and the only member of the family to treat her like a human being.

There are some fantastical flourishes to this very natural mediation on grief. Scenes of Marina struggling against a powerful wind offer some fairly straightforward, though powerful, symbolism. An interesting fantasy dance sequence comes after a particularly harrowing scene. It represents Marina at her most confident, in an environment she is most able to express herself.

This is a dynamic I’ve seen explored before, particularly in Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm, but the film’s message of tolerance and humanism is just as urgent. A Fantastic Woman is a passionate plea for understanding.

4 / 5

‘Roller Dreams’

Roller Dreams was exactly what I enjoy most in a documentary; it presents a fascinating subject matter that I knew little to nothing about and made it seem  incredibly important. The setting is Venice Beach in the 70s, 80s and 90s and the explosion of rollerblade dancing. Venice Beach is described as the only black beach in LA, with most other black families being confined to inner city projects. As such, Venice Beach became an important cultural location for black culture.

In this context the roller dancing scene is portrayed as a haven for black youths from gang culture, drug use and the oppression of the police. Everyone was welcome at the beach and everyone loved the roller dancing.

Key figures from these scenes are interviewed in the documentary, as we see gorgeous footage of them in their heyday. The most extraordinary figure is James Lightning or Mr Mad as he’s known. He’s a physically imposing young man with a terrifying voice and a huge heart. His former associates say that nothing bad would go down with him on the scene. He acted as spiritual leader and enforcer for the harmony of the area.

The footage of the actual dancing is incredible. The music is great, the beach looks beautiful and the dancing is really expressive and bold. The film evokes a great sense of place and you’re given an idea of what the spirit of these times felt like. The interviewees decry Hollywood’s attempts to capture this movement in movies like Xanadu where they had mostly white actors do basic moves.

This is then masterfully contrasted with footage from the beach as it is now. The black families have all been forced out and the area has been completely gentrified. There’s a genuine sense of mourning from the people who used to love this beach. It’s really heart-breaking. They insist that this beautiful movement didn’t fade away, it was squashed.

The terrifying context of racism loomed large over the film. The Rodney King attack and subsequent riots happened around the same time as most of the footage of the beach was taken. Eventually the tension spilled over into beach. The police insisted that they stop playing the music and then started imposing curfews. Ultimately the scene just fell apart.

The film shows the full impact that this has had on the skaters and it’s truly tragic how lost many of them became. Mr Mad in particular really lost his raison d’être, as did his former dancing partner Sarah. The earnestness of the interviewees is really moving.

This is the directorial debut of Editor Kate Hickley and she expertly crafts a riveting narrative out of this subject matter. I was fully engaged by the story of this little community of rollerskate dancers and their lives and it proved to be a fascinating insight into the race relations of LA in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

5 / 5

‘The Summit’

“Let’s not talk Business. My personal life is much more interesting.” So says Ricardo Darin’s Hernan Blanco, the president of Argentina. I would agree, and it is therefore a shame that the film is predominantly occupied with the titular Summit.

President Blanco is attending a summit between all of the South American countries to discuss an alliance to share oil resources. The summit includes the charismatic new Brazilian premier and a swarthy Mexican premier (I do wonder how the various South American countries feel about the representation of their leaders in this Argentinian film). However the summit is being subtly compromised by those evil imperialist Americans!

Meanwhile there is an intriguing personal story in which Blanco’s daughter is having strange fits and seems to have memories she shouldn’t have, all pointing to some terrible secret in Blanco’s past. Unfortunately this side of the story is left in an unsatisfying state with lots of interesting plot threads hanging loose.

The political thriller aspect is very interesting, however, (and I’m always up for having some American villains for a change!) but also fairly dry. Interesting characters are shunned in favour of Blanco’s support team who are only there to provide exposition and unnecessary political detail.

The film was interesting enough for me to follow, but not to remember.

3 / 5