Matt Turner


Documentaries to discover at the BFI London Film Festival 2020

Eight non-fiction features that are well worth seeking out at this year’s LFF.

The pandemic has seen many festivals around the world scale back their understanding of what a festival is or should be. The BFI London Film Festival has programmed fewer films this year, but with films available not just in the capital but across the whole of the UK, will share them more widely.

It is pleasing to see that among this slimmer selection remains a healthy number of non-fiction films, bringing stories from around the world to cinema and computer screens across the country. Here are eight of the best, split into pairings that show the variety of subject and situation on offer.


For his film of the same title, prolific documentarian Jerry Rothwell takes on ‘The Reason I Jump’, a book written by Japanese teenager Naoki Higashida about his experiences as a nonverbal autistic person. Offering insight into something constantly misunderstood, the book finds new language to express something often considered untranslatable.

For his adaptation, Rothwell looks to do something similar, pairing extracts from the book with fantastical sequences featuring the lived experiences of young nonverbal autistic people worldwide. Using evocative sound design and soft-lensed photography, the film privileges the senses, looking to do its own act of translation by finding images to represent the words that bring interior worlds alive.

Taking a similar approach is Elizabeth Lo’s Stray, a film about stray dogs in Istanbul, a city with more than 130,000 of them. Dropping down to dog’s-eye-level, Lo scrabbles around with a steady-cam, running beside the dogs or strapping cameras to their shoulders. Aiming to capture the city as its animal inhabitants see it, through interactions the dogs have with homeless people and refugees, she also draws a picture of the experience of a city from the perspective of its itinerant human population.

Sumptuously shot, with sound design by Ernst Karel (known for his work with Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab), while politics is present, the emphasis on Lo’s film is on sensory experience: what it feels like to be a pup running free.


“I have told stories of violence many times before. This film is a memory for those that cannot forget, and a warning for those that refuse to see.” These are the words that open Ultraviolence, a video-letter that British radical filmmaker Ken Fero has penned to his son, speaking from the recent past. Cycling between police footage, protest imagery, and to-camera testimony, this angering, incisive, if somewhat old-fashioned film resurfaces three of the 2000-plus deaths that have occurred in police custody in the last 50 years, arguing that by keeping the stories of these men alive, their families, robbed of justice, might find some degree of peace.

More sweeping in scale, with Notturno, veteran documentarian Gianfranco Rosi takes on his broadest canvas yet: attempting to paint a picture of the entire Middle East through a series of images captured over three years in Syria, Iraq, Kurdistan and Lebanon. Shot mostly in war zones, the focus is citizens attempt to carry on their ordinary lives despite danger or uncertainty.

Locations are not labelled; each situation remains unexplained. Instead, Rosi prefers to let the images speak for themselves – a slow cascade of stark, stunning, elaborate tableaux that collectively depict the destabilising effects of the various conflicts unfolding across the region, albeit from a somewhat troubling remove.


More than 35 years after Jonathan Demme’s seminal Stop Making Sense, Spike Lee has his chance to re-envision the concert doc, putting David Byrne back in front of camera in American Utopia. His Talking Heads band members have gone, replaced by an instrumental ensemble and several supporting singer-dancers, and, where Demme played up the surreal, stagey qualities of Byrne’s musical act, Lee’s vision strips things back even further, focusing on the people and the performers while also bringing a pertinent political edge to proceedings. Simple yet smart and dynamic, the show inspires joy, sadness and rage in equal measure, displaying the vitality and the humility of a performer unlike most others.

Also reinterpreting a stage show, Patric Chiha’s If It Were Love – which looks behind the scenes of choreographer Gisèle Vienne’s production of ’90s-rave-scene-focused contemporary dance piece Crowd – was a hit at Berlin earlier this year, where it won a Teddy Award for Best Documentary. As well as showcasing the ingenuity of the choreography, which replicates the intensity of electronic music through exaggerated movement, throbbing techno and brutal strobing, the film gives vital insight into the off-stage dynamics that inform the on-stage connections: the interpersonal sparks that make it all feel so charged and real.


Some were incensed by the inclusion of Bill and Turner Ross’ Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets in Sundance’s US Documentary competition, given that it features a cast of actors, playing preconceived roles, within an arranged environment. These same people might be surprised to learn about the conditions of the creation of some of the other films that have played in that strand.

Categorical complications aside, the film is wonderful. Cataloguing the dive bar coming together of a group of all-American misfits over the duration of one extended, alcohol-soaked evening, it is a charming continuation of the filmmaking brother-filmmaker pair’s experiments in non-fiction hybridisation that is indicative of their ever-growing command of the form.

One of the finest films of the year from one of the most exciting filmmakers in the world, the praise for Garrett Bradley’s Time has been – from the moment Amazon acquired the film for $5 million out of Sundance at the start the of year – unanimous, and deservedly so. Following Sibil Fox Richardson’s fight for the release of her husband, Rob, who is serving a vastly inflated prison sentence, the film conveys the human costs of an unjust carceral system with an immediacy that is both mesmerising and intensely moving.

Compressing the couple’s multi-decade struggle into a engrossing narrative through masterful editing that collapses space and time through a seamless mixing of archival and newly-recorded material, Bradley takes something expansive and complex, and makes the task of effectively rendering it as cinema look entirely effortless.

The 64th BFI London Film Festival runs 7-18 October. Explore the full programme here.

Published 5 Oct 2020

Tags: BFI Documentary Elizabeth Lo Jerry Rothwell London Film Festival

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