Were the situation less grave, it might seem like a joke. take london a city made a ghost of itself by the pandemic and throw a party. and so, amid the mournful branches of pret a manger and people talking about moving to norfolk, the 64th london film festival begins. red carpets remain in storage.

One of the darker games of chance in 2020 has been learning which corners of what industries are knocked furthest sideways by the virus. it turns out the international film festival reliant on bodies in cinemas, the buzz of parties and air travel is as vulnerable as it gets. there have been different responses. cannes, after early bullishness, cancelled. venice proceeded with strict precautions. toronto converted much of its programme into streamed screenings and drive-ins. london, cursed by traffic, has removed cars from the equation, leaving the bfi southbank cinema and a supporting online menu.

For the lffs director tricia tuttle, coronavirus marks the most dramatic turn in an already eventful tenure. last october, the festival took place with divisions over brexit at public melting point. as stars smiled in leicester square, protests raged a short walk away outside parliament. now, the problem is the quiet. to have drawn a line through the year would have been understandable. but venice going ahead set a politically awkward precedent. the festival is operated by the british film institute government funding brings pressure to keep up appearances.

Still, in one respect this year simply picks up where 2019 left off. then the festival closed with a gala screening of martin scorseses the irishman, courtesy of backer netflix. now, opening night goes to another maestro screening work that will soon be seen on tvs and laptops steve mcqueens mangrove, one of the five films in his small axe series about a west indian community in london, screening on bbc television in the uk later this year. (another, lovers rock, plays at the end of the festival.)

The film tells the true story of the mangrove nine, a group of black activists charged with incitement to riot in 1970. while the irishman unfolded in philadelphia, mangrove is bound up with the city of the festival. the result is a london film to the bones, as much as, say, performance, with which it shares a setting in the last days of the 1960s. a geography too. both films are rooted in notting hill, home of the mangrove restaurant, a local hub of ska, dice games and brutal, metronomic police raids.

The timing is uncanny. in a year shaped by race and policing in the us, mangrove reckons with a fraught, overlooked chapter in british history. the cast excel shaun parkes playing mangrove owner frank crichlow, letitia wright as physician and black panther altheia jones-lecointe. but mcqueen is the draw, a virtuoso whatever size the screen. everything in mangrove is in motion camera, crowds, england but the film knows exactly when to stop: a still, silent face and the tip of a cigarette left burnt into the mind.

Such may be the function of the 21st-century film festival, offering boutique presentations of the new scorsese or mcqueen on the big screen even or especially when they will rarely be seen that way again. platform neutral is the phrase, the reality, the defining story of modern movies the collapse of the hierarchy of screens, the transfer of power to streaming.

All of which goes double in the time of covid-19. unofficially, the lff always serves as a greatest hits of the festival season, sponsors and journalists delighting in the glitz. this year, the stars are staying put, and as distributors mothball their biggest titles, only a handful of headliners remain. mcqueen aside, londons hottest ticket has been nomadland, the well-regarded midwestern odyssey from director chlo zhao, with frances mcdormand vanishing off-grid. ammonite, british film-maker francis lees tale of 19th-century class and sexuality, is scheduled for closing night should we get that far.

You take silver linings where you find them in 2020. a spotlight on films that might usually have been jostled to the sidelines is welcome. but london is also maintaining tradition. hierarchies die hard. while streamed screenings are available for some of the programme, you would have to brave a physical venue to catch the films discussed so far. (tickets have now sold out.) and while organisers have talked about the virus allowing experiments in democracy, these come with caveats. if film-lovers in skegness or aberdeen can now attend virtual lff screenings, distributors needing to limit eyes on future releases means caps on numbers there too.

Still, if sold out signs remain, even digitally, so do less fanfared pleasures for which tickets were still available at the time of writing. pleasures, admittedly, is an elastic term. escapism is in short supply. witness new order, set in mexico city an inch into the future, crisis already in train as we join a society engagement party. the bride-to-be wears red while insurgents hurl green paint outside, as if the mexican flag were dissolving. power is changing hands. into whose is an interesting question. what follows has traces of parasite and 2019 lff favourite monos, but with a rawer edge than either. director michel franco works on the border of arthouse and grindhouse, his jolting tableaux quite something, towers of black smoke framing a louis vuitton megastore.

Sweeter, if heavy with melancholy, is british director ben sharrocks limbo, a deadpan slice of life set on a last-stop-before-the-sea hebridean island that might once havebackdroppedan ealing comedy. now, the focus is a little beige house on the shoreline, host to a band of refugees, exiled from nigeria, afghanistan and syria. the gulf between homelands and the chapped north atlantic is a gentle, humanist punchline.

But the festivals most uplifting film might be stray, a documentary set among the unclaimed dogs of istanbul. director elizabeth lo picks out three stars from that ensemble as if making a live-action answer to wes andersons isle of dogs, her subjects wrapped up in survival but sometimes just observing the city, a canine greek chorus. the effect is oddly beautiful, a social-realist nature movie with a note of the mythic.

Mythic, too, is a director whose very presence might pass for comforting this year abel ferrara, veteran portrait artist of the psyche at its gnarliest. his new movie siberia finds ferrara working, as he has five times before, with willem dafoe. the actor takes the film in his stride, his wilderness bar owner setting out across the tundra with a team of huskies, the journey transformed into the allegory express. there are apparitions of dead parents, quotes from nietzsche, nudity in a hundred flavours. mush!

Siberia is so defiantly loopy it briefly does the impossible, making you forget the migraine of 2020. still, once the credits roll, you are back in the bigger picture. some version of the lff will take place next week, which is no mean feat. beyond that, all is uncertainty. is the way things were ever coming back? in that, festivalgoers and ordinary londoners are asking the same question.

October 7-18,

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