• Through the Trees

Glasgow Film Festival 2021 Highlights

We choose the best of the festival from the Glasgow 2021 Digital Edition

Written by Katherine McLaughlin

The quality of films on offer at the digital edition of the Glasgow Film Festival 2021 was so incredibly high that it’s difficult to choose the best of the fest. Festival opener Minari has just been nominated for six Academy Awards, including an historic Oscar nomination for Steven Yeun, which marks the first time this has happened for an Asian American in the male lead actor category. The GFF 2021 Audience Award winner, was awarded to the delightful LGBTQI coming-of-ager Sweetheart, directed by Marley Morrison and starring the terrific Nell Barlow as an awkward teen engaging in a summer romance at a holiday resort on the Dorset coast. City Hall is another magnificent achievement from Frederick Wiseman, as is the 2020 Golden Bear award-winning There is No Evil from Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof.


My personal highlights are the films that defied categorisation or attempted to do something new within a genre. Philippe McKie’s Dreams on Fire (pictured above) feels like a film designed specifically for me. As a huge fan of the dance movie, films like Step Up, Save the Last Dance, You Got Served and Honey once offered me the delicious fantasy of a world where if you worked really hard to achieve your dreams, they were yours to grab. This Tokyo-set dance extravaganza merges that typical formula with a really harsh dose of reality, as the naïve Yumi (a blazing Bambi Naka) embarks on her dream career as a dancer in the city. She’s introduced to all manner of sleazebags through her first job as a hostess and eventually makes her way through the neon lights of the city and its many subcultures, to a satisfying job at an S&M bar where she gains confidence whipping men on a nightly basis.

This is where the film merges into another comforting category of film for me as Yume finds camaraderie with female colleagues in a musical setting – think Coyote Ugly or Burlesque. Yume takes many risks and is finally rewarded with unbreakable friendships and exciting opportunities. Pleasingly, McKie doesn’t sugar-coat how very difficult it can be to even get your foot in the door and the amount of rejection you’ll probably undergo to get there.

Nothing thrills me more than the prospect of a new Kelly Reichardt film. That it took what felt like an eternity for First Cow (pictured above) to finally make its way to the UK with all the accolades and praise made me even more desperate to see it. Glasgow got the UK premiere and MUBI will be releasing it in cinemas (fingers crossed) at the end of May. It’s a film that possesses all of Reichardt’s usual understated charm and appreciation of nature as it charts a friendship between two men in the Pacific Northwest during the early nineteenth century. It’s a beautifully judged Western and film about male friendship, capitalism and the ‘American Dream’ that features nuanced performances from everyone involved including the two endearing lead actors, John Magaro and Orion Lee.


Christos Nikou’s debut feature Apples, tapped into the fondness I have for the weirdness of the Greek New Wave. Nikou has previously worked with Dogtooth director Yorgos Lanthimos and the film shares a similar deadpan humour and uncanny vibe. In Apples a pandemic of sudden amnesia is hitting the public, with the main character entering an experiment to reintroduce him to society. The film is set in an analogue world where people use polaroid photos to keep selfie-diaries and seek approval from carrying out dehumanising tasks from increasingly insensitive handlers. It’s the nuanced approach that makes the denouement so astoundingly profound as the viewer is left to contemplate the very meaning of existence, identity, memory and our bizarre relationship with technology.


While watching all these films from the comfort of my sofa, with only my partner for company for the occasional movie, I started to think about the thrill and camaraderie of the IRL festival going experience. As much as I felt lucky to be able to view the films at home, without the expense of travel and accommodation, I also missed the community of people who I’ve met through the festival circuit – most of whom I would never have crossed paths with in my daily life. Two of the strongest films in the festival examined the impact of loss by showing how community can shape young, impressionable minds. Both are wonderful feature debuts boasting memorable performances from the lead actors and supporting cast.

In Fanny Liatard and Jérémy Trouilh’s Gagarine, Youri (an emotive Alseni Bathily pictured above) – named after the Russian Cosmonaut as is the housing estate on the edge of Paris in which he lives and in real life was built in the 1960s and is currently being demolished. The film uses this backdrop to celebrate community and focus on the effect that loss of it has on Youri and his fellow residents when they are evicted and go their own separate ways.


Packed full of imagination, the film uses magical realism to depict Youri’s state of mind as he slowly draws inwards to keep what he holds dear close. First, he campaigns to save the building, when that fails, he creates his own self-sufficient garden and refuses to leave the premises. Like all good ‘lost in space’ films, it draws on its theme of isolation, leaving the viewer to ponder the loss of the valuable and supportive relationships Youri has nurtured growing up on the housing estate. It’s a tender and hopeful depiction of the importance of community and how it can lift a person up to their potential.


In stark contrast, Jeanette Nordahl’s Wildland delivers a brutal and damming portrait of the negative effects of family relationships and circumstance, examining how a toxic combination of factors can easily drag you down. Told from the point of view of Ida (Sandra Guldberg Kampp) who is placed with her aunt’s (Sidse Babett Knudsen) family after her mother passes away, her new nest is a place where love and violence coalesce. Comparisons to David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom are spot on in terms of the powerful performances and unflinching intensity as Ida is placed in the middle of terrifying criminal activity.

Other highlights included a hard-hitting film that examined post 9/11 truth. After the release of Daniel J. Jones’ official investigation into the CIA’s use of torture in the wake of 9/11 – which Scott Z. Burns charted in his 2019 biographical thriller The Report –Kevin Macdonald’s The Mauritanian offers up a damning account told from the perspective of Mohamedou Ould Slahi who was held at Guantanamo Bay for years without any charges being brought against him. Another favourite, Anders Thomas Jensen’s stylishly directed Riders of Justice has a lot to say on the futility and morality of violent retaliation as it toys with the essence of the revenge movie.

Yang Lina’s award-winning Spring Tide (pictured above) is one of the most cleverly constructed and profound reflections on the impact of differing values of multiple generations on society and progress. It features incredible performances from all involved, as it charts the experiences of a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter in modern day China with delicacy and raw insight. I also adored Celeste Bell’s and Paul Sng’s documentary Poly Styrene: I am a Cliché, about Punk pioneer and X-Ray Spex front woman. You can read my full review here.

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