LFF 2019 Day 6 – Official Secrets | An Easy Girl | I am (Not) a Monster

Day 6 was a mixed bag at the festival until I was pulled out of my cinematic malaise by Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian, director of I am (Not) a Monster. She greeted delegates at the screening of her documentary and presented each of us with a double vinyl imprint of the film. Explaining that she was trying alternative ways to get people to turn up and see independent films, and new ways to distribute them, I lost all the cynicism that had built up in me earlier in the day.

Onto some cynicism…

Official Secrets

Keira Knightley stars in the true story of Katharine Gun; a former GCHQ operative who leaked a classified memo about the USA’s attempt at manipulating a UN vote on whether a war with Iraq would be legal. Gun acted in the hopes that she would prevent a war and instead opened her and her husband up to the threat of imprisonment and deportation. And as for stopping the war…

Official Secrets is a great education into why Tony B-Liar is considered a war criminal (by some) and why Ellen DeGeneres chatting to George W. Bush is such a sensitive topic this week. The film lays out the role of GCHQ, the way the war with Iraq was launched, and all manner of political details that I was ignorant of at the time. A documentary could have delivered the same info but people are more likely to listen if Keira Knightley is doing the talking.

Sadly the film is little more than educational. Everything else about the film is purely functional. The dialogue efficiently delivers exposition with every line but without any flavour or personality. Alongside Knightley is a plethora of Britain’s finest; Matt Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Rhys Ifans, and Matthew Goode amongst others all turn up briefly to play their part but for all the big names there are no characters.

Official Secrets is a solid drama retelling some of our recent history with clarity. For cinematic artistry you might want to look elsewhere.

An Easy Girl

Naïma (Mina Farid) is a 16 year-old growing up in Cannes. Her summer was supposed to be spent working in the kitchen at a nearby hotel and helping her BFF prepare for an audition but that all goes out the window when her cousin arrives in town. Sofia (Zahia Dehar) is a revelation for Naïma; she is confident, free from worry about the opinion of others, and rarely seen in an outfit that is opaque.

After catching the eye of a yacht owner (Nuno Lopes) and his right-hand man (Benoît Magimel) both woman and girl are indulged with fine dining and boating excursions. The cost of their luxurious lifestyle is paid for at night by Sofia while Naïma watches on in adolescent awe.

Nobody in An Easy Girl reacts with surprise to this mutually beneficial arrangement. The supporting cast are more likely to roll their eyes than widen them at the sight of young Sofia descending to the lower deck of the yacht with an impatient older man following behind her. What makes this subject matter a bold choice for a film is that one of the world’s best known film festivals takes place at Cannes and is infamous for having a secondary industry in “yachting”. Give that a Google.

Add to this the fact that actress Zahia Dehar brings along her own Google-worthy underage prostitution scandal and An Easy Girl becomes a document of a world that exists in parallel to our own.

Naïma is the heart of the film and our eyes in the world. At a point in her life where she is trying to determine her future she is tempted to embrace the potentially glamorous lifestlyle of the cousin she idolises. Meanwhile the mundane life she has briefly left behind lies waiting patiently for her back on shore.

With sharp dialogue and sun drenched visuals writer-director invites you to look upon Sofia and decide for yourself, is she “an object or a work of art?”.

I am (Not) a Monster

After being ambushed by director and central figure Nelly Ben Hayoun-Stépanian at the start of the screening we were then treated to 90 minutes of her ambushing various figures around the world. Ben Hayoun-Stépanian is a woman on a mission. She wants to speak to experts about her philosophical hero Hannah Arendt and find the origin of knowledge so that she can pack it in her suitcase and take it back to her students at the tuition free college The University of the Underground.

The resulting documentary is made up of a broad cast of characters all extolling what they believe knowledge to be, where it comes from, and what it is worth. She meets figures including the Lord mayor of Sheffield, a member of Pussy Riot, Noam Chomsky, and a Japanese robotics expert. Each bring their own eccentricities and perspective on the world and can’t help but be swept up in the human whirlwind running the show.

I am (Not) a Monster is a celebration of the active pursuit of knowledge, of debate and discussion, and is a madcap journey around the world in the company of a passionate modern-day Socrates.

I knew very little of Hannah Arendt going into this film and if I am honest I am none the wiser. What I did get from the documentary was an exhilarating time spent with smart thinkers who offered up their philosophies to be accepted or denied.

A bracing documentary about the origins of knowledge.

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