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At Toronto, Cannes and beyond, a wave of buzzy debut film-makers grabbed critics attention we speak to four of them

Its tough out there on the festival circuit for the newbie director. First-time film-makers frequently face an uphill battle getting noticed amid the noise and the circus of a film festival, and even more of a challenge securing distribution. Punters can be reluctant to take a risk on an unknown quantity in a festival schedule on a director whose name isnt instantly recognisable and whose CV contains perhaps only a couple of short films. But in fact, first features are often the most exciting films in a programme. Rather than coasting into a screening slot on the strength of a directors past successes, first features are chosen on merit. To be selected, a debut has to deliver something accomplished and memorable it has to be a forceful statement of intent.

If the stars align, a successful festival launch can lead to a film that woos both critics and audiences, providing a career springboard for the director and actors while also doing good business at the box office. Recent examples include Benh Zeitlins Beasts of the Southern Wild, which launched in Cannes 2012 and went on to earn four Oscar nominations; Jennifer Kents The Babadook and Jordan Peeles Get Out, first features that premiered to acclaim in Sundance 2014 and 2017 respectively and led to Peele winning an Oscar; and Lady Macbeth (Toronto, 2016), which introduced the incomparable Florence Pugh to the movie world.

It has been a particularly rich year for buzzy debuts breaking out at film festivals around the world. The trend started at Sundance, with Joe Talbots The Last Black Man in San Francisco claiming both a directing prize and the special jury prize. At Cannes a few months later, two first features claimed slots in the main competition: Ladj Lys propulsive Parisian crime drama Les Misrables won the jury prize and went on to earn Frances submission in the best foreign language Oscar category. Meanwhile Atlantics, a dreamy blend of supernatural drama and real-world commentary by actor and director Mati Diop, won the grand jury prize at Cannes and is the Senegalese Oscar submission.

In the vast Toronto film festival programme, its easy for the smaller films to get lost, but two British directors made their mark. Rose Glasss horror Saint Maud was a hit in the festivals popular Midnight Madness strand, while Nick Rowlands Ireland-set Calm With Horses established Rowland as a director to watch and lead Cosmo Jarvis (last seen in Lady Macbeth) as a star in the making. Toronto also premiered Sound of Metal, the fiction feature debut from Darius Marder which stars Riz Ahmed as a deaf rock drummer.

Theres something particularly thrilling about discovering a stand-out first film at a festival a sense that you are witnessing the beginning of a career that could go on to shape cinema for years to come. And on the strength of this years crop, the future of film is in good hands.

Rose Glass: No other medium has the capacity to put you in someone elses head as much as film

Morfydd Clark in Rose Glasss Saint Maud. Photograph: StudioCanal


When hes pleased, its like a shiver, or sometimes a pulsing, swoons private carer Maud of her relationship with God, in Rose Glasss tense, drily funny horror, Saint Maud. Maud assists a dying dancer played by Jennifer Ehle, all the while contemplating her own spiritual rebirth. As soon as I started writing stories myself, they always tended to have slightly hallucinatory, sensual elements, says the movies 30-year-old writerdirector. Glasss graduation film, Room 55, featured an uptight TV cook who experiences an epiphany while tied up in Japanese rope bondage.

Since its world premiere at the Toronto film festival last month (where it was snapped up by trendy US distributor A24 Films), Saint Maud has bewitched audiences and industry luminaries alike. Last Sunday at the closing night of London film festival, where it was in the main competition, the jury president, director Wash Westmoreland, said: This dazzling directorial debut marks the emergence of a powerful new voice in British cinema. A week before, when presenting Glass with the IWC Schaffhausen film-maker bursary which promises 50,000 of development funding to an early career film-maker Danny Boyle described her as an extraordinary talent and said that the films confidence evokes the ecstasy of films like Carrie, The Exorcist and Jonathan Glazers Under the Skin.

Born near Chelmsford, Essex, Glass studied film and video at the London College of Communication, later graduating from the National Film and Television School in 2014 with a masters in directing. The film-maker describes her younger self as an awkward, anxious teen who would always try and look up weird violent films and order them off the internet, video nasties, stuff like that. Darren Aronofskys twisted psychological thriller Pi was an early obsession; a VHS of David Lynchs Eraserhead a gift from her father gave her a taste for on-screen viscera.

Saint Maud cleverly dances the knife-edge between horror and comedy, and Glass uses her jump scares judiciously. The directors eyes gleam as she recounts a rumour that at a recent screening an audience member was given such a fright that they whacked their elbow so hard they broke it and had to have surgery.

Alternately devoted and sneering, Maud is an unreliable and darkly hilarious narrator brilliantly brought to life by Welsh actor Morfydd Clark, who has appeared in Carol Morleys The Falling and Whit Stillmans Love & Friendship, as well as Armando Ianuccis forthcoming The Personal History of David Copperfield. Glass says her early pitches imagined the character as Travis Bickle, if he was a young Catholic woman living in an English seaside town. She adds: You never really know what could happen when someone feels alienated and isnt able to connect with humans around them. Im interested in the things that people turn to to try and make sense of the world around them. I dont think any other medium quite has the capacity to put you in someone elses head as much as film.

Describe your film-making in three words
Strange, sensual and silly.

Whats a film thats really made an impact on you recently?
Jennifer Reeders Knives and Skin its like if John Waters directed a David Lynch movie. Trashy, smart and hilarious.

What one thing cant you live without on set?

Saint Maud will be released next year

Joe Talbot: The film became a project of archiving the city a lot of these places dont exist any more

Joe Talbots The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy


Joe Talbot and Jimmie Fails, friends since childhood, were raised on stories of what San Francisco was like for their respective families. Talbot is fifth-generation San Franciscan on his mothers side, Fails is also a native of the city. In the grainy footage Id seen [of the citys past], and the music from San Francisco, like Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape and Janis Joplin, there was a real sense of love and optimism before things got dark, says Talbot, referring to the waves of gentrification and Silicon Valley money that have transformed their city into something increasingly unfamiliar, wiping out black and lower-income neighbourhoods.

Spurred on by their collective depression about these changes, the pair decided to create a film. The result, The Last Black Man in San Francisco, is a gorgeous, sprawling love letter to a Victorian townhouse in the citys historic and rapidly transforming Fillmore district. Talbot writes and directs, while the story is based on the experiences of Fails, who also stars as a fictionalised version of himself trying, with friend Montgomery (Jonathan Majors), to reclaim a house that may or may not have been built by Failss grandfather. Shot on location, Talbot says the film accidentally became the project of archiving the city, because a lot of those places dont exist any more. It was a huge hit at Sundance in January, where it won two awards, including best director, and has since received rave reviews. In June, Rolling Stone called it one of the best movies of the year.

Talbot had an unconventional path into film-making. He attended the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts, but was, by his own admission, kind of a nuisance, and so dropped out. I grew up in a family of journalists and writers who loved movies, so when we werent discussing politics at the dinner table, we were talking about movies and music, he says. His interest in film-making was inspired by an uncle he describes as the family documentarian, whose camera he used to borrow.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco began life in 2014 as a funky concept trailer that drummed up plenty of excitement but not enough money to shoot a feature. It was Talbots second short, American Paradise, that led to his breakthrough meeting with Brad Pitts Plan B production company, which then partnered with A24 films (whose hits include the Oscar-winning Moonlight) to give The Last Black Man in San Francisco the backing it needed.

Talbots debut takes a poetic, emotional approach to the problem of gentrification, which is perhaps why the film is resonating so widely. Gentrification is often discussed as statistics, but its smells, its people that used to sit on their stoops, its neighbourhood characters, its buildings you loved that were part of your upbringing that are gutted, he says. We wanted the movie to feel like it was out of Jimmies heart.

Do you have a role model?
Hal Ashby is someone I look to. Its the empathy his films have for their characters even the mean ones are treated with love.

Who would be your dream actor to work with?
Joaquin Phoenix.

What one thing cant you live without on set?
My Giants hat. SH

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is released on Friday

Nick Rowland: I must be the only person to tell their mother I want to direct films and for her to be relieved

Barry Keoghan and Cosmo Jarvis in Calm With Horses. Photograph: Toronto International Film Festival


Calm With Horses, the first feature from Nick Rowland, is a blistering debut. The film, which was executive produced by Michael Fassbender, gives a vivid account of a fateful chapter in the life of a slow-witted heavy called Arm (a revelatory performance from Cosmo Jarvis). He must juggle his allegiance to a toxic criminal family that has embraced him as one of their own against his responsibilities to his ex-girlfriend and their autistic son.

The film balances a small-town Ireland setting against big themes, crackling humour against aching pathos and casual violence against an empathetic core. Rowlands work with actors Jarvis co-stars with Barry Keoghan and Niamh Algar, both excellent is first rate; the level of film-making craft, particularly in the use of sound, is superb. It feels like the work of a director who was born to make movies.

But in fact, Rowlands route into cinema was circuitous. Film school came after he had already spent several years as a professional rally driver racing in the Chinese Rally Championship and the British Rally Championship. I think I must be the only person ever to tell their mother I want to be a film director and for her to be relieved because it was a less risky option than what I was already doing, he says.

Rowland followed his rally career with a stint as a tour guide in an aquarium (a low point was having to dress as Neptune for World Oceans Day) and lived with his mother, who had moved from the Midlands, where Rowland grew up, to Banff in Scotland. Because I was away from my friends, I watched lots of movies. And that was the first time I engaged with film properly. At a career crossroads, Rowland idly took an online multiple choice quiz which suggested that he should be a librarian or a film-maker. He picked the latter and in 2015 graduated from the National Film and Television School.

It was when he was developing another screenplay that he stumbled on a collection of writing by Colin Barrett, which contained the short story Calm With Horses. I am dyslexic. I find reading really hard, says Rowland. But I read the whole collection in an afternoon, which is rare for me. And it was quite an instant reaction that this would make a good film. This contrast of a criminal world and a melancholy emotional heart. It felt really fresh.

Why film?
I think film is the best way to build empathy. I am very emotionally driven and go to the cinema to feel things. To feel what it is like to be someone else.

What film recently made an impact on you?
I saw Saint Maud at Toronto and I thought it was astonishing. I went to film school with Rose [Glass, director]. You can see a line with her work back to her shorts. Its inspiring to see how her voice has developed.

What one thing cant you live without on set?
Hand sanitiser. Lots of hand sanitiser.

Calm With Horses is released next year

Mati Diop: Were talking about a generation that has disappeared, and that necessarily haunts the living

Mame Bineta Sane in Mati Diops Atlantics. Photograph: Les Films du Bal


In Mati Diops eerie, atmospheric first feature, Atlantics, the ocean appears as an ominous presence, deceptively sparkling and calm. The French-Senegalese director first turned her camera on migrants dangerous boat journeys to Europe in her 2009 documentary short, Atlantiques. This time, however, she has turned her attention back towards the shore, to the women left behind; the story of Penelope, not Odysseus.

I wanted to tell the story from a feminine point of view, Diop says, when we meet ahead of the UK premiere at the London film festival, where it went on to win best first feature. It was not a theoretical feminist approach it was more personal. While visiting her family in Dakar, aged 25, after a 10-year absence, she was struck by the number of young people ready to risk their lives at sea. She knew she wanted to tell their story, but didnt want her film to follow them into the boat: Its not my place, I dont have a right to be there.

Earlier in the year, Diop made headlines as the first black female director to compete for the Palme dOr at Cannes in the festivals 72-year history. Today, she politely but firmly moves the conversation on: It was understandable that it took a lot of space at the time, but now that everybody knows, I think it shouldnt be a subject any more. The film won the Grand Prix, the festivals second most prestigious prize, then last month, at the Toronto film festival, Diop received the inaugural Mary Pickford award recognising outstanding female talent. There, the festivals artistic director, Cameron Bailey, said: Atlantics is a profound and unsettling work of art. We know this is just the start for such an original and authentic voice. Now the film has been selected as the Senegalese entry for next years Academy Awards. The reception in Senegal, says Diop, has been very, very positive people recognised themselves.

The Paris-based director, 37, has been making films since 2004. The niece of Senegalese film-maker Djibril Diop Mambty, for her 2013 documentary, A Thousand Suns, Diop tracked down the lead actor from Mambtys 1973 film Touki Bouki. Diop herself has worked as an actor, starring in films including Simon Killer (2012, opposite Brady Corbet) and Claire Deniss 35 Shots of Rum (2008). Over the years, Denis has become something of a mentor; her influence permeates Diops sensual, sensorial shots.

Atlantics is a moving take on the refugee crisis. It is a ghost love story focusing on 17-year-old Ada (Mama Bineta San), promised to a wealthy man but in love with construction worker Souleiman (Ibrahima Traor), who attempts a fateful journey to Spain; when the boat goes missing, supernatural events envelop the city. The ghost dimension was inherent in the situation, says Diop. Were talking about a generation that has disappeared, and that necessarily haunts the living. The romance between Ada and Souleiman was just as important. I really wanted to tell a love story. I felt that through this story, it could really become universal, mythical.

What film recently made an impact on you?
The films of Kleber Mendona Filho [whose western Bacurau was at Cannes this year].

Who would be your dream actor to work with?
I dont know him yet. My ideal actor to shoot is somebody Ive never seen before.

Do you have a role model?
Jordan Peele hes a genius and has an incredible political vision.

Atlantics will be in selected cinemas and on Netflix on 29 November

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/oct/20/meet-the-new-directors-who-lit-up-the-film-festivals