It takes something to trump Jude Law in drag and Dame Judi Dench as a spiky fashionista as the talk of the Berlin Film Festival. But a low-budget film about the aftermath of the 7/7 London bombings has eclipsed Law and Dench's Rage as the leading contender for the coveted Golden Bear award at this year's Berlinale.
London River, by the French-Algerian director Rachid Bouchareb, is the surprise front-runner for the prize at next week's ceremony after its premiere was widely acclaimed by critics.
The film, starring the British Golden Globe-winning actress Brenda Blethyn, tells the story of a friendship which develops between a reclusive, prejudiced Christian mother from Guernsey and a Muslim father, played by the Malian actor Sotigui Kouyate, whose children are missing in the aftermath of the bombings.
When the parents learn that their respective children were both learning Arabic at the local Finsbury Park mosque, their lives become linked. Blethyn's character finds her prejudices challenged by the fortitude of her fellow parent, and the suspense of their growing intimacy is sustained by the fact that their children's fate remains a mystery until the final scenes.
Critics likened the film's exploration of the mixed communities in London to similar portrayals by novelists such as Zadie Smith and Monica Ali.
Bouchareb, whose previous film, Days of Glory, was lauded for its portrayal of four North Africans fighting for the French army during the Second World War and was nominated for an Oscar, said last night: "After the [7/7] bombings I was in London in early 2006. I went to Finsbury Park because I had read so much about that area and its community.
"I took the time to meet people, to explain to them the thinking behind the film and the fact that it's a human story of two people who spend similar times together. I tried using people from the area as much as I could in the film. There is a varied ethnic community in Finsbury Park. I needed to explain to, say, the butcher what I was doing and tell him he was going to be in the film and what I would need him to do, for example."
But "addressing terrorism", Bouchareb added, was not the film's priority. "It was more a case of the backdrop allowing me to bring together a Muslim and a non-Muslim, English woman, in a situation where they are really interacting as equals."
Blethyn said that she had not met the director before embarking on the film, "but when I saw him he was this fantastically inspiring figure, hugely enthusiastic about the project. I was very aware that the film was recent history, still very fresh in the memory, and that was part of the attraction.
"I now live near Peckham [in south London] but having lived in Finsbury Park myself over 30 years ago, and having thoroughly loved it, I felt a strong affection for where much of the film was set."
One of her biggest challenges, Blethyn said, was learning French so that she could communicate with Bouchareb, who doesn't speak English. "It gave me a very powerful sense of the barriers between communities. I think a lot of Muslims in London have been tarred with the same brush since those bombs. This film might begin to set that right."Reuse content