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Cambridge Film Festival 2021: 10 films to look out for and seven ways to make the most of it

Here is our pick of the highlights from this year’s Cambridge Film Festival programme, which runs from November 18-25 at the Arts Picturehouse, but also online for home viewing.

The festival is backed once again by the Cambridge Independent.

Ali & Ava

Clio Barnard has quietly been producing some of the best British films of the last decade, including The Arbor and The Selfish Giant. She proves to have an equally deft touch for relationship dramas, with character actors Adeel Akhtar and Claire Rushbrook taking centre stage as two people both looking to put testing past relationships behind them.

The warmth and honesty of this Bradford-set drama is complemented by a soundtrack that includes The Buzzcocks, bhangra, and Bob Dylan.


Andrea Arnold’s documentary is a look at the lives of dairy cows, told entirely from the bovine perspective. Capturing the whole cycle of life, with the humans peripheral characters kept at arms’ length, Cow peers into the souls of both a mother and her calf and appraises, without judgement, just what life entails in bringing milk to breakfast tables and fridges across the land. Funny, touching and deeply affecting.

Drive My Car

It takes a confident writer and director to take a short story from Haruki Murakami and turn it into a three hour film, but Ryusuke Hamaguchi doesn’t lack in that department. His deep, melancholic character study explores the life of a theatre director after the death of his wife; while producing a multilingual adaptation of Chekhov he’s forced to take on a chauffeur due to failing eyesight. Hamaguchi uses the running time to relish every single detail of his characters’ multifaceted relationships.


A mostly-animated documentary (that also uses archive footage) explores the story of an Afghan refugee called Amin who’s been living in Denmark since childhood, now with a successful academic career but who needs to share a secret from his past before he can fully embrace his future.

His story ranges from euphoric highs to extreme moments of danger and explores how difficult it can be to leave the past behind.


Named for the traditional, colourful local fishing boats, Alex Camilleri’s timely film explores the crisis facing the Maltese fishing industry. Using a cast of non-actors, a professional fisherman is forced into the world of illegal swordfish trading to attempt to support his family.

The gorgeous Mediterranean scenery is a stark contrast to the morally murky world increasingly becoming the only option in the face of challenging quotas and regulation.


Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul has had a long and successful relationship with the Cannes Film Festival, having picked up major prizes for his films there including Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady, and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Memoria picked up this year’s Prix du Jury, and again showcases the director’s skill for blending the realistic and the mystic, this time with Tilda Swinton as a woman working in Colombia who begins hearing mysterious noises.

Petite Maman

Céline Sciamma is one of the best directors in world cinema when it comes to exploring female relationships, in films from Girlhood to Portrait of a Lady on Fire. This time she tells a compact yet beautiful story of a an eight-year-old girl processing the death of her grandmother and her relationship with her mother through a surprising, impossible friendship.

It features two astonishing performances from young sisters Joséphine and Gabrielle Sanz.


Another film featuring a pair of incredible performances from young actors, this time featuring Günter Duret and Maya Vanderbeque as siblings caught up in schoolyard bullying. Given that it’s her first feature, director Laura Wandel’s child’s eye view of the playground is impressive and immersive, giving the environment a feel more of a prison yard and exploring the lengths we’ll go to in order to fit in.

The Souvenir, Part II

Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical original film was a remarkable study of how difficult personal relationships can shape our lives and careers. In this follow-up, Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne) is still seeking closure so sets out to explore the trauma of her relationship with Anthony using her final film school project.

Somehow this even better sequel, with Tilda Swinton again returning as Julie’s mum, captures not only the complexity of creativity but also affirms Hogg as one of Britain’s best current directors.


The most impressive thing about this Palme D’Or winner isn’t how it’s apparently had people “fainting in the aisles” – and invariably films that get this kind of tabloid reaction need to be talked about for other reasons – but how Julia Ducournau’s film manages to tell a story that constantly defies expectations and switches genres, cutting through the Cronenberg-esque body horror to become a frank look at the need for human connections and relationships.

Seven more ways to get the most from Cambridge Film Festival

Ali & Ava, showing at the 40th Cambridge Film Festival. Picture: Altitude (52374021)
Ali & Ava, showing at the 40th Cambridge Film Festival. Picture: Altitude (52374021)

Surprise film

Celebrating its 20th anniversary at the festival, it’s the best kept secret of the week and the variety of the slot is part of the fun. Previous surprise films include the Pixar animation Up, Bruce Willis sci-fi thriller Looper, Alfonso Cuarón’s incredible semi-autobiographical drama Roma, Oscar-nominated animation Chico and Rita, and even Proclaimers musical Sunshine on Leith.

Gala Screenings

As well as the opening and closing films, each night of the festival this year will feature a gala screening, a chance to celebrate the best of cinema showing in its rightful place. As well as Memoria, The Souvenir, Part II, and Titane, you can see Michael Showalter’s follow-up to The Big Sick, The Eyes of Tammy Faye, with Jessica Chastain and Andrew Garfield playing 70s televangelists Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker.

Blue Bayou features Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina, The Danish Girl) as the wife of a Korean immigrant in Louisiana facing deportation, and Great Freedom is this year’s Austrian entry to the Oscars.

Camera Catalonia

The region in the north-east corner of Spain has a strong, independent identity which has been a rich source of films for the festival over the years, and another strong batch this year includes returns to the strand for directors Agustí Villaronga with court drama The Belly of the Sea and Cesc Gay with comedy four-hander The People Upstairs.

Other films include Balandrau, Frozen Hell, a documentary about a disaster in the Pyrenees, and The Odd-Job Men, which blurs fiction and reality with its deadpan tale of three handymen whose only common ground is their profession.

Japan 2021

The festival partners with the British Film Institute (BFI) to bring a series of the best of modern Japanese cinema to Cambridge. There’s a second film from Ryusuke Hamaguche with Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, documentary Salaryman about the pressures on white collar workers, and the country shows its diversity and strength in animation with ecological tale Poupelle of Chimney Town.

There’s also comedy with Just the Two of Us as a disabled man clashes with his blind carer, and Close-Knit, where an 11-year-old girl is taken in by her uncle and his transgender girlfriend.

Q&A sessions

One of the greatest opportunities of the festival each year is to meet those who’ve contributed their talents to the films on offer. Highlights this year are due to include actress Claire Rushbrook at the opening night screening of Ali & Ava, Dame Darcey Bussell for a cinematic version of ballet Coppelia, and artist and documentarian Ai Weiwei talking ahead of a screening of Cockroach, one of three of his films showing as part of the Producing During the Pandemic strand.

Short Fusion

If you’ve never taken in a short film programme at a film festival, it’s an ideal way to experience a broad spectrum of great film-making. This year’s themed strands are called Cheer, Debate, Contemplate, Embrace, Expand, Journey and Unnerve, and each contains around half a dozen films from directors starting out in their career to more established names including Andrew Kötting and Stefan Georgiou.

CFF @ Home

Petite Maman, showing at the 40th Cambridge Film Festival (52374393)
Petite Maman, showing at the 40th Cambridge Film Festival (52374393)

And if you’re not able to make it in person to the cinema screenings, then you don’t have to miss out on the festival this year. Films from almost every strand in the festival will be available to stream from Sunday, November 21 onwards, available through until December 5.

Whether it’s Japan or Catalan that you fancy, or even a programme of short films, you can also get a pass allowing you to watch five films for £20!

Visit cambridgefilmfestival.org.uk


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