Unusually for the BAFTAs, the award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer is decided behind closed doors, after several private jury meetings to whittle down the selection. It might also throw its net wider than any of the other categories, since its remit is to discover, acknowledge and reward the smaller UK films that might otherwise slip under the radar.
It’s a little-known fact, however, that this award was originally conceived as a tribute to an American filmmaker—screenwriter and producer Carl Foreman, who penned the western classic High Noon and war favorites such as The Guns of Navarone and The Bridge on the River Kwai. An unwilling emigrant from the poisonous McCarthy anti-Communist era of the late ’40s, Foreman relocated from Hollywood to London in the ’50s, where he later became a governor of the British Film Institute from 1965 to 1971. In the UK, he was known as a mentor figure who “godfathered all kinds of talent,” according to one writer, and, though Foreman died in 1984, his spirit of diversity certainly lives on in this award.
Of all the BAFTA awards, the Outstanding Debut shortlist is most likely the hardest to generalize, since the nominees can literally come from anywhere—in fact, the only common ground shared by this year’s group is the strange topography of international film festivals. I Am Not a Witch, for which writer-director Rungano Nyoni and producer Emily Morgan are nominated, perhaps clocked up the most festival miles in 2017-18 after premiering in the Directors Fortnight sidebar at Cannes. The woozily seriocomic story of an eight-year-old Zambian girl accused of witchcraft, Nyoni’s film has fun with naïve (and native) African folklore while also sending up the outsider’s view of the region—a bold and strikingly original take that impressed festival programmers at Sydney, Toronto, London and Sundance, while making almost every conceivable pit stop along the way.
Also racking up enviable festival mileage was Lady Macbeth by theatre director William Oldroyd, nominated here alongside writer Alice Birch and producer Fodhla Cronin O’Reilly. After bowing at Toronto, it moved on to San Sebastian, Zürich, London, then many more fests across Europe and the Middle East, before starting its U.S. odyssey as a Sundance Spotlight title. In many ways, Lady Macbeth is the most traditional of the five titles, being a period view of northern England (despite bearing no relation to Shakespeare’s anti-heroine of the same name). But Lady Macbeth is, like Nyoni’s film, one of the more progressive in the line-up, showing a young bride (Florence Pugh) taking a rebellious stance against an oppressive patriarchal society and—more importantly—showing a diverse approach to casting, with black and mixed-race British actors in key roles.
The London Film Festival would appear to be a particularly popular stomping ground for the Outstanding Debut class of 2018, since four out of the five titles had their world, UK or international premiere there. And after world premiering at the LFF in the festival’s Thrill section, psychological thriller The Ghoul—in which a detective goes undercover to solve a mysterious and possibly supernatural murder—is possibly the biggest surprise of the selection. Genre has been rewarded in many forms since the category’s creation—the rock biopic (Anton Corbijn’s Control, 2008), documentary (James Marsh’s Man on Wire, 2008), science fiction (Duncan Jones’s Moon, 2009), satire (Chris Morris’s Four Lions, 2010), and, to the surprise of many, even horror (Babak Anvari’s Under the Shadow, 2017)—but the thriller has yet to have its day. Can writer/director Gareth Tunley and producers Jack Healy Guttmann & Tom Meeten change its luck?
Another LFF premiere was Kingdom of Us by Outstanding Debut nominee Lucy Cohen, a documentary about a British family of eight, from the West Midlands of the UK, who are coming to terms with the suicide of their father in 2007. Unusually for this category, Cohen’s intimate and poignant film, shot over a period of three years, skipped the festival beat entirely in favor of a global Netflix release almost immediately after. A similar labor of love rounds out the shortlist in the shape of Jawbone, for which star, writer and producer Johnny Harris has been nominated alongside his director, Thomas Napper. Making its UK debut at the Glasgow Film Festival, where it competed for the Audience Award, Harris’s film comes with echoes of Shane Meadows’s Outstanding Debut nominee from 1998, TwentyFourSeven, starring the late Bob Hoskins.
The tale of a boxer fallen on hard times and returning to his childhood gym, Jawbone made the cut despite relatively little support from the press and media—a common trait among this group. Winner beware, however—the Outstanding Debut is a badge of honor, but not a fast track to success. Some past winners—notably Chris Morris—have yet to consolidate their win with a follow-up, and, of those that do, a tidal wave of BAFTA love isn’t necessarily going to ensue. Yes, 1999 winner Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher) is still an Academy favorite, garnering a Best Director nomination for 2012’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and likely to return to the fray with this year’s Cannes favorite You Were Never Really Here. But Outstanding Debut isn’t really a calling-card award. Take 2001 winner Jump Tomorrow, for example. At the time, director Joel Hopkins was praised for his comedy chops. In 2018, however, despite spending two weeks in the UK top ten and shouldering a big US star in Diane Keaton, his grey-pound romcom Hampstead didn’t even warrant a whisper in this year’s awards conversation. But then, the clue’s in the title: it’s Outstanding Debut, not Watch This Space…