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Locarno: Luxbox Boards Competition Contender ‘Ray & Liz,’ Cinema of the Present’s ‘Suburban Birds’ (EXCLUSIVE)

World premiere at Swiss fest for distinguished photographer Richard Billingham’s awaited first feature

Consolidating as one of key sales agents at the Locarno Festival, Fiorella Moretti and Hedi Zardi’s Paris-based Luxbox has acquired sales rights to Richard Billingham’s awaited Golden Leopard contender “Ray & Liz” and “Suburban Birds,” from China’s Qiu Sheng, screening in Cinema of the Present. “Suburban Birds” is Luxbox’s first Chinese title. Both titles were announced July 11 by the Locarno Festival as its unveiled its full lineup. Rapid Eye Movies has already acquired German distribution rights to “Ray & Liz,” meaning Luxbox’s world sales rights deal is for outside the U.K. and Germany.

World premiering in Locarno’s main international competition, and produced by Jacqui Davies at her new production house, Primitive Film, “Ray & Liz” returns to the same bedrock inspiration which launched Billingham’s photographer career in the 90s as the first recipient of the Deutsche Borse Photography Prize: His own family – parents Ray and Liz and younger brother Jason.

Written by Billingham, “Ray & Liz” is set and shot “on the outskirts of Birmingham and the margins of society,” the synopsis says, in a Cranley Heath tower block council flat like the one in which Billingham grew up.

Juggling time frames, it interlinks three true-life stories or scenes which explain the family behind the photos. They build a portrait of Billingham’s parents and Uncle Lol who, rather like the multiple caged animals in the film and Billington’s photo artist work, seem heartbreaking alone and incapable of breaking out to a wider, liberated life.

One part, set in the early ‘90s, has dad Ray reduced to a sozzled bedroom recluse, enamored of but estranged from Liz, drinking three large plastic bottles of strong brew a day; set around 1980,  sweet, slow-witted Uncle Lol comes over to babysit toddler Jason, is encouraged to drink his way through the family stash of alcohol, passes out on the floor; some seven years later, Jason goes to a friend’s fireworks party, is too scared to walk back home alone, sleeps rough, is taken into foster care.

“Richard Billingham’s work concerning his family and the place where he grew up, finds its quintessence through the cinematographic expression,” said Luxbox’s Moretti and Zardi. They went on: “His film brings a fresh vision full of humor and sensitivity that reminds us of the beginnings of some of his peers, Ken Loach to name one.”

Patrick Romer (“The World is Not Enough”) and Deirdre Kelly, a U.K. reality show star, play the older Ray and Liz, Justin Salinger and Ella Smith their younger selves.

Lensed by cinematographer Daniel Landin, d.p. on Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin,” “Ray & Liz” was a shot in 16mm and a confinin, box-like 4:3 aspect ratio. It is a Primitive Film production in association with Rapid Eye Movies, financed by the British Film Institute and Ffilm Cymru Wales, in association with Severn Screen.

“It gives me huge pleasure to have ‘Ray & Liz,’ the first feature produced by my new company, Primitive Film, invited to premiere in the main competition at Locarno – a festival of impeccable taste, true champions of the very best in arthouse cinema,” said Davies, calling “Ray & Liz” a “labor of love.”

“The film has clearly been a passion project for Billingham and is a fictionalised portrayal of his family that, like his stills photography, is both unflinching and tender,” added Lizzie Francke, BFI senior development and production executive.

Davies’ production credits include Ben Rivers’ “The Sky Trembles and the Earth Is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers,” based on a Paul Bowles’ story, which also screened in main competition at Locarno, in 2015.

Produced by Patrick Mao Huang, “Suburban Birds” centers on  group of engineers dispatched to investigate ground subsidence in a suburban area. One, Hao, walks into a primary school and discovers a diary chronicling the story of  boy and the separation of what seems an intimate group. As the investigation goes on, Hao discovers this diary might contain prophesies about his own life, the synopsis runs.

Zardi and Moretti described “Suburban Birds’” as a portrait of an “overwhelming poetic universe that catches your attention and emotions. The director shows a real mastery in his mise en scene and a rejoicing pleasure in sharing an atmospheric story.”

Patrick Mao Huang added: “Though merely three years since its creation, Luxbox has been carefully selecting titles from world cinema and introducing unique visions of new talents to their clients with a revolutionary mindset.” He called Qiu Sheng one of China’s “fiercest” young talents.

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