Last Friday, Sameena Jabeen Ahmed was awarded Best British Newcomer at the BFI London Film Festival for her role in Daniel and Matthew Wolfe’s sublime – as in, utterly terrifying – debut Catch Me Daddy. The judges said their decision was unanimous, with Ahmed’s “confident and fearless” performance making her the “heartbeat of the film”.
For those of us who stayed motionless until the credits finished, who had to phone our friends afterwards to help settle the spinning coordinates of thought, who stared at empty notepads with nothing but the depleting warmth of chamomile tea for comfort… Ahmed’s win comes as no surprise. Catch Me Daddy is the most radical, most unforgettable, most unique British debut of recent years. So indulge me, if you will, with this brief list of its virtues.
IT TURNS YORKSHIRE INTO THE AMERICAN WEST
Comparisons with The Searchers are helpful, at first. The establishing shots – photographed on 35mm by Robbie Ryan – show the West Yorkshire Moors to be as majestic as any of John Ford’s vistas. But while the American Western Frontiers lacked history (more a blank slate for Americans to build their destiny), the past haunts Wolfe’s landscape. A young man – of South Asian heritage perhaps – gives a laconic voice-over, reading Ted Hughes’ poem “Heptonstall Old Church”. It ends with coded portent: “The valley went out / the moorland broke loose”.
Laila (Sabeena Jabeen Ahmed) and Aaron (Conor McCarron) are fugitive lovers in this moorland, living in a trailer (the first of many references to Americana). They’re looking for work, keeping their heads down. They're being hunted, we learn, by two cars seen galloping across the moors. Inside are the men from Laila’s Pakistani family and two white bounty hunters. A seemingly simple cat-and-mouse chase collapses into gruesome rivalries defined by masculinity and shifting cultures.
IT'S A MASTERCLASS IN HOW TO USE GENRE
Image courtesy Film4
Part of the reason the Western-in-Yorkshire pays off – why it doesn’t just feel like some clever film school idea – is because cultural psychosis is central to Catch Me Daddy. America remains Britain’s dominant culture, informing the speech, food and music. Laila and Aaron drink chocolate bar milkshakes and their hunters eat greasy burgers. When Aaron doesn’t let Laila go to a nightclub for fear of being spotted, she puts on “Land. Part I: Horses” by Patti Smith, air-guitaring and mouthing to its iconic chorus. Aaron is stoned and laughing. She’s ventriloquizing someone else’s culture, but out of riotous love.
It’s an unsentimental and humanising moment that becomes sickening with hindsight: their fragile love is extinguished by a dominant culture, by violent patriarchy. So transposing a Western onto Yorkshire isn’t just fun for curious British audiences, it replicates the characters’ appropriate sense of cultural confusion. First exploited, then nuanced, the Western is finally undermined when the climactic standoff is brutally cut short.
IT'S SERIOUS ABOUT HONOUR KILLINGS AND SOCIAL COHESION
Image courtesy Film4
Catch Me Daddy had its British debut the same week Britain’s far-right populist party UKIP won its first seat in Parliament. UKIP’s success relies partly on some questionable assumptions: British Muslims don’t integrate into society; the values of British Muslims are defined by their religion; these values are incompatible with British values; and, most paradoxically of all, you‘re not allowed to say these things because then you’re called a racist.
By carefully scripting a so-called ‘honour killing’ – of the kind usually reserved for tabloid front pages – Catch Me Daddy engages in a much more interesting and serious analysis about Islam and Britain, one that isn’t about misquoted religious texts but about power and masculinity. There are no childish binaries, no sense of culture clash; there’s even no explicit mention of Islam (only a brief shot of a glass mosque at the beginning). Laila’s ambivalent father has sent bounty hunters and family members after her, but his and their agency is motivated by contradictory impulses: familial love, blood lust, duty, boredom. The Pakistanis smoke weed and listen to trap music. One of the bounty hunters is a skinhead racist, the other (a tremendous Gary Lewis) acts out of compassionate duty. He even becomes Laila’s hero for a while near the end, a status that’s soon rubbed out.
The film confronts Britain’s social divisions – is this the first dramatization of ‘honour killings’ on screen? – but refuses to provide any simplistic answers or take sides. It knows that the sources of social conflict, despite being so quintessentially modern and English, are much more mysterious and historical than UKIP would care to admit.
BUT IT'S NO LIBERAL WISH-FULFILMENT
Image Courtesy Film.
Just because it provides a much-needed rebuttal to UKIP’s postcard demagoguery doesn’t mean the film wallows in optimistic, multicultural wish-fulfilment. Catch Me Daddy is one of the most depressing and draining films I’ve ever experienced, likely to alienate as many dyed-in-wool liberals as Nigel Farage bum boys. ‘Western’ is its primary conceptual genre, the final third plays like an animalistic horror.
It’s easy to depict something brutal or to deny an audience’s Pavlovian intuition for resolution, but to do so in a manner that feels justified by the tone, characterisation and performances is much harder. The Wolfe brothers pull it off, demonstrating a capacity for formal and emotional manipulation well beyond their years.
TO SUM UP...
Image Courtesy Film4.
There’s been hesitant speak of a British New Wave, hasn’t there? – Arnold, Strickland, Wheatley, Hogg, etc. Well if the wave exists, then the Wolfe Brothers are now surfing its crest. No wait, they’re Poseidon, issuing the wave with theistic fury…No wait, they’re tectonic plates of seismic activity, sending tsunamis of montage into the white cliffs of Dover… What the hell am I talking about? Look what it’s done to me: Catch Me Daddy has undone me! I can’t stop thinking about it. The potency of its world has revealed the poverty of my own.