British director Steve McQueen at the London Film Festival Awards. Photo: AFP

12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen honoured at London Film Festival

Actor Michael Fassbender presents British Film Institute Fellowship to filmmaker whose other credits include Hunger and Shame

Writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s spare and subtle drama Certain Women, set in the US state of Montana, has won the best-picture prize at the London Film Festival, while 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen received a major career award.

The festival wrapped up on Sunday with a screening of Free Fire, a 1970s-set comic thriller by British director Ben Wheatley.

A scene Free Fire.

McQueen, a filmmaker and Turner Prize-winning video artist, was presented with the British Film Institute Fellowship – the organisation’s highest honour – by Michael Fassbender. The Irish actor has appeared in all three of the director’s feature films – Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave.

Fassbender called McQueen, whose movies have tackled subjects including starvation, addiction and slavery, “a rarity – both a sensitive and a dangerous man.”

McQueen, 47, said “there’s only two things I’m sure about: One, I’m black ... Two, I’m a Londoner.”

He credited Britain’s previous system of free higher education for giving him the freedom to “explore, experiment and make mistakes”. Students now face thousands of pounds a year in tuition fees.

“It seems that freedom is being slowly eroded,” McQueen said.

Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowo in A United Kingdom.

The 60-year-old London festival has sought this year to encourage diversity in the film industry, opening with Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom. A tale of interracial love and politics inspired by real events, it marked the first time a black woman director has held the prestigious opening slot at the festival.

As well as hosting premieres and red-carpet galas, the festival gathered performers, producers and filmmakers to discuss why black actors remain underrepresented onscreen in Britain and the United States.

Kristen Stewart in a scene from Certain Women.

During the festival’s black-tie awards ceremony at London’s 17th-century Banqueting House, a jury headed by Greek director Athina Rachel Tsangari praised the masterful imagery and quiet modesty of Reichardt’s film about three women – played by Kristen Stewart, Michelle Williams and Laura Dern – struggling with life in a chilly small town.

The director is known for moving, minimalist dramas including Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff .

Certain Women beat other nominees including Paul Verhoeven’s provocative revenge thriller Elle; Barry Jenkins’ Miami coming-of-age drama Moonlight; and Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s poet biopic Neruda.

Raw won best first feature.

French director Julia Ducournau’s horror story Raw was named best first feature. Jurors praised the “outrageousness” of the film, which Ducournau called a crossover “between comedy, drama and body horror”.

A scene from Starless Dreams.

Iranian director Mehrdad Oskouei’s portrait of teenage inmates, Starless Dreams, was named best documentary, and Syrian photographer Issa Touma’s unflinching 9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo won the short-film prize.

The 12-day festival screened 250 documentary and fiction features across London.