A statue of an angel clutching a golden palm stands in front of the Carlton hotel before the 68th annual Cannes film festival. Photograph: Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA
An emerging British film-maker will walk the red carpet in Cannes after her graduation work received the ultimate accolade of being picked for the short film competition.
Eva Riley, 28, graduated from the National Film and Television School (NFTS) this year. A 15-minute film she wrote and directed for her master’s degree was singled out from more than 4, 550 submissions from more than 100 countries.
Patriot – about a far-right group – will be premiered at the 68th film festival, which opens on Wednesday. It is one of only nine films shortlisted for the short film Palme d’Or, to be awarded on 24 May. “I’m overwhelmed, ” she told the Guardian. “It’s amazing to be one of the nine chosen.”
Riley, who was born in Edinburgh and whose mother is a translator and historical researcher, lives in Brighton, where she is developing feature film ideas. Her brother is a film editor, but there are no other family links to the industry. Asked about the films that have inspired her, she singled out Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 classic Bicycle Thieves, a study of poverty in postwar Rome.
Riley graduated in February from the NFTS, the Buckinghamshire institution that has trained some of Britain’s foremost film-makers. Its Oscar-winning alumni include the animator Nick Park, who found fame with Wallace & Gromit, and the director Michael Radford, who made Il Postino. In 1996, another graduate, Lynne Ramsay, won the Cannes Prix du Jury for her graduation short film, Small Deaths. She went on to make her name as one of the industry’s most innovative independent film-makers with her debut feature, Ratcatcher.Patriot is one of nine films in the short film category. Photograph: Reuters
Patriot, which is set over a single afternoon, tells the story of an 11-year-old girl called Hannah whose father leads a far-right group. She wears an England flag and, when he is rallying his followers for a protest in London, is upset at being pushed out because she is too young. Setting off on her bicycle, she heads for the countryside where she encounters a boy from the Roma community among migrant workers picking vegetables. The meeting turns her world upside down.
Amid current debates on Scottish independence, British identity and immigration, the story is particularly topical. Riley said: “I had an image of a little girl with an England flag on her back. I thought it would be interesting to look at a young girl who grew up in a nationalist family.” It is a very sensitive subject, she said, portrayed through the eyes of children.
She found her lead actress – 11-year-old Halle Kidd – through Spotlight, a casting resource that lists children among 60, 000 performers. Although Kidd is a dancer and had never acted before, Riley was captivated by her “very striking face”. She said: “There was something about her. She had a natural reaction when improvising.”
The boy is played by Rafael Constantin, 12. Riley cast him after visiting the Hangout, a youth centre in Slough, frequented by many children from the Roma community. She said: “They were really excited about showing the Roma community in a different light. I went along every week for six weeks. I’d meet all the boys, who are really lively and fun to hang out with. We’d do improvisation. It was very casual.” Eventually, she found her young actor.
Riley’s crew includes a dozen NFTS graduates. She and her producer, Michelangelo Fano, 25, submitted the film to Cannes, never seriously expecting to get anywhere.
Nik Powell, one of the UK’s leading producers, whose films include Mona Lisa and the Oscar-winning The Crying Game, heads the NFTS. Commenting on Patriot, he told the Guardian: “I love the film because it incorporates many of the themes of this election. It’s absolutely contemporary, but at the same time it’s about two young people from very different backgrounds brought together with a very moving outcome, which I think is enlightening.”