Open City Docs Fest 21-24 June 2012
Established last summer by several faculty members at University College London and a number of creative and financial partners, Open City is London’s only major documentary film festival. From the 21st to the 24th of June over 100 films from a selection of acclaimed and emerging international artists are to be screened in 14 venues spread across Central London and the UCL Campus (WC 1) area – centred around a bespoke Cinema Tent to be constructed in Torrington Square. Open City’s founders claim the festival is “a celebration of the desire and the need to explore the world and our ability to share that experience through culture and interaction.” The festival’s broad range of screened and live events aim to feed curiosity through allowing marginalised voices to be heard, and to inspire debate on the nature of the documentary form and how it can shape our understanding of ourselves and our environment.
Films screened in competition will be judged by a prestigious interdisciplinary jury, chaired by Nicolas Philibert whose 2002 documentary Être et Avoir won the César and European Film Awards. Jurors include; Dianne Abbott, MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington; Mark Isaacs, the BAFTA-award winning documentary director; Dave Calhoun, Film Editor for Time Out London; Oli Harbottle, Head of Distribution at the popular documentary company Dogwoof Productions; Olly Lambert, Journalist of the Year 2007 recipient; and filmmaker John Akomfrah O.B.E. Alongside the feature length documentaries there will also be an international shorts category, to be judged by a panel of student film journalists from the University of London (of which I must admit, I am member).
Organising an event on a such a scale in the heart of the nation’s capital is a round the clock challenge but director Michael Stewart, producer Treasa O’Brien and programmer Oliver Wright were able to take some time out of their schedules to tell us what Open City is all about and guide us through its packed program of events:
London Student: How did the idea for Open City come about?
Michael Stewart: It came about as I had for a long time the sense that there is not a documentary festival of this sort in London. I think most cities need a festival of this type, especially because of the decline of documentary programming on television. In an open society like ours that is characterised by large scale immigration, high levels of social mobility and a constant sense of uncertainty and change we need the type of communication documentary creates to tell us just who we are living with. There is something messianic about documentary. I think that you really can’t sustain a mass democracy without the type of media we have and the discursive possibility documentaries provide.
LS: What did it take to bring the idea to fruition?
MS: I have always envisaged a large interactive event like this. I had a conversation with a colleague of mine who runs documentary workshops who suggested the name to invoke this idea. Then we managed to find a producer who had the vision and craziness to believe we could do a thing like this. Using surplus income from documentary making courses offered at UCL we were able to get the ball rolling. We have a team of three people who work full time on the project, and receive a lot of help from unpaid interns. The event is of such a scale that we simply can’t afford to pay everyone. I work on the festival for free alongside my academic work and we have spent a lot of time fundraising. It’s a labour of love but we are massively subsidised. UCL and the Provost Malcolm Grant have been incredibly supportive. The Anthropology Department houses us free of charge. It would be very hard to do this this outside of a university setting.
LS: What exactly was the role played by Christopher Nolan in all of this?
MS: Christopher Nolan was informed about this by UCL and gave a very generous grant towards our film department. He learned to make films here at UCL, and he is acknowledging that. The Provost supplied part of that towards last year. Christopher feels what we are doing right now is worthy of support as it will help raise our next generation of filmmakers. Although he makes films of pure imagination, seemingly as far from documentary as you can get, films that explore fantasy in such a way as his have a more complex relationship with the documentary form.
LS: What were last year’s highlights?
MS: Our international jury, for one. They selected a great but difficult film as the winner, El Sicario, Room 164. It is about a contract killer for a Mexican drug cartel. He is hooded throughout the film to protect his identity. He talks about his life and career. The things he says are horrific and it is very hard to watch. It is the kind of film we don’t often get to see and the jury recognised that and sought to promote and elevate the work. Another great triumph was the screening of Claude Lanzmann’s holocaust opus Shoah. We actually got him to come over. He is a real hero of documentary and a hero of mine. I was incredibly pleased to have him over and hear him talk, as he tours a lot but had not been to London for a few years.
Oliver Wright: There was a film called Il Capo that we screened. It’s 20 minutes-long and follows a man, known as Il Capo, who works in an Alpine marble quarry and has to co-ordinate all of the giant cranes. He does so with this incredibly elaborate sign language and conducts them like and orchestra. I liked it so much we’re screening it again this year at the opening gala, accompanied by London Contemporary Voices. They are a huge choir who will be totally rescoring the film live.
Treasa O’Brien: Well, I wasn’t here last year! Il Capo is great though, and a few days after the festival there will be a workshop with LCV that will be based around the whole re-scoring process.
LS: What is different this year?
MS: This year we are really interested in the whole process of documenting the social world. In particular we have 8 screenings of artists moving image, examining how we experience the world and the nature of beauty. While we still have a lot of really good journalism the films are quieter and more contemplative. We are to an extent held hostage – a wrong word but also a nice word – to the interests of filmmakers and that is what they are producing this year. Another big step this year, and a glaringly obvious one, is that we have a student competition. Last year there was no student representation. I know, shocking for a university run festival! We have a short documentary competition including student shorts judged by a University of London Student Panel.
TO: The main thing that is different about our festival is that is an inviting public celebration rather than an industry event. We do have some industry events but they have a supporting role and are geared more toward generating discussion and encouraging talent than gaining a conventional career path.
OW: One thing that certainly has been expanded is the range of non-filmic events like workshops that we offer.
LS: What are they?
OW: On Saturday, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) have a series of workshops in their bar. It begins with Documentary Surgeries where people can help aspiring directors to get a partially or fully developed project of the ground. There they can have a one-to-one with Nicola Lees, aka TV Mole. There’s filmmaking couple Chloe Ruthven and jurist Olly Lambert who will talk about their working relationship and their different approaches to filmmaking. Dogwoof will hold a Distribution Workshop based around a case study of Dreams of a Life, a film that came out last year and did very well. The day will be rounded off by Mark Isaacs with a talk about his on-going project about the A30 (Edgware Road). He has been walking up and down talking to the different people he meets, examining the mix of individuals and cultures there.
TO: Nearly every screening will be followed by a Q and A with experts and participants. We also have a comedy night compered by a socialist magician – who is also a comedian. It’s a mixture of screened and live components which is the kind of model we’re trying to follow this year, even though it’s very difficult and time consuming to host! It makes every event very special.
LS: Where will the festival be taking place and why did you choose these particular venues?
TO: We are trying to open up hidden spaces in London and will be using a lot of lecture theatres, including the 270 seat Darwin Theatre, and there is of course, the Cinema Tent in Torrington Square. The tent will be our main meeting point and will host our main events. There’s also a pop up bar so we’re hoping for a really great atmosphere around that area. With this mix of venues we want to show people UCL and all those unseen spaces but to also foster a very public feel. All our locations are no more than five minutes apart, which is very rare in London. We have some partnerships with Riverside Studios including a Thursday evening screening of Five Broken Cameras, an Israeli and Palestinian collaboration about the on-going conflict. Saturday will see Aesthetic Queeries that asks whether there is a definable queer aesthetic.
OW: We also have a few events happening at Birkbeck College and the Cine Lumière. On Saturday at the Lumière, we will be giving the world premiere of a revamped edition of the famous Glastonbury documentary with new footage and re-mastered video and sound. So we can still have a Glasto’ weekend this year! Sunday will have a master class with our Jury Chair Nicolas Philibert. Oh yeah, and there are two screenings at the Front Line Club
LS: What thematic ground will this year’s festival be treading?
TO: We have arranged the festival into strands because the program is so huge. One thing you get a lot of in documentaries is portraits so we have a stand called Still Lives. That basically consists of films that are based around the lives of special people. This year most focus on the lives of ordinary people, apart from our two galas. Science Frictions looks at how science affects us in our daily lives. Michael has mentioned the Artist’s Documentary strand – it’s both historical and contemporary and is a great introduction to those unfamiliar with experimental film. But there is plenty there for the geeks who are already in to it! ‘This year a major strand is Protest Works, as the last 12 months have seen the world change massively. I’ve actually become less cynical; I could never imagine things like the Arab Spring or the Occupy movement happening before. We have one film, The Real Social Network that follows the UCL Occupy movement that was actually pre-emptive of the movement as a whole. That will be followed by a discussion about the impact of the Occupations on a global scale. There is also a great collaborative project about the Egyptian uprising called Tahir 2011: The Good, The Bad and The Politician. For every screening we try and turn it into an event, based around discussions. A lot of experts have been recruited this year. We also have MyStreet, a special project that runs all year. It’s a user-generated platform online where you can upload films between 1 to 10 minutes long about your local area and search them on a map or by postcode. We short list ten to be shown at the festival and give amazing prizes away to three of them.
OW: Sound Waves is a program of screenings, workshops and live performance that explores sound in our world – it’s about how we respond to music and sound cognitively. There’s a film called Lost in Sound made by a partially deaf filmmaker. It’s about three people who either lost their hearing or were born deaf and how they try – in various ways – to connect with music. The Image of the Engineer probes our relationship with engineers and engineering in contemporary society. This is probably my favourite strand. We’re showing a film called Revenge of the Electric Car, which examines the Humane Car Manufacturers, an American organisation trying to economically produce electric successors to the petrol engine. Also look out for Tea or Electricity that shows the impact of being connected to electricity for a small Moroccan village. Indie Game: The Movie has just done very well at Sundance, and follows a group of independent game designers working outside the system. Not forgetting our extensive Shorts section; World Visions that gives unique global perspectives and stories; and City Scope that explores the urban environment in a number of thought provoking ways.
LS: Who and what should we be looking out for this year?
TO: Jet Leyco, who is a new but very promising Filipino director. Some of the more established figures like Mark Isaacs who will be taking part in a workshop with Edward Lawrenson. Two great British directors in one room! It’s quite a mix of people. Nicolas Philibert, our jury chair and one of the greatest filmmakers and documentarians of all time. It’s really an honour to have him here.
OW: The makers of Tahir 2011 will be flying over from Egypt, as will Stephen Maing who directed a great film about Chinese hackers called High Tech, Low Lives. The makers of one of this year’s most important events, Five Broken Cameras will be giving a Q and A at Riverside about their uniquely dangerous production. The Art of Descent (in City Scopes) is a very interesting project based around a book by artist Hillary Powell. It documents the various artistic projects that are engaged in discussion with or are in opposition to the Olympic regeneration of East London. Again, that will be a mix of cinema, talks and performances.
MS: The two galas that open and close the festival can really stand to illustrate the diversity of the program. We start with The Artist is Present about the controversial Serbian/American performance artist Marina Abramovic. She has an extraordinary range of art and uses her body as the site for it. Lately she spent 100 days at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, sitting in silence on a wooden chair and table allowing members of the public to sit opposite her and stare in to her eyes. It sounds pretentious, but it became an almost religious experience for some, and became a cultural phenomenon in New York. At the other end there is McCullin a retrospective on the great war photographer Don McCullin. He was the war photographer form the mid-60’s to the mid-80’s. Vietnam, Biafra, Bosnia, he was there. The interview is so compelling audiences will be anchored in their seats in this examination of that most fragile and vulnerable of journalistic positions. It will also illustrate the transformation of British journalism pre-and-post Murdoch.
LS: Where do you see yourself within both the film industry and film culture in the UK?
MS: Our role is to nurture the next generations of documentary filmmakers. At Open City our films are not just meant to be studied or taught, but to be experienced and shared in a public context. Our constantly broadening array of television channels and online media outlets mean that these people will be able to find niches from which to deliver their views. In a sense we are preparing for those new opportunities. We are partnered with the Sheffield Documentary Festival but do not see ourselves as competitors but rather deliberately set out to form collaborations. Us, the team from Sheffield and Dave Fontaine, head of the documentary course at the National Film and Television School, all have the same outlook. We all attend each other’s events. We are all singing from the same hymn sheet, standing up and promoting documentary cinema.
OW: Our work with Sheffield aims to bring in young filmmakers from European film schools to come and visit. This will be a great networking opportunity for young documentarians.
TO: We are trying to bring as many international filmmakers together as possible. We’re a huge festival with a small budget and staff but we punch above our weight! We are hoping to generate a big buzz.
LS: Could you tell us of any documentary films of the last twelve months that have really grabbed you?
OW: Mine would be a film called The Strawberry Tree (part of World Visions). It’s by a first time director from Montreal, and documents the last days of a small Cuban fishing village about to be washed away by Hurricane Ike. But it’s more than that, it’s a beautifully shot and slow paced portrait of humanity. Nobody dies! It’s just a very moving and interesting film.
MS: It has to be Richard Alwin’s three-part film Catholics, which was made for BBC 4. We are showing the third part – my favourite – this year. What he does, by being a non-believer, but a very good listener with an eye for visual composition, is to convey to others like him the significance of faith. We are showing it as it is such a great example of public service broadcasting.
TO: We do go out looking for films as well as taking submissions. Mine is a film I saw in Rotterdam called Ex Press by Jet Leyco, which is quite experimental. It is one of his first films and we’re nominating it for the Grand Jury Prize for Best International Emerging Filmmaker. I’ve never seen a film made quite like it, it’s very exciting.
LS: Documentary cinema is so often overlooked, even by committed cinephiles. Would you be able to recommend some essential documentary viewing for the uninitiated?
MS: It would have to be Shoah. Lanzmann’s radical decision to avoid archive footage and to reconstitute history solely from interviews with survivors; his ineluctable logic of he takes things to their ultimate conclusion. I find this incredibly impressive. Equally, I’d recommend the Highlands Trilogy films made in New Guinea in the 1980’s and early ‘90’s by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, especially the first two: First Contact and Joe Leahy’s Neighbours. The former deals with the first white Australians who visited the islands, the latter is about one of their mixed race offspring who became a major coffee entrepreneur. It is a clash between his origins and his native culture. It’s like 300 years of history compressed into a six month examination of this tiny village. Extraordinary.
TO: Anything by Werner Herzog! One of my favourites is a film called Nostalgia by Hollis Frampton. It’s one of the simplest films. He films a series of photographs he has taken and while one is displayed he describes to viewers the following image in the sequence, before burning each one on a primus stove. It deals with time, duration and memory in the simplest way.
OW: I think Hoop Dreams by Steve James. That was an important documentary in my life. It’s a seminal piece of work and follows the lives of two aspiring basketball players from the rough streets of Chicago for 10 years. It’s a great portrait of two people and of life itself. You watch it and experience something I don’t think fiction film can achieve.
LS: What do you feel should be the concerns of documentary filmmakers, and what advice would you give to potential Open City participants?
MS: What I loved about Alwin’s film is that it takes you to a place you didn’t know existed. That is the goal of documentary, in a way. Another important task of documentary is to tell people the stories they really do not want to think about, which is what Shoah does so well.
TO: I think there’s more than one way to skin a cat so I’m all for a hybridity of forms as it creates a more interesting world and generates greater discussions between filmmakers. My hope is that we don’t become too homogenous. There is a lot more awareness now of the neo-colonialism that goes on with the making of documentaries, so being aware of your own participation and knowing how to deal with it is important.
OW: Yeah, keep it real! I am drawn to documentaries that have cinematic aspirations. I would like to see more documentaries made with cinema in mind rather than a smaller vision. I don’t think there is any reason why documentary shouldn’t be as big a presence as narrative cinema in this country. I couldn’t offer any advice to anybody though!
Upon leaving the interview I had gained an almost tangible feeling of excitement from meeting Open City’s ambitious architects. The breadth of content and the unbridled enthusiasm and dedication of the organisers point towards an event that should stand out as a highlight in the ever active cultural life of our city. See you there!
Open City At a Glance:
Thursday 21st June – Sunday 24th June
Individual Events £5 Before 6pm, £7 After 6pm (£5 concessions)
Festival Passes £50 (£35 concessions), Day Passes £15 (£12 concessions)
Tickets Can Be Purchased At: www.opencitydocsfest.
The Festival Hub is Roberts Foyer, Torrington Place
Opening Gala, 1900, Thursday 21st June, Darwin Theatre
Opening Party, 2130, Cinema Tent, Torrington Square
Awards Ceremony, 2030, Sunday 24th June, Darwin Theatre
Closing Night Party, 2100, Cinema Tent, Torrington Square