Open City Docs Fest 2013

Emerging from the darkness of the cinema after a weekend of documentary viewing, the post-Open City Docs Fest reflection period has only worked to prove how powerful filmmaking – and film watching – can be. Perhaps too grandiose a statement but following a screening selection that ranged from shark fishing to urban planning, dirt bike riding to political massacres and rebellion, this moment for thought certainly seemed necessary.

As London’s global documentary festival, Open City Docs Fest lived up to its name, presenting an expertly programmed four-days of films, shorts and masterclasses that introduced directors from around the world to the public in surprisingly intimate and affecting ways.

Opening the festival, Lofty Nathan’s 12 O’Clock Boys was an urban ode to the infamous Baltimore dirt bike gang; terrors to the public yet idols to young boys of the neighbourhood. Eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of the 12 O’Clock Boys’ ride-bys, front wheels elevated almost 180 degrees, the perilous position that earns you your stripes with the gang, we meet the charismatic Pug.

An unlikely coming of age tale, 12 O’Clock Boys is the story of a boy aspiring to achieve and learn a skill, albeit a dangerous skill, but when faced with streets rife with crime and death, the good comes in unlikely packages.

Bathed in the hazy, low light of dusk or the dim illuminations of flickering street lamps, Nathan brings a strange beauty to the grit of Baltimore.

Already hotly tipped on the festival circuit, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing left me challenged, dazed and truly awed. Handing the cameras to the perpetrators of the 1960s Indonesian genocide, Oppenheimer introduces us to the faces of evil. And lets them tell their side of the story – complete with re-enactments, elaborate makeup and dancing girls.

Fear echoes throughout – of the ‘actors’ recruited to help with the terrifying reconstructions, of the executioners as they begin to uncover the reality of their applauded actions and of the audience at what we might see next. It is extraordinary, and often excruciating, viewing with a brutality that’s hard to shake but likewise, a testament to what can happen when you push the boundaries of filmmaking to their uncomfortable limits.

Tony Palmer’s Nocturne was introduced with a necessary disclaimer from its director – this is not a happy tale of a happy composer. Interposing performances of Britten’s groundbreaking works with archive footage of the horrors that fueled the physical and mental pain that troubled Britten, predominantly the Holocaust, the characteristic intensity of his work is shown in the most visceral light. A vivid portrait of the largely unknown personal life of the composer, Nocturne is an undeniably intense film but, coming in at an unrelenting 135 minutes, is one resigned to Britten stalwarts rather than newcomers to his work.

Lighter relief, in delivery rather than message, Andreas M Dalsgaard’s The Human Scale is an eye opening exploration of city planning asking how can we build the perfect city. The answer, listen to the people. A wonderful juxtaposition to the hustle of the overcrowded and the overworked, Alejo Hoijman’s The Shark’s Eye follows the lazy days of two boys in rural Nicaragua as they decide which village trade to choose – shark fishing or drug dealing.

Playing games, boasting about new phones, talking to girls, they seem just like any other teenagers, if we ignore the politics that rule the region, cleverly omitted by Hoijman to reveal a beautiful art documentary, a portrait of lives so far removed from our own they become almost idyllic. Ilian Metev’s Sofia’s Last Ambulance closed the festival, a lightly humoured story of three unlikely but charismatic heroes who brave the potholes, faulty phone systems and instability of Bulgaria to drive the ‘action’ ambulance to those in need, whatever may get in their way.

But the film that left me fired and inspired was undoubtedly Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, the much anticipated telling of the highly publicised trial of three Russian girls who donned neon balaclavas, dresses and guitars and gave their voice to their cause. Using courtroom footage, interviews with the girls’ families and the ‘offending’ performances, to argue its side and inform its resistors, the film could admittedly be accused of propaganda leanings. But, as a fellow owner of a ‘deranged vagina’ – apparently the best translation of ‘pussy’ – if this film can help uncage some truths about the regime against which the girls’ protested, I am a happy recruit.

As the battalion of directors, experts and avid documentary fans continues to grow, Open City Docs Fest is truly in its stride, and I can’t wait to see where such a boundary-crossing stride will take this burgeoning festival next year.

Open City Docs Fest took place Thursday 20 to Sunday 23 June at University College London and various London venues.

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