Open City Docs Festival Overview

Right in the heart of Bloomsbury, this year’s Open City Docs fest returned to University College London where that infectiously creative and youthful aura gave the event a real festival village feel, complete with a cinema tent. Apart from the strong Middle Eastern theme running throughout, people were the true stars of the festival with some compelling enigmatic characters drawing every ounce of empathy from its audience.

First up I was treated to a showcase of UK talent with the shorts programme: Insiders. Particular stand out films included Notes on Blindness and The German Who Came to Tea. The former, a beautiful account detailing the personal upheaval experienced by writer and theologian John Hull as he comes to terms with his own blindness. The film utilises original audio recordings made by Hull, interspersed with flashback moments and scenes intended to capture his vivid descriptions.

One scene encapsulates this beautifully as Hull describes how rain enables him to feel more connected to the outside world; the sound editing here is a stunning feat. The latter, a touching story told by centenarian Annie Day, who recalls an encounter with a German prisoner of war who came to Christmas dinner almost 70 years ago. The tight framing and sheer vitality of the story teller enables the viewer to fully engage in her detailed account and appreciate the significance of how precious memory is.

Next up in My Stolen Revolution exiled Iranian women give a vivid re-telling of their prison experiences through the eyes of the film’s creator, Nahid Persson, who managed to escape revolutionary Iran 30 years ago. In this very personal documentary, as she reunites with each member of her fellow activists, we see Persson’s inner guilt unravelling as well as her renewed camaraderie with her compatriots cemented. The harrowing stories, though not for the faint-hearted, are gripping, emotionally charged and act as a true testament to these women’s courage in the face of adversity. Yet, as we’re invited into their homes, we see how they’ve managed to lead fulfilling and happy lives, despite the emotional scars that they carry.

One ex-prisoner, who was arrested at 17 reveals: ‘When I was released from prison after eight years, I felt lost. My family were strangers to me. Prison was hell but it was all I had ever known’. A very powerful film, which naturally generated further debate during the Q&A which followed, as Persson was asked what message this gave in light of what is happening in today’s Iran.

Continuing the heavy subject matter was the screening of Who is Dayani Cristal? held this time, off-site, at Clapham’s Picture House, while still maintaining that intimate DocFest feel. This film sees Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal exploring the plight of Mexican immigrants entering the US, as a producer as well as in front of the camera. The film begins with the remains of the supposed ‘Dayani’ being found in Arizona’s Sonora Desert by US border patrol and the subsequent discovery of who he was as Gael retraces the steps of his journey.

Not only is the film clear in getting its message across in light of tightening US/Mexico boarders, it is effective, above all, in conveying the human story. From the anguish of the family left behind, the human chain behind the investigation, to the pastor running a comfort shelter for those who have fled. We see Gael roughing it perilously (confirmed by its director in the Q&A, ‘he wasn’t even insured’), which was a refreshing change from the seemingly contrived ‘Beckham does Brazil’ documentary recently on the beeb.

The doc ends poignantly whilst also intended to spark further debate by the subject’s brother with: ‘What’s the point of (the US) investing billions on a wall? Why not invest in people?’ Quite.

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