Festival Focus: Open City Docs Programme Preview

Posted May 16th, 2016 by Matt Turner


Running just a few weeks after its larger cousin Sheffield Doc/Fest, Open City Documentary Festival has, in just a few years, established itself as a formidable provider of quality documentary filmmaking in London. Founded by Michael Stewart, a documentary producer and lecturer in Social Anthropology at UCL, alongside the school and their year round screening programme, Open City aims to champion creative non-fiction filmmaking and showcase a mixture of new talent and interesting, disruptive works from more well known documentarians.

This year features their best programme yet, featuring 60 features alongside mini-retrospectives of the films of the Ross Brothers and of filmmaker and ethnomusicologist Vincent Moon, as well as masterclasses with Lucien Casting-Taylor, Marc Isaacs and Helena Třeštíkov, and a number of intriguing sounding panels and talks. Here are five features you might want to book early for.

Homeland (Iraq Year Zero) (Abbas Fahdel)


Assuming the six hour runtime doesn’t deter, there are many reasons to be interested in French-Iraqi filmmaker Abbas Fahdel’s doc Homeland. Situated in France for his adult lifeFahdel returned to his childhood Iraqi town in 2003, filming the country on the cusp of war, and then during and after it. What emerges now is a rich and detailed home video tapestry of conflict at civilian level, Fahdel chronicling familial everyday life amidst the devastation of invasion. Homeland looks to be essential, a pertinent and affecting counter narrative to the propaganda offered by the TV series of the same name.

In Transit (Albert Maylses, Lynn True, David Usui, Nelson Walker III, Benjamin Wu)


In Transit, the latest film from legendary documentarian Albert Maysles sees him return to collaboration in the absence of his passed brother and long time filmmaking partner David, co-directing this new film with a number of other filmmakers . A series of connected vignettes that follow passengers on the Empire Builder, a long-distance train that crosses America, In Transit joins a spate of recent documentaries about train journeys but looks particularly poetic and visually stunning.

The Prison in 12 Landscapes (Brett Story)


Despite seeming to have a fairly self-explanatory title, Brett Story’s The Prison in 12 Landscapes isn’t quite the film it may be expected to be. Story presents twelve micro portraits of American’s prison system, all from outside of the actual penitentiaries, looking at the individuals and systems that benefit from or are exploited by the country’s system of mass incarceration. An interesting looking doc on the complexities of a subject that is simultaneously hard to not see, yet easy to ignore,

The Great Wall (Tadhg O’Sullivan) 


Open City Docs’ opening film, The Great Wall from Irish filmmaker Tadhg O’Sullivan, also looks at a subject with increasing wide coverage in non-fiction filmmaking, in this case migration, from a new angle. Sullivan matches a Franz Kafka short story about the construction of the Great Wall of China to Europe’s current refugee crisis, with the text asking us to question the politics and philosophy behind the notion of border control; whilst the imagery shows directly the severity of the measures taken to prevent other people getting into our homelands.

Dead Slow Ahead (Mauro Herce)

Mauro Herce’s freight ship set documentary Dead Slow Ahead sounds similar to Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s (who is also at the festival) Leviathan project from a few years back, and has been picking up similar attention and accolades at the festivals it has played so far. Some kind of hallucinatory record of the crew’s activities that veers into science-fiction, the film seems to be difficult to describe but has enticed many that have seen it so far. Unlike many of the films in Open City’s programme, this seems to be more of a formal exercise than an ideological statement, but the imagery featured in press shots makes it look more than captivating enough to be worth seeing.

Open City Docs Festival runs from the 21st to 26th June at various London venues. The full programme can be found here.

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