Round-up: Open City Documentary Film Festival 2017

Editor-In-Chief Sofia Kourous Vazquez runs through a few films from the docs-focused London festival, which ran from the 5th to the 10th of September.


Grand Jury Award: ‘Purge This Land’ (Lee Anne Schmitt)

This is a documentary that shies away from people and focuses instead on spaces. How can historical locations and spaces convey their story when paired with spoken word and sound? Schmitt tells the story of John Brown, a radical white abolitionist who came to believe violent armed conflict was the only way to achieve liberation for the oppressed peoples of the United States; indeed, the film’s title is taken from a Brown quote, in which he states ‘the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood’. As the film travels across the US, tracing Brown’s activities and visiting scenes of other events significant to American slavery, segregation, and racial relations history, the director reflects on more recent events and her personal life — Schmitt’s partner is a black man, and her child is mixed race. The film skillfully conveys the emotional through objective facts. Its glances back at the violence, prejudice, and discrimination that occurred less than a century ago are reminders of the complex and problematic heritage of a nation, and honours the importance of remembrance and ongoing critical examination.

Emerging International Filmmaker Award: ‘Taste of Cement’ (Ziad Kalthoum)

Kalthoum bathes a construction site in Beirut in beautiful golden light as he silently documents the monotonous lives of the Syrian labourers who work here. The men have a 7pm curfew, after which they descend for rest through a hole into the gloomy foundation of the building. The primary footage of slow, repetitive, mechanical labour — the stacking of bricks, the drilling of holes, the steady ascension of the site lift that takes the workers up every morning and down at night — is interspersed with clips from Syria, for as these men lift buildings out of the ground in their host country, their towns back home are being demolished by bombs.

This is a quiet film, ruled by stillness and rhythm, but sink too deeply into viewing comfort and you’ll be jolted back to reality. Despite its beautiful images, ‘Taste of Cement’ won’t let you forget the sad irony of its subjects’ situation. It’s observational, but rather muted. You might long for more but maybe that’s the point. For these Syrian men, the past is being erased; their futures perhaps as well. The present is their only reality, and this is where the film makes its nest.


‘Photon’ (Norman Leto)

‘Photon’ is Leto’s second full-length feature and he isn’t planning on quitting anytime soon, but honestly he could. He has every right to be that proud of himself. This film is the product of hard work and vision. It is designed. In it, a pleasant, authoritative, and slightly humorous narrator traces the history of the universe. We start at the Big Bang and end, well, in the future, with predictions (or warnings?!) of what’s to come. Voice aside, what establishes the film as something unique are the visuals, including fascinating and often beautiful computer animations of particles, organisms, embryonic development. You can’t tear your eyes away, and you don’t want to. Sometimes what you see is shocking. Towards the end, what you hear definitely is. You will question the meaning of your life and the course of humanity in this impressive example of avant-garde documentary. Seek out where this is showing, sit back, and let it happen.

‘Atelier de Conversation’ (Bernhard Braunstein)

A charming little package of warm and high-quality documentary film-making. Multiple times a week, a free French conversation workshop convenes at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. All sorts of characters, all of them foreigners, come along with the desire to improve their skills. Their interactions and communication, guided by an instructor, are sometimes humorous, sometimes heated, sometimes touching, and always colourful. Even when differences arise, the participants are united by the willing vulnerability that accompanies learning a new language. This is what Braunstein captures so compassionately. ‘Atelier’ is a lovely patchwork quilt of humanity to cosy yourself up with. It’s simple, and it works.

Open City Documentary Film Festival was founded in 2011 by the UCL-based film school of the same name. The 2016 edition was hosted at the university. This year, the festival was based in the Southbank Bargehouse Oxo building and ran screenings at venues across London including the ICA, Picturehouse Central, Genesis Cinema, and Regent Street Cinema.

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