Festival Review: Open City Docs Fest 2013

on Monday, July 15, 2013
Open City Docs Fest (20-23 June '13, London) // Words: Saam Das

London is spoilt for terrific film festivals and Open City Docs Fest is certainly one of the top offerings. Returning for its third edition, the festival covered documentary filmmaking from across the world through screenings, workshops, guided tours and more.

I kicked off the festival with 'I Am Breathing' (★★★) at the Bloomsbury Theatre, one of several UK screenings in conjunction with DocHouse, for Global Motor Neurone Disease Awareness Day - which handily fell during the Open City Docs Fest this year. Unfortunately, there were some technical difficulties, which took a considerable time to rectify. Not the greatest of starts. The film provided a deep insight to the condition of Neil Platt, a sufferer of MND, in the final months of his life.

'I Am Breathing' never quite felt fully formed despite some thought-provoking and hilarious moments. However, the post-film Q+A with co-director Emma Davie shared a further poignancy to the film - Neil's mother, who had already lost a son and husband to MND, also had the misfortune of losing another relative to the disease.

'The Act Of Killing' (★★★½) was another documentary with death at its heart, as well as a slew of awards from festivals like Berlinale and Sheffield Doc/Fest. Director Joshua Oppenheimer amusingly quipped that the film shouldn't be entitled 'The Act Of Killing YOU' after the person introducing the film commented that it was so affecting that she'd been encouraged to start smoking again.

Oppenheimer's doc addresses the mass anti-Communist killings in Indonesia in the 1960s, which the perpetrators openly boast about to this day. 'The Act Of Killing' rather inverts proceedings - instead of interviewing victims' families and similar techniques, Oppenheimer opts to re-enact the killings with the killers in the role of their victims.

The documentary is somewhat conflicted, its position clear on some issues and less so on others - for example, effectively acting as voyeur to ongoing extortion. Oppenheimer's passion and humility came through in his Q+A however, thanking his Indonesian collaborators, as well as being understandably pleased to report that the Indonesian media had begun to report on the genocide.

'The Human Scale' (★★★½) played upto the "open city" element of this festival, offering a meditative take on modern urban planning and the typical manner in which it encourages social isolation. Andreas Dalsgaard's documentary explores the effect of politics on public space, with particular interest paid to post-earthquake Christchurch - where residents requested "a city for people, not cars". (Although one resident noted that "cars are filled with people"...)

Of all the films that I saw at Open City Docs Fest 2013, this was certainly the one which proved most pervasive - perhaps because of the engaging panel discussion which followed the film, which discussed the possibility of an abandoned Dhaka and using London Underground stations as more of a public space. There was also a rather distracting woman in the audience, wildly and rudely gesticulating to ask a question. Sadly, the moderator granted her wish.

While that action was disappointing, 'Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer' (★★★★) was not. The film highlights the case and cause of three members of feminist art collective Pussy Riot, who found themselves jailed after a forty second punk performance in a Moscow Cathedral. Although it skirts around wider questions about the Russian state, 'Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer' succeeds in bringing a human element to the issue - with amusing moments from the accused and their families, as well as their detractors.

Altogether this was another excellent edition of Open City Docs Fest, albeit with a few more annoying audience members than in my previous experience. However, it once again provided a series of fascinating, informative films - and many other events which I didn't have the chance to see this year. I'll have to do better next year. See you then.

Find more info at opencitydocsfest.com.

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