Open City Docs Fest: Travel Through Film

year zero

still from Iceland Year Zero

In June we’re spoiled for choice when it comes to docs. Two of the UK’s most progressive and interesting documentary festivals – Sheffield Doc/Fest (12 – 16) and Open City Docs Fest (20 – 23 June) – make their yearly return, showcasing some of the best new international work.

The newer of the two, Open City, has already proved itself to be the best documentary festival in London, with inspired programming and an excellent bill of workshops, debates and spin-off events. Rich in diversity, and making full use of their home at UCL, the the festival have produced a stand-out programme for 2013, enough to whet the appetite of any doc enthusiast.

Below are some of the docs that I hope will teach me a thing or two, and perhaps, inspire travel (except if there are some oppressive dictators involved. Might give those countries a miss).

Lost Rivers – Caroline Bâcle / 2012 / Canada / 72’

Fri 21 June / 14:30 / Darkroom

Lost Rivers documents global attempts to reconnect with the ancient river networks that have been buried for generations. The film retraces the history of these urban waterways, plunging underground with inspiring, clandestine urban explorers in Montreal, Toronto, New York and up the River Tyburn in London.

The Human Scale – Andreas M. Dalsgaard / 2012 / Denmark / 83′

Sat 22 June / 17:00 / Bloomsbury Theatre

Do modern cities repel human interaction and how can planners across the globe address the intrinsic human need for inclusion and intimacy? Throughout the film thinkers, architects and urban planners across the globe question our assumptions about modernity and explore what happens when we put people at the heart of our planning.

The Venice Syndrome – Andreas Pichler / 2012 / Germany, Austria, Italy / 80’

Fri 21 June / 20:30 / Darkroom

For many it’s a mecca of unimaginable beauty and romance unlike anywhere else, but how do local people live in such a city? The Venice Syndrome examines what remains of Venetian life, beyond the subculture of tourist service industries, and examines how this local yet global service industry affects everyday life. By 2030, the film predicts, that no-one will actually live in one of the world’s best loved and most beautiful cities.

Black Out – Eva Weber / 2012 / UK / 47′

Sun 23 June / 14:30 / Cinema Tent

Every evening, during exam season, as the sun sets over Conakry in Guinea, hundreds of school children begin a nightly pilgrimage. They go to the airport, petrol stations, and wealthy parts of the city, searching for light under which they may study. Eva Weber’s evocative and poignant documentary shows how children reconcile their desire to learn with the other challenges of their daily lives in one of the world’s poorest countries.

No Man’s Zone – Toshi Fujiwara / 2011 / France, Japan / 105′

Sat 22 June / 14:00 / SOAS

The 40-year-old nuclear power station on the coast of Fukushima fell into catastrophic crisis after the tsunami struck on 11 March 2011. Within 24 hours, a 20km wide evacuation zone was ordered. Filmmaker Toshi Fujiwara went into this zone meeting residents as they prepared for evacuation. This is a powerful document of a place in time of crisis, and a poetic meditation on the disruptive relationship of man and nature.

Powerless – Deepti Kakkar, Fahad Mustafa / 2013 / India, Austria / 80’

Sun 23 June / 16:30 / Cinema Tent

In Kanpur, India, Loha Singh earns his living through stealing electricity, splicing into the power lines of the better off and diverting electricity to those who can’t or won’t pay for it. But then a new head of the state Electricity Company is tasked to raise investment by increasing payments. Can she overcome the vested interests set against her? Powerless shines a light on an unexplored narrative of the world’s developing economies.

Solar Mamas – Mona Eldaief & Jehane Noujaim / 2012 / Egypt, Denmark, USA / 60′

Sun 23 June / 12:30 / Lightbox

Solar Mamas is the remarkable story of Rafea, second wife of a Bedouin and mother-of-four living in one of Jordan’s poorest desert villages. When Bunker Roy, founder of The Barefoot College, arrives in her village, he invites Rafea to travel to India to train as a solar engineer. But this is only the beginning of her journey: she must also learn to re-wire the traditional mindset of her Bedouin community.

Grass – Caner Canerik / 2012 / Turkey / 67′

Fri 21 June / 12:30 / Cinema Tent

Fatma came to Beser’s house as a second wife in exchange for a bull given to her natal family. Deaf since birth she could expect no better. Beser’s family has since been displaced by the Turkish state who burned down and evacuated their village in the 1990s. Now their shared husband is dead. The film explores the meaning of kin, neighbours, class, and gender as the two co-wives deal with their struggles and affections in a remote Kurdish village in today’s Turkey.

The Shark’s Eye – Alejo Hoijman / 2012 / Argentina, Spain / 93’

Sun 23 June / 12:30 / Cinema Tent

Summer is coming to Nicaragua, which means Maycol and Bryan will start to learn their families’ trade – shark hunting. In a place where drug trafficking is driving out traditional trades, these two boys manage to choose their own future in a slow-burning portrait. A delicate coming-of-age film set in the often forgotten Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

Espoir Voyage – Michel K. Zongo / 2011 / Burkina Faso, France / 82’

Sun 23 June / 12:30 / Bloomsbury Theatre

Joanny, like many young people, left Burkina Faso as a rite of passage, seeking work in the Ivory Coast. After 18 years of absence, a cousin returned to announce his death. Looking to trace his lost tracks, his filmmaker brother, Michel K. Zongo, undertook the same trip, with the same bus, with those who emigrate today as his brother did 32 years ago. Espoir Voyage, Zongo’s feature debut, is a journey larger than a brother’s quest for answers – it is a remarkable portrayal of emigration, loss, and memory.

Fortress – Lukáš Kokeš, Klára Tasovská / 2012 / Czech Republic / 72’

Wed 19 June / 19:00 / Frontline Club

Western Europeans never understood why, in the early 1990s, Eastern Europeans invariably asserted that all they longed for was ‘normality’. Shot in the non-place of Transdniester, this Czech film reminds us why. Transdniester is a tiny, pretend independent statelet carved out of the Republic of Moldova that is now stuck in a late-Soviet groundhog day.

Iceland, Year Zero – Sigurður Hallmar Magnusson & Armande Chollat-Namy / 2012 / Iceland, France, Czech Republic / 52′

Sat 22 June / 19:00 / Darkroom

In October 2008, after running a Ponzi scheme to rival any in history, the three main banks in Iceland collapsed, driving a nation into bankruptcy; causing thousands of people to lose their jobs, and many more all their personal savings and dreams. Iceland: Year Zero is not an economic analysis of the bankruptcy of a nation, but rather a film about the aftermath – examining the impact on the people who have to deal with an economic catastrophe.

Sandgrains – Gabriel Manrique & Jordie Montevecchi / 2012 / UK / 57’

Sun 23 June / 12:30 / Darkroom

After a long absence, José returns home to Cape Verde to find his community transformed. The fish that have provided food and income for generations are disappearing from the sea, and the locals are being forced to sell the sand from their beaches just to survive. The reasons for this are all around the archipelago: European vessels draining the fish from Cape Verdean waters. Sandgrains lays before us the far-reaching and devastating consequences of over-fishing and environmental degradation.

Duch: Master of the Forges of Hell – Rithy Panh / 2011 / France, Cambodia / 103′

Wed 19 June / 19:30 / AV Hill Theatre

This spare, unceremonious, interview, conducted by the masterful Cambodian filmmaker, Rithy Panh, confronts us with the man who ran the notorious S-21 Khmer Rouge prison as he awaits trial at the International Criminal Court of Justice. From 1975 to 1979, Kaing Guek Eav, better known as Duch, commanded a killing machine with at least 12,280 victims. Panh records his words, unadorned, then sets these in perspective with archive photographs and survivor accounts.

The Act Of Killing – Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn & Anonymous / 2012 / Denmark, Norway, UK 159’

Sat 22 June / 13:30 / Bloomsbury Theatre

Possibly the most controversial film of the year, The Act of Killing is a deeply troubling and problematic film that will change how you think about cinema. The director travelled to Indonesia to interview survivors of the 1965 massacre in which communists were exterminated by the military, using ‘freemen’ (or gangsters) to carry out the murders. The freemen speak proudly of what they have done, while the victims remain silent. The film documents a process of recreating their killings as narrative cinema. In a bizarre subversion of Augusto Boal’s cathartic methodology, a theatre of the oppressor is invoked that may bring these killers to perdition or redemption.

To the Wolf – Christina Koutsospyrou & Aran Hughes / 2012 / Greece, France / 74’

Sat 22 June / 14:00 / Birkbeck Cinema

This dystopian vision of shepherds and farmers in the Greek mountains takes us as far from romance as real poverty can, while remaining extraordinarily faithful to the place of his characters in their landscape. This film finds moments of dark humour and transcendent beauty as an older couple banter and berate one another, while the adult son of an alcoholic mother drowns his own desires in the local taverna. Animals move restlessly as though knowing something humans cannot, and ominous interceptions from radio and TV broadcasts bring news of the wake of the Greek financial crisis.

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