Flanked by other summer documentary and ethnographic film festivals (Royal Anthropological Institute Ethnographic Festival, Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, Edinburgh Documentary or the East End Film Festival starting next week), London's Open City Documentary Festival edition of this year offered a focus on Croatian productions and a series of documentaries widely dispersed at London cinema venues: the newly refurbished Regents Cinema - Britain's first cinema, Hackney, Deptford and ICA, so remote from one another and its Bloomsbury hub that choosing viewings involved careful deliberation factoring ticket prices at the local cinema box office with no festival day passes to go in/out and busy commuting across London without the possibility to get back into the festival for sharing opinions, networking and other day viewings, challenging the concept of a 'festival'.
The Festival was created in 2011 around UCL Anthropology with a format based on the Romanian Documentary Festival Astra Sibiu with its first edition dedicated to Romania. In its existence, it added master classes, workshops and documentary events outside the festival. In its previous years, it offered hefty booklets with hundreds of film productions, a multitude of topical parallel strands with viewings until midnight, packed sold out venues with audiences willing to sit on the floor and the unique 'tent venue' erected in Bloomsbury that we loved - an unforgettable experience of film taster of categories of documentaries, that could only be watched there, and that otherwise would not think they existed at all, one-off documentary events, film premieres with no distribution elsewhere and debates around the art of documentary-making.
A festival of documentaries is an alternative to mainstream media: any world documentary production goes through a process of being topically safe, legally vetted, format censored, content edited, politically correct abiding and fancy entertainment creative before they get mass distribution or shown at all.
But competing with London's busy life, weekend anti-austerity political protests, Napoleon recreated event, and other outgoings, the festival hub was an undisturbed spot, silent-library mode, even the porter googled to find out if it still happened, and a scaled down programme with organisers guests lists and volunteers outnumbering the handful of gapped thin rows of participating public.
The issue with documentaries is that content, research, depth and knowledge are more important than cinematic effects, gizmos and other creative additives of entertainment value with lachrymose side effects or dramatically infused frills. It is about maturity and an experienced view of reality and life that the local cinema weekend blockbuster does not offer.
The Festival benefitted from the good-timing presence of the documentary 'The Price We Pay' precluding the anti-austerity march. A sombre cynical perspective of the big business tax avoidance from 'The Corporation' director Harold Crooks who was there with the film political protagonists William Taylor and Margaret Hodge in a moderated Q&A with Joylon Maugham Q.C. - a line between campaigning, documentary research and the intellectual observant position versus political decision making. Elsewhere in the festival, Ed Milliband also turned up for 'The Divide' film.
To put 'creative' next to 'documentary' is a contradiction. A documentary is an intellectual pursuit. It opposes corporate agendas, subversive ideologies and editorial constrictions. It can be as simple as a CCTV footage of an unique event or a video diary of an amateur which, in interested, one would only be able to see in a niche viewing like a festival.
Sue Clayton, an experienced documentary film maker, in her inaugural lecture at Goldsmith University, overlapping with the festival, spoke about the travails of introducing her documentary piece on Afghan young refugees on the backdrop of the BBC moderator's chatter doing airtime pleasantries with another reporter. As I was reflecting on this, a C4 reporter appeared on the backdrop of a distressed foreign land only to say it was good to catch up. Going backward and forward a recording camera, the news was to see the reporter, Paraic O'Brien, not the story and the location. Melodramatic effects and passion-inducing techniques do not warm me up as an audience: I cannot stir real emotions at a pretence of reality in a wrap.
How do we know what actually happens in people's lives? I had a philosophical panic moment that in austerity, a costly art like this could fade, or it could become too reduced. Or with so much going on in London, including budgeting, a summer documentary viewing competes in loyalties with life itself.