Documentary narratives with the capacity to make people change the way they see the world were central to the four-day Open City Docs Fest, which took place in London last weekend.
The festival, now in its third year, saw a record attendance of 7,000+ people over its four days. Strands of films that caught the attention of documentary lovers in particular were Hybrid Forms, which examined the tightrope directors walk between fact and fiction and Theatre of the Oppressor, which took the brave narrative perspective of perpatrators as protagonists.
I should make clear that I worked on the festival. Nevertheless, in this festival review, I'm going to briefly review a few of the Open City Docs Fest 2013 personal highlights.
12 O'Clock Boys
Bravado, braggadocio and bikes - in Baltimore. The opening gala film was the raw, earthy and electric 12 O'Clock Boys from first-time director Lotfy Nathan.
This film is centred around the 13-year-old lovable rogue Pug. Growing up in tough times - although not without its tender moments - the boy is determined. Determined to join the notorious street crew who ride their bikes through the city made famous by The Wire. It's a dangerous dream, but one that captivates the audience.
Told chronologically, the film captures intimate family moments and takes perspectives from former crew members, the police and family members. The adrenaline-packed thrill of the bikes is crystal clear, Lotfy Nathan's incredible slow-mo cinematography bring the balletic balance of the 12 O'Clock Boys to life.
It feels like a fresh story from urban America, and something that really captured the imagination of festival-goers and those new to the documentary festival. (It played to a sold-out Bloomsbury Theatre on the opening night of the festival). In many ways, Pug's story is timeless. Young men around the world over and throughout time have always wanted to prove themselves, forge their own identity while becoming something bigger than themselves.
Unfortunately, the sound design does let the film down a little. It can be difficult to understand, and the Baltimore dialect does play its part. The curious decision to only subtitle about 15% of the film suggests some indecision.
Nevertheless, this is raw, risky and very real filmmaking that deserves a wider audience. Pug's story has obvious commercial potential, and interestingly in the festival Q& the director revealed the film had been optioned for a Hollywood remake. So, watch this space.
The Human Scale
This heavyweight and handsome documentary travels the globe to take a look at current issues around planning. The film is centred around the flaws in urbanisation - namely that of a focus on cars and not caring for pedestrians enough.
The film's strength - it's narrow focus on this single issue - is also its weakness. Really, it does not tell anyone with even a passing interest in the urban world anything we don't already know.
But what it does do particularly well, is present these arguments in an expertly researched, beautifully shot and brilliantly edited way. The filmmaker travels from Copenhagen, to New Zealand to Chongqing in China to give us a truly far-reaching and very interenational perspective.
The doc presents an evangelical point of view, namely tall buildings are bad for human interaction and the pedestrian should have more thought in the urban planning process. The film is a stirring, cinematic call to action for world planners - but I was left with a feeling the film was preaching to the converted and was something of a missed opportunity.
The Act Of Killing
An extraordinary documentary covering an attempt to recreate the horrors of war. Joshua Oppenheimer's potent, powerful and often perplexing film looks at the legacy of genocide from a true one-off perspective.
Most of the killings took place in the mid-1960s as part of a Western Government-backed purge of communists across Indonesia by the powers that still run the country.
Disturbingly, the killers are alive, unpunished and are hailed as heroes by many. From this initial exposition, Oppenheimer then takes the film into strange and unknown territories. The killers are asked to reconstruct their crimes and do so with often gleeful abandon. Initially, in their own clothes in regular locations. But then then the scenarios become ever more extreme - revealing ever more extreme actions that were buried deep within their memories. The killer's dreams of recreating their days become ever more twisted nightmares, affecting them in often unexpected ways.
This is a film that is close to genius, unlike anything else that I've ever seen. Asking questions of the protagonists, the politics and of ourselves. A must-see.
Joshua Oppenheimer followed the Open City Docs Fest screening of The Act Of Killing with a special festival masterclass on cinema and memory, captivating audiences with cinematic insights.
The Venice Syndrome
What becomes of our cities when no people live in them? This outstanding documentary focuses on the beautiful Italian city of Venice - which has seen its population decrease year-on-year for a generation.
Fewer people live in Venice now, than at any time in living memory and how this affects human interaction, life and love is perfectly captured in this beautifully shot and very moving shot.
Wisely trusting the film's narrative in the views of ordinary Venetians instead of international experts looking in - it is a wise and wistful record of life in a city that is alive on the outside, but dying from within.
Although Venice is a truly unique city - its situation with such an influx of tourists, rising property prices and a dearth of services is by no means unique. In a stirring pre-film introduction, Stephen Hall an urbanism expert from the University of Hull's Geography department, told a packed room that an increasingly globalised and divided world would see more local communities uprooted from their homes and places they have lived for generations. Not restricted to Venice, but seen in vogue places in 2013 - from West London, to Brownstone Brooklyn apartments to the Yorkshire Dales and beyond.
The Venice Syndrome does not attempt to present any answers to these problems. Instead, it is a timely cinematic journey through a changing place, through the eyes of relatable, beguiling characters. Normal people in an extraordinary place in a troubling transitional time - a must for urbanists, placemakers and a cinematic context for affects of city change.
Open City Docs Fest nurtures the next generation of filmmaker by running workshops and screenings throughout the year. To find out more about the festival, log on to the Open City Docs Fest website.