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Lost treasures, cocaine and intimacy at the Open City film festival

By Ben Stevens H P Stevens, on 21 June 2011

“Buzz” – a film festival can have the best programme imaginable, but if it lacks this all-important ingredient, it has a mountain to climb. Thankfully, buzz is the only way to describe what I felt on entering the Open City hub in Malet Place last Friday.

The Open City London Documentary Festival, the first event of its kind in the capital, took place 16–19 June in venues across the UCL campus, packing 160 films into four days.

UCL was the festival’s main sponsor, while Dr Michael Stewart (UCL Anthropology) was its director. Further support came from an array of cultural institutes, film distributors and corporate sponsors.


Open city poster

My first taste of the diverse programme was MyStreet Competition 2011 – a series of short films entered into a nationwide filmmaking competition of the same name and shortlisted by a panel that included acclaimed directors Cristi Puiu, Pawel Pawlikowski and Simon Chinn, the Oscar-winning producer of Man on Wire.

The concept of “My Street” was interpreted in quite a loose manner by the selected films. Out With The Old showed how attempts to clean up a suburban street could lead to a street party atmosphere, while Boat Dreams followed the romantic DIY dreamers who frequent a piece of land where good boats go to die.

The two that perhaps deviated most from the concept were also the ones that I enjoyed most.

My Kosher Shifts was a very funny snapshot of a Jewish hotel in Golders Green, showing the interplay between Iris, the non-practising receptionist, her ultra-orthodox clients and their far from orthodox views on life. 76 Seconds followed a group of Muslim and Jewish boys as they embarked on a trip to Newcastle to watch Jewish-American boxer Dmitry Salita take on Amir Khan – bonding over boxing, ten-pin bowling and American sitcoms in the process.

Later that evening, I watched Metropolis Refound, a fascinating film about how a long-lost version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was discovered in the archives of the Buenos Aires film museum in 2008.

The original version of Metropolis was severely cut after its Berlin premiere and this lost footage has long been seen as the cinematic equivalent of the Holy Grail by film historians.

As a result, the documentary neatly contrasts the dogged enthusiasm of the Argentinian team, who are convinced of their discovery, with the weary scepticism of the German copyright owners, who have been disappointed so many times before. When this scepticism turns to joy, it’s a pleasure to witness.

The following day, I caught the world premiere of the excellent and disturbing Cocaine Unwrapped.

This film’s release is particularly timely, as 2011 marks 50 years since the 1961 UN Single Convention on drugs was passed – an international treaty that has placed severe legal restrictions on the cultivation of the coca plant and, therefore, imposed hardship on those farmers whose livelihoods depend on it.

This is just one of the knotty issues that this wide-ranging documentary grappled with as it dissected how the West’s demand for cocaine and its resulting war on drugs have combined to wreak such havoc in Central and South America.

Featuring an impressive array of interviewees including the current presidents of both Bolivia and Ecuador, the film was also packed with damning and disheartening statistics. For example, the global war on drugs costs $100 billion a year to prosecute, yet the Mexican drugs cartels alone make $40 billon each year in profit, meanwhile 37,000 people have died since 2006 as a result of President Calderon’s war on drugs in Mexico.

The argument for a change in approach now seems unassailable.

I spent the final day of the festival watching two films that played fast and loose with conventional ideas of narrative structure.

The first, The Parking Lot Movie, featured the irreverent and often profound musings of a bunch of self-confessed “otherwise unemployable misfits” working as attendants at a parking lot in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Being anthropology and philosophy graduates, they becoming amusingly preoccupied with the existential questions posed by the job and the irony of people that own $50,000 SUVs arguing about the 50 cents it costs to park them.

I found Come Closer, an episodic look at the lives of a varied group of Glaswegians, a less successful experiment. Well-shot, with a track by Sigur Ros, used to haunting effect, it had many funny and intriguing scenes but they were too disparate to offer the sense of intimacy that I felt was the film’s aim.

However, in a Q&A afterwards, the director Peter Mackie Burns said that he liked the fact that the audience is expected to work hard to make the connections and create its own meaning. Perhaps I just needed to work harder.

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