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A riotous success

By Ben Stevens H P Stevens, on 29 June 2012

Four days. One hundred and thirty seven films. Numerous workshops and masterclasses. The Open City Docs Fest is every bit as frenetic and stimulating as London itself.

Now in its second year, the festival took over the UCL campus and large parts of Bloomsbury from 21 to 24 June.

Mission To Lars posterFunding for the festival was provided by a number of sponsors and donors, including a major contribution from Batman film director and UCL alumnus Chris Nolan (UCL English 1993) and his wife Emma Thomas (UCL History 1993), who is a Producer at Warner Brothers.

The couple made a gift to UCL of $300,000 with the wish that the funds should be used to support new priorities and opportunities across campus. Their gift also supported the development of the Institute of Making and the Grand Challenge of Global Health.

As the festival’s name suggests, it has a particularly inclusive ethos and one that extends to the local community. Consequently, the first screening that I saw, My Child The Rioter, was a special event attended by pupils from three nearby schools.

Beyond the headlines
Beginning with David Cameron’s comments about the need for better parenting, the film itself was a sensitive exploration of the motivations and experiences of young people that were at the heart of last year’s riots, and the impact on their families.

Among the many youngsters interviewed, Fabiano, a likeable 19-year-old adopted by a white couple, stood out.

Given a six-month sentence suspended for a year, he began to cry as he admitted that “a year is a long time in London not to get into trouble” and that he had “no clue” about his future.

In a lively Q&A session after the film, one astute young audience member pointed out how rich it was for David Cameron to talk about bad parenting when he’d recently managed to leave his eight-year-old daughter in a pub. A paltry show of hands demonstrated just how few of the schoolchildren placed in trust in the police.

Publishing pariah
Next up was Barbaric Genius, an absorbing portrait of John Healy, whose harrowing autobiography The Grass Arena was published to wide acclaim in 1998, but remained out of print for more than 15 years.

Healy’s life sounds more like the plot of a feature film than a documentary. Following an abject childhood, he went from living on the streets as an alcoholic to becoming a chess champion and award-winning author.

He then fell back into obscurity, after being blacklisted for making a misjudged, and empty, threat of violence to the management of Faber & Faber, following a dispute over royalties.

The film lays much of the blame for his blacklisting at the door of Faber’s then Editor-in-Chief Robert McCrum, who is now associate editor of the Observer.

While it was clear to me that Healy was a victim of scandalous class prejudice, I felt that there was something pretty cheap about the way McCrum is portrayed in the film. Director Paul Duane grills him about events that took place nearly 20 years ago and then exposes his embarrassing lack of recall – undoubtedly knowing that McCrum suffered a massive stroke in 1995.

It brought to mind the similarly unedifying spectacle of Michael Moore challenging an extremely frail Charlton Heston in Bowling For Columbine.

A rocky road trip
Mission To Lars, the first film that I saw the next day, told the affecting tale of Tom Spicer, a Metallica obsessive, who also happens to have Fragile X syndrome.

Tom’s hero is Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich and he is desperate to meet him. In an effort to make Tom’s dream a reality and reconnect with him, his brother Will and sister Kate decide to take him to America to see the band – not fully appreciating the challenges that this will pose for all three of them.

For me, the film had definite echoes of the brilliant Anvil, but while the tensions on display in that film were between bandmates, those in Mission To Lars were, more tellingly, between siblings, specifically Kate and Will.

Kate alluded to this several times in an enthralling Q&A session afterwards, which also featured Angela Hassiotis, a Reader in Psychiatry at the UCL Centre for Health Service Research in Intellectual Disabilities. The discussion dwelt on the importance of giving people with learning disabilities challenging experiences to ensure that they are not defined by their conditions.

Designed to fail
After such an intimate portrait of one family, The Light Bulb Conspiracy provided an interesting counterpoint in that it was an extremely factual film, packed with fascinating vignettes, but told with a light, witty touch.

The film’s title refers to the Phoebus cartel, which was secretly set up in 1924 by all the major global electronics firms to reduce intentionally the lifespan of incandescent light bulbs from 2,500 hours to 1,000 hours, in order to sell more. So the idea of planned obsolescence was born.

Anyone who has had their inkjet printer fail on them or just had one of their stockings ladder prematurely will be fascinated, and angered, by this documentary.

The sight of vast wastelands comprising discarded western electronics in Ghana – where our throwaway mentality is an alien concept – certainly made an indelible impression on me.

A powder keg
My experience of the Open City festival ended as it began: with a documentary on the 2011 riots.

On the Sunday afternoon, though, it was a live one called A Spark From Tottenham, performed by photographer and filmmaker Don Omope and rapper and performance poet Alim Kamara.

Both local residents, Don and Alim went out on to Tottenham’s streets on the night of 6 August 2011 to document events as they escalated and captured the police’s perspective in the process.

While, at times, a little ragged, their performance painted a vivid portrait of that night and gave me a refreshingly unorthodox conclusion to the festival.

Watch the festival trailer below:

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