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Subcultures and subterfuge at Open City Docs Fest

By news editor, on 3 July 2013

pencil-iconWritten by Ben Stevens, Content Editor at UCL Communications and Claire Roberts, UCL French & Italian 2013

So often, the success of a documentary comes from the level of access that the director has gained to extraordinary people or extraordinary worlds – in the process, offering an audience a perspective that they’ve never seen before.

12 O'Clock Boys

This was certainly what marked out several films at the recent Open City Docs Fest.

Now in it’s third year, the festival filled venues across UCL, Bloomsbury and even further afield in Hackney from 20–23 June.

The Opening Gala, 12 O’Clock Boys, is set in Baltimore – but while the city may be familiar to fans of The Wire, the world it captures – urban dirt bike gangs – is anything but.

We follow the exploits of charismatic 13-year-old, Pug, over a two-year period, as he desperately tries to join the eponymous gang of riders.

The perfect wheelie
The gang’s name comes from their attempts to achieve the holy grail of a practically vertical, ‘12 o’clock’ wheelie. Director Lotfy Nathan captures these attempts through a compelling mix of the smartphone footage and balletic, slow-motion shots that belie the terrifying speeds that the riders use through the city’s busy streets.

To Pug and many of the other young men we see in the film, dirt bike racing is a romantic ideal to aspire to and perhaps also represents an alternative to drug running. Summing up how the riders feel when they race, Pug remarks admiringly: “They’re free. They get on that bike, they feel powerful.”

To many of Baltimore’s other residents and its media, though, the bikers are a scourge – taunting the pursuing police in a dangerous game of cat and mouse that leaves a trail of destruction and injury.

Whether the police should be chasing the bikers at all is a contentious issue throughout the film, with many in the biker community wondering why scarce police resources are being diverted away from tackling Baltimore’s more pressing crime problems.

Water beneath the streets
Lost Rivers, similarly, offers access to a fascinating subculture, but in this case, the focus is on “drainers” – people who break into sewers to discover rivers that are now hidden beneath modern cities.

Lost Rivers

Director Caroline Bâcle takes us beneath the streets of Montreal and London as she follows these guerrilla activists into some staggering subterranean realms. We also see the Roman catacombs beneath the northern Italian city of Brescia, where seven rivers run through the city centre.

The film shows how London, plagued by cholera outbreaks and the Great Stink of 1858, confined the putrid tributaries of the Thames underground and, in the process, provided the blueprint for the burial of urban rivers across the world.

However, there is a growing movement to release these rivers from their concrete prisons known as ‘daylighting’ and the film follows attempts to do this to the Saw Mill River in downtown Yonkers in New York State and the success of a similar scheme involving the Cheonggyecheon Stream in Seoul.

Considering the earlier blame laid at London’s door, it was particularly heartening to see Sutcliffe Park in Lewisham also held up as an exemplar in the film: the reinstated river Quaggy now runs through the park, both alleviating flood risk and creating a wetland landscape in the process.

A child’s perspective
Based at a university and showing documentaries as adult-themed and controversial as The Act of Killing, it wasn’t apparent from the outset that Open City Docsfest would cater for those under the age of 18.

Continuing the theme of transcending boundaries through film, however, Thursday 20 June was dubbed Youth Day, and offered three screenings that were claimed to ‘delight adults and young people alike’.

One such film that managed the feat was Judd Ehrlich’s Magic Camp, shown at the Bloomsbury Theatre to both adults and several rows of children from St. Vincent’s Catholic Primary School.

The children were perhaps originally more excited to see their own faces on screen with a projection of their school’s production, The Story of St Damien, before the main feature.

A brief stop-motion film detailing the life of Belgian missionary St Damien, the children of St. Vincent’s were naturals on-camera and interlaced the narrative with their own insightful musings, including such gems as: “We should be kind to people if they fall over, they’re exactly the same as us.”

Magic as escapism
Once the giggles had died down after its closing credits, Magic Camp began and the entire audience – adults and young people alike – fell under its spell.

The film follows four young protagonists during a week at Tannen’s Magic Camp, an American summer camp that gives young people between the ages of seven and 20 the opportunity to learn and experience magic amongst their peers and professional magicians.

Magic Camp

Boasting alumni as successful as David Copperfield and David Blaine, it’s easy to understand the enthusiasm with which the children approach their week at camp, but it’s the revelations of a less-than-glamorous home life for many of them that give the film its richness.

Built around preparations for the main competition at the end of the week, Magic Camp delicately weaves between broader presentations of what goes on in classes – ranging from advanced stage magic classes to character development workshops – to individual stories.

Though while the secrets to the tricks we are shown are never revealed (something the owners of Tannen were adamant about when allowing the documentary to be filmed), Ehrlich clearly gained the personal trust of its camp-goers, including 9-year old Jonah, the sensitive dyslexic who receives some terrible news during the week, and 18-year old Reed, who is reigning champion and a revered magician at camp, but who in reality is a high school dropout with few prospects and an absent single father.

A well-crafted and engaging documentary, what Magic Camp ultimately conveys is the genuine respect for magic these children and their mentors possess, and the crucial confidence it brings them.

Read more coverage of the Open City Docs Fest.

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