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Open City Docs Festival 2014

By uclzean, on 4 July 2014

Open City Docs Festival began on 17 June with the opening gala, Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers (2014), directed by University of London alumnus Edward Owles.

Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers

Auction House: A Tale of Two Brothers

The director’s opera prima tells the story of brothers Anwer and Arshad who own India’s oldest auction house, the Russell Exchange, in Calcutta. Despite the difficulties the brothers face due to the popularity of eBay, the story was light-hearted, largely owing to the good humour of the siblings.

Anwer, who had emigrated to London in the 60s, takes on the role of pseudo-elder-statesman. He has business experience in London and returned to India four years ago to inject some expertise back into the team and educate his younger brother Arshad, who, with a paltry 40 years of management under his belt, didn’t always take too kindly to his brother’s advice.

The brothers, who were present for a post-film Q&A, were charismatic and it was their relationship that drove the narrative and lifted the film. The festival was off to a great start.

The shorts collection on Wednesday, 18 June took in Notes On Blindness (Peter Middleton & James Spinney, 2014), The German Who Came To Tea (Kerry Kolbe, 2013), The Port (Rory Alexander Stewart, 2013), This Little Place In Gospel Oak (Alex Osman & Justin Allder, 2013), A Polite Revolution (Oonagh Cousins, 2013), Visions Of Albion (Matt Hopkins, 2013) and Analogue People In A Digital Age (Keith Walsh 2013).

My two highlights were Visions Of Albion and Analogue People In A Digital Age. In spite of its Blakean title, Visions Of Albion traced a group of Chinese tourists as they took in the sights of Great Britain by coach.

They crack jokes in their mother tongue in front of unsuspecting guides and photograph themselves next to landmarks. The contrast between eastern and western cultures is evident. The camera, however, is unquestioning.

There was much joy to be had in the long, still shots that make up this film, quietly observing as the tourists encounter bagpipe players, a statue of Shakespeare and an Edinburgh café – the birthplace of Harry Potter.

Analogue People In A Digital Age is another film with a penchant for long, still takes. The gentlemen who frequent this pub in Gort, Ireland are preparing for the switchover from analogue to digital as they themselves make the transition from sobriety to inebriation.

These topers don’t abstain from letting their, often garbled, opinions on the digital age be known and this is a wonderful paean to those who favour the gentle warmth of a whisky or two to the artificial warmth of the screen.

Shado’man (2013), which screened at the ICA, took to the streets of Sierra Leone to document the lives of the homeless, disabled community that occupies the capital, Freetown, during the night.

Boris Gerrets’s film is stunningly shot and opens with a striking scene where a large group of the film’s participants creep like a silent army along the centre of the street.

The film is comprised of a series of vignettes where two characters have an open dialogue about their situation, which makes for scenes that are at times amusing, often shocking, but full of humanity.

Gerrets, speaking after the film had screened, disclosed that he had in fact paid the documentary’s subjects a salary while he filmed and employed a number of the community as crew.

This, perhaps, raises some ethical issues – which often surround documentary film – but the film is truly affecting and there is no sense of any deeper truth being lost just because they were on the payroll.

The second series of shorts saw screenings of La Reina (Manuel Abramovich, 2013), Down The Line (James Ewen, 2013), Chikara: The Sumo Wrestler’s Son (Simon Lereng Wilmot, 2013), and Opening (Andrey Hristozov, 2013).

La Reina

La Reina

The overwhelming theme of this collection was the pressure that children face to live up to the expectations of those around them.

La Reina, documented the suffering that goes into preparation for the annual street carnival in an unnamed town in Argentina. The pressure the young girl is under to partake in this rite of passage is, at times, excruciating and made even more so by the indifference of the gaggle of relatives that surround her.

The undoubted shorts highlight was Chikara: The Sumo Wrestler’s Son – beautiful, painful and contemplative – it documents Chikara’s efforts to follow in his father’s footsteps and compete successfully in sumo.

He is, largely, unsuccessful and succumbs to the pressure he puts on himself, crying after defeat. He must only be 10 or 11 and yet is considering pursuing sumo as a career despite the difficulties he faces. His relationship with his father is a loving one and the boy is desperate to please him.

This was, for me, one of the highlights of the festival.

My Stolen Revolution (Nahid Persson Sarvestani, 2013) was the first of the Iranian films to be shown in the selection dubbed cinemadoosti, a Persian translation for cinephile.

Sarvestani’s film tells the disturbing story of a group of women, who were involved in leftwing activism in their teens and early 20s and were then imprisoned, in the early 1980s, by the Iranian regime.

Their individual and collective stories are a harrowing indictment of the regime in Iran and it was overwhelmingly moving to see them reunited and to recount the horror that they had experienced and learn how it has shaped them. This film is deserving of a wider audience to serve as a reminder that this shocking treatment of Iranian citizens still goes on to this day.

The closing gala screened Russian film, Children 404 (Pavel Loparev Askold Kurov, 2014), which told the personal stories of a range of LGBT Russian youths living in a nation where ‘gay propaganda’ is illegal.

The film serves an obvious political message and rightly so. The stigma that comes with being gay in Russia is symptomatic of the most unpalatable aspects of Putin’s aggressive neo-conservatism. The film might never screen again in Russia, but the hope is that Lydia Shanin’s network for gay youths, Children 404, does not come under further scrutiny by the authorities.

Indeed, the two filmmakers could not attend the event in London as they are currently being pursued by the Russian courts. The film gives these children a voice and should be celebrated for doing so.

Open City Docs 2014 was wonderful to attend. It was great to go along to the ICA and the Cinema Tent in Bloomsbury provided a cosy hub of film-related activity.

Despite having not seen any of the winners and missing Tom Cruise’s alleged attendance at the ICA – yes, Tom Cruise – the week was really entertaining and informative.

It was a privilege to see films like My Stolen Revolution and Children 404: it is vital that documentaries like this have an arena in London. My personal award, however, goes to the wonderful Chikara: The Sumo Wrestler’s Son.

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