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A Dedicated Space: Open City 2023

By Andrew Northrop

A film still depicting a tree with red buds in the middle of a lush landscape.

Film still from ‘The Secret Garden.’

Featuring a strong relationship to essayistic, nonfiction filmmaking and artists’ moving images, the Open City Documentary Festival has carved a unique place for itself in the United Kingdom. Thematically, the festival shares the creator-focused community spirit that makes the Courtisane Festival and Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival engaging, and sits quite differently from Sheffield DocFest, which has a much more standardized industry feel. As opposed to larger festivals, where Open City’s style of programming might only exist in a tucked-away “experimental” strand, the festival champions a wider gamut of nonfiction storytelling on screen. These works often exist outside of the large production-crew, talking head–driven mode. The 2023 edition is the last to take place in its September time slot, ahead of a relocation to April in 2024. This scheduling move comes after several editions with former LUX Moving Image Deputy Director Maria Palacios Cruz as festival director.

A glance at the festival’s line-up for this year demonstrates a gentle balance between familiarity—with appearances from LUX stalwarts such as Laida Lertxundi, Morgan Quaintance, Luke Fowler, and Margaret Tait—and a strong offering of emergent works, especially from the Global South. Regarding the latter, a number of form-shifting documentaries embrace reconstruction. Staged moments become a tool for capturing that which is hard to immediately depict, for example, political trauma and spiritual stories. This means certain films can transmit local concerns and practices in unique and memorable ways.

A couple of people standing on a sidewalk

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Film still from Monisme.

One such film is Riar Rizaldi’s feature-length Monisme, which mixes documentary with locally inspired fictional elements to build a portrait of Mount Merapi in Java, Indonesia. The film’s narrativized moments concern scientists, miners, a mystic, and local state-sponsored gangs, whose stories all intersect with the volcano and its spirit. Reflecting real local activity and beliefs, Monisme is also penned in collaboration with a volcanologist, a miner, and a mystic near Mount Merapi. These pseudofictional components do not obfuscate, instead portraying that which is undocumented and undocumentable—namely, a slice of Indonesia’s complex spiritual belief system. At its most extreme, the film conjures the language of the Indonesian horror films Rizaldi previously explored in Ghosts Like Us (2020). To further build the film’s documentary backbone, Rizaldi includes interviews and CCTV footage of Mount Merapi’s recent eruptions. The film’s final sequence, a feverish summoning ceremony, heightens the sense of volcanic activity simmering beneath the earth’s surface.

Similar formal decisions drive Bo Wang’s An Asian Ghost Story, a curious midlength work that drifts between the forms of a British informational program, a ghost story, and tactile documentation of wig making. Stylized to look as though it were shot on film and then broadcast on television, the film feels like a lost print the viewer has stumbled upon, forgotten by history. Like Rizaldi’s, Wang’s film concerns spirits, this time in the context of wigs (Wang’s home of Hong Kong is the biggest exporter of wigs). Outlasting the human bodies from which they came, the politicized export of Asian hair in the 1960s—which the U.S. government branded as “communist hair”—gives rise to traveling spirits who have lived through colonial history and in different locales. One section is narrated by a spirit as a way of exploring the complex migration of hair. A playful scene stages a television interview with the ghost, who appears as a figure obscured by a long flow of black hair, which curator May Adadol Ingawanij pointed out to me is an homage to the Kuntilanak/Pontianak spirit in South Asian folklores. Wang’s use of the visual language of British travelogue and informational programs from decades past—which would have been fairly dismissive of spiritual presences in favor of a stricter anthropological approach—proposes an alternate history where such a document would hone in on the story of a wigmaker meeting the spirit of the hair she is handling. When required, however, the film leans into the potential of that form, capturing the process of wig-making in a wonderfully precise and tactile manner.

A person standing in a room with a statue on the wall

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Film still from Anhell69.

In Anhell69, spirits become a symbol of a queer community’s erasure at the hands of violence, overdose, and suicide in the conservative city of Medellín, Colombia. Anhell69 is a feature-length that fuses portraits of Director Theo Montoya’s friends and local political contexts with prospective scenes from a fictional B movie Montoya had once hoped to make. The liminal space between fiction and documentary is a site of trauma for Montoya, after many of the fiction project’s cast died due to overdoses and suicides, including Camilo, the intended protagonist whose Instagram handle the title references. Montoya describes the fictional B movie he had intended to make: a dystopian Medellín with no cemeterial space for its dead gives rise to a fetishist desire for the lost ghosts amongst the city’s young, queer nightclub goers. In Anhell69, the spirits take the form of silhouetted, humanoid voids with glowing red eyes—a genderless form reflective of Montoya’s desire to make a truly trans film. Their intermittent presence in the film, sometimes appearing in flashes in neon-lit nightclub spaces, amplifies how, for Montoya’s friends, the expression of queer identity in Medellín can feel so proximate to death. Montoya himself appears in the film as a body in the back of a hearse, as if to imply that his narration is post-mortem. But the film also features profound moments of togetherness: A scene where surviving members of the community walk around a cemetery and share silent embraces in close-up, and the nightclub scenes where bodies fill the frame, bathed in flashing neon lights, show that the film isn’t afraid to champion and make audiences feel proximate to those that have survived.

In Joyce Joumaa’s midlength To Remain in the No Longer, modernization policies in Lebanon—a string of events associated with the country’s financial hardship and the turmoil that left the country unprepared for recent disasters—are the spectre. Joumaa uses the Rachid Karami International Fair of Tripoli, a UNESCO site left unfinished due to mismanagement and the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, to reflect on how large architectural projects play a role in modernization and urban planning. Audio interviews in the film capture the resolve of its civilians; they understand how Western sentimentalities did not effectively transfer to the area. “There were a lot of conflicts between urban planning systems and the local context,” reflects a resident, optimistically calling for a reappropriation of the land under local ownership. While the film discusses the failures that now leave the structures of the fair area mostly vacant, and how similar mismanagement is indicative of Lebanon’s ongoing issues, it ultimately casts an optimistic tone that reflects the locals’ resolve. This is accompanied and amplified by the film’s cinematography, which captures not only the emptiness of the Rachid Karami space, but also the city’s public spaces, bathed in sunlight and occupied with the bustle of civilians. 

Presented alongside An Asian Ghost Story, Nour Ouayda’s The Secret Garden is another midlength short based in Lebanon, but this time around Beirut. Shot on 16mm and Super 8, Ouayda and co-writer Carine Doumit weave a narrative around the emergence of alien-like plants and reports of a mythical creature. Told in distinct chapters with narration that ranges from diaristic to fairy tale-esque, the film is composed of well-framed portraits of plants, often swathed in sunlight. One sequence features a soundtrack that would befit a cult classic like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, with punctuating drums and horn sections. Its closing chapter takes place at night as a flashing searchlight scans over dormant plants, all vividly green and emerging from the film’s blue grain—the familiar forms having become much more sinister. Ouayda’s film forgoes too much exposition on what the emerging plants symbolize, the same way monster movies get under the viewer’s skin by allowing them to ponder such associations. Different readings on the invasive, colonial migration of plants; the financial and political hardships highlighted in Joumaa’s film; and our increasingly complex relationship with nature are all valid. The Secret Garden unfolds like a psychogeographic reverie, departing from Beirut’s built environment like a daydream, much like the growth patterns of the plants it depicts.

Looking at the above works in tandem, it is easy to see how Open City supports nonfiction filmmaking with a certain unexpectedness—these films play on familiar tropes and often turn around and reconstruct those same forms. At the festival’s opening night Q&A, Miko Revereza discussed a scene in his latest feature, Nowhere Near, where his camera frantically tries to keep up with his grandmother’s search for her ancestor’s graveyard, a location she has not been to for many years. Revereza’s cinematographic style has always been poignantly observational, letting moments linger and movements come in and out of frame, creating a space for reflection. Even though these moments lack the visual polish Revereza was hoping for, the visibly unplanned, frantic camerawork becomes one of the film’s most memorable and bittersweet scenes. These scenes also highlight how many practitioners in nonfiction filmmaking are single-person crews, working solo as opposed to being backed by a large crew, often making personal engagements feel that much more intimate.

Overall, this year’s program felt densely packed, perhaps to its detriment. To see the above works as well as get to the “In Focus” programs dedicated to Mary Helena Clark and Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, the “No Master Territories” program curated by Erika Balsom and Hila Peleg, and the Shai Heredia–programmed “The Invisible Self” strand, many attendees found themselves subject to hectic trips through London’s transport system due to the spread of the festival’s venues. In recent years, London’s more central cinemas have become too expensive for film festivals to use. Open City is also at a point of growth where repeat screenings might benefit some of the works. The move to April for next year’s edition feels like an optimistic turn, taking the festival out of an unusual pocket stuck between the end of summer and the return to universities. The convergence of these form-challenging works in a dedicated space and time is increasingly important, as other established festivals trim their experimental-focused strands.

Andrew Northrop is a film journalist based in London, United Kingdom. His writing and interviews have appeared in MUBI Notebook, Senses of Cinema, BOMB Magazine, Hyperallergic, Millenium Film Journal, and more.