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Open City Documentary Festival Rises as Showcase for Artful Nonfiction

By James Harvey

From Sebastian Brameshuber's 'Movements of a Nearby Mountain,' which won the Open City Award at Open City Documentary Festival.

Open City Documentary Festival was founded in 2010 at University College London by Michael Stewart, and is now directed by Chloe Trayner. The festival showcases a socially engaged selection of films from around the globe each year. This year was no exception. Around 40 films screened across six venues in five days. Not one of these seemed very far removed from the social and historical circumstances of its center of production. This year’s festival focused on "The Art of Non Fiction." While this apparent theme might seem to detract from the global political climate, the recurrent preoccupation across the films appeared to regard the encounter between the political and the aesthetic.

This is certainly the case in the work of director Zhao Liang, whose films mirror the concerns of Sixth Generation Chinese filmmakers (like Jia Zhangke and Wang Xiaoshuai) through their focus on poverty, alienation and the neorealist tradition. Liang, the subject of Open City’s "In Focus" strand, perhaps surpasses their bold critique of contemporary Chinese society, though. This comes to the fore most explicitly in Crime and Punishment, which explores the military police’s cruel treatment of impoverished locals in rural China. Paper Airplane shifts from the state apparatus to the Chinese youth, following a group of punks whose misadventure and drug abuse is mounted against the rise of capitalism. Liang’s insistent long takes—finding emotion, dread and sometimes humor through duration—is a tendency shared across the program.

Using a similarly observational mode, Sebastian Brameshuber's Movements of a Nearby Mountain was a standout film, deservedly winning the Open City Award (the competition's main prize). The film follows Cliff, a mechanic working at the foot of the Austrian Alps. Cliff has lived and worked there since leaving Nigeria 15 years ago. Cliff’s interactions reveal the subtle tensions between different cultures and classes cohabiting in Western Europe’s rural regions today. The most revealing conversations occur between Cliff and his colleague, an ambitious and enterprising friend who joined him from Nigeria. The affable disagreements between the pair demonstrate not the divide between Africans and Europeans, but a will to happiness shared across borders. This is echoed visually, later, when the pair return to a Nigerian market to sell spare parts garnered from the shop. Set within the hilly landscape, the African marketplace, while different in mood and populous, pits the activity of trade and commerce in unruly confines that feel not so far removed from the Alps. A visual metaphor emerges, which recurs throughout the film, regarding the thin line between society and nature. This thin line is a bridge, not a wall: it collapses the reductive generalization that divides Western provinciality from the chaos of urban Africa. Where this divide has been shown in other ethnographic films set in Africa before, Movements of a Nearby Mountain is deeply humanistic and sensitive to the experiences, feelings, thoughts and dreams of its protagonist.

One of the most striking motifs of Movements of a Nearby Mountain is the way it frames the relationship between man and machine. Filming Cliff working shirtless on one car’s interior or shaving his head while sitting on the hood of another, Brameshuber captures a surprising intimacy between the subject and his work. This has the effect of distinguishing the sort of alienating labor so often undertaken by immigrants in Western Europe, from the love Cliff clearly enjoys in his work.

This is far removed from the machinery of the contemporary cityscape explored in Bo Wang and Pan Lu’s Many Undulating Things, an essay film broaching the historical change occurring over centuries across the Hong Kong skyline. The narrator moves seamlessly between personal and political, entangling his own anecdotes and traumas within the grand social and cultural narrative of a former British colony. We move from cranes and shipping containers, through malls and high-rise apartment blocks. The film ends in an abandoned housing estate, in a haunting denouement that jarringly departs from the essayistic prose, to an anarchic, first-person escape in a hidden corner of Hong Kong.

Many Undulating Things references several unseen characters in order to shift between the first and third person. It draws clear influence from Chris Marker's Sans Soleil in this sense. However, its use of infrastructure as both a backdrop and a subject maintains an expository function, to produce a highly informative account of the making a modern metropolis. Referenced explicitly at one point, the film is indebted to Walter Benjamin’s crystalline philosophy of history. The city’s skyline is pregnant with latent meaning; it draws this out in order to understand the contemporary urban experience.

From Bo wang and Pan Lu's 'Many Undulating Things.'

Many Undulating Things eventually deprives its spectator of clear empirical data and the glossy sheen of corporate architecture. Instead, we are dragged into a murky corner, emblematic of that which has been left behind. This plea to engage with the unseen as a key facet of historical documentation was also on show in Last Night I Saw You Smiling, Cambodian filmmaker Kavich Neang’s painterly study of the evicted residents of Phnom Penh’s White Building. And in a more minor key, Caballerango, Juan Pablo González’s moving and unsettling inquiry into small-town suicides in rural Mexico, grounds its fact-finding in the quietude of landscapes, gestures, color and light.

Something similar occurs in Miko Revereza's No Data Plan, albeit without any recourse to the past. A first-person camera trails a journey across America, tracking movements on public transport and taking in overheard conversations, No Data Plan remains in the interstices of public spaces in order to breach borders physically and figuratively. Revereza himself has lived without documentation in the US for several years. He draws upon this precarious situation through a careful eye for detail, displayed through the evocative qualities of quotidian objects and his careful handling of contemporary mobility. These journeys can appear utopian, but he never loses sight of the broader biopolitical critique of surveillance culture. The Filipino native was also awarded the festival’s inaugural development prize (£10,000) towards his next film—a personal engagement about returning home to Manilla.

Serbian filmmaker Mila Turaljic (Cinema Kommunisto; The Other Side of Everything) delivered an impassioned masterclass on her practice, explaining the strategic uses of the archive for the purposes of social and political engagement. Turaljic articulated clearly the relationship between memory and history that many of the filmmakers on show seemed so preoccupied with. However, Turaljic’s aesthetic approach is to a large extent at odds with the common aesthetic tendency here (towards observationalism over and above montage). One exception to the dominance of observational documentary would be Belonging, Burak Çevik’s reconstruction of a noir-like murder story, with attention squarely focused on the blossoming relationship between the killers. Belonging won the Emerging Filmmaker Award for its provocative troubling of the line between documentary and fiction.

It struck me that this attribute could be applied to many of the films on show, though, and that there were more deserving films. For instance, Rosine Mfetgo Mbakam's Chez Jolie Coiffure is a direct and formally understated study of a hairdresser, Sabine. The protagonist sought asylum in Belgium seven years ago and is narrowly avoiding deportation on a regular basis. Unlike other films in the festival, Mfetgo Mbakam's aesthetic style is not just a structural or conceptual experiment: Her camera is prohibited by its locale, and she is forced into the tight confines of the salon to escape the trouble outside. And yet, in so doing, she creates a relationship with her subject that is affectionate and intimate. This intimacy opens people up. The regulars' jovial dismissal of white pensioners as unpaying zoo customers effortlessly punctures liberal discomfort on matters of race and multiculturalism. From casual conversations about skin lightening to the persistence of Sabine’s combing out of her hair, Chez Jolie Coiffure seamlessly navigates the cultural politics of race in Western Europe. To my mind, this is one of the most quietly profound films on the subject in recent years.

From Rosine Mfetgo Mbakam's 'Chez Jolie Coiffure.'

Also overlooked for a prize was Alice Riff's opening-night film, Elections, which traces a high school election campaign in São Paulo. Through the many divergent personalities on display in the film, Riff manages to subtly draw out many of the convergences between the collectives founded by these children and the contemporary global political landscape. Populist disruption is favored over “sensible” compromise; anarchy appears just a stone’s throw away; personality and iconicity wins out over care and foresight. Riff's film is joyful and sharp. It succeeds in mobilizing the youthful energy of its subjects without losing sight of the contemporaneous Brazilian general election (which led to the appointment of far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro). The film never strays from the school grounds, allowing the energy and tensions to dominate throughout.

Open City will celebrate its 10th edition next year. Attracting auteur filmmakers like Naomi Kawase (also “In Focus” this year) alongside technically gifted young talent from around the globe, there is strong reason for excitement around the anniversary program. As an organization rooted in education, collaborating with major voices from the art world and film industry, and now venturing into film funding, Open City is playing an important role as one of the UK’s foremost platforms for new documentary filmmaking.


Dr James Harvey is a Lecturer in Film Studies at University of Sussex. His research focuses on the political aesthetics of contemporary documentary, art cinema and artists' film.