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The Art of Non-Fiction by Oliver Wright, Head of Programme, and Chloe Trayner, Associate Director at Open City Documentary Festival

[Micro-Utopia: The Imaginary Potential of Home by Paula Strunden]

The past decade has seen a renaissance in documentary and non-fiction storytelling - across moving image, audio, and most recently virtual and immersive reality - with a burgeoning interest from audiences coalescing with a period of great innovation in the form. Broadly speaking, a sea change has occurred, marked by a greater appreciation and understanding of documentary film as an art form, viewed as equal in potential and scope to any other.

As a result, the idea of the art of non-fiction - or non-fiction as an art-form - has gained traction amongst both makers and audiences alike, thanks in large part to the work of a number of commited festivals and exhibitors. In Europe, members of the Doc Alliance network; CPH: DOX, DocLisboa, FIDMarseille and Visions du Réel to name a few, and further afield, True/False Film Fest in Missouri and RIDM in Montreal have all lead the way in promoting and championing a more expansive view of non-fiction cinema.

Now celebrating it’s eighth edition, Open City Documentary Festival has been fortunate to coincide with this period, developing and evolving alongside the work we have been privileged to screen. Since the first edition in 2011 - instigated from a small room in UCL’s Anthropology Department - the festival has placed priority on creative and innovative work, aiming to provide a platform in London for filmmakers intent on pushing at the boundaries of the form.


[Baronesa, directed by Juliana Antunes]

Whilst the festival name still identifies us as a documentary festival, this year’s tagline acknowledges the usefulness of non-fiction as a more inclusive term, one that encompases forms beyond that of documentary: the essay film, artists moving image and experimental film. The work in this year’s programme reflects this broadening view more than ever. Our opening night film Baronesa, directed by Juliana Antunes, moves seamlessly between documentary and scripted fictional elements to create a moving and visceral portrait of a young woman living a perilous life in the Brazilian favelas. The film has been screened both in documentary and fiction sections at a host of international film festivals over the past months, and it is telling that the film has been welcomed equally in both camps.


[Jamilia, directed by Aminatou Echard]

As the border between fiction and documentary has become increasingly blurred, so too has the relationship between documentary and other forms. A documentary impulse has emerged in artists’ moving image in recent years and documentary makers have likewise embraced techniques and approaches historically more associated with experimental film. Jamilia, made by French ethnomusicologist and experimental filmmaker, Aminatou Echard, exists at this interface, combining anthropological field recordings and a tapestry of luscious, impressionistic super 8 imagery to create a vivid portrait of women in contemporary Kyrgyzstan through the prism of one of the countries most famous novels. Luise Donschen similarly employs a range of modes and techniques in her debut feature, Casanova Gene, moving through fiction, interview, documentary observation and surreal staged performances to construct an original, intriguing and at times very funny essay on the nature of desire.


[The Image You Missed, directed by Donal Foreman]

The essay film has always been a close cousin of documentary and has enjoyed something of a renaissance of its own in recent years. The introspective and self-reflexive qualities associated with the essay film can be found in work throughout the programme, but especially in two interlinked films about Northern Ireland. In The Image You Missed, Donal Foreman draws on decades of unique footage unearthed from the archives of his father - the political filmmaker and author of The Patriot Game, Arthur MacCaig - to construct a deeply personal history of The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The pairing of these two films presents an exciting opportunity to initiate a dialogue between filmmakers across time: at once providing historical context to the new work whilst reinvigorating the work of a previous generation.


[The Patriot Game, directed by Arthur MacCaig]

This reflects a broader agenda of the festival this year. For the first time, we have invited selected filmmakers to programme films alongside their own that have in someway inspired or informed their practice. From outside the world of film, musician, DJ and producer, Nabihah Iqbal will present the Winterfilm Collective’s 1972 filmed accounts of soldiers returning from the Vietnam War, Winter Soldier. The film will be followed by an discussion and an evening of music from DJs Nabihah Iqbal and Haseeb Iqbal inspired by the film, featuring protest songs and music from the anti-war movement from 1950-1975.


[Winter Soldier, directed by Winterfilm Collective]

Also from the archive, Radio Atlas and In The Dark present a listening event in tribute to René Farabet, a master of the creative audio feature whose award-winning documentary Words from Inside (St Maur Prison) has inspired audio producers around the world. Possibilities in the field of creative audio have opened up significantly in recent years as the democratisation of distribution and the relative affordability of production following the advent of podcasting and internet radio. Audio has been a feature of the festival programme for the past few editions but we’re excited this year to be incorporating the work into our main screening programme, presenting audio pieces alongside film features, allowing audiences an opportunity to experience this unique artform in a communal setting.


[In The Dark & Radio Atlas: Words from Inside (St Maur Prison) by René Farabet]

Virtual Reality further extends the possibilities of non-fiction storytelling. Our Expanded Realities Exhibition reflects the ethos of the film and audio programmes with a line-up of innovative and exciting cross-media projects that experiment and play with the formal possibilities of this emerging artform. Micro-Utopia: The Imaginary Potential of Home by Paula Strunden (UCL Bartlett School of Architecture) draws on speculative architecture to propose an immersive and interactive version of a home. VVVR (Visual Voice Virtual Reality) challenges the way we engage with immersive technology, combining virtual reality and audio effects to temporarily free the mind from language. Movement and cross-pollination between disciplines is also proving more common in this area with new immersive pieces on display from filmmakers Matthew Bate (Sam Klemke’s Time Machine - Open City Documentary Festival 2015) and Kalina Bertin.


[The Ethno-Fictions of Laura Huertas Millán]

Another reinvigorating and influential force in non-fiction over the past decade has been Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab who’s work and ideas have done much to challenge traditional ideas of both documentary and ethnography. Laura Huertas Millán - who recently completed part of her PhD there - presents her extraordinary triptych of ‘Ethno-Fictions’ at the festival. Millán’s work challenges the colonial roots of ethnography, seeking to create a space where the filmmaker can speak not ‘for’ their subject, but instead speak ‘with them’. The critical engagement with form and the willingness to interrogate the images and narratives one constructs is equally apparent in the political films in this years programme. One of these, Beata Bubenec’s Flight of a Bullet - shot in one breathtaking take in the midst of an armed dispute in Ukraine’s heavily contested Donbass region - is as much a fascinating study on the role and responsibilities of the filmmaker in a conflict zone as it is a unflinching depiction of life during wartime.


[Flight Of A Bullet, directed by Beata Bubenec]

As we near the end of the festival’s first decade the documentary renaissance continues apace and we look forward to what the next ten years may have in stall for non-fiction in all its forms. The work on display in this year’s festival certainly points to an exciting future.

Open City Documentary Festival take place from 4th -9th September at venues across Central London. Find more details and book tickets at opencitylondon.com.