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Q&A: Oliver Wright on the Open City London Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival takes place over six days, with films from all over the world, leading documentary makers and new talent. As well as features and shorts there are also awards, networking events, panel discussions and masterclasses. Basically, a week of documentary celebration and madness. We caught up with programmer Oliver Wright to talk about the wealth of creative non-fiction filmmaking popping up in venues across London this September.

Eli Goldstone: Hi Ollie. Can you tell us a little bit about your role in the open city documentary festival?

Oliver Wright: As programmer, I’m responsible for overseeing the festival’s film programme each year, working with colleagues here at Open City as well as a number of pre-selectors and programme advisors. Each year, we view hundreds of submitted projects, travel to international festivals and research programmes of festivals we can’t attend in search of films we wish to bring to London.

Eli: The festival has just revealed this year's programme - is there anything resembling a theme that you have spotted emerging in current documentary film making?

Ollie: It’s a very vibrant time for documentary at the moment and the last few years have seen a surge in interest for work that looks to play with and expand the form, or that has very strong visual or conceptual approach behind it. Our opening film, Taste of Cement by Syrian filmmaker, Ziad Kalthoum, reflects this trend and combines extremely stylized, poetic visuals with found military combat footage to create an extremely cinematic portrait of Syrian workers in exile in Lebanon. Similarly our closing night film, Purge This Land which retells the history of racism and slavery in modern America through the story of a militant, white abolitionist named John Browne sits somewhere between documentary, experimental and essay film.

On the other hand, this year in particular I’ve noticed something of a return to observational or direct cinema - filmmakers following their subjects very closely and patiently often over a long period of time. Burning Out, which follows the members of a surgical unit in one of the biggest hospitals in Paris for over two years is a really impressive example of this kind of observational filmmaking.

There also seems to be something of a new wave of Anthropological filmmaking coming through. We have a focus on Belgian filmmaker Pierre-Yves Vanderweerd whose work combines anthropology with experimental film techniques to create these very instense and powerful portraits of communities who have been traumatized by exile and conflict. Sanctuary, an ethnographic study of donkeys, and Linefork, which is a delicate portrait of a unheralded banjo legend living in a tiny town in Kentucky, are also great examples of experimental anthropological filmmaking.

Eli: Are there certain countries that have a particularly healthy documentary film making scene?

Ollie: Yes, many. There’s been some pretty extraordinary work emerging from China over the past few years. Wang Bing in particular is arguably the most compelling and important voice in documentary today so we’re very proud to have the UK Premiere of his film, Bitter Money, at Open City. The film follows the lives of a group of factory workers in Huzhou as they struggle through twelve-hour shifts and appalling living conditions. The bleak subject matter, along with the lengthy running time, may make the film seem a daunting prospect but there’s more than humanity and drama in every scene that as a viewing experience it’s utterly gripping.

As a region, South America has also been producing a lot of remarkable and formally daring documentary of late. We’re showing Memory Exercises which is the latest film from Paraguan filmmaker, Paz Encina. It’s an experimental documentary investigating the Paraguayan dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner (1954–89) through the memories of the children of his “disappeared” opponent, the dissident Agustín Goiburú. And from Bolivia, Dark Skull by Kiro Russo is a strange and idiosyncratic docu-drama made with non-actors and in collaboration with the miners union.

Eli: Can you tell us a little about the work of Vitaly Mansky?

Ollie: Vitaly Mansky is one of Russia’s leading documentary filmmakers. He has been working for over 30 years and has amassed an extraordinary body of work in that time. His films cover a huge range of topics and stories but, looked at as a whole, they form a chronicle of the generation of Soviets who came of age during the collapse of the Union. Our selection focuses on some of his earlier work, which is as well as being fascinating from a historical point-of-view, are also remarkable for their stylistic and formal range. Private Chronicles : Monologue (1999) for instance is a fabricated biography of a fictional Russian – born in 1961 – made from over 5000 hours of archival and found home movie material, whereas Broadway, Black Sea is an absurdly funny portrait of a Black Sea resort over one summer. As a festival, we have always placed a strong emphasis and emerging talent, but it’s very eciting to have a genuine documentary master joining us this year.

Vitaly Mansky, Motherland or Death

Eli: There are some special events happening including The Playroom Booths - is it important for the festival to transcend the screen and to host immersive events like this?

Ollie: It is important for the festival to look at documentary beyond the context of a single-screen cinema projection. This year our festival hub will be at the Bargehouse on the Southbank, which is an amazing space and provides us with new opportunities for exhibition. The Playroom Booths is a cross-platform installation taking people into the story of rave, soundsystem and queer culture and exploring how these scenes impacted the social and cultural landscape of London. Also at the Bargehouse will be a new four-screen video installation by British filmmaker Marc Isaacs which re-purposes material from his back-catalogue to create an immersive meditation on human fragility and the passage of time.

Eli: How do you think VR is impacting film making and what do you think the future of VR filmmaking holds?

Ollie: I think the truth is no one really knows where this technology is headed yet. Open City Docs is based within UCL and this September we launch a new Studio within the MA Ethnographic and Documentary Film programme that is going to explore what VR is ‘for’. Under the moniker, ‘Immersive Factual Storytelling’ we will try to work out what works in VR, what kinds of stories we can tell and what kinds of experiences we can create that work uniquely well in these environments. These questions will be central to the VR day during the festival, taking place at Digital Catapult. There will be a keynote from William Uricchio, the principal investigator in the MIT Open Documentary Lab, during which he will explore how film-makers can fully exploit the huge potential of VR, where to look for creative inspiration and what VR can contribute to the documentary tradition.

Eli: Finally, what is your favourite documentary of all time?

Ollie: No film has has had as bigger impact on me than Jem Cohen’s Lost Book Found.


Open City London

5-10 September

Cinemas across London