DocuThinker Summer Travel Blog

Open City Doc Fest: DocuThinker Travel Blog in London

By Mary Moylan

This month in London is host to the most sought after British cultural events:  the Queen’s 87th birthday, The Royal Ascot, Wimbledon, The Lord’s Cricket – the list goes on. Of course, I’m here to attend Open City Docs Fest- London’s global documentary film festival, in the heart of Bloomsbury.  When W. H. Auden wrote, “The earth is an oyster with nothing inside it,” I think he was searching for accommodations in London during the month of June. I have, however, come away with a few pearls.  The third annual ‘Open City fest’ opened with the notable conference from Documentary Now!,  the innovative group of documentary scholars and filmmakers. Standout featured panels included some timely research on themes ranging from Documentary Observing Surveillance and Malleable perception and Cinematographic Chronotopes in New Documentary Forms, just to name a few.  Elizabeth Cowie, professor of film studies at the University of Kent in England, gave a powerful presentation on the central role of observation in both documentary and surveillance and asks some important questions such as; what is the relation of the world surveyed in documentary to the world surveilled? And, when and how does the camera’s prosthetic eye enable discursive power? How does our desire to see and to be seen engage with the anxiety of surveillance? Cowie opened with a moving quote from Robert Bresson:

“The problem is to make what you see be seen through an intermediary of a machine that does not see it as you see it. And to make what you understand be understood through the intermediary of a machine that does not understand it as you do.” Her specific focus; The watching of surveillance-and the pleasures and fears that this gives rise to. Further, Cowie distinguishes between watching, looking and viewing.

Invocations of the phenomenological work from the environmental philosopher, David Abrams were brought to life in a presentation from Cathy Greenhalgh, (University of the Arts, London).  Illuminating his signature work on the ‘malleable texture of perception’ Greenhalgh skillfully guided us through an interpretation of the filmic techniques that enable an altered sense of presence and authenticity. Listing motifs such as; nostalgic narratives of the play between natural and artificial light, stop frame animation, variable shutter speed stills and live action; ethnographic interview memory narratives, and archive and manipulated sound; to enhance temporal and special effects and historical and environmental effects.  Ultimately, these techniques illicit notions of the chronotope as a cinematographic concept driver in new documentary forms.

12 o clock boyzOpening night for the fest- well, as I was met without welcome or introduction and a mysteriously missing press pass, I decided to just “jog on,” as they say, over to the  Bloomsbury theatre for the UK premiere of “12 O’clock Boyz” directed by Lofty Nathan.  Told through the point of view of young pug, only 13 years old, this boy’s dream is shaped by his surroundings in a dangerous west side Baltimore neighborhood and the eventual initiation into the notorious urban dirt bike gang know as, the 12 O’clock Boyz ! More than a coming of age story- though it is that, the documentary depicts a powerful sociological inquiry as we are intimately immersed into the everyday lives of our subjects.

Following the film, I attended the opening night party in the cinema tent- just a short jaunt from the theatre. I was greeted with the cool sounds of DVA– the acoustic-eclectic sibling duo from the Czech Republic. This live performance was supported by the Czech Centre and the Embassy of the Czech Republic in London. The evening held an especially good vibe, in spite of my  “freeze out” from the PR group.

Stay tuned to Docuthinker every Thursday morning for ‘Docs in the Morning.’ Next up: festival workshop and panel discussions, more doc film reviews-and, my exclusive interview with Lourdes Portillo. Don’t miss it! 

in: Events