In between witnessing the spectacular meltdown of the UK’s relationship with Europe, the resignation of PM David Cameron and the coup against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, the Smoke Screen has just about managed to keep attention focused on one of London’s key film festivals: Open City Doc Fest. Open City Documentary Festival is an open space in London to nurture and champion the art of creative documentary and non-fiction filmmakers and its associate dfestival takes place over six days in venues across London, this year’s taking place between 21st - 26th June.
With the festival taking place as the momentous UK EU Referendum rumbled on in the background, it was hard to avoid noticing how timely and topical the two films that opened and closed the festival were. Both films - Tadhg O’Sullivan’s The Great Wall and Ognjen Glavonic’s Depth Two - tackle head-on some of the most pressing issues that have bedevilled Europe from both past and present. Both also feature strikingly similar formal approaches to their respective subject matter. Read on below to see
Film Review: The Great Wall
Director: Tadhg O’Sullivan’
2015 / IRELAND / 74′
Playing Open City Doc Fest 2016 (Opening Film)
Tadhg O’Sullivan’s The Great Wall explores the barriers the filmmaker sees, literally and metaphorical, between our wealthy western shores and the waves of migrants and refugees regularly accused of ‘swamping’ our wealthy and secure societies. But O’Sullivandoesn’t explore this complex and seemingly unending issue via the usual tricks of archive footage intercut with talking head experts. Instead he takes his camera across various divided areas of the world- where the first world comes into uneasy contact with the less fortunate - and explores the walls that bisect the two worlds. Alongside O’Sullivan’s sharply lensed, troubling images of flashpoint around the world, with the camera often tracking along dividing lines both visible and invisible, we hear the narrator’s voice from Kafka’s short story, The Great Wall of China, serving as a comment on the self-serving narratives we tell ourselves.
There are some striking landscapes and man-made constructs to contemplate in this film, which will trouble the mind of anyone concerned at the plight of those fleeing devastation and war. A haunting soundtrack creates a suitably ominous mood. But the film should not be mistaken for a complex political tract: there is no on screen text or voiceover to inform us where in the world the various images are from, and the film can’t resist a few sequences tracking bankers and pinstripes strolling around the Square Mile in London that just feel like a cheap guilt shot, none of which really helps address the complexities of an issue like, say, Syria. Still, the film has its heart in the right place.
Film Review: Depth Two
Director: Ogden Glavonic
2016 / FRANCE/SERBIA / 80′
Playing Open City Doc Fest 2016 (Closing Film)
Depth Two, by Serbian Director Ongjen Glavonic, won the Grand Jury Award at this year’s Open City Documentary Festival. In a parallel with documentaries like The Act of Killing, Depth Two focuses on a recent tragedy involving mass genocide, a tragedy arguably already fading from widespread popular memory. It strongly makes the case that we forget these nightmares at our peril. They can happen closer to us than we think.
As with The Great Wall, Depth Two’s approach to the subject matter - in the case the war and genocide in Yugoslavia and the surrounding regions in the 1990s, which eventually involved NATO - is tackled through long shots of various landscapes counterpointed with voiceovers. These shots are in fact a series of tableaux of the Serbian countryside, in the present day, but virtually all the locales seem eerily empty of people, as if they have been depopulated. Such sparse, cloud-covered vistas are a gloomily appropriate canvas for all the various narrators, all survivors, security operatives and soldiers from that period of horror (the voiceover testimony is from the ICTY trials), who have each their own grim stories that remap for us the horror that unfolded as Serbian leader Milošević clung with increasing desperation to power and mass genocide tore through the land. One narrator remembers a truck, filled with corpses, lifted one day from the depths of the Danube river on the Serbian-Romanian border. A woman recalls being gunned down in a pizzeria, left for dead under a pile bodies, before being throw into a truck and dumped in a roadside. A forensic examiner’s voice cracks as he describes the numbing effect of going through the mass graves in the aftermath, cataloguing the terror. This all happened seventeen years ago, but at a time when Europe seems so fragile, Ognjen Glavonić is here to remind us how close to home violence and rage can erupt if we all turn inward