Close Up

25 - 29 April 2024: Open City Documentary Festival


Open City Documentary Festival returns for its 14th year with the aim to challenge and expand the idea of documentary in all its forms. The festival consists of international contemporary and retrospective non-fiction film, audio and cross media, as well as filmmaker Q&As, exhibitions, panels and workshops. The programme at Close-Up features works by Amy Halpern, Ana Elena Tejera, Annik Leroy & Julie Morel, Anonymous Collective, Cecilia Mangini, Chantal Akerman, Chiemi Shimada, Chris Welsby, Dan Guthrie, David Gladwell, Derek Jarman, Emilija Škarnulytė, Emily Richardson, Eva Giolo, Gillian Waldo, Hicham Gardaf, Kaori Oda, Margaret Rorison, Naomi Uman, Pablo Álvarez-Mesa, Razan AlSalah, Rhea Storr, Shambhavi Kaul, Simon Liu, Tania Dinis and Tiffany Sia.


Losing Ground
Anonymous Collective, 2023, 18 min

The aftermath of the 2021 coup d’état in Yangon, Myanmar sees an entire generation left in a brutal environment. The country’s economic capital city has rapidly become an open-air prison. Protest attempts are met with hostility, arrests, involuntary confinement and the threat of execution. With the constant threat of violence in the city, a collective of young anonymous voices from their apartments use beams of light, shouting, art and string instruments in an act of desperation. This creative movement exhibits glimmers of hope as the dictatorship continues to take hold.

Kaori Oda, 2023, 53 min

GAMA is Kaori Oda's hour-long descent into the eponymous subterranean refuges used by thousands of Japanese civilians to escape American aggressions during World War Il. Now serving as both a tourist destination and stalactite-ridden cemetery, solemn “peace guides” man these underground caves, seemingly oblivious to the ghost that flanks them. Stoically, they recite testimonies which reveal the individual stories behind mass suicides encouraged by the Japanese military, conveying their ramifications for both those who partook in the ritual, and those who shirked it. Slowly, soberingly, excavating the hysteria and pain of a historical conflict, Oda offers an immersive encounter in order to transmit the “dark experience” of the gamas’ subterranean dwellers. Unearthing a context in which the daylight atrocities of international warfare rippled down to civil conflict in the cavernous darkness below ground, GAMA carefully carves a space for these buried stories to surface.

Followed by Q&A with Kaori Oda


Absent Forces: The Politics of the Eerie in English Rural Moving Image

Drawing upon Mark Fisher’s theorisation of the eerie as the sensation of absence, of either a presence or an absence, these works activate the dissonance between our imagined notion of the countryside and the political realities of this landscape.

Framed by both its critics and advocates as a bastion of uncorrupted tradition isolated from the many developments that have emerged following the industrial revolution, the popular perception of the countryside has taken on an (ideological) emptiness, serving only as a romantic uncorrupted foil against which the complexities of urban and international life can be compared, often in a reactionary manner.

These films engage with these conventions of the rural eerie to argue that England’s landscape has in fact been as shaped by modernity as its cities, with industrial, agricultural and military sites shaping large areas of the supposedly untouched land from nuclear power stations to Greenham Common. Questions of identity, including gender and race also remain live on these sites, their manifestations different, but no less complex than in urban areas.

In doing so, these works make the case that the eerie is not just an aesthetic choice in moving image works responding to the English landscape but a discursive tool that is able to expose and critique the political forces acting upon the rural and the reactionary ideologies that seek to hide them.

An Untitled Film
David Gladwell, 1964, 9 min, 16mm

Ordinary scenes on a farm take on an ominous quality through Gladwell’s montage of slow-motion footage shot at 200 frames per second. Made eleven years before his feature Requiem for a Village, the two films share a concern for capturing a form of English rural life that was increasingly threatened by modernisation, industrialisation and mechanisation. The haunting shots of a bonfire being lit or livestock being handled are at once an elegy to ever more obsolete agricultural practices whilst also testifying to the force that even this simpler form of farming exerted on nature.

Sky Light
Chris Welsby, 1988, 28 min, 16mm

Shot 48 hours after news of the Chernobyl disaster broke, Sky Light continued Welsby’s exploration of images from the natural landscape but with an added threat of oblivion from the nuclear age. Disruptions to idyllic scenes of a river flowing or a cloudy sky clearing assert the presence of human technologies, visible and otherwise, in even these seemingly pristine sites. Over three sections, the scenes of nature come to be further erased and overwritten with chemical and mechanical interference with the images becoming abstracted and then erased altogether as the final frames of the film were stripped of their emulsion.

The Image That Spits, The Eye That Accumulates
Rhea Storr, 2017, 11 min

Racialised bodies and Norfolk’s coastal landscape are examined in parallel to one another as sites that are subjected to erosion and erasure. These bodies and this landscape are depicted on images – in this case 16mm and digital footage – and through language and yet, even these representations come to feel obsolete, attempts to fix a moment in time with technology that itself is static and subject to being left behind. Storr’s work with Kodachrome film, once innovative for its colour and archival properties but now out of production and only able to be processed in black and white, epitomises these concerns.

Coaley Peak (A Fragment)
Dan Guthrie, 2021, 6 min

Guthrie set out to film Coaley Peak, a viewpoint in Gloucestershire, to revisit a photograph of his relatives taken there. An incident early in the shoot disrupted this plan and forced the film to be made with what little footage he had already shot. Without being elaborated on any further, this incident forms an unsettling undercurrent to Guthrie's narration, set out on captions that play over loops of the two clips that he had managed to shoot. The resulting film documents its own creation whilst serving as speculation of what could have been and what caused it not to be so.

Cobra Mist
Emily Richardson, 2008, 8 min

Across the twentieth century, Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast was used as a site for military research, most notably by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and for testing radar systems, one of which provides the film’s title. Whilst the site has been abandoned for decades, many of the activities which took place here remain classified and the derelict buildings maintain a sense of secrecy, heightened by the film’s soundscape use of on-site field recordings. Captured on timelapses, the military architecture remains unsettlingly still in the timelapse footage whilst the surrounding landscape twitches restlessly in the fickle coastal weather.

A Journey to Avebury
Derek Jarman, 1971, 10 min

Shot on a visit to the neolithic stone circle in Avebury, Wiltshire, this early short by Jarman consists of vistas in the West Country encountered while walking around the site. Typically picturesque images of rolling hills and neat fields take on an otherworldly quality through the sheer absence of any human figures in these highly-maintained landscapes, an absence that is only emphasised by the single fleeting shot of people that is glimpsed midway. As Jarman wrote, “silence is golden, not yellow,” and the rich yellow hue that floods each frame, accompanied by a sparse electronic soundtrack by COIL, hints at something simmering beneath the stillness.


The Soldier’s Lagoon
Pablo Álvarez-Mesa, 2024, 77 min

The Soldier’s Lagoon (La Laguna del Soldado) is the second part in Pablo Álvarez-Mesa’s trilogy of films retracing Simón Bolívar’s passage during the Liberation Campaign of Colombia in 1819. The film follows Bolivar’s path high into the Andean mountains and the foggy páramo ecosystem through which he led his troops in their final march towards Bogotá. Referred to as “the land of the mist” by Spanish Conquistadors, the páramo is a major source of water for the country but the extreme temperatures and high altitude make it an incredibly harsh and treacherous environment for humans. Álvarez-Mesa reflects on the weight of history in the territory, combining 16mm imagery with testimony from a polyphony of voices including botanists, crafts people and historians to excavate centuries of buried trauma and violence from the land.

Followed by Q&A with Pablo Álvarez-Mesa


The Diagonal Force
Annik Leroy & Julie Morel, 2023, 145 min

Drawing from the writings and ideas of political philosopher Hannah Arendt, and particularly her focus on the human capacity to introduce something new into the world we share, Annik Leroy and Julie Morel travel across Europe, filming portraits of people and landscapes, gathering accounts of traumatic experiences that had been life-changing and transformative. In Sarajevo, a woman recounts an episode of the 1990s siege, when the tram that she was driving was hit by shell. In Görlitz, a Belgian man with a German mother recalls the discrimination and hatred that he suffered growing up in Belgium right after the Second World War; his classmates ambushing and beating him, leaving him with a broken nose. In Belgium, a Kinshaha-born opera singer describes the pain of being an orphan, having never known his parents’ affection. The second half of the film is a collaboration with dancer and choreographer Claire Vivianne Sobottke. Her embodied performance responds to Arendt’s writings, which are recited by Sobottke herself, and read by filmmaker Claudia von Alemann and others. The Diagonal Force (La force diagonale) is a monumental film work, inhabited by the ghosts of 20th century European history.

Followed by Q&A with Annik Leroy & Julie Morel

With the generous support of The Delegation of Flanders (Embassy of Belgium) to the UK and Ireland


In Focus: Simon Liu 2: Life as Usual

Curated by Simon Liu and featuring seven short films by Hong Kong artists spanning the last 45 years, Life as Usual surveys the often surreal and uncanny underbelly of life in the metropolis through gestures of disobedience, imaginary landscapes, and desires for an alternative future.

Ellen Pau, 1990, 6 min

Combining television footage of swimming contests across Victoria Harbour in the 1960s with other archival sources, Diversion reflects on a watershed moment in Hong Kong history.

Tugging Diary
Yan Wai Yin Winnie, 2021, 16 min

Tugging Diary presents a loose documentation of a footbridge in Hong Kong, corresponding with the rise of the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement, from August 2019 to January 2021.

Wong Ping’s Fables 2
Wong Ping, 2019, 14 min

Wong Ping’s Fables 2 alternates between the tales of a wealthy imprisoned cow and a conjoined triplet rabbit to explore issues including greed, incarceration, digital consumerism, narcissism, and desire.

For Some Reasons
Ellen Pau, 2003, 7 min

In For Some Reasons, each Chinese character is a typeface, and each typeface has a story. Changing a single Chinese character within this turn of phrase leads to a shift in meaning.

Let’s Talk
Simon Liu, 2023, 11 min

“On the 25-year anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Great Britain to Mainland China, directives for ‘a new era’ promising stability and prosperity are found on murals and public slogans. Meanwhile, uneasy thoughts cast unusual shades on daily life. Old feelings arise, a pressure builds – conjuring distant voices from the concrete, never quite getting their point across. Something calls for repair, but we can't just talk it out, can we?” – Simon Liu

Letter to the Young Intellectuals of Hong Kong
Mok Chiu-yi & Li Ching, 1978, 15 min

Letter to the Young Intellectuals of Hong Kong cuts and pastes aspects of commercial, personal, and experimental cinema, resulting in an invaluable record of the anti-imperialist movements in British-controlled Hong Kong. Beginning with what appear to be outtakes from a documentary about a Henry Moore exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the film progresses through a series of aesthetic manoeuvres – over-dubbing, painting directly onto the film, et al – through which Mok turns the material into an incendiary missive to Hong Kong's youth.” – George Clark

Song of the Goddess
Ellen Pau, 1992, 7 min

Song of the Goddess pays tribute to the famous Cantonese Opera duo, Yam Kim-fai and Pak Suet-sin. In Pau’s video, the women’s mirrored selves appear as strongly dualistic reflections, referencing their love on and off the screen.

Followed by Q&A with Simon Liu


The Sojourn
Tiffany Sia, 2023, 32 min

The Sojourn imagines a restless landscape film in Taiwan. Visiting scenic locations shot by King Hu, the short experiments with the road movie genre and its intersection with the martial arts epic. Sia meets actor Shih Chun, who played the protagonist in Hu’s Dragon Inn, Touch of Zen and other wuxia films, as he guides the quest to re-encounter the iconic landscapes where Dragon Inn was shot. He advises on the perfect conditions of mist and weather. Yet, in the journey through the mountains of Hehuanshan, the sublime landscape of King Hu remains ever elusive. Absent of conventional subtitles, the essay film employs text burned into the centre of the frame as a mode of translation, sometimes refusing total disclosure.” – Tiffany Sia

A Stone’s Throw
Razan AlSalah, 2023, 40 min

Amine, a twice-exiled Palestinian elder, becomes a figure around whom AlSalah unravels the recurring violence of oil and labour extraction. The story of his displacements, from Haifa to Beirut and again to Zirku Island, an Emirati offshore oil platform and work camp, intersects with the region’s histories of extraction and colonisation, with the 1936 sabotage of a British Petroleum pipeline by Palestinian labourers being a critical event. AlSalah incorporates satellite imagery and archival material into her footage to serve as a form of digital trespass against the borders imposed upon the region by those who occupy and regulate it to lay out the emotional and material proximities shared across the area.


Becoming Landscape

Public Surfaces
Gillian Waldo, 2023, 12 min

In 1964, Baltimore passed a law stipulating that for any new building in the city, 1% of its construction budget had to go towards commissioning a new piece of public art. Open to interpretation and variably repurposed by the city’s residents, Public Surfaces revisits the resultant sculptures and installations. In dialogue with a wide cross-section of Baltimore residents, director Gillian Waldo’s questioning prompts intergenerational musings reflecting upon the project’s innovation and neglect, while her camera isolates the loops, curves and spirals that ornament their neighbourhoods, as part of one city’s historic “battle against urban ugliness.

Becoming Landscape
Eva Giolo, 2023, 20 min

A portrait of Fogo Island, off the Eastern coast of Canada. Giolo approaches the unique environment of the island – human, geological, floral – proposing an indivisibility between landscapes and the bodies that inhabit them. Shot in her distinctly frontal style, a series of 16mm tableaux hint to the relationship between observation and composition, between seeing and dreaming. As someone reads, “a landscape is a state of mind”, or more accurately a “state of mind is a landscape.

With the generous support of The Delegation of Flanders (Embassy of Belgium) to the UK and Ireland

In Praise of Slowness
Hicham Gardaf, 2023, 17 min

In Praise of Slowness is Hicham Gardaf’s alluring study of Moroccan street hawkers, as they roam Tangier’s streets and hills to dilute, bottle, and sell bleach. Capturing their startling, bulbous silhouettes and distinct, acerbic cries announcing goods for sale, In Praise of Slowness hones in on the methodic rituals of a slow and humble trade, and the domestic labour it enables. In revisiting a childhood memory – a once ubiquitous livelihood is now under threat by mass industrialisation – the dreamlike reverence of infancy imbues the film’s imagery, lending its mundane subject matter an otherworldly texture. Yet, in his exploration of the gentle, dedicated pacing of unautomated and resourceful labour practices, Gardaf is sparing with his rich visuals, playing with absence of image to explore sensory intuition and interdependency, exploring how sight and hearing intersect to form an understanding of one’s place within a given environment.

Slow Shift
Shambhavi Kaul, 2023, 9 min

Geological, animal and human timescales flow across one another in Kaul’s portrayal of Hampi, the site of a 14th century city in central India. The ruins continue their gradual decay and the precarious formations of boulders, no longer able to hold, topple precipitously, all overseen by the native langur monkeys who have come to inhabit the world heritage site. In turns clambering across the ancient rock formations and languidly reflecting on the landscape, Hampi’s primate custodians playfully guide the film through multiple pasts, be they real or mythic, natural or human.

Followed by Q&A with the filmmakers.


Falling Lessons: The Films of Amy Halpern 2

Introduced by Kathryn Siegel

Injury on a Theme
Amy Halpern, 2010, 7 min, 16mm

For Lynda Gudde. “A short sweet film concerning torture.” – Amy Halpern

Falling Lessons
Amy Halpern, 1992, 64 min, 16mm

With Michael Snow, Shirley Clarke, Julie Dash, Chick Strand, Pat O’Neill, and many others.

Falling Lessons is a film about eye-contact and fear, and about how nourishment can be gained from a look. It takes the form of a series of encounters between the individual in the audience and the individuals on the screen. The film uses faces as an alphabet. The eyes of almost 200 adults, children and animals are composed, word-like, into sentences and paragraphs, by look, expression, and tone. These images seem to fall or to ascend, caught with us in a slow maelstrom. One by one they look us in the eye, and sometimes comment as they pass. We are caught in a complex tapestry of gestures, sounds and voices. Off-screen dramas are suggested. Plot-lines form in the mind.” – Amy Halpern


Grandma’s Grammar: Time Machines

Introduced by Elena Gorfinkel

Like Chantal Akerman (D’Est) and Barbara Hammer (My Babushka: Searching Ukrainian Identities) Naomi Uman was drawn to return to the Eastern Europe of her great grandparents, in an act of reverse pilgrimage. Uman moved to Ukraine in 2006 (where she lived on and off for ten years), a place her Jewish ancestors had left a century ago to escape persecution. Her “Ukrainian Time Machine” cycle recounts, in the form of short films and longer diaristic compendiums, Uman’s immersion in the rural and village life, and her tutelage by the adopted babushki she met and who took her in.

Naomi Uman, 2008, 10 min, 16mm

Kalendar as its title suggests, is a filmic calendar that collates a visual catalogue of words through their exemplary or phenomenal imagistic correlates. Uman learns the Ukrainian language through analogy, as seasonal objects, rituals and labours, mark time and its passing.

Unnamed Film
Naomi Uman, 2009, 55 min, 16mm

Unnamed Film, a documentary of her stay in the village of Legedzine, examines the village’s life (pickling, farming, bazaars) and its inhabitants, mostly older women, kerchiefed babushki who toil to stave off poverty and sustain cultural ritual. Their bemused faces, hospitality, lilting songs, and acts of preservative care are mediated by Uman’s inquisitive gaze. Both films consider the multiple “languages of the grandmother” as invitations to kindred belongings.


Grandma’s Grammar: Memory’s Hands

Introduced by Elena Gorfinkel

Maria’s Days
Cecilia Mangini, 1960, 10 min

Cecilia Mangini’s ode to the woman she considered her godmother, Maria di Capriati, is narrated with a declaratively poetic assertion of her existential and social station in life. Capriati – an unmarried peasant who had many children out of wedlock and continued to work the land and oversee workers on a farm estate in rural Apulia – figures both a refusal to accept inutility in later life, “I’m still here, I’m still useful,” and the labours, exhaustions, and folk rituals of a province outside the onrush of modernization and the reach of the “economic miracle.” Faithful to the charismatic force of Maria’s presence and the concreteness of her days and habits, Mangini bestows her maternal mentor with the potency of an irreducible, flinty alterity.

Memory of August
Margaret Rorison, 2017, 6 min

Margaret Rorison’s tender observations of her grandmother’s recovery in a rehabilitation facility are rendered in a rich use of black and white film, and a face-to-face regard with the frailties and tenacity of a body persisting in time. Clutching at and contemplating a photographic album with knotted hands and a reading glass, Rorison’s grandmother pauses on a past photo image of herself in life’s memory book, another kind of à deux.

A Love Song in Spanish
Ana Elena Tejera, 2021, 24 min

A hybrid work, Ana Elena Tejera’s portrait of her grandmother utilizes archival images, re-enactment and “biographical performance” to exorcise painful personal experience, family secrets, and Panamanian military dictatorship in the 1980s a history felt “through the skin.” Grandmother recounts how her husband returned from military training in Israel, fundamentally altered. “Why did God make me love you?” she asks, underlining a domain of fear, entrapment, and hidden violence. A moment of joy in movement ruptures memory’s prison-house, as grandmother dances alone in her old living room, a room where moving her body had long been forbidden.

Emilija Škarnulytė, 2013, 16 min

Aldona presents an encounter between collective and personal histories, where abstracted ideologies, monumentalized, reconvene with the historical subjects whom they have shaped. Grandmother Aldona suffered permanent blindness suddenly in 1986 due to poisoning by the Chernobyl explosion. Škarnulytė, contemplates her grandmother’s trip to Grūtas Park, in Drusinkinkai, where near one hundred Soviet-era monuments, extirpated from public squares and city centres throughout Lithuania after the fall of Communism, are repurposed in a sculpture garden. Communing with a concretized past, Aldona’s hands are observed slowly tracing the physical surfaces of the giant effigies, touch tarrying with other unspoken reckonings.

Chiemi Shimada, 2019, 13 min

A poetic work that captures the ritual of the granddaughter’s visit with her elder, Chiyo maps not only the incandescence of Shimada’s grandmother’s subjectivity, but also the suburban environment of Yashio where she lives: everyday traffic, a summer night fair, Buddhist ritual, and flashes of fireworks. Snippets of conversation between grandmother and granddaughter move to what she sees in her dream life, “Dreams can’t stay in one place, they end abruptly.” Shimada’s camera observes grandmother strolling, with a walker, back curved by labour and time’s gravity. Chiyo’s images bear a haunting ineffability, whether tracing the wafting of incense smoke as it draws a line in space or attending the consoling sound of grandma’s somnolent breathing. “I can walk for a long time in my dreams.”

Nao Sao Favas, Sao Feijocas
Tania Dinis, 2013, 10 min

Tania Dinis’ dappled super 8mm observational sketch of her grandmother tending to her garden, planting, gathering, and feeding chickens and rabbits, is dynamized by a voice track of Esmeralda de Jesus’s reactions to her filmed likeness in dialogue with Dinis. Grandmother quips back at her own image, moving between confirmation as she asserts that burn marks are “cooks’ medals,” and dissension, “what the hell kind of idea is this?” Seeing herself through granddaughters’ eyes, in that collision between self and image, Esmeralda affirms her primacy with biting wit, but also equanimity.


A Conversation Between Narcisa Hirsch and Chantal Akerman

Introduced by Jessica Sarah Rinland

Tell Me
Chantal Akerman, 1980, 45 min

In Chantal Akerman’s episode for the series “Grand Mothers” commissioned by French television, she walks through Paris entering various homes inhabited by older women, all Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. She politely sits at their kitchen tables, listening attentively to their testimonies. There is warmth and familiarity within these interactions, a sensitivity that is reinforced when Chantal shares that she does not have grandparents, “everybody died during the war”; her mother Natalia, whose voice we hear intermittently throughout the film, also survived the Shoah.

Narcisa Hirsch, 1976, 45 min

Following the 19th Century pogroms of Russia, Poland and Romania, Jewish refugees fled to Argentina forming agricultural communities. Filmed on 16mm colour and black & white in 1976, and rarely shown until now, Pioneers (Pioneros) is a remarkable gem and a testimony to this history. An episodic road movie in which Narcisa Hirsch’s distinctive eye travels to various Jewish towns across Argentina interviewing their charismatic dwindling population, and those who have since left its fields for the city of Buenos Aires.