Without Borders

By Patrick Hazard

The London International Documentary Festival offers a space for genuine diversity to flourish

What do film festivals do, and why do they matter? Clearly the second question is dependent on the answer to the first and the first is dependent on a set of objectives such as, ‘a festival for whom?’ and ‘a festival about what?’

The LIDF is a work in progress – a festival born over soup in a freezing room. It is only just finding its legs. But despite the fact that it’s still only a toddler, we're already receiving almost more open submissions than we can handle - this year from over 100 countries. The films come from the very established to the most untried and untested filmmakers. We watch all films without reference as to who sent them.

And, unlike other festivals, the LIDF doesn’t stop when the film finishes. Documentaries are content – and desire – driven. They investigate and interpret and they should propel an audience to ask questions – they should make us engage with something. In this sense they are not pure entertainment, but outcome-orientated. To try and explain even a small part of the world, to report on it, to bear witness and take sides suggests a responsibility.

The following two statements are, almost, our manifesto:

“You always get the truth you deserve according to the sense of what you say, and according to the values to which you give voice.” – Gilles Deleuze, of Nietzsche

“We are supporting the LIDF because we believe that the intellectual project of the festival has close parallels with our own. At first glance, it might seem that the literary essay has little in common, as a form, with documentary film. But the ideal London Review of Books essay will explore social, political or cultural issues with a freshness of approach and a wealth of detail that we would also expect to find in a good documentary. Essay and film are, at their best, both capable of taking the public beyond the glazed and jaded surfaces of ordinary media coverage to restore to contemporary issues the intellectual and emotional complexity that belongs to them, but which treatment in the mass media ineluctably reduces.” – Nicholas Spice, Publisher, London Review of Books.

The festival was born out of a friendship during a cold winter made colder because of a broken boiler. At the point of origin was an awareness that film, and especially documentary film, is being used ever more frequently within research and teaching and is also becoming, for many people, a primary source of information and inspiration.

At the same time, new technology is allowing more viewpoints to be expressed and disseminated. But the question then becomes, what sort of communication is this enabling? At what point does production affect outcomes and what is the relationship between production and understanding? How does film provoke and prepare our responses to a complex social world? In this sense, the utterances of a film and the role of a film festival become political, without recourse, even, to the word.

If one rejects, as a festival can do, the black and white extremes of political discourse, it becomes obvious that whatever is neither for nor against also needs to be articulated. The lack of any kind of platform in the mass media for any such discussion may be why so many people are turned off by politics. It doesn't seem to reflect lived experience at all. The mass media is complicit.

Whereas a documentary – a good documentary – provokes many questions, and the festival aims to be an environment that allows these difficult questions to last beyond ‘lights up’. Hopefully, we provide a platform for some sort of response. Ideally, this moment of conversation and contact counteracts the numbness that suggests there is nothing anyone can do about anything. By giving our audiences the opportunity to talk to the filmmaker and others affected by the subject matter, or implicated in it, and question them, we hope to encourage rounded debate and even real change…

The LIDF (28th March - 4th April, 2009) is presented in association with the London Review of Books. Venues include Curzon Soho, Curzon Renoir, the British Museum, the Barbican and the Roxy Bar & Screen. LIDF ’08 screened 80 films chosen out of submissions from 93 countries. The LIDF ’09 programme will be announced on 19th February.

Patrick Hazard is Director of the LIDF.