As we’re days away from the start of Open City Docs Fest, the documentary festival which screens the success films such as The Act of Killing as well as the work of first-time filmmakers, we thought it fitting to honour the man who made it all happen. Jacob Harbord interviews the festival’s lead programmer Oliver Wright.
Let’s start with an easy one – what’s your favourite film at the festival?
That’s actually a difficult one, since there so many brilliant films. Certainly 12 O’ Clock Boys; Elena is a really beautiful film; The Machine That Makes Everything Disappear is a great portrait of post-Soviet Georgia and the confusion of being in your teens and early twenties.
What made you chose 12 O’ Clock boys as the festival’s opening film?
There’s quite a long process trying to decide what we were going to open with, and deep down I wanted to use this film all along, but it felt quite risky. Previous years we played it safe, to a certain extent, by opening with films coming off the back of other big festivals. With 12 O’ Clock Boys, there’s a definitely a chance it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s fun and has a vitality to it. Of course, it’s a really great city story and, while Open City doesn’t want to be seen as just an urban festival concerned with urban themes, that’s certainly a strong element of what we do. It’s good to have a film talking about urban experiences.
Do you think that choice reflects the festival’s growing confidence?
Absolutely – not that it’s our film, but I wanted to open with a film with we could feel a sense of ownership and exclusivity. I hope it does reflect a growing confidence in what we’re doing and we definitely wouldn’t have done this for the first couple of years. We’ve been really pleased with the reaction so far from those who’ve seen it, everyone seems really enthusiastic.
Great – so, what’s the most important documentary of this year’s festival?
I don’t know about ‘important’ as a term, important for whom? Certainly the most significant documentary, which has had the most impact on people this year, is The Act of Killing. It’s been a long time since anyone’s made a film which provokes such a passionate response and I don’t think anyone’s made a film like that before. It’s a unique approach, it’s horrifying.
You’ve mentioned the importance of stories and a unique approach – what is it you look for in a documentary?
Personally, it’s the meeting of content and form, where the content is inherently interesting and it has a distinct treatment. I look for films that seem deliberate and where it feels the filmmaker is really in control of their craft, that the film wasn’t an accident. Even though there’s a lot of chance involved in documentary and you want to allow for that, you get the feeling they’ve made the film they set out to.
What about public audiences, what do they want from a documentary?
I’d say that different audiences want different things. Good stories; new stories; experience aspects of the world they wouldn’t otherwise. I hope there are sections of our audience who are interested in documentary as a form and in seeing aesthetic and formal turns. I think our program is quite progressive this year and there are strong films for those looking for something new.
How do you decide what themes you’re going to have?
We know some of them from the very beginning of the festival when we sit down for our initial discussions. That’s what we did with the hybrid forms, since there are a lot of interesting films recently mixing techniques from fictional film-making and performance art, so we wanted to put together a program for that. For others, such as our films about access to energy, we recognised there was a strong group of films and decided to show them together. It’s a blend of being decided well in advance, and being led by the submissions.
How do you see your role as a programmer?
With it being a public festival, the purpose is really to find great films and hope that people come and watch them. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I hope that we open up people’s understanding of what documentary is and what it can be. Broadcast documentaries, although some are very good, tend to stick with certain parameters and documentary can obviously be an extremely creative and exciting medium. Showing films that widen our ideas about what documentaries are- that’s what I’d like to do with this festival.
Open City Docs Festival will be on in various London locations from 21-24 June. To buy tickets and find out more, please visit the festival’s website.