In order to see out the year, our festival team have selected their three personal ‘non-fiction highlights’ of 2019: documentary related things that we saw, heard, read, experienced and liked during the year just passed. See our selections below.
We’ve excluded our own events and programming from this, but do take a look at our festival programme for a sense of how the year looked for us, as well as the various bits of writing we were fortunate enough to be able to commission about the new features we showcased this year. Thanks for reading, and if so inclined, please @ us on the twitter, or send us a mail with any thoughts about the things that we’ve listed below, or hosted over the year.
Chloe Trayner (Festival Director, Open City Documentary Festival)
Celebration (Yves Saint Laurent: The Last Collections). Olivier Meyrou’s previously suppressed portrait of the last years of Yves Saint Laurent’s reign as the last French designer to operate his own haute couture house was a revelation for me. Going in with zero expectations, I was blown away by the unsettling and alienating aesthetic of the film which offered a take on fashion doc that we’ve never seen before. In my screening at True/False the local audience filed out throughout the film, clearly not so pleased with the unexpected approach to documenting YSL, but this didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the film. I also wanted to give a shout out to two other festival experiences from this year. First, Zia Anger’s My First Film which I saw at Sheffield Doc/Fest; a personal excavation of the creative process told through a live-typed monologue, scrolling through rushes and endless internet browser tab switching. Second, Lina Mannheimer’s Mating, which caught me by surprise at CPH:DOX this year with an intimate and hilarious look at two millennials relationship after the film’s original social experiment concept went awry.
Axiomatic. Taking trauma as it’s starting point, Maria Tumarkin’s latest book draws connections between the aftermath of suicide, the broken justice system and the survivor mentality (to name a few themes) with a bold and breathtaking yet somehow light touch. I received the book as part of my Fitzcarraldo subscription which I would also highly recommend. It would also feel wrong to not include another book which dominated the latter half of my year and also deals with the echoes of trauma – Ocean Vuong’s searingly beautiful auto-fiction On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Read it. Read it now.
Our Lady of Kibeho. Not strictly non-fiction but inspired by true events, this play takes place in the 1980s in Rwanda where a school girl claimed to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. Originally dismissed by her teachers and peers, things escalate quickly when two of her classmates start sharing her visions of apocalyptic prophecies of Rwanda descending into violence and hatred. A priest was dispatched from Rome to verify the visions, and for audience members, the reality of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide sits like a dark shadow over the stage. I went on an incredibly deep wikipedia worm hole immediately after seeing this astonishing play.
Oliver Wright (Director of Film Programme, Open City Documentary Festival)
The Many Faces of Cauleen Smith, at IFFR. This selective retrospective of interdisciplinary American artist Cauleen Smith at International Film Festival Rotterdam in January brilliantly distilled Smith’s decade spanning career. Smith works across moving image, performance and installation, taking in influences from afro-futurism, science-fiction, poetry and jazz to reimagine histories and propose alternative futures. All of these elements coalesced in a performance of her dazzling Sun Ra inspired audio-visual slideshow Black Utopia LP.
Jocelyne Saab Retrospective, at Doclisboa 2019. Lebanese journalist, filmmaker and artist Jocelyne Saab, who sadly passed away in January, was the focus of a major retrospective at this years DocLisboa. The programme charted Saab’s brave, politically committed filmmaking through its development from reportage, personal essay films, and into fiction features, and it was exhilarating to see an artist continue to reinvent herself, reaching the limits of one form and then turning to another. Saab was one of the few filmmakers to remain working in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War and seeing the films made in this period collected together was particularly powerful.
Goodwin Sands Radiogram. Goodwin Sands Radiogram is an ongoing series created by Kent based radio producer, musician and sound-artist, Ben Horner, broadcast from an imaginary shipwreck beached on the titular sandbank 6 miles off the coast of Deal. Part ethnography, part oral history, Horner’s aim is to transplant the ambition and production values of US podcasts to his own small corner of England and each episode gathers together testimony from local residents – “conceptually within broadcast range of the ship” – around a unifying theme to create an intimate, detailed portrait of South East Kentish Life. Episode 8: Magical Mystery Tour, heard on Social Broadcasts’ Resonance FM show Transmitter, was a live special in which Horner played back his interviews through a sequencer whilst musicians Sarah Brand, Sam Bailey, and Oliver Perrot-Webb performed an improvised score in response. The interplay between their rich, textured score, and Horner’s fascinating and often very funny interviews – which in this episode revolve around the concept of journey – was one of the best and most strangely comforting things I heard on the radio all year.
Jess Franses (Producer, Open City Documentary Festival)
The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, by Nan Goldin. A slide show of 700 odd photographs that capture intensely intimate moments of love and loss, freedom and addiction for the New York artist and her inner circle of friends during the late ’70s and ’80s. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read,” Goldin once said. On a hot Sunday afternoon in August, I sat on the floor at the Tate Modern and cried my eyes out. (Matt also picks ‘Sirens’, a small show of new (sort of) photos and slideshows by Nan Goldin, with music from Mica Levi, including one cycle that charts her life during a period of addiction to prescription opioids. The photos are great, and viewing them in the musical slideshow format makes them all the more affecting, as does the knowledge of the activism work the artist has been doing besides them.)
The 1619 Project. This initiative by created by Nikole Hannah-Jones for The New York Times is an incredible feat in journalism. The project marks the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery, reexamining and recontextualising its legacy on all aspects of contemporary life. The podcast series that accompanied the written project really blew me away with its rich, vivid storytelling and evocative sound design. I recommend Episode 3: The Birth of American Music hosted by Wesley Morris (but listen to all six).
Albrecht La’Brooy. The music of this Australian duo played an important part in my 2019. Their deep and expansive productions are directly influenced by their surroundings, drawing upon influences from the natural world and field recordings. Does this mean it counts as non-fiction? I’m not sure. But it is music to sooth the soul and in these dark times who doesn’t need a bit of that? Start here and here, then explore the whole catalogue.
Matt Turner (Marketing Manager, Open City Docs)
It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track. In this collection of music criticism by writer Ian Penman, each essay selects a different, mostly very well known, musical figure and reassesses them and their work, writing in dialogue with what is already known about them and encouraging reassessment of what has been long accepted to be true. It contains some of the sharpest, smartest and most easily understood critical writing I have read this year, and it taught me a lot of things about various musicians I probably should have already known more about. However much you ingest, there is always so much more out there waiting to be discovered.
Surge. This book (and also a performance) of poems by Jay Bernard creatively reroutes the archive in a very impressive, moving, and multifaceted way. Responding to the 1981 New Cross Massacre – a fire in which 13 thirteen young black people lost their lives, and an incident that, like many other acts of violence perpetrated towards minorities in this city, has yet to have been properly or sincerely addressed – it uses a variety of styles of poetry, quotation and fragmented prose to speak about and around the incident and other subsequent events to which it relates.
AERIAL WARFARE, “Fuck the government. Fuck the planet.” AERIAL WARFARE, a mix made by Blackwax and Last Japan, the founders of label/collective/movement Circadian Rhythms, catalogues “some of the moments that shaped our collective experience growing up between 2000 – 2010” during the second half of the New Labour government, the same years in which I came of age. Mixing together grime pirate radio broadcasts, clashes and snippets of songs, alongside political speeches, news-clips and other soundbites from that decade, it gives a broad picture of the grim politics of the period and of the role of underground radio as a tool of expression, resistance, and relief.