In order to see out the year, some members of our team have selected three ‘non-fiction highlights’ of 2018, documentary things that we saw, heard, read, experienced and liked during the year just passed. See our picks below, and follow the links for more about them and ways that they can be accessed. For a better sense of our year in cinema, look at our 2018 festival programme, which inevitably came to play a large part of it; or for our year in music, look to Resident Advisor’s mixes of the year, nearly all of which have been played in the office at some point. If so inclined, please send us your three highlights on the twitter, or let us know any thoughts about the things that we liked.
Chloe Trayner (Festival Director, Open City Documentary Festival)
It’s True, It’s True, It’s True. The latest production from one of my favourite theatre companies, Breach, used original court transcripts as the basis for a restaging of the 1612 trial of Agostino Tassi for the rape of baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. It’s a searing commentary on society’s attitudes towards women and the power of making your voice heard which pulses with an unrelenting vision and an undercurrent of black comedy. (Also selected by Jess, who thanks “Chloe T for making me her +1. This play was excellent and it also sent me down a deep rabbit hole of internet research on its subject. I would encourage everyone to seek out her story and work.”) I also enjoyed A Thousand Thoughts. Maverick storyteller Sam Green has been experimenting with the “live documentary” concept for years and in his latest project, he collaborated with Joe Bini to bring the groundbreaking, continent-spanning, multi-decade career of the classical-music group Kronos Quartet to life. The film is accompanied by a live narration from Green while the Kronos Quartet perform the score in a glorious meditation on the power of the music, the joy of collaboration and the nature of time itself.
Soundhouse: The Listening Body. This Autumn saw a unique project take up residence in the Barbican posing the question – what might a cinema for audio look like? Presented by festival friends Nina Garthwaite and Eleanor McDowall, the Soundhouse hosted a series of events exploring potential utopian visions for communal listening. A standout was ‘Dreaming’ which involved laying down, being tucked in and listening to Kaitlin Prest’s Dream while stars were projected overhead. A truly dreamy experience!
Educated. A perfect storm of all my interests, Educated tells the story of Tara Westover’s childhood in the mountains of Idaho where her family stock-piled food and stayed off the grid, preparing for the end of days. As Westover approached adulthood, she began to educate herself in defiance of her father’s ban on schools and ended up earning a PhD from Cambridge, potentially ruining her relationship with her family in the process. Educated is a triumphant and devastating memoir about the struggle for self-invention, the power of familial ties and the risk of challenging the beliefs you’ve always been taught to follow.
Oliver Wright (Director of Film Programme, Open City Documentary Festival)
★ (STAR). First screened in 2017 but playing at festivals throughout 2018, Johann Lurf’s audacious found footage film ★ journeys through cinematic history using only scenes of the night sky. A thrilling and profound meditation on both the history of film and changing ideas of space and the cosmos through the 20th century and beyond, but also simply the most joyous film watching experience of the year. Lurf intends to update the film every year for the rest of his life so there should be plenty of further opportunities to see it.
Straight No Chaser. After a ten year hiatus, the hugely influential, scene defining music magazine returned in 2017 as a limited edition yearly print. The 2018 issue (no. 99) features essential pieces on Cassie Kinoshi, Femi Koleoso and Nabihah Iqbal amongst others, all presented in Swifty’s iconic designs.
West of The Tracks. The screening of Wang Bing’s nine hour study of the collapse of the massive Tie Xi Qu industrial complex at the turn of the 21st century, West of the Tracks (2003) as part of Tate Modern’s Traces series last month was a rare opportunity to see one of the great modern epics of cinema in its entirety. (Also picked by Matt, writing that “West of the Tracks is a film that I’ve been trying to find the time to watch for almost as long as I’ve been interested in watching films. Having had it sat untouched on a hard-drive over all these years, a chance finally arrived when Tate screened it in its entirety, one Sunday in November. Introducing the film before sitting down to watch it himself, Wang Bing said “this is a very good film.” It is.”)
Jess Franses (Producer, Open City Documentary Festival)
Autobiography. Seen at Sadler’s Wells, this dance portrait was choreographed by Wayne McGregor based on the sequencing of his own genome, and scored by Jlin (who also contributed heavily to my Open City Documentary Festival 2018 power tracks list, including this, for those tired moments.)
Doreen St Félix, and her writing – including this, on #MeToo and more, and this, on Missy Elliott and her album Supa Dupa Fly. Also enjoyed listening to Doreen discussing her work and process on the Talk Easy podcast (this episode is from 2017 but discovered by me this year, but other eps are worth checking out too).
Sheffield Doc/Fest. I really enjoyed watching RaMell Ross’ Hale County, This Morning This Evening immediately followed by Bing Liu’s Minding the Gap on a Saturday evening in Sheffield in June. (Both of these films will be playing on UK cinema screens in early 2019.)
Matt Turner (Marketing Manager, Open City Docs)
Blowing Up The Workshop. Put together by archival music label Death Is Not The End, the BITW #95 mix is made from cut-ups of broadcasts from Bristol pirate radio ranging from the 1980s to the early 2000s, using snippets of adverts, rave promos and radio chatter to make what label owner Luke Owen calls a “love letter to [his] childhood, growing up in the city”. Every mix in this remarkable series is a rare and special object, but this one takes a fun, unexpected turn, away from music and more towards the resurfacing of recent cultural history. “Strictly junglism, no ism schism.” (Jess also includes a bonus selection from this series, BITW #96: Laksa, a sound collage themed around social care. “Having just finished a social work masters, it felt fitting to reflect where my head’s at in the aftermath, both musically and theoretically. This mix is a stream of tempos, styles, rhythms, emotions and ideas. More than anything, I hope it can give some solace to your tiresome daily commute.”)
Forensic Architecture. The Goldsmiths based research agency were very present this year, with large exhibitions around the world, a focus exhibition and seminar series at the ICA, and a Turner Prize nomination, plus various other activities from affiliated members all over the place. Using reconstruction, deconstruction and analysis in all sorts of forms, the group’s members explore and expose human right’s abuses around the world through a process that they call ‘counter-forensics’, taking the power away from the state and putting it in front of the people in galleries. I spent several hours at the ICA exhibition, which as well as many of their ‘investigations’, included a very well put together introduction to the group and their mode of working, looking at why the work should be in the gallery space and what presenting it in this way can, or could, achieve. More here by Erika Balsom and The White Pube, who both covered the group’s output.
Limbo. This book by Dan Fox, an editor at Frieze Magazine, starts from the idea of ‘writer’s block’ and goes all sorts of smart, satisfying places from there. Opening with the author’s relationship to Bill Heine’s shark, with which I am now obsessed, this longform essay interrogates various states of suspension, stillness and stuckness that can occur in art, culture, history and life, plotting a personal journey through the material that returns frequently to Fox’s brother, a merchant shipman and long time limbo adventurer. Fox’s first book, ”Pretentiousness: Why It Matters’, from a few years back, is also highly recommended, and especially so if that title makes you grimace. Few writers are as effortlessly intelligent and erudite as him.
Michael Stewart (Director, Open City Docs)
What is Populism? This book by the German political scientist Jan Werner Müller came out in Penguin right at the end of last year. It’s the shortest and best account – and believe me, I have read a few – of what makes populism different: the claim that there is a single people which the populist politician speaks for that makes everyone else an enemy of the people. Müller argues forcefully that populism is thus inherently anti-pluralist and, in the end, anti-democratic. Very readable with lots of interesting case studies.
Intrigue: The Ratline. Philippe Sands, who is a colleague in Laws here at UCL has produced this thrilling ten part investigation of the escape lines that the Nazis built after the war with the help of Vatican – but this is far more than real life Odessa File. It’s a gripping portrait of a time when people were quite uncertain as to just who our allies were and Sands frames the whole story within his troubled, troubling friendship with the morally ambiguous son of a Nazi. Rivetting and thrilling.
Roman Vishniac Rediscovered – presented simultaneously at The Photographers’ Gallery and the Jewish Museum London, and on until February 24th – offers a rare chance to see the life-work of this renowned photographer of inter-war, central European jewish life. The German work is unique in chronicling the gradual impact of the anti-semitic legislation and regulation; but there’s also a whole world of photomicroscopy to discover here as well – Vishniac’s childhood passion from Tsarist Russia turned into a professional activity once he was installed in the USA. Enchanting.