Open City Documentary Festival 2018 – Focus: Conflict Situations


Andrew Northrop looks at several serious, searching films in the 2018 festival programme that feature conflict situations, examining the different ways in which they engage with often difficult to depict topics and subjects.

How do filmmakers navigate conflict situations on screen? This year’s Open City Documentary Festival presents a variety of films that incite discussion around not only the conflicts they depict, but the authorial decisions that arise from filmmakers being embedded within those circumstances.

Beata Bubenec’s Flight of a Bullet has garnered a variety of reactions at festivals around the world; the most drastic of which occurred at its ArtDocFest screening in Moscow, where pro-Kremlin protestors disrupted the screening, releasing toxic gas and shutting it down. Filming amongst Ukraine’s Aida Battalion, a volunteer military detachment operating in the contested region of Donbass, Bubenec finds herself witness to a hostage situation, which she follows in one continuous shot. Traversing multiple locations, Bubenec’s camerawork remains consistent and controlled throughout, showcasing her own intrigue of the situation around her, whether it be the interrogation itself or a troop taking a phone call on a smoking break.

The early moments of Dieudo Hamadi’s Kinshasa Makambo establish its direct involvement with protests against President Kabila in the Republic of Congo. The initially steady footage is thrust into chaos at the sound of gunshots and UDPS protesters screaming anti-dictatorship statements into the camera, their faces doused in tear gas. In quieter moments, the film depicts the activists discussing their methodologies amongst themselves, and at its most uncomfortable presents still images of dead protestors’ bodies to the viewer in absolute silence, a jarring contrast to the fast-paced protest footage that came prior.

Winter Soldier – selected and presented by NTS Radio presenter, DJ and producer Nabihah Iqbal at the festival – approaches a conflict situation in a different manner, finding its power exactly in the disconnect between the government-enforced representations of American troops that U.S. citizens consumed, and the atrocities committed by those same military forces in Vietnam. Concerned with images that, for the most part, were never captured, the film instead uses testimonies and court cases as its raw material, recounting the experiences of troops who were brainwashed into feeling that their actions were for the ‘Greater Good.’ A harrowing film that looks at the effects that the military complex renders upon the psyches of those put through it, Winter Soldier’s effects linger long after viewing. As one testifier states: “don’t ever let your government do this to you.”

Neary Adeline Hay’s pictorial and poetic Angkar takes a more retrospective and directly personal approach, with the filmmaker accompanying her father, Khonsaly, as he returns to Cambodia after 40 years. As Khonsaly comes face-to-face with his former Khmer Rouge prosecutors, Hay uses his experiences to meditate on Cambodia’s hidden traumas, complimenting the events with controlled aerial shots that seem to scan the Cambodian landscape as a healing exercise alongside her reflective voice-overs.

The above examples approach conflict through different approaches and exercises, whether it be at the time of conflict or later. They showcase the breadth of techniques available to filmmakers, whilst also raising questions about ethical obligations concerning how to depict a conflict situation whilst respectfully representing its victims and the legacy of the event.