Open City Documentary Festival 2018 – Focus: Folk Memory


Matt Turner looks at how the idea of ‘folk memory’, also known as oral tradition, can be seen to fit into several community orientated films in the festival programme.

Folk memory is a term used to describe stories, folklore or myths about past events that have passed orally from generation to generation. It can be the lore that families create about themselves, or that townspeople use to create a sense a identity in relation to the place that they live or the traditions that they practice. It can cover the ancient or recent past, or even work to trace a sense of the present as it is developing. Several films in at our festival this year could be seen to fit into this tradition, charting the colloquial and the quotidian with conviction and care, and creating lasting narratives that transcend the community that falls under their focus.

This is perhaps most overt in Zhang Mengqi’s compelling, collaborative Self Portrait: Sphinx in 47km, one of several works that the filmmaker has made (across film, installation and dance) in her hometown 47km, a rural village in Hubei Province, China named after its distance from the nearest city, Suizhou. Connecting two generations of women living in the town, the film has origins in a series titled ‘Folk Memory’, an initiative organised with documentarian Wu Wenguang that encourages Chinese filmmakers to return to their ancestral villages to engage with their elders and reactivate the stories of the past. Channelling the spirit of the project into a more inventive form, Zhang provides the town’s characters, both young and old, with a creative space to tell their stories. The memories of the township’s past merge with the possibilities of its future.

The future is less concrete in Simon Plouffe’s immersive, atmospheric Those Who Come, Will Hear a film that looks at something that folk memory is often trying to address: the loss of culture and language. Showing speakers of a variety of imperiled indigenous languages in Northern Quebec who are undertaking various activities (singing, radio, teaching, recording) to ensure the continuance of their native tongues, the film shows how language can hold revolutionary potential, working as an act of communal reaffirmation or individual liberation. Mixing aural techniques and modes of image-making, this assured film itself is something of a visual and aural record, showcasing the plurality of sounds, speech and song that are available to those who care enough to listen.

The idea of folk memory appears a little differently in Alexandra Shiva’s This is Home. Amongst other things, the film looks at how a sense of place can persist after displacement. Tracking the journeys of several refugee families arriving to Baltimore from Syria, the film follows the process of refugee self-sufficiency new entrants to America are forced to face, readying them for work and aiding their acclimatization to the new cultural climate and its unusual customs. Charming and challenging in equal measure, Shiva’s film reveals the fluidity of the idea of folk memory, how family stories can travel, and a sense of community and belonging can be re-established after great disruption

RaMell Ross’ resplendent Hale County, This Morning This Afternoon posits that the making of a communal record can be in itself a radical activity, especially so when the group being documented is one that is traditionally underrepresented, or rather, rarely depicted in a truly multidimensional way. Focusing his lens on Hale County, Alabama, Ross, a photographer by practice, writes folk memory as it is happening with his camera, capturing ordinary black life as it is rarely seen. Without reliance on what he has referred to as “the tropes of black struggle”, the film instead adopts a gaze that emphasises the beauty of the ordinary, and finds value in the day-to-day in a way that many films claim to do, but few ultimately succeed at.

Lastly, in the short films of Laura Huertas Millán screening at the festival, examples of folk memory arrive in unique and unusual forms, the director “speaking by” or “speaking with” the communities she puts in focus, as she terms it, rather than “talking about/for …” them. Folk memory allows the stories of the past, both near and distant, to persist and prosper, and film as a form can be an optimum tool for making these records permanent. At our ‘Trajectory of Memory’ event, the filmmakers involved in these projects and others will discuss how documentary storytelling can serve to record events, injustices or communities to ensure they are not lost from the collective consciousness with the passing of time.