Open City Documentary Festival 2018 – Focus: Shorts: Imprints


In this special preview, shorts programmer Laurence Avis examines the ‘Shorts: Imprints‘ programme, looking at how the land often takes on a life of its own.

As the science community escalates its efforts to unpack the true environmental cost of progress, the urgency with which we reevaluate our impact – our lasting legacy on this planet – has never been more acute. This year’s shorts programme Imprints brings together a number of films with a common thread – what stories do the relics of human history tell us? The films all embody a sense of mythology, and trace the construction (and deconstruction) of narratives that are formed as these imprints are made, discovered, revisited or appropriated through time.

The programme begins with Nelson MacDonald’s haunting elegy There Lived the Colliers which documents the last remnants of Nova Scotia’s once flourishing coal industry: thousands of duplex houses, built between 1850 and 1920 to house workers from Europe and the Caribbean. Shot in 16mm, MacDonald beautifully captures the spectral quality of these buildings. Their simple yet distinctive design is ubiquitous and yet they each display an individuality that indexes their inhabitants – many of whom are long gone.

Sierra Pettengill’s Graven Image continues this theme, drawing upon archival footage of the controversial Confederate monument, Georgia’s Stone Mountain. Pettengill sets out to explore the significance of memorials, and highlights the dangers they have in cementing monistic narratives and excusing outdated beliefs. In its gentle ‘hands-off’ approach, Pettengill uses imagery and found footage alone to contextualise the memorial, and remind us that collective memory is often selective in its understanding of history.

The motif of engravings similarly becomes the starting point for Luciana Mazeto and Vinícius Lopes’ film, Stone Engravings and the Three-Colored Chickenpox Tale. The film interweaves the imagery of Brazil’s ancient stone engravings with oral histories told by women from local communities. Pulled together by a poetic voiceover, the film contemplates the significance of storytelling to our human development – highlighting the hidden pluralities and the limited comprehension we have of our world.

As the imprints we leave behind in our post-industrial world become more impactful, we are inclined to address our own responsibilities. Yulia Kovanova’s Plastic Man highlights the potentially devastating post-environmentalist paradigm we find ourselves in. Her character and collaborator, Ross McLean, travels the country creating environmental disasters in miniature – microcosms illustrating the destructive traces we are implicit in creating. McLean assumes two roles, one of doting father and the other of Plastic Man – the destroyer of nature – thereby exposing a dissonance we are all guilty of.

Filmmaker, Marlon Rouse is fascinated in the ambiguities of storytelling. His film, Then a Hero Comes Along, juxtaposes his character – a fisherman desperate to find meaning through his actions – against the backdrop of the megacity, Mumbai. In a city of almost 20 million people, the fisherman embodies the urban condition – lost in a labyrinth of bridges and buildings, he is desperate to leave a legacy, to be a hero and to write his own story. The film explores the ways in which film can easily mislead and misrepresent, and asks the questions, ‘whose story is this?’

Ian Purnell’s The Fear of Dying in Transit concludes this programme of films. It was shot around the time of the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel – the world’s longest and deepest railway tunnel. As Purnell leads us through an unsettling mix of safety training videos, complex 3D models, and anxiety-combating therapy sessions, the otherworldliness of the modern condition becomes apparent. Deep underground, the boundaries of reality blur; Purnell’s offering appears to be as much science fiction as it is science fact, it reminds us that the stories we tell about our world as it is now remain as fluid as ever.