On the day of its commencement, some notes on some of the films playing this year's Open City Documentary Festival, a festival that whilst young and small in scale compared to some of the other documentary festivals around, is proving increasingly impressive and ambitious. Offering challenging and intelligent programming in both the film and industry sections, and an approach that favours creative, smart documentary filmmaking over the more audience-friendly material you find leading elsewhere, whilst Open City have been consistent from the beginning with their ambitions. It looks like this year will be the year they are most successful in achieving them. In this first dispatch, three docs that are radically different in subject matter, but all address their relevant subjects with a deftness that disregards grander gestures for a gentle touch and an artful guiding hand.
Brett Story's The Prison in Twelve Landscapes - with it's title that alludes to the films of James Benning, and the many carefully put together, rigidly symmetrical static compositions that make up its entirety - has a basis in structuralism. Not in a way that is limiting however, instead using twelve self-contained stories tied together by a conceptual link as a central frame from which the film can expand outwards. This concept, though encapsulated by that title, is actually slightly more nuanced than it might first seem. This is not just twelve visions of the American prison industrial complex, but twelve visions that show precisely that without ever actually entering a prison. Story, in neat, artful and often very subtle fashion, shows us twelve scenarios that give a broad sense of the gravity of the problem of mass incarceration in America. Twelve situations that display not just how devastating it is to so many, but also how far and wide the impact of the system reaches.
Travelling across America, Story choses these moments from a possible multitude of hundreds of afflicted people, places and industries, and rests the camera on landscapes and faces, voicing unrest and uncovering aspects of the prison system's reach, some results expected and others less so. To give a flavour, Story finds: men with a deep skill for chess that could only be achieved through the 10,000 hours of practise you can only really get from years behind bars; a means of employment that, unlike other rural industries, is entirely "recession proof"; inmate firefighters who have no hope of ever practising that trade on release; an entrepreneurial ex-convict who who offers pre-packaged goods made to spec to ensure they make it through the unpredictable, largely arbitrary regulations that apply to gifts sent to inmates by their families. Unusual angles on a well reported problem then, to say the least.
Towards the end, things become less absurd and more overtly bleak. Story visits Ferguson, Missouri, crossing the street where Michael Brown was murdered to meet those left to live with the everyday reality of that widely reported but far from unique occurrence; and then St. Louis County, where citizens face near constant harassment, false arrest and arbitrary fining on a daily basis. "That's strange. Everyone here looks like me," one man remarks flatly to camera.
The film follows a practised, subtle rhythm, sliding across geographies through rhythmic cuts and gentle aural guidances, the effective sound mix of natural sounds and light soundtrack linking the segments without any explicit dot-connection from Story. Radio chatter from a station dedicated to messages broadcast to inmates bookends the film neatly.
These micro stories, introduced only with a title card that states the location and some brief context, have the needed mix of distance and closeness to be both emotionally involving and non-manipulative. While by the end the filmmaker's position is clear, their style is far from polemical. Twelve Landscapes imagery is stylised, Maya Bankovic's compositions pointedly artful, and often fairly abstract considering the straightness of the subject material and the seriousness of the central message. The formal rigour allows the impact to come not from the filmmaker's aesthetic - there's no overbearing symbolism or leading sonic accompaniment to be found - but instead from the stories, experiences and comments of those afflicted. Those who have suffered directly from an unjust, systemically corrupt justice system and incarcerative procedures speak out, and the problems reveal themselves. "All this is about, at the end of the day, is money," one aggrieved individual states, more beleaguered than enraged. The subjects expound the filmmaker's condemnations for them. Anything more overt would overstate what is there in the footage.
Another dual people and place portrait, Daniel F. Cardone's Desert Migration is a peculiar film, and also an honest, poignant one. For whatever reason: the hot, dry climate; the arid, formless landscape; the clean, clinical architecture; or perhaps something less tangible and more personal - Palm Springs has emerged as a choice locale for older gay men hoping to escape or reinvent themselves after crisis. The film follows thirteen HIV positive men of a certain age that have relocated to this pocket of the Californian desert to try to live with their disease; and is a moving, almost entirely interview based record of the deep trauma that disease caused, the hope for a second chance that followed, and the pocket of community formed in the wake of it.
In the film we pass through stories without sequence, darting between ideas and individuals, Cardone always finding a visual accompaniment for the dialogues that is interesting to look at, but rarely directly relational. Cardone gets great contributions from those he interviews, lots of very eloquent things said about tough subjects and hard to grasp feelings, and despite the extremity of conversation matter, finds a strange kind of peace in his presentation of them. The slightly hammy xylaphone heavy soundtrack (from Gil Talmi, who scored The Lost Arcade below too) that rumbles through, provides a rhythm that editors Bill Weber & Stephen Heslin bounce along to. Cinematographer Austin Ahlborg contrasts the suffering the men talk of with the processes and rituals they find restorative. Glossy sliding tracking shots (that reveal Ahlborg's commercial background a little too clearly) show acts of living that are personal and humbling to be made privy to, but non-sequential enough to not be distracting from the core text of the film, the interviews and the revelations therein.
In what is perhaps the most affecting soliloquy, one of the men thinks aloud with devastating precision. "How do you do deal with the fact that you lived in a warzone, that people were literally dropping dead around you, and no one acknowledged it was going on." Cardone's central contemplation in focusing on HIV positive men of this particular, often ignored generation, is not just what it is to live with and around this disease, but what it means to have grown up when the future was the most uncertain and terrifying. One of his subjects states that they've "lost an entire generation of men who would have been ten or fifteen years older" than them, creating a cultural and communal void. “There haven’t been a lot of role models. What do gay men do in their fifties, sixties, seventies?” Cardone's touching, slightly awkward portrait of the Palm Springs community doesn't just celebrate the vibrancy of life post HIV diagnosis, but also opens a pertinent conversation about the strain of filling the types of crevices that traumas of this scale can create.
Also a community portrait of sorts, Kurt Vincent's humble but affecting The Lost Arcade. Arcade gaming has been in decline since the mid 1980s when the first home consoles took a bite out of the business by altering the way games were played (and paid for). Gone was short term, competitive coin-operated one-on-one gaming, and along came the onset of solo play, introspective and longform experiences designed for a single purchase economy. With this, the gradual decimation of a community. The Lost Arcade looks at the arcade as a social space, a place to make lifelong friends and rivals over Dance Dance Revolution or Street Fighter IV. Alongside this, a familiar story of the degradation of analogue cultures and the resilience of the small communities that persist in supporting the 'old way' despite the economic incongruousness of doing so.
Focusing on the Chinatown Fair arcade, one of the oldest, scrappiest but most beloved gaming spaces in New York City, Vincent cuts a cross-section of the kids who find comfort in dropping quarters into cabinets, having a few of the most desperate and dedicated explain to camera what makes the scene so vital to them and the loss of the space so pertinent. Through this continual testimony, interrupted by observational material of gameplay in action, The Lost Arcade becomes a deft, if somewhat too schmaltzy exploration of the psychology of gaming as a community; displaced individuals finding friendship, purpose and place through the camaraderie that social gaming can instil. The cinematography captures the milieu well, with grainy, filmically graded footage that observes unobtrusively whilst feeling embedded rather than overlooking, and Gil Talmi's accompanying chiptune score is effective, proving probingly moving at points and providing momentum at others.
At seventy minutes, the film feels somewhat stretched, the span of the story (Chinatown Fair's opening, peak period, decline and closure, and then the resultant effects on a disrupted community) is probably more suited to a slightly longer length short doc than a full feature, but other than this it's hard to dislike. The figureheads of the scene - a boy who fled abusive foster homes and found solace and sanctuary as a staffer at Chinatown Fair, the obsessive machine fixer who starts his own competitive-gaming focused arcade space and Chinatown Fair's owner Henry himself - provide charming testimony; and the central story, that of communal bonding through shared appreciation for analogia, is one thats hard to resist falling for. Still, amidst the often heavy, provocative or polemical material that seem to dominate doc-fests like these, a gently nostalgic, human angle story with no great stakes than for those whom it is important to, is quite nice relief.
Three films where character and landscape intermingle, where portraits of places reveal as much about those that inhabit them as the specificities of the location itself.