Open City aims to bring together Londoners, filmmakers

The first annual Open City London Documentary Festival wrapped in the English capital last weekend, screening 170 documentaries, of which 54 were UK premieres. Festival director Michael Stewart (pictured) talks to realscreen about the thinking behind the event.
June 24, 2011

The first annual Open City London Documentary Festival wrapped in the English capital last weekend, hosting 170 documentaries over four days, of which 54 were UK premieres.

The event, which concluded on Sunday (June 19), was organized by London university UCL, with the college’s anthropology lecturer Michael Stewart (pictured above) serving as festival director.

Among the notable films screening were Position Among the Stars, the final installment of Leonard Retel Helmrich’s award-winning trilogy and the festival’s opening film; the Oscar-nominated Afghan war doc Restrepo; and Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 Holocaust masterpiece Shoah.

The latter, which is nine-and-a-half hours long, was played in full on Saturday, kicking off at 9.30am, with the French director attending a Q&A in the evening to talk about the making of the film. The next day saw the UK premiere of Lanzmann’s spin-off film, The Karski Report.

Talking to realscreen in London about the aim of the event, Stewart said that while England has a strong documentary festival in the form of Sheffield Doc/Fest, it has been sorely lacking something “in the hub of the nation.”

“Sheffield’s brilliant, but it’s not a place where the public can collaborate and discuss documentary,” he said. “People are there to work with other people from the industry and sell their next films. London lacks the kind of festival that we’ve decided to create.”

Stewart said Open City aimed to be a place where filmmakers can talk to audiences “without the pressure of industry,” adding that he was “actively seeking collaboration” for next year’s event, which may take place at a different time of year from the increasingly busy June.

Among the partners onboard for this year’s inaugural event were factual distributor Dogwoof and the Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation, the latter of which hosted a number of training sessions for aspiring doc-makers.

Stewart said his eventual aim for the festival is to build it into something that had year-round training and development initiatives, citing the Sundance Film Festival’s Sundance Labs as an example.

“People really need these kinds of stories to be told,” he added. “What we’re trying to do is build an audience for the kinds of films that have been played here.”

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.