Top Picks of Open City 2018

Unconventional Characters

This discussion brought together Sophie Fiennes (Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami), Pascale Lamche (Winnie) and Finlay Pretsell (Time Trial) to discuss their individual experiences of directing biopic documentaries. The highlight of this session was each filmmaker’s honest recollections of the highs and lows of their relationships with their world-famous subjects. Amongst discussion of filming logistics and practicalities, many personal insights were shared. A personal favourite was Pascale Lamche’s fond memory of meeting Winnie Mandela’s daughter Zindzi and sipping whiskey and sharing stories around a fire until 4am.

The Ethics of Seeing

Director Steven Eastwood and producer Elhum Shakerifar’s discussion, ‘The Ethics of Seeing’, was insightful and considered. They reflected on why they had become interested in showing the moment of death onscreen in their film ISLAND, which follows four individuals as they spend their last days in a hospice. They grappled with the taboo surrounding death and the ethics of duty to a film’s subject. Steven Eastwood also shared his memories of working with subjects at the end of their lives and how he has personally processed each of their deaths. Eastwood and Shakerifar gave the audience insight into the making of an important film and discussed the challenges in thinking about and portraying on screen the moment of death.

Marketing, Distribution and Data

In all honesty, I wasn’t very excited by the event title ‘Marketing, Distribution and Data’. However, Sarah Mosses’ straightforward talk was far more entertaining, charming and informative than the title belied. Sarah Mosses, the founder of Together Films and a self-confessed data geek, guided us through everything from storing data correctly, to pitching for funding and understanding the specific needs of your audience. By the end of the session I was a convert to the idea that the need for a commercial strategy is an essential alongside a creative strategy.

Strange & Charmed presents: Audio in Wonderland

Cathy Fitzgerald’s session ‘Audio in Wonderland’ was a truly joyous event. Cathy Fitzgerald, the founder of Strange & Charmed, a school for audio storytellers, described how our tendency to over-explain doesn’t leave much room for wonder in audio storytelling. Her description of an audio producer as someone who should “mystify, dazzle and awe” came across as heartfelt and inspiring. Topics ranged from “how wonder can creep into interviews”, “being on your guard against cliché” and “noticing beauty in the mundane”. Cathy Fitzgerald acknowledged the risk of becoming too “airy” and discussed the need to keep human while staying true to her fascination and belief in the miraculous.

Putting Principles Into Practice: Audio Ethics

In this discussion featured as part of the ‘audio docs day’ at Open City Documentary Festival, audio producer Deborah Dudgeon led a panel of audio producers whose programmes have explored subjects such as gang violence, euthanasia and refugees. This thought-provoking discussion covered how to make sure that vulnerable characters are not exploited and how to represent difficult topics in a considered and ethical manner. By elaborating on their own experiences and work, the producers offered insight into the trust placed by a subject in the storyteller; and how to balance a respect for that trust while still producing an honest programme.

Audio Playground

In this session, Sarah Geis (Whicker judge and award-winner) shared her desire to add the element of play and experimentation to audio storytelling. The captivating session was filled with creative tasks and experimental audio clips intended as a gateway for the audience to feel more confident to “doodle” with the medium of audio. Sarah Geis shared various low-stakes sound experiments, including ‘The Rebuttal’ (a clip from a morning news show that two of her friends had produced just for her) as well as her own ‘live radio’ piece about a date to a Chicago Ornamental Shrimp Society meeting. It is a testament to Sarah Geis’ enthusiasm and wit that she managed to give homework to an entire audience… and make it sound fun.

Screaming Across A Century: Reinvigorating Archival Filmmaking

Sierra Pettengill’s session is a masterclass in how to make a film without picking up a camera. She discussed sifting through 1500 hours of archival footage featuring US President Ronald Reagan for her documentary, ‘ The Reagon Show’. Without any use of interviews, current footage or narration she was able to make a critical film, and used glaring absences in archival footage to her advantage. Sierra Pettengill then screened her short film Graven Image, an exploration of the USA’s largest Confederate monument, Stone Mountain, made from nearly 100 years of archival footage. She discussed the making of ‘Riotsville’, a film which displayed  her nuanced approach to using archival footage in order to tell a necessary story in a contemporary way.

 – Sam Stone. Sam is a reporter and aspiring film-maker based in Bristol and London.