Lights, camera action as UCL turns into Cannes event

LONDON’S newest documentary film festival features pedal-powered screens, German expressionism and a nine-and-a-half hour Holocaust memorial – and it’s all the brainchild of one West Hampstead resident.

The Open City festival has been a labour of love for UCL anthropology lecturer Michael Stewart, and will take over the university for four days this summer, starting on June 16.

Mr Stewart said: “The inspiration is the idea that 30 or 40 years ago you could get an evening of fascinating factual programming about the world around you.

“Any film that makes you feel more engaged in the world – we will show.”

Highlights will include the rediscovered version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, while Claude Lanzmann will talk about Shoah, his extensive exploration of the Holocaust and its aftermath.


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“We are always hoping to show some of the classic 20th century documentaries and in my book Shoah is the greatest ever made,” said Mr Stewart.

“The film has not been shown in a London cinema for 20 years. There’s a whole generation who have never had a chance to see it in a proper context.”

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A farmers’ market will run every day, while screens will be set up in lecture theatres and courtyards. A jury including Cannes award-winning director Cristi Puiu will judge entrants for a best documentary prize of �2,000.

Six thousand pounds is also available for prizes for the winners of the MyStreet films competition, set up by Mr Stewart for amateurs to make short films about their local area.

Winning shorts will be shown like trailers before the main film screenings.

Screenings are divided into a number of strands, including crime and punishment, obsession and the Roma gypsies – which will include appearances from My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding stars.

Perhaps the festival’s most unusual activity comes from art collective Magnificent Revolutions, whose bike-powered cinema will show short films brought by visitors, as well as some of the major screenings.

For such an ambitious idea, Open City has come together in a very short time.

Mr Stewart said: “I’m a patron of the film festival in Siba, Romania, a documentary festival which has run for 18 years, with a big public audience in this quiet Transylvanian town.

“I thought it was a shame we didn’t have a festival like this, for more ambitious films. Last May it clicked in my head.”

He left the BBC in 1995 when it became clear the funding for documentary film-making was on the decline, and now runs the film training course at UCL. Born in Cannon Hill, he has lived in north London his entire life, and is currently in Fortune Green.

Mr Stewart doesn’t see Open City as a one-off, and hopes this year will be the first step of a long-running institution.

“A donor has enabled us to run this for the next three years. We want this to be London’s primary documentary film festival,” he added.

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