UCL is hosting what they are billing as the “largest and newest documentary film festival in London,” OpenCity. In a verbose ramble, Festival Director Michael Stewart seems to be saying that he wanted to focus on the ontold stories of city living. The program looks good however, and for anyone willing to watching a film in a cramped lecture theatre, there was a lot to choose from.I opted for Srdan Keca’s Mirage (2010), a short film about the ugly underside of Dubai which won praise from Time Out. It makes life in the glittering Mirage seem highly impersonal: the living quarters of the workers who sweat to built the fancy towers look like prisons (Keca, unable to afford a hotel, lived among them), and their lives are mostly filmed as part of the scenery. Even the heart breaking letters home (genre “I’m miserable, but I hope you are ok. Please write to make it more bearable”) are removed from those speaking who we don’t see. The charming young Serbian director said he might have gone a little too far, but I think perhaps it works like that. We are reminded of the reality behind those towers from their voices, and the depersonalisation seems somehow fitting. Dubai is willing to pay top dollar for the fanciest materials to show-off its wealth, but when it comes to wages, they will squeeze the workers dry. I couldn’t help thinking that someone should publicise the average wage of each tower. Maybe that would embarrass the uber-rich into paying a decent wage.
Next up I went to see the Bartlett’s favourite planning professor, Mark Tewdwr-Jones, and panel present a series of short films from the archive about London in an event dubbed Metropolis Reborn. Films screened included:
The City (1939) – How london copes with crowding, delay and more people and movement. Striking for its attempt to manage the flow of traffic and people without a thought for social problems.
All That Mighty Heart (1962) – life in the late 50s; London waking up at 6am and going to bed at midnight, London transport from life on the underground to green, country buses in the suburbs, Steveange new town centre, building the Victoria line. Refreshingly I thought, filmmakers displayed a total lack of cynicism, perhaps because they didn’t know the gloom that was around the corner.
Top people (1960) – billed as a “look at life” series, building utopia, living in high rise, building the Barbican and London Wall, accommodating the rise of the car with new roads, underground car parks, bringing life and residents back to the city of London.
The films gave the panel an opportunity to rant at bankers and the general evils of society (including letting Billingsgate market close after 1,000 years on the same site: which sounds terrible until you think that maybe just because something has been done a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean there aren’t better ways of doing it. Cities do need to move with the times or they risk becoming decaying museums). They did release a few interesting nuggets of information: a tunnel runs from east to west London which shuttled post across the city at great speeds until last year when the almost bankrupt Royal Mail figured it would be cheaper to go by road (not counting costs of congestion that we all pay). The Thames apparently carries as many ships as it ever did, only they are larger and stop at Tilbury. And more of London was destroyed during the 1980s as developers thought to squeeze more money out of the land than during the Blitz.