Almost Heaven

10 of the Best Films at Open City Documentary Festival 2017

Our favourite London doc festival Open City returns in September and this year’s programme is more diverse and original than ever. From treasure hunting hopefuls to 17 year old morticians, we’ve put together some of the industry’s most talked-about documentaries to catch at this year’s fest, taking place from 5th-10th September in cinemas across London. 

  1. Small Talk 

20 years ago, filmmaker Hui-chen Huang started making an observational doc about her mother Anu. A tomboy since childhood, Anu married young and fled an abusive husband, eventually bring up her two daughters alone. She paid the bills by working as a professional funeral mourner and eventually came out as a lesbian, living an openly butch life in conservative rural Taiwan. Anu is a woman of very few words, and this intimate and at-times uncomfortable look at their relationship is defined by its complete absence of small talk. The director asks the blunt and hard-hitting questions that she needs to to try and understand her enigmatic mother, and in the process comes to understand a woman who has lived an extraordinary yet brutal life.

8.30pm on Saturday 9th September, Genesis Cinema, 93-95 Mile End Rd, London E1 4UJ  tickets here

Image courtesy of Open City Documentary Festival

2.  A Moon of Nickel and Ice

Deep in the Siberian arctic, the mining town of Norilsk is a city without trees. Built in the 1920s by GULAG prisoners under Stalin, it is the world’s northernmost city and is complied simply of ‘snow, concrete buildings and factories’. A brutal spec on the arctic horizon, residents liken everyday life there to ‘living on the moon’, an isolation that was further intensified in 2001 when the city was closed off to all non-Russians. A Moon of Nickel and Ice is a poetic documentary about this strange place and the people who live there, the nickel miners who have spent decades moving beneath it and the teenagers who dream of escape. Then there are those who want to expose Norilsk’s dark past- the descendants of the men who risked their lives to build it.

3pm on Sunday 10th September, Bertha Dochouse, Curzon Bloomsbury, The Brunswick, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1AW  tickets here

Image © François Jacob

3.  Craiglist Allstars

When filmmaker and performance artist Samira Elagoz put out an open call to men on Craiglist, she could not have guessed the eclectic variety of people she would meet, from magicians to soft-core porn directors. Filming their encounters and relationships as they unfold, she delves in to the shady world of online classifieds and measures the impact that the camera has on these meetings with strangers looking for adventure. Travelling around the world from Tokyo to Amsterdam, Elagoz places herself firmly in the male gaze, becoming just as much a part of her cinéma-vérité narrative as her intriguing and perplexing characters.

8.30pm on Saturday 9th September, Picturehouse Central, Corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street, Piccadilly, London W1D 7DH  tickets here

Image courtesy of Open City Documentary Festival

4. We Were Kings

We couldn’t possibly miss out our 2016 Funding Award-winning film We Were Kings, which will have its world premiere at this year’s Open City. 101 years ago, the Last King of Burma died in exile in India, 3,000 miles from home. Broken and forgotten, he would never see his ancestral seat of Mandalay again and his memory would be wiped from history. The film follows his great grandson U Soe Win as he attempts to draw the royal family back together and bring his ancestor’s body home.  Screening at the British Library, this exclusive event will be attended by U Soe Win himself and followed up by a Q&A with filmmakers Alex Bescoby and Max Jones, hosted by award-winning BBC Foreign Correspondent Mike Thomson. Hurry, there are only a few tickets left…

7pm on Saturday 9th September, the British Library, 96 Euston Rd, Kings Cross, London NW1 2DB  tickets here

5. In the Dark presents: In the City 

OK, so not a film but as you know we are big audio lovers here at Whicker’s World Foundation. Our favourite collective of audio producers and podcasters In the Dark Radio have organised another excellent listening event at this year’s Open City. Sure to intrigue and entice curious listeners, In the Dark have looted the archives to bring audio from radio, podcasts and sound art that uncover urban secrets- past and present, in London and beyond.

5.30pm on Thursday 7th September, Festival Hub (Bargehouse), Barge House Street, London, SE1 9PH tickets here

6. Almost Heaven

17-year old Yang Ling is just like any other teenager. She laughs and jokes with her best friend, plays games at the local arcade and is scared of ghosts. Yet one unusual fact makes her stand out – she is training to become a mortician at one China’s largest funeral homes. British director Carol Salter follows her as she inhabits her bizarre and paradoxical world- Yang Ling is sparklingly alive though she spends the majority of her time amongst the dead. Almost Heaven’s main character’s infectiously endearing personality is teased out amongst the boredom of her routine activities at the funeral home, and we learn that she did not expect to enter this world…

6.15PM on Friday 8th September, Regent Street Cinema, 309 Regent St, Marylebone, London W1B 2UW tickets here

7. Pump

An absurdist documentary that explores the apparent pointlessness of the human condition, Pump will make you laugh and cry all at once. Filmmaker Joseph David is joined by artist Andrew Kötting on a week-long journey across a stretch of abandoned monorail in Northern France. Once part of the test track for the Aérotrain, a fast train service started by engineers in the 1960s but eventually abandoned, the men must hand pump the trolley in order to move at a snail’s pace of 2mph. What results is a hilarious exploration of the friendships, goals and endeavours that make us human. 

8.30pm, Saturday 9th September, Hackney Picturehouse,270 Mare St, London E8 1HE  tickets here

8. 95 and 6 to go 

Filmed over six years, 95 and 6 to go is the story of filmmaker Kimi Takes and her wonderfully compelling grandfather Tom. Born in the 1910s to Japanese immigrant parents, Tom has spent nearly a century living in Honolulu as a postal worker. After losing his beloved wife, he remains determined to carry on with his daily routines as normal – offering quips and life wisdom galore as he does. However, it is when Takes becomes frustrated with a film screenplay that she is writing that Tom really comes to life, taking a surprise interest in the project and his granddaughter’s modern life. 

6.20pm on Thursday 7th September, Picturehouse Central,Corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street, Piccadilly, London W1D 7DH  tickets here

9. Bitter Money 

Wang Bing’s rough-edged observational doc style shines through in Bitter Money, a film about a group of Chinese garment workers and their struggle to survive in harsh conditions living in a faceless, Neon-lit city. Travelling from the countryside in search of the promise of work, the characters live on very low wages, slaving away for 12 hour a day before returning to their cramped shared living quarters. One woman has been thrown out by her abusive husband, another man longs for home after drowning his sorrows, and 15 year old Xiao Min prepares to make the journey herself in search of a better life.

2pm on Saturday 9th September, Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, St. James’s, London SW1Y 5AH  tickets here

Image courtesy of Open City Documentary Festival

10. The Lure 

When an eccentric art dealer buries a treasure chest worth $3 million deep in to the Rocky Mountains, you go looking for it right? That’s exactly what some 65,000 people have set out to do, and this documentary follows the wishful ‘treasure hunters’ as they seek out the bounty reportedly left behind by millionaire Forrest Fenn. From director Tomas Leach, The Lure attempts to get to the heart of the characters who so desperately seek this mysterious treasure- amongst them a former police woman, a cowboy, and two young women who dream of becoming famous.

6.30pm on Friday 8th September, Berth Dochouse, Curzon Bloomsbury, The Brunswick, Bloomsbury, London WC1N 1AW tickets here

Image courtesy of Open City Documentary Festival

Industry accreditation for Open City Documentary Festival is £80, apply here