Documents about a documentary film festival

When I first heard about theOxdox festival, I couldn’tbelieve my ears: a week ofhundreds of documentary films frommore than thirty countries, showingin five different locations aroundOxford, featuring post-screeningtalks with directors, dancing interludes,video-tech booths, performingmonkeys (a slight embellishment,perhaps, but not out of thequestion), photographic exhibitions,new directors’ workshops, localschools’ film projects. Just scanningthe website makes you dizzy. Aftera much-needed lie-down in a darkenedroom, I launched my plan ofattack to navigate the overwhelmingprogramme of films and events.One cannot fault the ambition ofthe festival, which in its third yearhas struck an impressive balance betweenhonouring some of the genre’smost celebrated directors and promotingthe unsung champions ofdocumentary film-making in 2005.It features a retrospective of the filmsof Nicholas Philibert, perhaps bestknown for Etre et Avoir (2002), alow-key feature documenting theminutiae of everyday life in an infantschool in rural France, whichhas grown to be France’s most successfuldocumentary of all time. Philibertis present for post-screeningdiscussions of his films, as is Britishdirector Michael Grigsby, whose televisiondocumentaries have enjoyedwide acclaim since the 1960s, andKim Longinotto, prominent amonga burgeoning set of female documentarymakers in the UK.Such famous faces are not the onlycause for excitement, however, as thelesser-known films, despite their sundrysubjects and locations, all have incommon not only a duty to informbut a desire to entertain. The festivaloccurs at a curious juncture in theworld of documentary film-making,for both the big screen and the small.The recent boost in popularity of thedocumentary underscores the growingcommon desire for immediatelyself-reflexive art, a knee-jerk culturalresponse in the west to the shock of9/11 and one that has been fuelled inno small part by tabloid scaremongering.The result has seen the qualityand popularity of documentary filmsin the past few years surge in a directlyinverse proportion, explaining theunmerited success of US sensationalistand often propagandist filmssuch as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit9/11 (2004) and Morgan Spurlock’sSuper Size Me (2004). These filmsserved respectively to impart two little-known gems of wisdom to theirviewers: firstly, that Bush fellow reallyisn’t the brightest button in thebox, and secondly, it turns out thatthe human body doesn’t take well tosubsisting only on McDonald’s finesthydrogenated vegetable fat andcow offal.Thankfully, the Oxdox programmeis wholeheartedly bucking the mainstreamtrend towards such opportunistand uninformative documentarieswith a series of films that offerall that the viewer expects and more.British director Paul O’Connor’sfilm The Only Clown in the Village,for example, purports to serveas a reminder of the continuing andlong-lasting devastation in the areashit by the Asian tsunami last Christmas,the initial blanket media coverageof which has since slowly fizzledout. The film more than fills its brief,however; in addition to its commitmentto such a worthy cause, thrownin is a touching and funny portrait ofthe young Kingsley Perera, the onlyAsian clown registered in Britain,who travels to Sri Lanka to offer hishumble services as an entertainer tothe victims of the disaster, and to rediscoverhis roots.Like all the films I have seen in thefestival so far, O’Connor’s is pervadedby a universal spirit of good humourwhich is both disarming andhumbling to the viewer, given howconspicuously it belies the gravityand hardship of the situation that theindividuals and communities portrayedfind themselves in. Furthermore,the directors featured in Oxdoxappear refreshingly without ego,again unlike the self-serving style ofMichael Moore. This is an approachLonginotto favours in her new filmSisters In Law, depicting the experiencesof female judges in the highlypatriarchal West African society, inwhich she aims for an ’un-authored’vision of a ’universal story’. This descriptioncould well be applied to allof the films in the festival, a welcomethought given the warning from thepromotional blurb which has beenringing in my ears this week: “youwill need to see at least 12 films a daynot to miss out!”Oxdox runs until Friday 28 October.For further information see www.oxdox.comARCHIVE: 3rd week MT 2005