From the Suffolk seaside, you really can see around the globe
Documentary film-making is a global business, and the world, its politics and its diverse nature is the central theme of this year’s Aldeburgh Documentary Festival.
During the long weekend starting on Friday November 16, actress and festival programmer Diana Quick will be unveiling a worldwide view of film ? both in terms of its international nature and the scope of its subject matter.
She will be bringing in films which have just had their premiere at The London Film Festival, along with film-makers like Julien Temple, Marc Isaacs, Leslie Woodhead and cultural commentators like Marina Warner and Isabel Hilton. The festival will also be staging discussions on the changes prompted by emerging global economies such as China, alongside America’s changing role and identity.
These big issues are thrown into sharp relief when they are illustrated by poignant stories featuring real people.
This is the 18th year of the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival and Diana’s third year as the festival director, having taken over the reins from fellow Aldeburgh resident and journalist Craig Brown.
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The festival is now a major date on Aldeburgh’s cultural calendar.
She said the festival thrived on the fact that not only could Suffolk people see films on the big screen that they perhaps would not get a chance to see but the unique nature of the festival meant they could get to meet and talk to the film-makers and establish a dialogue.
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“A festival like this is all about communication. It’s about putting the film-maker in touch with the audience and providing the audience with an opportunity to talk to the film-maker and to dig a little deeper into the background of the film they have just seen.”
She said that each film screening either had debates or question-and-answer sessions attached to the screening.
“The big discussion worked very well last year, so we thought that we’d make Sunday the day for a big debate.
“This year we are showing When China Met Africa by Nick and Marc Francis. It tells the story of Mr Liu, one of thousands of Chinese entrepreneurs who are settling in Africa looking to develop new business opportunities.
“He has settled in southern Zambia and has just bought his fourth farm, while in the northern half of the country Mr Li is the project manager for a multi-national Chinese-backed company upgrading Zambia’s longest road – but he discovers it is a race against time because funds from the Zambian government are starting to run out.
“It’s a fascinating look at the way that China has grown into this huge global economic force. This is recognised by the African governments because, when funds start running low, we get to see Zambia’s trade minister getting on a plane – not to Europe or to the United States but to China – to try and raise investment capital.”
Diana said the film presents an intimate portrait of the changing face of global economics. Immediately following the film, Nick Francis will take part in a question and answer session. Then, after lunch, Isabel Hilton will lead a debate about the role of China in the world, how that role has changed and what the future may hold.
Diana: “I am really pleased that this forms the centrepiece of the weekend because it is such an important topic. It is very much of the moment and with our knowledgeable Aldeburgh audience, who have experience of working all over the world, I hope to have a lively and informed discussion.”
Diana said that the festival was able to secure screenings of films which had yet to secure UK distribution or had only been seen once at the London Film Festival.
“I was so pleased to get The Road: A Story of Life and Death because it has only been seen at the LFF and then it comes to us before it gets its television screening. It’s a very important film about immigrants and how people are searching for identity and meaning in their lives.
“It’s set against the backdrop of the oldest Roman road – all roads lead to Rome, they say – but it’s a collection of very poignant stories which are woven together to get an over-view of the immigrant experience. It harks back to this global theme that seems to pervade the festival this year.”
Saturday’s programme opens with Marwencol, one of Diana’s favourite films of the weekend, and she finds it bemusing that the film has yet to find a UK distributor.
“It’s a very brilliant film and I have been trying to get a screening of it since Year One.”
The film tells the story of Mark Hogancamp, a man recovering from brain damage after being beaten unconscious by a gang outside a bar. In an effort to make sense of the world he has constructed a 1940s-era town in his backyard, which he has populated with Ken and Barbie dolls representing his friends and family. He records the life of the town in a series of amazingly detailed photographs which have gone on dispay in a New York gallery. He has named his town Marwencol.
“The story of how the film came to be made is almost as fascinating as the story contained in the film. The film-maker, Jeff Malmberg, was driving along when he saw Mark walking along the pavement, pulling a model army Jeep behind him.
“In order to get the right degree of wear on the vehicle, and to replicate that authentic used look, Mark takes his tanks, lorries and Jeeps for walks. He obviously looked unusual so Jeff stopped and talked to him and discovered Mark’s creation of this fictional town.
“The pair went back and Jeff saw this entire town laid out and populated with dolls, and then he was shown these amazing pictures that Mark had taken of life in the town. Mark recorded the life of the dolls in the town in meticulous detail and just stored the pictures away. Hundreds, thousands of pictures, just put into storage. Jeff knew that there was not only a film to be made about Mark but he wanted to get these fantastic pictures on display in a gallery.
“The film is a beguiling look at Mark’s self-help therapy and how his pictures are discovered by the art world – how he copes with reality intruding onto his fantasy life in Marwencol.”
Diana is amazed that even though the film has picked up 25 awards from festivals around the world, no-one has picked up the distribution rights for the UK. “It’s a touching, thought-provoking film that deserves to be seen.”
The most high-profile guest of the weekend is Julien Temple – famed for his pop video work with David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, Whitney Houston, The Kinks and Blur, and for feature films like Absolute Beginners and the Sex Pistols’ The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle. His appearance at Aldeburgh is to unveil a different sort of film – a study of what is perceived as a dying city – Requiem For Detroit?
Detriot was once America’s fourth-largest city. It grew prosperous on the back of the car industry and was, for a long while, touted as the embodiment of the American Dream.
Today much of the city resembles a waste land, with large areas abandoned and plant-life growing up through the cracks in the pavement and abandoned office blocks being swallowed up by unchecked trees and bushes.
But Julien Temple’s film also finds hope in this void. He discovers that inside what was once an urban sprawl a rural world is starting to re-establish itself. Bizarrely, farming is making a comeback in the abandoned city centre. It has also captured the imagination of the younger generation and of artists who have all started to help re-energise these part urban/part rural spaces.
“It’s a fascinating film which shows how a city can have a rebirth. Julien is an old friend of mine and we’re thrilled to have him along to talk about the film.
“He’s a director who continues to do interesting work. He’s very good at finding interesting angles on things.
“The post-screening discussion will be very interesting because we have invited over Tom Walsh, a Detroit journalist, to give his view on what is happening with what used to be America’s most industrialised city now that it is at the forefront of what has been described as a burgeoning urban agricultural movement.”
She said that contemporary concerns always lie at the heart of the documentary festival. “I think we have a strong thread of really up-to-the-minute material which will feed a lot of discussion.
“When we were planning the festival at the start of the year, we wondered whether we should programme something about the economic crisis in Europe, but we decided to leave well alone because not only was the situation changing so rapidly, it was all over the news, every night, and we thought by the time November came around everyone would be well and truly sick of it.
“We thought that the film about urban regeneration in Detroit and the rise of the Chinese economy would be just as topical and much more interesting, simply because they were both subjects that won’t have been talked to death.
“People are interested to see where China is going to go next. What is going to happen and it is a debate that our audience can contribute to?
“The interesting thing is that I am not sure where the debate will go and where it will lead. There is a lot of anxiety about how China is affecting the world economy and it will be interesting to hear what people think.”
The final element in this year’s programme is a look at the work of Leslie Woodhead, the pioneer of the dramatised documentary. He has worked mainly in television, creating investigative reconstructions of stories emerging out of eastern Europe.
Leslie will be taking audiences through his career with the help of Brideshead Revisited producer Derek Granger.
In addition to the films about eastern Europe, Leslie also made ten films for Granada Television’s Disappearing World series which took him to Africa, Nepal, China and the South Pacific.
By way of complete contrast he was also the man responsible for recording The Rolling Stones’ free concert in Hyde Park in 1969.
Diana said that diversity and a global view are the key to this year’s event. “We don’t set out to pursue a theme but we find each year that a common thread does present itself and you have to believe me when I say that it’s not deliberate. It’s just the way that things work out. I suppose there are themes and concerns in the air and they naturally find there way into film.” This year also sees the introduction of the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival Lifetime Achievement Award. “We wanted to introduce an award because although there are some stars like Nick Broomfield whose work is celebrated and recognised, there are an awful lot of other excellent documentary film-makers who are working away, building up an impressive body of work, usually in television, but don’t get the recognition they deserve.
“It’s a tragedy that a lot of documentaries just get seen once and then disappear. I think that one of the great things that this festival has demonstrated is that there is an audience for documentaries at the cinema – it’s about watching something together, as a community, and the size of the image does make a difference.
“The increase in documentaries being released in cinemas over the last ten years shows that we are not alone.”
She said they hoped that this will become an annual award – helping to raise awareness of the contribution that documentary film-makers bring to our understanding of the world.
And what of next year? “We are already looking at films for next year’s festival. I am sorry we haven’t got any music this year, so maybe next year there will be a greater emphasis on music. It’s Britten’s centenary, of course, so that may play a part. We’ll see what we can lay our hands on.”
n The 18th Aldeburgh Documentary Festival is being staged at Aldeburgh Cinema from November 16 to 18. Further details can be found online at www.aldeburghcinema.co.uk