Documenting a neglected art form

“One year we brought an eskimo.” It’s the 12th year of OxDox, Oxford’s very own international documentary film season showing at the Ultimate Picture Palace, and it goes without saying the team of programmers know what they’re talking about. But what makes this collaborative project even more special is the other specialists they bring in. Although Marie Wright, director of the festival, clarifies that while this year doesn’t have any Inuits who’ve made it over from Alaska to talk about their own experiences in relation to a documentary, the list of panelists is impressive to say the least.

The format of the Q&A section at the end of each of the thirteen films allows members of the public to thoroughly engage with not only the film, but its film makers and leading academics in the field of each documentary’s specialist subject. From a doctor at the Sonic Art Research Unit talking about soundscape in the modern world as is explored in the documentary Hum of Holland to a senior lecturer in Music at Oxford Brookes and author of books on Radiohead and Elvis Costello talking about Muscle Shoals, every expert is covered. It’s as diverse as it can be both geographically with Julien Temple’s take on London next to a piece on the Lebanon, as well as in content; an Irish documentary maker’s research on Men At Lunch, the infamous picture of the workers eating lunch on the empire state building in the ‘20s, anyone? As an Oxford student lucky enough to have the opportunity to see so many speakers and the fact that in term time we get such a variety of visitors, the OxDox guests bring two sides to a debate and start a new one.

I asked Wright if it was easy to get the academics on board with panel discussions, in a more media role than they are used to, but she said if anything it was harder with the directors, joking that as well as the unfriendliness, they can “clam up on a stage. If they’ve accomplished what they’ve set out and said everything they’ve wanted to in the film, they aren’t media friendly because they have nothing more to add.” Proof that if academics are used to standing at a lecture podium and speaking to a room full of half asleep and fully hungover students, then they will thrive in a room full of engaged members of the public. However Wright attests that one of the major pulls for the academics has to be the groundbreaking news the documentaries cover, “although it takes a year to make a documentary, the result is so well researched, the documentary makers are always 10 steps ahead of reporters.” She lists the fact that in 2005 they screened a documentary on fracking, which is only now being fully researched and made into the headlines this year and is being looked to for the facts, adding “in a 24 hour news culture, it’s documentaries which not only investigate the news, but make it.” Having seen the documentaries focusing on current global affairs, such as The Reluctant Revolutionary, it becomes apparent the disparity between commenting on global news from behind a computer screen, and having a well informed opinion from the scene itself.

While talking to Marie I’m struck by how interested she is in the public’s reception to the project. OxDox marks itself out as different to a mainstream film festivals, and not just from its setting of the independent Ultimate Picture Palace instead of the big mainstream chains of the Odeon or Cineworld. One of the reasons she provides, aside from the ridiculous news that these huge multiplexes are not given a budget for marketing independent films, and rely solely on the pre-packed publicity of Hollywood, is “the problem with having one week of intense films instead of a month long season is that the audience is forced into seeing the films back to back. And when there’s hundreds playing in one week, they begin to blur into one” (like the dilemma of which headliner you want to see at Glastonbury but even worse because you don’t know anything about them in advance to base your decision on) As a result this film festival which spans over a month means that “we can have three or four seasons a year so the public can make it to all of them, and they are as current as they can be.”

Where some have premiered at Sundance, or have larger names, such as London: The Modern Babylon, directed by Julien Temple who has previously directed various music videos with The Sex Pistols and David Bowie, there are others which are premiering for the first time on our very own Cowley Road.

Marie’s emphasis on the public nature of the festival, the uniqueness of being able to see a documentary from the other side of the globe, the only time you can, and that being in Oxford, reflects the actual purpose of documentary making itself. To inform and give something back. Which is precisely what the panel of academics and documentary makers will be doing for the month.


Thursday 24th October, 6.15, The Stuart Hall Project

Saturday 26th October, 6.15, London: The Modern Babylon

Tuesday 29th October, 6.45, The Hum of Holland

Thursday 31st October, 6.30, Winter Nomads

Saturday 2nd November, 6.15, Muscle Shoals

Tuesday 5th November, 6pm, Black Out and Maestra (double bill)

Thursday 7th November, 6.30, The Epic of Everest