Film in Oxford: OxDox 2013 Preview

ⓒ SpellboundinOxford
ⓒ SpellboundinOxford

The international documentary festival OxDox 2013 will be taking place at The Ultimate Picture Palace from 12th October to 7th November. I talked to Festival Director Marie Wright about the films screening during the festival and the importance of festivals for the exposure of documentaries. For a festival schedule and more information about the films mentioned please visit

Most major film festivals are in part for the benefit of the industry, acting as a kind of market in which films can gain a reputation and secure distribution rights, amongst other things. OxDox – like many other film festivals – instead focuses on the general public, providing them with an opportunity to see new documentaries on the silver screen; in Marie’s words, OxDox is “an exhibition, not a commissioning festival.”  This distinction has influenced the way in which the festival was organised, and how the films were selected and compiled. This year marks the start of a new approach to scheduling, as Marie plans to split the previously annual festival into three separate seasons per year. Whereas commissioning festivals tend to be concentrated into a short space of time with multiple screenings showing simultaneously, OxDox has this year opted for a sparer timetable with several days between each film. This means that the audience will be able to attend every event if they choose to do so.

The documentary film has become somewhat of a niche genre, now associated solely with television for most of the general public. This situation is exacerbated by the failure of large cinema chains to screen documentaries, which have long been overshadowed by more commercially attractive fictional films. For Marie, this imbalance serves to emphasise exactly why documentary festivals are so important. Perhaps predictably, the non-commercial aspect of the documentary form has caused difficulties in the organisation of OxDox, which thankfully have not prevented the festival from going ahead. Unfortunately it seems that as long as documentaries lack commercial viability, any attempts to give them greater exposure will remain a challenge.

As with perhaps all festivals, one of OxDox’s primary goals is to foster a sense of community through a shared artistic or cultural interest and experience. This year such a community has been extended across international borders to Perm, a Russian city twinned with Oxford. As the Perm International Documentary Film Festival coincides with OxDox for the first time in 2013, the opening screening of Leviathan (dir. Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA 2013) on Saturday 12th October will be preceded by a live feed with the audience in Perm. Leviathan, a dialogue-free portrait of the dangerous world of commercial fishing, promises to be a fertile catalyst for any discussion.

The closing film of the festival – The Epic of Everest (dir. Captain John Noel, UK 1924) – encourages the revisiting of documentary films from the past. This screening is a restored version of Noel’s footage of the infamous 1924 Everest expedition, which ended with the disappearance of George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. As I discussed in my recent post on the 2013 documentaries The Act of Killing and Stories We Tell, documentaries are unavoidably shaped by the creative and narrative subjectivity of those involved in their production. With films such as The Epic of Everest, subjectivity is certainly still present, giving a remarkably personal account of historical events, but it is displayed through first-hand experience rather than veiled with rhetoric or persuasive techniques. If “iconic events deserve an airing to a present day audience,” then to show contemporaneous footage in its entirety is to give viewers a valuable window into experiencing such iconic events with a sense of immediacy rather than historical detachment. The film will be complemented by a visit from author Graham Hoyland, who will talk about his latest book Last Hours on Everest.

To tie together the diverse films shown, OxDox has traditionally included thematic strands (such as last year’s ‘The Power of Music’). This year includes ‘Icons’ and ‘Home’ strands. The ‘Home’ Strand has been organised in collaboration with the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), and includes five very different documentaries reflecting the different meanings that ‘home’ can have. Stop Over (dir. Kaveh Bakhtiari, Switzerland/France 2013; Thu 17th October, 6.15pm) follows an Iranian who has converted an Athenian two-room basement 220px-The_Jazz_Singer_1927_Posterapartment into a ‘hostel’, or stop over, for other illegal immigrants hoping to find a new life in Europe. Men at Lunch (dir. Sean O’Cualain, Ireland 2012; Sat 19th Oct, 6.45pm) explores the lives around the eleven anonymous construction workers in the famous 1932 photograph ‘Lunch atop a Skyscraper’. The Stuart Hall Project (dir. John Akomfrah, UK 2013; Thu 24th Oct, 6.15pm) studies the Jamaican cultural theorist’s influence upon post-World War II British intellectual life, combining archival imagery with newly filmed material. Winter Nomads (dir. Manuel von Sturler, Switzerland 2012; Thu 31st Oct, 6.30pm) trails shepherds Carole and Pascal as they trek across the Swiss-French border in winter in search of nourishing grasslands, in a world that is becoming increasingly urbanised. London: The Modern Babylon (dir. Julien Temple, UK 2012; Sat 26th Oct, 6.15pm) shows the other side of this story, charting London’s transformation into a global metropolis.

In total there will be thirteen films shown during the festival, and on top of the seven already mentioned there will be screenings of The Lebanese Rocket Society (dir. Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joriege, France/Lebanon/Qatar 2012; Tue 15th Oct, 6.30pm), the strange tale of the Lebanese space race; The Reluctant Revolutionary (dir. Sean McAllister, UK/Ireland 2012; Tue 22nd Oct, 6.45pm), which follows a young Yemeni man’s engagement with his country’s 2011 revolution; The Hum of Holland (dir. Stella van Voorst van Beest, Netherlands 2012; Tue 29th Oct, 6.45pm), about modernity’s ambivalence towards silence; Muscle Shoals (dir. Greg Camalier, USA 2013), a celebration of the Alabama city’s lasting influence upon popular music; and a double bill of Black Out (dir: Eva Weber, UK 2012) and Maestra (dir. Catherine Murphy, Cuba 2012), which explore education in New Guinea and Cuba respectively (Tue 5th Nov, 6pm). For anyone even remotely interested in documentary, OxDox 2013 guarantees excellent examples of this important yet continually undervalued film form.

J. Wadsworth

OxDox runs from Saturday 12th October to Thursday 7th November. Tickets are available from the Ultimate Picture Palace’s website at For up-to-date cinema listings and to book tickets for any other films currently showing please follow these links: Phoenix Picturehouse; Ultimate Picture Palace; Odeon George St; Odeon Magdalen St. If you know of any film events or showings that you think should be included here in the future then please e-mail J. Wadsworth at

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