Review: Open City London Documentary Festival Feat. Position Among The Stars, Cocaine Unwrapped + Blood In The Mobile

“Opening minds, eyes and doors in the city of London” – that was the tagline of the glorious Open City London Documentary Festival. Held at the University College of London (UCL), and showing 160 stunning and unique films over four days (June 16-19), I was simply drowning in a pool of on screen gold.

And I mean gold.

I managed to catch 11 documentaries over two of the days – easily done as the diverse festival films showcasing “the stories that matter from around the world” were screened simultaneously across the central London campus and ranged from being 19 minutes to nine hours long.

Yet the first few seconds of the Open City opening ceremony were enough to impress with a top quality film worthy of an Academy Award; Leonard Retel Helmrich’s Position Among The Stars – the third part of a trilogy after The Eye of the Day and The Shape of The Moon - followed a striving and animated Indonesian family over 12 years as they battle corruption, poverty, religious disputes, gambling addiction and the generation gap from the slums of Jakarta. The “revolutionary” (literally, unbelievable) camera work, seamless ever-evolving family dynamics portrayed by the film, and the ability to make the audience laugh, feel awkward and cry within a tight 30 minutes makes this documentary a must-see.

One and all can relate to the story with quotes such as “We have to eat first… school comes second”, “No government in the world takes care of it’s people” and “Your possessions take possession of you” resonating in societies across the globe.

Other honourable mentions in my Open City London Doc Fest run down go to Cocaine Unwrapped and Blood In The Mobile – both gritty, hard hitting and jam packed with knowledge; a quality described by Open City Director, Michael Stewart, as “not an accomplishment. Knowledge is always a process that can be developed through such things as documentary film… which itself is always evolving, ever-changing and unpredictable.”

In the case of Rachel Seifert’s Cocaine Unwrapped it was definitely a shocking documentary about an ever-expanding problem – the corruption and destruction surrounding the cocaine industry; from the 11 million Westerners currently using the drug, to the misunderstood and at times exploited sources of the white stuff.

Rachel’s film took us around the world, as we heard from reps in Bolivia, and the farmers innocently and legally growing coca leafs (an ingredient in cocaine), yet losing out because of others either wanting to take their crops to grow cocaine, or burn them to prevent them being used to make the drug. We also got to hear from the female dealers in Ecuador, imprisoned and suffering from the social inequality notions that come with being involved with cocaine. We dropped right into the violence breaching from drug trafficking conflict in Mexico; a country which has seen 37,000 drug dealing related deaths since 2006. And we saw how cocaine powerhouse Colombia is still going strong despite the millions invested by the US in the ‘war on drugs’ (declared by President Nixon back in 1971). We even got snippets from beyond the South American side of the thin white line, with perspectives from consumers in London (some of which didn’t care where their drugs originated from), to a reformed convicted dealer in Baltimore who, despite appealing, has seen rapists and paedophiles released before him. The prisoner stated: “You can get over an addiction… but you can never get over a conviction”

“Drug policy is not black and white” said director Seifert in the post-screening panel discussion, which is why her film which blasted and exposed a hole in the grey matter that is the failed war on drugs, is so powerful. It leaves the audience seeking solutions, and the key governments and influencers in the world with their pants down.

My final Open City two thumbs up goes to Blood In The Mobile – directed by Frank Piasecki Poulsen, who honed in on the exploitation of the Democratic Republic of Congo and their natural resources; which are being drained by bodies across the world amidst the ongoing, long standing civil war in the African country. Poulsen uses mobile phone mega-cooperation Nokia as a target, one of MANY (along with laptop and other mobile phone merchandisers) who use the metal coltan in their products – a mineral most readily found in the mines of eastern Congo. We follow the mission to try and track down where exactly Nokia’s sources lay, with the camera shooting from their headquarters, to geologists’ laboratories, right to the mines, impoverished miners and hostile heart of eastern Congo. Having done volunteer work in the DRC back in 2008, let’s just say this staggering piece of documentary cut deep:

These are the “stories that matter”? With all the numbing, dumbed down, directionless rub one can scope through on the saturated box, the three I’ve flagged, along with the other 157 Open City films, really did rejuvenate one’s faith in raw, honest and good storytelling. Michael Stewart called the festival “a celebration of documentary film, modelled on the London Film Fest”, and one that “shows respect for the authenticity of ‘real stories’, the people involved, and the people watching.”

To all filmmakers and film lovers, in London and beyond – Open City had the winning formula – no fabricated edutainment, just the truth, and with that came impact, and inspiration. Open your eyes here: www.opencitylondon.com

This was also published on the Media Trust Community Channel


Review: Birthday In Cable + An Interview With DJ Kyle Hall

My latest 24th birthday was on Friday June 10, and this year, a combination of manic working weeks, fatigue, hay fever, man flu, and an early Saturday morning footy tournament made me want to be a bit of a hermit and rest in for the big weekend (yawn, I know). Shout out to my ever reliable (and insistent) lads – who bought me a ticket to London Bridge based night club, Cable. My orders were simple: dance till I drop.

However, despite my love for the Cable venue and vibe (which with a louder sound system, could live up to the epic Fabric and now legendary The End Club), plus some Vodka + Red Bull beverages, my batteries were just running out. The beats were heavy, the laser lights were buzzing; but by 2am I depressingly felt like 24 going on retirement.

Where was the cure for my poor performance? On rolled 19 year old Detroit guest DJ, Kyle Hall. God is a DJ I believe – as within minutes the room transformed, amped up, I resurrected and it was officially an underground rave till sunrise (7am to be exact). I can’t even define Hall’s sound; it’s quite diverse, with sprinkles of electronic, techno, dance and even jazz – though note, I’m no expert in any of those fields. All I know is it doesn’t matter what your music tastes extend to – I affirm if your body isn’t moving when this guy spins the turntables, you’re either deaf or dead inside. Words just won’t do it justice, so check out the vid, and the words from Hall himself, who I caught up with over Skype to chat music and the DJ game, from Detroit to Montreal, Norway to London:

Q: Where have you just come from?
A: Montreal – I played a gig there at a cool place called Circus After Hours. Nice venue, nice city, nice people.

Q: I saw you two weeks ago in London, you’ve just come in from Montreal. How often do you play abroad?
A: About three times a month. I’ve actually just had to get some extra pages in my passport – took ages to sort it out.

Q: Where’s the most obscure place you’ve played a set? As in which location did you least expect to be doing your thing…?
A: A place called Tromsø in Norway; it’s parallel to the Arctic Circle and I guess I never imagined I’d end up doing a set there. From what I remember it’s got one of the highest suicide rates because they hardly get any sun there. But the people I met were all really friendly.

Q: What’s an average day like in the life of Kyle Hall?
A: I’m not really home that much, so it’s hard to settle down and have a routine if I’m not in the same place for longer than a week. But everything I do is based around music man. I listen to records, buy music, create music, play sets – other than that I do normal things like going out with friends.

Q: I read that your music is “experimental with jazzy bits” – how would you describe your music to a virgin ear?
A: Electronic, techno, experimental, jazzy, soulful… all those adjectives sound good – it doesn’t pigeon anything I do. I’m quite diverse, and besides, sometimes people’s understanding of techno and electronic music can be very blanket; there are simply different interpretations, and in America most don’t understand the difference anyway. I think defining such styles is too long to get into. I think as long as you dig it, you dig it!

Q: What’s the music scene like back home in Detroit? You get any influences from there?
A: There’s not really a scene back in Detroit, no DJ crews or constant buzz like there is in London; which seems to have more of a communal, evolving with music feel.

Q: How did you start out then?
A: My dad bought my first (and second) turntables actually. I just started to do the DJ thing when I was 13-14, chilling, enjoying the music as a young kid, buying records and putting bits and pieces together.

Q: What is playing in your headphones right now?
A: Africa Hitech by Mark Pritchard and Steve Spacek – a sick CD.

Q: Any DJs you particularly into currently? Any from the UK… ?
A: FunkinEven and Floating Points are two in particular I’d like to mention. I’ve done great gigs with them in the UK and they’re mates of mine now.

Q: What makes a great gig for you as a DJ?
A: When you’re comfortable, the records can play themselves, and when you don’t have to do too much thinking. It’s not good when you start to rush things, and you’re being too analytical. The music should flow and get across an undeniable connection with the crowd; though that comes with having the foundation as a DJ and understanding of what you like to play and how. Overall it’s a good one when you’re able to be artistic but say what you got to say and make a point somewhere. When those features interlock then you can just do your thing and enjoy yourself.

Q: Do you enjoy it when the crowd responds? Or are you too busy zoned out in the music to notice?
A: I’m really aware of the crowd – it’s important to know your surroundings. It tells you what options you have, and where you can go with the crowd. Every song has different qualities, and if people seem like they’re enjoying it, I know where to take them next. But only if they’re ready.

Q: How did you feel about the Cable show I saw you at? The vibe? Location? Crowd?
A: It’s a really sick location, an amazing cool place to play. It’s still fairly new I believe, and I think their sound system is going to be developed. But it has the potential to be a really great venue. I’d definitely like to play there again.

Q: Where else have you played in London – and what do you think of the music scene?
A: I’ve played at Plastic People (in Shoreditch), Corsica Studios (in Elephant and Castle) and a few other places including Fabric (in Farringdon); though I’ve only played in Room 3 there – I really want to play in the main room one day. In general the music scene in London is so great – the people are always so open and accepting, and so in turn are able to connect with what I do.

Q: What do you think of the city as a whole?
A: I love London – it’s one of my favourite places to play and visit. I’ve tonnes of friends there who I catch up with when I'm down, we have BBQs and do normal shit, I like Soho, the restaurants, record shops, and the IMAX theatre near Waterloo where I was able to drink beer whilst watching Iron Man with my girlfriend... that was awesome (laughs). These are the many reasons why of all the cities in Europe, London is the one I come back to the most.

Q: When can London next expect a set from Kyle Hall?
A: I’ll be back in July and later in the year. All the info is on my Facebook fan page.

This is also published on the Media Trust Community Channel


Review: Taste Of London Festival

Stuffed and satisfied – the only way to describe my condition following my tour of the Taste of London food fest in Regent’s Park last Friday (June 17).

I felt like that boy again - reliving my youth; the chubby dumpling-shaped boy who once ran down the aisles of Costco (as my Uncle Louis pushed the trolley), munching all the samples available. Anything with a toothpick was graciously jammed in my gob.

Illustration courtesy of Tom Pritchard

Now, a grown man, the grace is ever present as are the love handles. But the food was simply of a different calibre at the Taste of London food showcase. Envision a field with 40 of London’s plushest restaurants (from Gauchos to the The Ritz Restaurant), along with over 200 stalls offering tasters of their latest products, wine tasting and cookery master classes, celeb chef theatres (featuring the likes of Michel Roux Jr, Pierre Koffmann, Silvena Rowe, Chris Galvin and Gary Rhodes) - and we have every food connoisseur’s heaven:

Slight downside - the festival itself (presented by Channel 4, Brand Events and in partnership with British Airways) ran over four rainy days (June 16-19); where grey clouds dropped an unforgiving shower on the capital. On the afternoon I attended, my trainers looked like a dark shade of mud, and I watched with sympathy for the ladies with white dresses and sandals skidding through the puddles. Nevertheless, brollies high in the air, cocktails all around, the summer festival mood shone through.

This vegetarian in particular simply couldn’t complain with ample samples of butternut squash soup, couscous, Bermudan rum, toffee vodka and wine to keep me and my friends company. Through rain, hell, fire and brimstone – I do recommend.

Next year the Taste of London festival runs from June 21-24. For more info, sign up here.

This is also published on the Media Trust Community Channel


Hip Hop Ain’t Dead – It’s In London

Review: Made In Palestine @ Queen of Hoxton

Where has hip hop wandered off to? Is it still a dominant cultural movement? A provocative tool capable of social impact?

Some of my die hard old school hip hop fanatic friends would give a resounding no, believing the lines of the genre are now blurred in a world of whirlwind commercialism, with any thought provoking messages lost in the midst of booty shaking ringtone-esque beats. I can sympathise with the cynicism, as contemporary rap and ‘hip hop’ trends with the likes of Soulja Boy at the forefront just don’t seem to amp me up as much as the likes of N.W.A., Afrika Bambaataa, the late Gil Scott-Heron and others did, and still do.

But whilst that may not be the dominant sound being broadcasted, the waves of empowering hip hop music still flow. And anyone that knows of rap artists Lowkey, Logic, Poetic Pilgrimage, Crazy Haze and Shadia Mansour will vouch for that. Through their music, bleeding real hip hop, the crew (along with others) have come to be recognised as usual suspects of the justice for Palestine movement, and they were all there on Monday May 30 getting fists up in the air at the Queen of Hoxton ‘Made In Palestine’ gig.

The itinerary gave little new to the ear – at least for me; someone who’s seen Lowkey live six times, Logic four times, and having guest speaker (political activist, journalist and co-founder of the Equality Movement) Jody McIntyre in my phonebook. However, these hip hop anthems and voices were as engaging, hard-hitting and uncompromising as they ALWAYS are. This was, and is, political hip hop at its best – with headliner Lowkey offloading his catalogue of lyrics that protest and challenge not only crimes against Palestinian people, but crimes against humanity overall. Logic rapped about being an “outsider looking in” on injustices, expressing solidarity and the work needed for a truthfully peaceful future. And Jody, never afraid to expose the dividing lines between those who stand for the equality of all and those who stand for the supremacy of some, delivered a short poem about his devastating memories of Palestine. Finishing with beats Terrorist, Obama Nation and Long Live Palestine, Lowkey himself even stated: “Hip hop ain’t dead. It’s in London.”

The hip hop with a point/punch is not lost, it’s just evolved as a cultural movement (and is perhaps a little bit more challenging to find).

Let’s just take the case of the Made In Palestine headliner; I’ve read one popular YouTube user’s comment on a video of Lowkey’s speech at the Gaza Freedom Flotilla Massacre Protest (May 2010), describing the rapper as a “British Tupac”. Now, I wouldn’t go that far. Set up a room for the two to converse today and I’m crying out to be a fly on the wall. But the two are still very different. Tupac Shakur will forever be a hip hop icon in his own right, remembered not only as a producer of timeless beats, but a voice for those experiencing hardships, violence, racism and other social problems in Harlem and the world he grew up in. The hip hop theme tastes quite a bit different for Lowkey and the artists at the Queen of Hoxton, who definitely embody relevant and purposeful hip hop beyond the melodies, rifts and hooks, but nevertheless they spit, speak and shout for a very different cause.

The Made In Palestine east London event in particular brought Lowkey and the other hip hop acts and fans together to fundraise for the Samouni Project.

Note: Whilst Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seem to chit chat, stall and chin chat some more over peace talks and the future of Palestine and Israel, Made In Palestine skipped that old tune, with hip hop activism including an interval session lead by Irish-American anti-war activist Kenneth O’Keefe; raising awareness and calling for direct action and support for the Samouni family that lost 48 members in a shell attack by Israeli forces in Gaza, January 2009.

Though there was no mention of ‘thug life’, Tupac himself was probably bopping from the heavens, as the Made In Palestine hip hop rumbling the Queen of Hoxton basement that night clearly had great political and social influence and integrity – and cannot be confused or even mentioned in the same breathe as ‘hip pop’. Peace signs, lighters and phones were up in the air for each act backing power to the Palestinian people, with DJ Snuff providing relentless backing track after track for Lowkey, Logic and the rest. Palestinian justice combined with the hip hop ‘stand up and be counted!’ heart beat was heavy, all the way through to the very end when we were treated to a cameo appearance by Akala (who nonchalantly stood behind me for much of the show), a new generation raw hip hop legend – as acclaimed by Lowkey.

So, I ask again – where are you hip hop? Substantial changes are evident, but my fanatic aforementioned friends should rest happy in the knowledge their hip hop is alive and kicking – they just have to look in the right places. Subsequently therein lays the other issue: How much/easily will they and you hear of this content? Are we expecting chart-toppers to emerge from the Queen of Hoxton – along with a YouTube sensation catchy dance routine to ‘Long Live Palestine’? Not sure about the first, and good God I hope not to the second. It is most probable the revolution will not be televised. But like with every hip hop generation (from Tupac to Lowkey) – what does that matter as long as the good word is spoken and the hip hop faithful are there to listen and act.

This is also published on the Media Trust Community Channel


Review: Streetfest 2011 – Wretch 32, The Nextmen, Skateboards, Bikes, Blades And Graffing

My cousin Brian came down to London last weekend from Montreal, Canada. It was a pit-stop; four days were all he had to get reacquainted with the city. Yet if ever there was an event that epitomised diving into the deep end of London street culture, it is Streetfest – and this year’s instalment stuffed Bri and I with everything that is glorious, raw and urban in the capital.

Off one of Shoreditch’s back roads on the sunny cider-must Sunday (May 29) was a hustle and bustle like no other. You walked into the transformed Hearn Street car park and immediately ran into a gauntlet of graffiti artists getting busy on the right hand side walls. Streetfest welcomed the finest, as I heard that behind the masks and paint mists were Inkie, Blam, Andy Council, Candy Flo, Elfin, Jess Douglas, Richt, Sainty, 45RPM and personal favourite – Remi Rough. If these names mean nothing to you, click on the links – zero disappointed is a promise.

The live art exhibition was the backdrop to a line up of entertainment throughout the day. My cousin wondered around like an overwhelmed overseas student at a Fresher’s Fair, with ears perked and wide eyes scoping from the hip hop b-girl dance competition (provided by the b.Supreme ladies - see above), to the bike ramps, to the spoken word poetry skills of G.R.E.Ed.S and Phresh Mentality. And all this was just outside.

Inside the Streetfest ‘arena’ were stalls, another 32ft built-in ramp (obviously a day of spoils for the skaters, bikers and rollerbladers from Lovenskate, Bicycle Union and Kingdom representing), and the main stage room with a stunning background design provided earlier during the live art battle by the globally renowned Secret Wars faction (see above). Performers Ghostpoet, Urban Nerds, rap artist Wretch 32 (see below) and eclectic duo The Nextmen blew the roof off. The bass was heavy; hip hop, dubstep, old school jungle, snippets of The Prodigy and more left me and my people raving like a couple of alcopopped delinquents - a picture thankfully left out of the Streetfest 2011 coverage.

Before we departed there were still some things to do; a go on the ingenious Adidas electronic graffiti board (see below - think advanced enormous Etch A Sketch for any budding graffer), and a few drop ins to the free photobooth, where lines of people waited to grab some funny, romantic and mental snapshots with their mates and lovers.

Brian shot back to Canada clutching our nostalgic photobooth moment below (my sisters Pam and Paola up top, crammed in with yours truly bottom left, Bri in the middle and brother from another Tom bottom right). Judging from the expressions, my bet is we'll all want to be on this side of the Atlantic for Streetfest 2012.

PHOTOS: Adidas/Ollie Adegboye

This is also published on the Media Trust Community Channel