Anka Sasnal and Wilhelm Sasnal, It Looks Pretty from a Distance, 2011, color film in Super 16 transferred to 35 mm, 77 minutes.


OLYMPIC FEVER FLAGGED in the British capital in the weeks leading up to the big event’s inexorable landing. But this year’s East End Film Festival were perfectly content to jump on the Olympic bandwagon or propagating Hackney’s long-expired self-proclamation as the Capital of Cool; it’s a magical land where trust-funders have no problem whatsoever living side by side with the area’s impoverished minorities and immigrants—so long as the latter don’t mind the rent hikes.

Not everyone can be a happy camper, as Ted Nygh’s Riot from Wrong strove to demonstrate through an excavation of the underlying issues that provoked last August’s looting and rioting throughout the capital. Nygh’s film makes a convincing argument for the police’s culpability in the disaster, despite the contempt flung at the disempowered participants by the country’s nauseating mainstream media.

Alison Klayman’s bold debut, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, does an apt job of filling in the details in the story everyone knows, though it also may help perpetuate the black-and-white myth of the virtuous artist versus the evil villainous government. Most any Chinese intellectual with whom you broach the subject will assert that Ai must, in fact, have some support within the Chinese government, otherwise he would have disappeared eons ago, regardless of his popularity in the international media and art world. While I don’t discount the heroism of Ai’s stance, I remain unpersuaded by the naive view that imposing American-style democracy on a country with a radically distinct (and much older) culture that has never had anything resembling it is going to be the miracle cure for all of China’s travails.

In any case, Klayman’s film expertly weaves testimonies from an array of figures (including Philip Tinari and Chen Danqing) surrounding Ai, crafting a narrative that is intriguing from start to finish. It would be a great lesson for John Rogers, director of Make Your Own Damn Art: The World of Bob and Roberta Smith, whose film runs at a tedious seventy-five minutes and consists largely of Hackney’s wannabe enigma talking about his own work, which is so blunt and obvious that any further commentary can only ruin it.

Narrative features ranged from the stunningly awful (the much-heckled Anarchy Girls, selected because it’s the “first film from Lithuania with lesbian content”) to the mildly adventurous (Swandown, by Andrew Kötting and Iain Sinclair, in which the directors go for a long ride in a pedal boat to the site of this year’s Olympic Stadium). Much more compelling was Anka and Wilhelm Sasnal’s It Looks Pretty from a Distance, a rural gothic shot on Super 16. It provided us celluloid junkies with a fix of crispness and depth, a much-needed antidote to the digital flatness that has come to constitute the twenty-first-century norm.

With its unapologetic delays, reports of accreditation mishaps, and staff of mostly helpless volunteers badgering guests to fill out feedback forms upon exiting the cinema, the 2012 East End Film Festival is surely an indication of the British approach to hosting the Olympic Games this summer. Organizational blunders aside, it would have been nice to see some more films that live up to the rhetoric the festival uses to promote itself (“hard hitting,” “challenging,” “uncompromising,” ad nauseam). Here’s hoping that next year’s EEFF will concern itself less with looking “edgy” or promoting political correctness and more with substance. There’s a lot of it out there, and hunting it down is hardly an Olympic feat.

Travis Jeppesen

The East End Film Festival ran July 3–8, 2012.