Open City Docs Fest: Barbaric Genius
Documentaries have a unique quality to them. They don’t just tell a story. They tell a real story, one that carries real emotions and, most importantly, are told about real lives. Born out of an idea from a university college London graduate, Open City Docs Fest hopes to do just this by displaying a festival “devoted to exploring the world we live in through the vision of documentary film”.
After an enticing opening gala, we now arrive at the second day and the Still Lives section of the festival. Barbaric Genius is an Irish production that recounts the extraordinary life of ex-alcoholic turned author John Healy. Seemingly filmed by just one man, Paul Duane, who follows John and in the process learns about his life first living as a wino in a depraved 1960s London, then his rise to stardom as a prolific author of autobiography The Grass Arena, and then back down again, struck off by all publishers in Britain.
John is a very misunderstood man. His reluctance to conform to society, something which has plagued his life, comes out on film right from the word go as he proves difficult to talk to. Not happy with being in front of the camera, John begins to take over the film by constantly asking “Are you filming now?” Duane becomes suspicious and notes to the audience in post that John was different when he was being filmed as opposed to when he wasn’t.
As we are taken through the events that caused Healy to write The Grass Arena, his attention to detail on being homeless and an alcoholic and his natural wit grip you intensely. It becomes quickly clear why the book was published recently by Penguin as part of their modern classics revival, as Healy puts his story so eloquently across. On the beach, Healy remembers being incarcerated; he tells Duane as he looks out to the sea: “in prison, you never see distances, so seeing this is just really something”. It’s simple but insightful.
We then learn of his sudden interest in chess at the age of 30. Healy tells us that the relationship between chess and burglary (“I’ll take your pawn”) is what stuck in his mind. After returning to London from visiting family in his home county of Sligo in Ireland, we are then told of his downfall from a promising career as an author.
Told with a lot of ‘I don’t remembers’ and ‘It was a very long time ago’, Healy’s temper got the better of him and the publishers Faber & Faber were forced to terminate his contract. “Imagine having nothing, then having it all, then having nothing again,” ponders the director as we watch a broken man, weathered by life and grief.
Barbaric Genius almost brings you to tears as this incredibly and unbelievable story is told to you. If one had to have a gripe then it would be the film could have been better organised cinematically and in the editor suite. Its amateur-like quality gets tiresome and looses its way, however, this is a must-watch. Catch it at the Odeon Panton Street in Leicester Square.
The Open City Docs Fest runs until 24th June 2012; book your tickets here
Watch the trailer for Barbaric Genius here