Sheffield Doc/Fest Report

Shanida Scotland digests a documentary feast

Never warm or without rain, despite moving from November to June last year, Sheffield Doc/Fest is the biggest documentary festival in the UK. Combining interactive and art elements, it does not shy away from the modern digital world, nor the complexities new technologies and modes of funding present to traditional screening, distribution and commissioning models.

Festival director Heather Croall, programmer Hussain Currimbhoy and marketplace director Charlie Phillips are a constant and dedicated presence. These guys know their stuff and are not afraid to open up their festival to the many places documentary – in all its guises – has taken us to over the last year.

The opening night brings two special events. From The Sea to The Land Beyond is a collaboration between the BBC and the BFI, crafted by Penny Woolcock from over 100 years of British coastline archive, with a soaring live soundtrack British Sea Power (read tQ editor Luke Turner’s in-depth report). Meanwhile, cult musician Rodriguez was the surprise guest for a q&a after Searching For Sugar Man, the uplifting feature about his life which receives a theatrical release on July 27 (check back then for a full review).

Devastating in its simplicity, one of the big draws and audience award winner is 5 Broken Cameras: Emad Burnat’s account of his West Bank village and the surrounding area’s occupation over many years. The titular five cameras serve as companions and witnesses, capturing and at times saving his life. Armies of young Israeli soldiers use tear gas on protestors and we watch, silenced and heartbroken, as those men give way to boys who have watched their fathers arrested and taken away. It is a personal account of life behind a perpetual news story, and also a masterclass in the effect a camera can have when recording simple, real images.

At the other end of the spectrum is Victor Kossakovsky’s wonderfully oddball and touching Vivan Las Antipodas!, which immediately makes you wonder how he raised the budget necessary for this big scale philosophical endeavour to understand what awaits us at the other end of the world – our very opposites. In the opening scene two rural Argentine men discuss the slow events of the day working the sparse toll booth on a dusty road, and fixing a shoddy bridge. Their opposite is China – frenetic, crowded and wet. Three more pairs of antipodes stretch before us in disorienting technological feats. Cinematic in style and dialogue, with fantastic sound design, the non-narrative result is beautiful and has plenty of heart.

Showing as part of the Behind The Beats music strand, Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet profiles a virtuoso guitarist touted for big things within the 1980s hard rock scene. Becker had just earned a place in David Lee Roth’s band when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, which left him wheelchair-bound, unable to communicate verbally or play his beloved guitar. While at points lacking focus, first-time director Jesse Vile creates a warm film bringing Jason’s personality, dedicated family and team of carers to the fore.

Indie Game: The Movie trails independent games developers as they attempt to launch in a market controlled by big brands. Drama is provided by the fantastically hirsute Phil Fish and his herculean efforts to release Fez, losing confidence and friends along the way. What emerges transcends nerdish preoccupation to tell us about the often bleak and lonely world of people whose passion projects become their lives.

The House I Live In is an extensive essay on America’s ‘War on Drugs’. When we meet those such as Anthony, currently awaiting a mandatory sentence of at least five years for a non-violent offence, it’s hard not to wonder, as one commentator reflects, if this is the policy’s aim. Unflinching in its single-minded analogy between the war and an often genocidal persecution of race and class, this deeply partisan film remains powerful. Directed with purpose by Eugene Jarecki, its thesis and political drive lead to much animated post-screening discussion.

On that front, Storyville series editor Nick Fraser and journalist AA Gill provide banter and antagonism for an audience seemingly made up of Marxist theory lecturers. Central to their talk is the role of the director as protagonist in campaign-led documentaries, the theory being that these are more about the director’s presence than the issues at hand (which perhaps indicates that filmmakers are more orthodox than they like to present themselves). The critic, commissioner and a crowd of public and industry specialists contest an impassioned, sweary debate. With social docs mostly seen by those who already subscribe to the ideas presented on screen, where are the films that we will watch so that they might change our minds?

Further controversy is caused by the last minute cancellation of the entire Chinese documentary commissioners’ delegation – by the Chinese Embassy – due to the festival’s refusal to withdraw Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry. Following the influential dissident Chinese artist as he tries to create new work under the ever-watchful eyes of the authorities, Alison Klayman’s debut feature is due for a wider UK release on August 10.

Student filmmakers are well represented at Doc/Fest, one highlight being Burmese Butterfly, about a gay man living as a woman in Burma. Tinged with hardship, Phyo Lay’s story and the country’s evolving gay culture are at times frustratingly clouded by sepia reconstructions, but overall Hnin El Hlaing’s doc opens up the world to us via engaging characters.

I close my festival with the hilarious Music & Documentaries – A Conversation With Jeremy Deller, in which the Turner Prize-winning artist discusses an array of music documentaries that have influenced the way he works and his own foray into filmmaking. Cue scenes from Gimme Shelter alongside clips of The Posters Came From The Walls, his 2008 collaboration with Nicholas Abrahams about Depeche Mode fans around the world.

Over the course of five days I mix with filmmakers, industry professionals, journalists, students and people from the Kogi tribe – the latter the focus of Alan Ereira’s Aluna, which explores their dedication to caring for the world. I also listen to an Australian sex worker whose work with disabled clients is explored in Catherine Scott’s Scarlet Road. The festival’s eclectic line-up illustrates just where – and at what cost – documentary has travelled over the past year, one in which revolutions and the very notion of witness have turned the world upside down. Now in its 19th year, Sheffield Doc/Fest feels as important as ever.

Shanida Scotland is development producer for Storyville, the BBC’s international feature documentary strand.

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