Take two world premieres I happened to watch one after the other: The Last Man on the Moon (d. Mark Craig) and We are Many (d. Amir Amirani). The first tells the story of Eugene Cernan, the first American astronaut to land a spacecraft on the moon and the last to walk on it; the second explores the anti Iraq-war mass protests that took place on 15th February 2003 and their repercussions. Despite their aesthetic and ideological differences, both films tell stories of aspiration and make the audience feel empowered: Craig’s portrait of Cernan focuses on individual achievement and the pioneering sense of being able to conquer, as yet, another frontier; and, despite the demonstrations’ failure to avert the war in Iraq, Amirani’s real-life tale of mass resistance suggests that results may not be immediate but they are present, citing evidence both from the Arab spring, and the more recent response by the West to the conflict in Syria.
The Sheffield Doc/Fest audience loved both films in the screenings I attended. Cernan’s appearance together with the filmmakers at the end of his film added an undoubted aura of uniqueness to the event: how often does one get the chance to be in the same room with someone who has been to the moon? And his passion, determination and commitment to achievement – “Don’t ever short-change yourself’ is his motto – was inspirational, whatever one’s reservations about the individualism that it may be seen to represent. But opportunities to go to the moon do not come up all that often – if at all any more. The vision to live in a fairer and more peaceful world, though, is something that inspires many people, and it was at the heart of the popular resistance against the US/UK led war against Iraq that started in 2003. Amirani’s film celebrated the solidarity felt among those 15 million who joined the demonstrations in many different countries around the world to protest against what they presciently knew to be an unjustified invasion in Iraq. By unambiguously positioning the film’s moral centre with the protesters, Amirani restores faith in the idea (and the practice) of democracy as the collective will of the people.
Politics and aspiration were at the heart of many films shown in Sheffield this year. Diana Whitten’s Vessel, that went on to win the first ever Peter Wintonick Award for activist filmmaking, tells the extraordinary story of the mobile clinic-on-sea that was set up by Dr Rebecca Gomperts in order to enable women from countries where abortion is illegal to terminate their pregnancies safely with the help of medication. The film follows the efforts of Dr Gomperts and her extended team of volunteers since 2001, and registers not only the multiple attempts from hostile authorities to stop the offshore abortions, but also, most importantly, it highlights the positive impact of the “vessel” on a large number of otherwise despairing women. As she became involved with the project in 2007, Whitten used material by other filmmakers to present the earlier events. Combining observational footage of the activist interventions, with interviews with Gomperts and her team (but never with the patients), and playfully designed expository animations that explain, among others, how the abortion pill works, Whitten’s film makes a very clear and strong case in support of the pro-choice camp.
A different kind of activism can be seen to underscore Enrico Cerasuolo’s Last Call, a film about a group of scientists from MIT, who, in 1972 published The Limits to Growth, a study that argued that global exponential growth is unsustainable, and that governments should aim to restrain it for the wellbeing of future generations. The film offers both an exposition of their thesis, and a depiction of the scientists as characters, either by interviewing and following them, or by engaging with past friends and colleagues. The film’s (as the book’s) thesis is compelling, but its rejection by most macro-economists and governments has allowed for its troubling foresights in terms of environmental destruction and financial crises to be manifested. While it is hard to envisage an optimistic ending to what, according to the scientists is irreversible destruction, the film still argues that even small actions in the right direction help, and that adopting sustainable models of energy and food production can only be a step in the right direction.
While Last Call uses conventional techniques (interviews, voice overs, some archival footage) to communicate as clearly as possible the book’s and its authors’ message, Göran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence is formally experimental in its adaptation of Frantz Fanon’s polemical book The Wretched of the Earth (1961). Structured as a book with a preface by postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak that is delivered as a direct address to the camera, and nine subsequent chapters, the film displays from the start its formally – and ideologically – uncompromising nature. Aside from the preface, the remaining chapters consist of archival footage over which is superimposed text from the book itself in large size letters that is also read out loud by a female voice over (The Fugees’ Lauryn Hill). Entitled “Decolonisation”, “Indifference”, “A World Cut in Two”, “That Poverty of Spirit”, “Defeat”, among others, the chapter titles do not correspond to those of the book itself, but offer a clear indication of the themes dealt with. The juxtaposition between the archival material, which mostly focuses on colonial abuses in Africa, and Fanon’s words (presented, in the words of the director, in “karaoke style”) is engrossing and thought-provoking – if not necessarily easy to absorb.
Much more direct in its effect on the viewer – and appropriately so, as this was a television commission that deals with a specific issue, and hopes to bring about change – is Mo Naqvi’s Pakistan’s Hidden Shame. The 47 minute-long film exposes the extensive paedophile abuse of young boys in Pakistan, a practice that is the indirect consequence of women’s widespread segregation and confinement at home. While structured mainly around one abused-young-man-turned-abuser, and the attempts by some very considerate social workers to rehabilitate him, the film also offers very vivid and direct portrayals not only of molested eight- or nine-year old boys (whose identity is withheld from us for their protection), but also of a few self-confessed abusers, whose unselfconscious accounts are both revelatory and shocking. The incorporation of world-famous cricketer and politician Imran Khan’s statement of intention to intervene against these practices offers a strategic attempt by the filmmakers to use the film as an activist tool.
Profession: Documentarist, a film consisting of seven autobiographical shorts by seven different women filmmakers from Iran, offers a powerful insight into the extremely difficult conditions they face in their efforts to make films that express their experiences. Producing their film with no budget, the seven women worked on each other’s section, while ensuring that each short maintains the authorial stamp of its director. Shirin Barghnavard’s opening section blends a first person account of experiences from the Iran/Iraq war with footage from videogames. Firouzeh Khosrovani’s short brings together the sense of anxiety from impending detention with reminiscences of the past and the music of Iranian popular singer Googoosh – who emerges elsewhere in the film too as a major symbol against female oppression (the Revolution had banned female singers). Sepideh Abtahi’s part was all shot inside her apartment that was facing Tehran’s main prison, and captures her last moments there as she is packing to move out. Profession: Documentarist deservedly won the Tim Hetherington Award, whose aim is to “highlight the plight of people so often ignored by the world and mainstream media”.
But Sheffield Doc/Fest was not all politics and seriousness. Or rather, its politics were blended with fun and pleasure, as well as a powerful drive to incorporate the new and attract young (and youthfully thinking) audiences. One of the most striking aspects of this was its emphasis on sexuality and eroticism, evident in the programming of films such as Ethan Reid’s Peter de Rome Grandfather of Gay Porn, as well as The Erotic Films of Peter de Rome, Sunny Bergman’s Slut Phobia?, Nancy Kates’s Regarding Susan Sontag and Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle’s Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story. But it was not just the films. There were panel discussions, including “Sex on Screen: How Far Can We Go?”, while American sexologist Barbara Carellas was invited to talk about “Making it Sexy: New Ways of Unlocking Creative Potential”, a session that argued for the virtues of her safe (non-contact) sex technique of “thinking off” and suggested its usefulness for documentary filmmakers! But even more, Carellas and Sprinkles led a workshop entitled “Ecstasy, Breathing and the Creative Process” that allowed participants to have a go at “thinking off”. Hmm. The boundaries of what one is to expect from a documentary festival were certainly extended here to include all-things-holistic. Hip? Yes. Relevant? I am not too sure.
But aside from celebrating sexual plurality, difference and wellbeing, Sheffield Doc/Fest was also hip in its powerful embrace of technological advances and their potential to transform the ways in which we understand documentary. Presenting itself as a festival of “documentary and digital media” this is an identity that Sheffield Doc/Fest has been cultivating for a while. Interactive at Sheffield offered a distinctive strand in the festival consisting of the Crossover summit, a day-long series of talks by practitioners including “innovation expert” Robert Tercek, the interactive exhibition at the Millennium Gallery, which hosted a range of new media artefacts on different platforms, as well as a number of “immersive sessions” and a dedicated Crossover Market. While Sheffield Doc/Fest’s interactive strand is forward-looking in aiming to expand our understanding of documentary and encourage creative uses of new technologies, the festival’s extensive industry section also addressed concerns and issues relevant to filmmakers. The session on crowdfunding led by The Age of Stupid’s Franny Armstrong and Lizzie Gillett, and Phil Coates was one of many such sessions offering useful insights into successful practices.
Sheffield Doc/Fest is as much an audience as an industry festival. While accredited guests have access to all events, screenings and a number of other sessions are also open to the public on a ticket basis. For delegates the festival offers an excellent means for networking, and this year the arrangement of city spaces worked very successfully to that effect. The inflated tent on Tudor square, the Festival Lounge or Cube, for example, offered a very welcoming space for arranged or spontaneous networking, wifi connected breaks, as well as the chance to grab some food and drink while being protected from the rain and/or enjoying the sunshine (as the predictably volatile British weather catered for both). The two large outdoor screens, free for all to watch, offered a very palpable presence of the festival in the city, while the Showroom cinemas provided four out of the six screening spaces. But at least seven more spaces were also dedicated to parallel, mostly industry-related, events, often making the choice of what to attend quite a challenge. There was, however, a marked sense that the festival was trying to showcase not only documentary and interactive media, but the city and the surrounding areas itself. The opening and closing events were clearly indicative of this.
The opening film, screened at the City Hall’s impressive Oval room was the European premiere of Florian Habicht’s Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets – a very appropriate choice as it focused on the alternative rock band that was originally from Sheffield. The film documents their 2013 concert in Sheffield, the last in a farewell UK tour ten years after they had disbanded. A quirky blend of portraits of local people and fans, and the members of the band, the film playfully thematises Pulp’s most famous song “Common People”, which recurs in different versions as sung by the band, as well as local choirs and fans. Pulp captures lead singer Jarvis Cocker’s distinct deadpan sense of humour, and it also foregrounds issues of performativity with reference not only to Cocker’s unquestionable “front man” presence on stage, but also in relation to the act of talking to the camera itself. The band’s appearance on stage after the screening (and their presence at the ensuing opening night party) added star-aura to the event, and enthused fans, young and old.
But Doc/Fest expanded beyond the city, with a few special screenings in extraordinary settings in the nearby Peak District National Park. Beginning with the opening night and for the following three evenings, films were projected in a cave, the Peak Cavern, offering rare opportunities to experience the natural beauty of the setting in combination with the enjoyment of the films. There, I saw Thomas Balmes’ Happiness, a film about a young boy in the mountains of Bhutan and the tensions that the arrival of television brought into this very small and deprived community – a film about nature and technology so eloquently reproduced by the apt location of the screening in that cave. And last, but not least, was the closing event, the screening of Kim Longinotto’s specially commissioned Love is All: 100 Years of Love and Courtship, a compilation film with footage from the BFI archives and a soundtrack by Richard Hawley that was projected under a huge tent on the magnificent grounds of the stately home Chatsworth House. Getting there earlier, one could grab some fish-and-chips or vegetable samosas and a drink and enjoy a British summer evening’s picnic by the river (and we were lucky: it did not rain…).
It was a great pleasure going to Sheffield Doc/Fest this year – not only for the chance to binge on stimulating films, to see/try out/play with the latest in interactive technology, to participate in some thought-provoking and informative industry sessions, but also because it was so easy to meet people – in the Cube, the buses to the Peak District, the parties. And eight of my Film students came along too – all of whom loved the festival, and definitely want to return…
7-12 June 2014
Festival website: https://sheffdocfest.com