Cinema is one of those rare forms of art where the relation and tension between aesthetics and ideology, past and present, and formalism and realism, come forward. In such times when the lived reality seems to surpass fiction, hence becoming too hard to grasp, this duality between harmony and dissonance that cinema embodies can offer the spectator a way to relate to whatever it is they live through. Now that most film festivals have had to cancel their upcoming editions or reshape them online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the self-reflexive questions that has been raised by this new reality, is what cinema can offer the spectator in a time of crisis. How does cinema and the realities that we are presented with on screen, fit within the kind of uncertainty that we live through? Cinema has always been a way for me to comprehend feelings I do not fully understand. Where words seem incompetently inadequate, cinema manages to grasp those incomplete thoughts and indescribable fears and desires that roam the unconsciousness, through its synthesis and interdependence of images, sounds, and words – a medium perfect for grasping our ambiguous relation with the real. That this is one of cinema’s unique qualities was also palpable in this year’s program of Sheffield Doc/Fest.

The 27th edition of the UK’s largest documentary festival, the first year under the leadership of Doclisboa’s former director Cíntia Gil and her new artistic team, took place on an online film platform called DocPlayer. The whole program presented on this platform, of which I can only highlight a small section here, is firmly rooted in both historical and contemporary actuality and closely interwoven into the conflicts and contradictions that we are faced with now, thus manifesting cinema both as consolation and a radical platform for change.

There are several main themes that become visible and weave through all the strands, yet they all relate to one concept that has suddenly become of greater importance than before the pandemic: namely the landscape and how it represents change, history, memory and, above all, displacement. The Ghosts & Apparitions section occupies a unique position by offering an inventive context surrounding contemporary new documentary cinema, while simultaneously creating parallels between the present and the past. This strand forms an investigation into cinema’s representation of history and its ability to alter it alongside memory and the spectators’ vision of reality. Cinema’s visual flexibility makes the invisible visible as it forces its spectators to look at reality in a different way.

Take Nick Jordan’s Concrete Forms of Resistance, in which the deteriorating state of the massive concrete structures of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in Tripoli, Lebanon, stand central as a metaphor of societal change. After the Lebanese civil war, most buildings in Tripoli had been destroyed – which was seen as an opportunity to build expensive luxury flats in its place, and ultimately meant that only those with money could afford architecture. Jordan predominantly focuses on the relationship between sound and image, making use of voice-overs only, while letting the camera float past the architectural structures. By doing so, the concrete framework, that is still standing in the middle of one of the most expensive neighbourhoods as an abandoned and decaying skeleton, becomes a ghost of a time in which the practise of architecture was closely linked to social questions – to improve living conditions for those in need. The ungainly cement complex thus represents a reflection of resistance and destruction alike born of war.

Concrete Forms of Resistance

The idea of the landscape that stands as an echo of the past, reminds me of something that Linda Williams said, namely that “there can be historical depth to the notion of truth – not the depth of unearthing a coherent and unitary past but the depth of the past’s reverberation with the present.”1 This idea that we carry our history with us, and that the landscape acts as a messenger of the past – that history leaves its mark and stays visible all around us – informs multiple films in this section. As in Emma Charles’ and Ben Evans James’ On a Clear Day You Can See the Revolution from Here. Set in Kazakhstan, at the crossroads between the massive cultures of Russia and China, the camera passes through a landscape of forgotten histories and traditions of a people that have always had to adapt to retain their national identity. And it is through the landscape’s juxtaposition between nature, urban architecture that is both reminiscent of times long gone by and modernity, and industry terrain, that the film manages to portray the national reconstruction of a post-Soviet Kazakhstan that gained independence from the USSR in 1991.

Another strand, Into the World, featured various depictions of the world and asked how different political and environmental conditions force the filmmakers to evaluate their place in society. Here the landscape predominantly embodies trauma and memory. Truth in relation to history and memory and its representation in cinema has always been problematic, but in relation to the documentary as a mimetic or referential mode, the issue takes on further complexity. History and memory are closely related and perhaps even synonymous to a certain extent, as history is predominantly comprised of memory because we carry our personal history with us at all times in the form of memories. Do we only assume history is true and thus actually took place, when it has been written down or when there are visible remnants left? Both ideas are disputable, as sometimes history solely consists of memories – when there are no documents or written books that register an event, or visible remnants left, and history is partly left to the imagination instead of memory.

On a Clear Day You Can See the Revolution from Here

This forms one of the struggles of Kazimiera Gerech, the Polish grandmother whose history is portrayed by her grandson Jonathan Kołodziej Durand in Memory is our Homeland. Together with her family and a large segment of the Polish population, they lost their home and all their belongings when they were displaced to labour camps in Siberia after the USSR, together with Nazi Germany, invaded Poland in 1939. At the end of WWII, after having been dislocated from Siberia to Iran, India and East-Africa, these by this time nationless Polish refugees realised they would never be able to return to Poland as the country stayed under control of the USSR. As Kazimiera and other Polish women explain in front of the camera, perhaps the only thing worse than having to speak about and remember their past of pain and displacement, is that this history has now been nearly forgotten. The repressed past of these forgotten Polish refugees surfaces through the framework of the documentary that retraces the journey of the grandmother, and the relation between her, sitting in front of the camera, and her grandson, behind it.

Memory is our Homeland

Another strong woman fighting to change the way we think about the reality that we are living in stands at the forefront of the Las Abejas of Actea, a collective dedicated to the struggle for the survival of the indigenous communities in the south of Mexico. In Monica Wise Robles’ Lupita que retiemble la tierra, the spectator is introduced to Lupita, one of the few survivors of the Tzotzil Maya massacre in 1997, when the Mexican army took up an offensive against the peaceful Tzotzil community that ended in the deaths of 45 women, men and children. To this day, the community continues to live in fear of their safety and forced displacement, as the land on which they live is taken away – however, united they fight back. In Lupita the past of the trauma of the massacre and displacement is reincarnated in the present, as her continuation of resistance as one of the few women at the very forefront of this struggle against the army and the Mexican government seems to enable change.

Lupita que retiemble la tierra

In relation to forgotten histories, a personal favourite of the festival is Agustina Comedi’s short Playback. Ensayo de una despedida about the Kalas group, formed after the fall of the dictatorship in Argentina in the 1980s. A short period of relative freedom allowed a group of transgender women and drag queens to form the collective, of which to this day only La Delphi remains. As is well known, the AIDS crisis hit the queer community disproportionately and devastatingly hard and claimed the lives of many young people, among them Kalas’ member La Gallega. In order to deal with the loss of their friend, the other members fantasised about various alternative endings to the life of La Gallega that are explored and constructed via the camera in this video message from the past. Shot entirely on video, this at the time still relatively new medium proved to have the ability to transmit an alternative discourse to the ideology presented by the government. In the search for artistic means to express and voice their identity and sexuality, their discontent, their fear and their aspirations for a more open and accepting society, their bodies, dresses and songs – their very existence – became a form of protest. In this context Adam Golub’s Aconchego da tua Mãe (Your Mother’s Comfort), from the Rebellions section, about the Brazilian trans-activist Indianara Siqueira, also becomes of special importance – and equally in relation to the notion of displacement as the shelter for trans sex workers Siqueira runs is threatened to be evicted.

Aconchego da tua Mãe (Your Mother’s Comfort)

The festival also created special focuses dedicated to the work of three pioneering directors: the legendary anti-colonial activist and poet Sarah Maldoror, Lynne Sachs and Simplice Herman Ganou. As a tribute to Maldoror, who sadly recently passed away due to the COVID-19 virus, the festival will show her celebrated short Monangambée (1969), and other programming, later this year in cinemas, as part of the Into the World strand.

Both Sachs and Ganou are directors that use cinema to investigate the complicated relationship between the camera and the human body – going beyond the human body as an articulation of ideas and concepts. With the video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, Sachs created an online journey through her work to explore the way in which the human body features in her cinema, addressing gender, sex, race and generational differences. In it, Sachs guides us through the versatility of her body of work, returning mostly to the question of to what extent it is possible – or should it be possible – to explore yourself (as a film/documentary maker) in your film in relation to whatever the subject of the film you are making is. The lecture interrogates what it means for the camera to analyse the human body and what it means that the body that is in power when filming, the filmmaker’s, is entirely invisible.

Ganou does something similar in his delicately constructed works portraying human beings by establishing the camera primarily as a way to connect with those around him. His new short film L’Inconnu (The Unknown) shows how estranged people have become in an increasingly individualised society, yet simultaneously that there is kindness to be found in random encounters. Ganou walks through Winterthur in an attempt to make contact in a city that is still unknown and lonely to him – yet he is predominantly ignored or avoided in the streets when he greets people. In his film, the power relation between bodies is reversed: his presence and visibility as filmmaker now in front of the camera make him more vulnerable. And it is this vulnerability that marks his cinema, that is always filled with curiosity of the other, the unknown.

L’Inconnu (The Unknown)

Paradoxically, now that the pandemic has stopped all of us in our tracks and halted our lives, the crisis has also allowed for a time of reflection and radicalism. The recent worldwide wave of Black Lives Matter protests in support of racial justice and against the disproportionate police violence that the black (LGBTQIA+) community faces, shows how desperately change is needed and how deep racism, hatred and fear of the other still rest in the deepest foundations of our societies. Because of the pandemic, there is no other way to turn and society is being forced to look at its damaging and painful desire to ignore fundamental problems. That cinema stands as a reminder of the fact that history is full of examples of this flight and disregard of responsibility during supposed peacetime, and the disastrous consequences that follow from this collective looking-away, as is also shown in Gosia Juszczak’s Stolen Fish.

Stolen Fish

The short film offers insight into the exploitation of Africa by China and the West and portrays the vicious cycle that allows it to continue. In Gambia, a country relying predominantly on the sea, a Chinese fish factory was opened as a part of Xi Jinping’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative. The factory led to a rise in the price of fish, created a shortage of fish in the sea and pushed local fishermen into poverty. The film lays bare the mechanics that show that this cycle of inequality is directly supported by the inhumane system that was designed to profit those in power, with absolutely no regard for the ecological and social consequences of their exploitation. With capitalism as the engine of this cycle, most people directly affected by it are forced to leave their hometown for Europe, where they are then condemned for their very arrival.

Film festivals are ultimately an act of confirmation – a confirmation of our will to reshape traditional ideals, enhance the experience of cinema, shape new forms of art, revisit old debates that should not be forgotten and, above all, encounter new ideas. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of the ability to physically come together, festivals around the world face the daunting task of reinventing themselves in a hostile environment out of necessity. Despite my efforts to abstain from any toe-curling sentimentality, I find it heartbreaking to have watched all these films on the miniscule screen of my laptop instead of on the cinematic screens that they deserve. An online festival version is not in any way a substitute for the experience of an actual film festival and of being part of its community, but somehow Sheffield has quickly managed to reshape itself as one of the most inventive festivals in a time in which there is a great need of radicalism, a platform that offers an alternative in a time of crisis.

Macka je uvijek zenska (A Cat is Always Female)

In spite of the gloomy and desperate situation that we find ourselves in now, this festival edition might offer a glimpse of hope for the near future. After all, it is a festival in which its purpose has been reimagined under extreme circumstances. In Martina Mestrovic’s and Tanja Vujasinovic’s beautifully animated portrait of the Croatian sculpture Marija Ujevic Macka je uvijek zenska (A Cat is Always Female), Marija’s calm voice reassuringly tells the spectator that life is ultimately movement and that “the idea of paradise is somehow connected to what we’re offered. But we have to go out and look for what we want.” Cinema is a way to express and reflect (unconscious) thoughts and emotions, the things we would like to change and the things we should do better. As Christian Metz believed that cinema never becomes an actual mirror, but rather a glass through which the spectator looks at the other, this festival program becomes a glass through which all the indirect and invisible relations that exist between communities worldwide become visible. A glass through which it becomes evident that, in the words of Lupita, a world that can hold many worlds, is indeed possible.

Sheffield Doc/Fest
4-10 June 2020
Festival website: https://sheffdocfest.com/


  1. Linda Williams, “Mirrors Without Memory: Truth, History and the New Documentary”, Film Quarterly, v. 46, n. 3, spring 1993, p. 20.

About The Author

Sofie Cato Maas is a film critic, academic and editor based in New York where she is completing a PhD in Cinema at NYU after studying film at King's College London and the University of Oxford. She is a co-founder of Outskirts Film Magazine and has worked for several film festivals and served on several juries, including IFFR, CPH:DOX’s Next:Wave jury and Opus Bonum Jury at the Ji.hlava lDFF. She is a Dear Doc fellowship at Doc’s Kingdom (2023), Le Giornate del Cinema Muto’s Collegium (2022), and the Locarno Critics Academy (2019) alumnus and has written for MUBI Notebook, The New Left Review, La Vida Util, and Balthazar Filmkritik.

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