While Sheffield Doc/Fest’s route from humble infancy to extraordinary success has not been without conflict and complication, the festival now remains as stable and significant as any of the UK’s fiction film festivals. First held as a two day festival in 1994, Doc/Fest has emerged as the UK’s premier documentary film festival, attracting thousands of delegates, filmmakers and speakers to the streets of Sheffield every June. Boasting a programme of one hundred and fifty films, eighty talks and three hundred speakers who arrive to discuss their work, documentary filmmaking and the industry, Doc/Fest has become a force to be reckoned with, demonstrating how an important industry event can succeed outside of the confines of a capital city with sincere patience and determination.
Armed with lanyards, badges and turquoise school bags, the festival’s delegates – comprised of press, filmmakers, industry representatives, festival staff and jurors – occupied the city, chattering about the art of documentary and attempting to network with colleagues, experts and their artistic heroes. It was within this frenzy of enthusiasm and excitement that I found myself rushing about, watching film after film, attempting to maintain the semblance of composure, the illusion of tranquility, in what could prove to be an exhausting and overstimulating process. Yet if I felt somewhat exhausted and overwhelmed by the festival’s close, this is not to say that the six days I spent in Sheffield were not a fantastic opportunity to not only see and learn about films and filmmaking but to understand how the film industry functions, providing insights which surpass my encounters with smaller film festivals, the quality of Northern Lights and AV Festival notwithstanding.
As a Youth Juror, my colleagues and I presided over five films which were deemed to appeal to young audiences and which tackled themes relevant to young people: sexual orientation, racial prejudice, intergenerational conflict, stereotyping and legal injustice. The films played in competition were: Breaking a Monster (Luke Meyer), Little People Big Dreams (Mac CK), Oriented (Jake Witzenfeld), Speed Sisters (Amber Faras) and 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets (Marc Silver) which ultimately won the prize.
Luke Meyer’s Breaking a Monster, a film about heavy metal band Unlocking the Truth, was interesting in its exploration of the difficulties encountered by child stars in the music industry and in its emphasis on the question of what a black musician is expected to accomplish musically. Here we have three young black boys fighting stereotype and working to succeed in the world of heavy metal – a field whose history has been dominated by white men – encountering prejudice and criticism, throughout their meteoric rise from street buskers to signed artists (in a deal worth $1.8 million by Sony Music Entertainment). Much of the criticism received by the band revolves around the relationship between the colour of their skin and genre: it is argued that black people should stick with hip-hop and its predecessors, and that Sony’s decision to sign the boys can only be viewed as a liberal stunt and gimmick, rather than by virtue of the quality of the boys’ music and marketability. If they once found themselves pigeonholed into a certain genre by the colour of their skin, the boys emerge at the film’s end as successful and accomplished if not conflicted, mature figures. It quickly becomes apparent the difference between what the band desires and the life Sony wants from them is at loggerheads and understandably this results in friction, animosity and the mellowing of the boys’ enthusiasm. The film is a valuable contribution to the music documentary canon, if not an entirely successful endeavour, and managed to portray the price of fame and celebrity with lucidity.
With what I would argue has the most outrageous subject – at least on paper – at the festival, and the most perplexing title, Mac CK’s Little People Big Dreams focuses on China’s Dwarf Empire theme park, referred to by workers as a Disneyland for dwarves but closer to a performing Smurf village in actuality. The film is honest and strong-willed in its determination to understand the plight of the dwarves – who are alienated from Chinese society, discriminated and ignored in all forms of quotidian life – and the owners of the theme park, who truly believe they are benefiting the dwarves through their exploitation and objectification. In the end, it appears that there is some truth to the owners’ arguments, and that the Dwarf Empire park is in some respects a haven for the oppressed, even if they have to dance and sing all day and be hassled by visitors who ask the same questions over and over again. If the park appears to be place of severe excess, Mac CK ignores the fantastical and spectacular elements of Dwarf Empire, instead sifting through the mundane and serious, favouring a monotonous talking head style and extended interviews which fall too far within the bounds of repetition and redundancy. If the film fails at any point, it is through CK’s by the book style. For a film with such a surreal subject, I would have liked to see the form of the documentary mirror the absurd and nightmarish scenes present within the shows and settings of the Dwarf Empire theme park. It is a film of some quality but a lack of audacity is pronounced.
When we first viewed the films in March, we watched a completely different cut of Oriented, Jack Witzenfeld’s film about gay Palestinian artists tackling homophobia, intergenerational conflict and Israeli-Palestinian relationships. In some respects, the film appeared more authentic and less contrived in its previous cut, however, it could be argued that my familiarity with the subject matter and characters exposed this the second time around. The film has a lot to say – much of it powerful and important – yet what is said is realised in a way that lacks realism, resembling the discussions of University students in a seminar, and with a deliberate avoidance of the camera which can appear false at times. Occupying the space between reality television and cinéma vérité – although much closer to the former on the continuum – the film presents the lives of a few media-savvy and self-conscious millennials, talking and debating the problems they face as gay, liberal Palestinians in the build up to the Israel-Gaza conflict of 2014. As the film presents itself as mildly deceitful, I became skeptical to certain plot points, including Fadi’s relationship with a Zionist and their trip to Berlin. While much of this is presumably real, it feels orchestrated and beneficial to the film in terms of its narrative structure. On the other hand, however, the film does have genuine charm and humorous moments despite its lack of authenticity.
Like Oriented, Speed Sisters skirts the issues of generational prejudice and conservatism with the conflict of Israel and Palestine looming in the background. The two films reveal the emergence of a liberal culture in Palestinian life, a culture which is casting off the shackles of religious tradition, and in the case of Speed Sisters depicts the girls’ refusal to wear hijabs, take part in Ramadan and embrace careers viewed as honourable by their families. In one notable scene, this struggle is directly illustrated: speed racing champion Marah speaks to her father and grandfather about her success and lack of recognition. Marah’s father beams with pride, fully supportive of his daughter, however, the grandfather is less impressed, pleading his desire for her to become a doctor, arguing that the speed racing life is not one for women. The film’s main drama, discounting one scene of savagery on behalf of Israeli soldiers, is the rivalry between the likeable Marah and the narcissistic Betty, whose self-absorption and boastfulness becomes more ludicrous as the film moves forward. With a finale that would feel at home within a Hollywood film, Speed Sisters is an enjoyable ride, as brisk and energetic as the car Marah drives.
For all five Youth Jurors, Marc Silver’s 3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets was the stand out film, a clear winner among a genuinely strong selection of films. While it could be argued that the film was the most impressive because of its high production values and proportionally large budget, this would be a misconception. It is a film which was successful due to its ability to entwine both its politics and aesthetics, its form and content, with intellectual and artistic foresight. It is a film that argues against the American legal system – deeply opposed to the nonsensical ‘stand your ground’ law – and the racism evidently systemic within US society, as the high profile cases – a few among many – of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner substantiate. The film engages with the death of Jordan Davis and the trial of Michael Dunn, his cold-blooded killer, using parallel editing to create a linear narrative out of otherwise fragmented and detached court proceedings. Silver periodically introduces both interviews with Davis’ friends and family and beautiful cinematography of the Floridian landscape and urban areas, demonstrating the inseparable relationship between the trial, the people and the state of Florida. Through the talent of Silver and his editors Emiliano Battista and Gideon Gold, 3 1/2 Minutes transcends the banality of news journalism, publicising this horrifying story of racial prejudice that regrettably failed to travel significantly outside of US borders. A powerful and important film, fully deserving of the prize.
While the commitment to watching and talking about these films constituted my sacred duties at the festival, I was additionally able to see another thirteen films. In the interest of brevity, here is a short summary of what else I watched. The two most important films I saw over the festival’s six days – films which had already premiered at two of Europe’s most prestigious festivals – were Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, a poetic counterpoint to the fantastical and surreal The Act of Killing (2012), and Sergei Loznitsa’s Maidan, a Bazinian art film that documents the 2014 civil unrest in Kiev’s Independence Square (Maidan Nezalezhnosti); two major proponents of the art of documentary, rigorous and compelling, authoritative and influential in equal measure. Following Maidan, I watched The Russian Woodpecker (Chad Garcia), a film on a similar theme (often I found Doc/Fest’s programme supported films covering similar subject matter – but were invariably different pieces of work – and you could say that it was fortuitous that I stumbled on films exploring similar themes), yet completely different, with the intention of exposing the plot behind the Chernobyl disaster by following Ukrainian conspiracy theorist Fedor Alexandrovich, a man fascinated with Soviet secrets and the creation of avant-garde art; a truly peculiar and convincing film.
Moving away from Russian-Ukraine relations and towards 1960s America, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville’s Best of Enemies and Stanley Nelson’s Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution were two of the most purely enjoyable films; the former, an archive film of the hilarious televisual debates between conservative William F. Buckley Jr. and liberal Gore Vidal, the latter, a film which tells the tumultuous history of the Black Panther Party, the revolutionary black nationalist group that fought white oppression from 1966-1982, through archive footage and interviews with past members.
After studying Climate Change at University, I was already very familiar with Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway’s enlightening non-fiction work which focuses on a handful of conservative scientists who made it their mission to perpetually obscure public understanding on a number of issues from the harms of tobacco to acid rain, the ozone layer, flame retardants and global warming. In Merchants of Doubt, Robert Kenner disperses with Oreskes and Conway’s dry academic language, offering a full throttle in-your-face ride of a film. Highly persuasive and entertaining, this film is indispensable, not as a work of art but as a film which can work to educate us on the political misrepresentation of the most important issue of our time: climate change.
Winning the award for most entertaining film, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Meru depicts three climbers’ attempt to climb the most difficult of all mountains in the Himalayas, twisting and turning as it moves towards its blood pumping apex; while the award for most entertaining Q&A session unquestionably goes to A Sinner in Mecca, Parvez Sharma’s film about the relationship between homosexuality, Islam and the Hajj. After the screening, Sharma was told by an audience member that no Muslim would ever like his documentary, a comment quickly followed by a Muslim crying out his appreciation for the film, to the exhilaration of the audience and presumably the delight of Sharma.
With five films remaining, two were very strong: Guilliame Suon’s The Storm Makers, a film about human trafficking in Cambodia, and Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah, Adam Benzine’s documentary on the exhausting and laborious filming of Lanzmann’s 1985 masterpiece Shoah – the only film I saw directly about filmmaking at the festival. Two were good but less impressive, Benedikt Erlingsson’s The Greatest Shows on Earth: A Century of Vaudeville, Circuses and Carnivals, a film made up of archive footage and set to a superb score by members of Icelandic experimental rock band Sigur Rós, and Marc Schmidt’s The Chimpanzee Complex, a film set in a psychiatric ward for mentally disturbed chimpanzees. The most underwhelming film I watched at Sheffield was Brian Hill’s The Confessions of Thomas Quick, a film I found too televisual in its execution, although one which has impressed many others and could therefore be of some merit.
Ultimately, it appears that the highlight of the festival was attending Joshua Oppenheimer’s masterclass. For two hours, Oppenheimer spoke about the political history of Indonesia, the making of The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence and the lives of their characters, before moving into an exploration of the psychology of guilt which was truly fascinating. I left this talk inspired and enamoured with the American director, a feeling that the festival as a whole also granted, and I undoubtedly look forward to attending Doc/Fest again in the future.