Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015, days 1-3
The sunny weather came out just in time on Friday afternoon. After a rather hectic hour or so standing in queues to get passes and tickets (though it seemed everyone had the same idea as us and arrived on the Thursday night, resulting in an initial mad rush to the press and delegate’s desk on the Friday afternoon, this system was greatly improved from the second day) at the delegate centre at Sheffield’s Workstation on Paternoster Row, there was just a short time to wait in the lovely Sheffield summer evening for the festival to begin. The infrastructure in place, spread all over Sheffield City Centre but mostly concentrated around the Sheffield Hallam University campus buildings, is fantastic – the Showroom Cinema complex and the Workstation building are the main hub of the Festival, with full press facilities and even a BBQ.
Opening events for 2015 took place at two different venues this year – the first, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, at the Showroom Cinema near the train station; and the second, Benedikt Erlingsson’s The Greatest Shows on Earth, at the impressive Irwin Mitchell Oval Hall at the Sheffield City Hall.
The festival itself was opened officially, before the Look of Silence screening, by Alex Graham, Festival Chair, and Mark Atkin, acting Festival Director – during which outgoing Director, and the person responsible for making the festival the success that is today, Heather Croall, was presented with the Doc/Fest Inspiration Award. It was a suitably emotional moment for Heather, returning to Australia after ten years in charge of Doc/Fest. I’ll provide a full transcript of her acceptance speech in due course. Between them though, Mark Atkin and Director of Programming and Industry Engagement Claire Aguilar have taken Heather’s blueprint and produced a fantastic festival. Both opening night shows are packed; in fact, The Look of Silence filled two screens at The Showroom and could probably have filled another judging by the size of the standby queues.
II’ll be back here with full reviews of all the films I’ll mention here and in the following pages, and transcripts of some of the Q&A sessions (as a sign of how large and prestigious the festival has become, every film screening is attended by the Filmmaker, and in many cases, by the subject of the film too) in due course, but for now here is a brief rundown of what we saw over the first three days.
The Look of Silence (Joshua Oppenheimer, 2014, 103min)
This follow-up and companion piece to 2012’s The Act of Kiiling is as harrowing in every way. In telling us the story of one of the death squad’s victim’s family, Oppenheimer puts a specifically human face on the bizarrely inhuman dreamlike atrocity explored In the first film. Watching Adi confront these murderers whilst testing their eyes is horrific…the interactions between the murderers and their “audience” from the first film are given real weighty context here, and in many ways the impact of this film is greater for it. Adi’s murdered brother Ramli becomes the talisman that ties the two films together. The film is shot with the same deliberate pace and the same sense of deep, profound visual metaphor as its forebear. These two films show Oppenheimer to be one of the foremost modern documentarians, and one who has a grasp of what films and society owe each other and their history.
Oppenheimer and Adi himself were present after the film, though in order to get across town to the City Hall in time for part two of the opening night, we had to duck out early. I was going to be present the
following day for Oppenheimer’s Masterclass (again, I’ll be posting a full transcript once I’m done transcribing the 85 minutes of audio) anyway, so this didn’t seem such a loss, though judging by the audience reaction to the film I can imagine the Q&A was pretty lively.
When we arrived in the big square in front of the Town Hall, there were members of The Invisible Circus (a talented group of circus and street performers from Bristol and London) scattered about, bellydancers preening, strongmen flexing, clowns being horrifying, which in the city twilight lent the scene an hallucinatory carnival feel. The Invisible Circus then took to the stage before the screening to act as both scenery (during the introduction) and to perform themselves. Under the enormous ceiling of the Oval Hall this was quite a sight, and quite a lift after the first film.
The Greatest Shows on Earth (Benedikt Erlingsson, 2015, 72min)
The Greatest Shows on Earth is, on the surface, an archive film of footage assembled from the National Fairground Archives at the University of Sheffield, showing us fantastic scenes of Circuses and Carnivals stretching back 100 years, including dancing ladies, strongmen, highdivers, human cannonballs, lion tamers and so much more besides – basically it is a catalogue of all of the wonderful and amazing things that made the shows the life changing events they were, but also of all of the things that our generation are never going to experience in real life. Scratch a little below the surface though and The Greatest Shows on Earth reveals itself to be a very odd beast indeed. A joint British and Icelandic production, the film boasts among its creative team Professor Vanessa, Sigur Rós and the Head of the Icelandic Pagan Church. Though I have a few issues with the film, as a spectacle the film is fantastic – the images bristle with life and wonder, even after 100 years, and the score from Sigur Rós is fantastic. All in all, a flamboyant way to end the opening night.
Sheffield centre itself is oddly quiet for a Saturday, only a few stray shoppers hint at any local presence, though the crowds begin to pick up as we get nearer the festival venues. The press and delegate lounge on Tudor Square is already heaving, the smell of cooking burgers wafting through the streets. The queues (for tickets for films the following day) at the Workspace have been sorted out by the cunning deployment of queue markers in front of the counters. The volunteers seem far more at ease.
Sharon headed off to the Showroom to see The Circus Dynasty (again, her review will be available shortly) while I bypass another massive standby queue and head into the Memorial Hall for Joshua Oppenheimer’s Masterclass. In conversation with BBC’s Danny Leigh (well, I say conversation, Danny only really managed to get a few words in) Joshua discussed in fantastic detail his beginnings in film (I was delighted to hear he studied under and was mentored by one of my favourites, Dusan Makavejev) and his move into activism to his current position at the top of the documentary pile. He couldn’t help but mention having recently been at an event with Werner Herzog. All in all, informative, inspiring, thought provoking, basically everything great filmmakers should be.
Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (Stanley Nelson, 2015, 116min)
Another favourite of mine, Stanley Nelson, presented his wonderful film for PBS about the Black Panther Party, which traces in remarkable detail the origins of the party and the extreme social factors that led
to their rise and prominence and the extreme personal prejudices that caused their downfall. Most of the main players appear in the film, and Nelson had access to an entire archive of footage never before seen. The film is fairly basic in its construction, but the sheer amount of information and iconic scenes and characters that cross the screen elevate the film, and the reverence for the material and music of the time makes the film immensely entertaining too. At no point does Nelson pass any judgements on the various characters in the film, which could have been quite an easy mistake given the subject matter (either for or against) and what we get is a great document about America’s past that is incredibly timely – it’s rare to actually see history repeating itself.
The Hunting Ground (Kirby Dick, 2015, 100min)
The second of this year’s properly disturbing and angering films, Dick’s film takes a harsh and forthright look at the startling rise in rape cases on campuses across America. What’s truly worrying though is not so much the statistics, which are alarming, and not even so much the University’s steadfast unwillingness to really do anything about it or acknowledge the problem, but rather the terrifyingly primal attitude that many of the male students, mostly in Fraternities, have towards their female counterparts – it borders on the savage in some instances, footage shows heavily inebriated students chanting “no means yes” over and over again. This film follows Dick’s previous film on the subject of institutionalised rape, The Invisible War, which was about the American military. Both films take a very confrontational stance, this one exposing facts and figures that show that the universities, big names too – Harvard, Florida State – might even be profiting from the cover ups.
A change in weather (Sheffield can get incredibly windy very quickly) and a change of mood, brings a Sunday of music films – three very diverse films – about the first family of American song, the origins of rap and the unsung beginnings of British punk.
Mavis! (Jessica Edwards, 2015, 81min)
Mavis! was introduced to us as 90 of the most joyful minutes of the festival so far, and they weren’t lying. The European premiere took place the previous night at the Botanical Gardens, an event which I can only imagine was wonderful – we saw the film in the basement cinema of the Molinare Library, not quite as spectacular. The film made up for this however. The Staples Singers are certainly one of the great groups in American music, and Mavis Staples one of the great singers. The film is much like any other music biopic, a mixture of interviews with Mavis herself (affirming and funny), interviews with contemporaries (a rare interview with Bob Dylan a highlight), archive footage and live recent footage. What sets Mavis! aside from others of its kind is the shere joy of the footage, the infectious nature of Mavis’ happiness and desire to entertain. Her journey from gospel singer to soul singer to legend is wonderful to watch. Highlights include her performances with The Band on The Last Waltz and some very rare studio footage of Prince.
Hustler’s Convention (Mike Todd, 2015, 91min)
The second of the day’s music documentaries saw the odd combination of a northern English chap turning his eye to the origins of rap and hiphop in his exploration of the life and work of Lightnin’ Rod
(Jalal Mansur Nuriddin) and The Last Poets. It’s a fantastic film that delves into the traditions of toasting and rapping and the social elements that resulted in the long, legendary spoken – word album, the titular Hustler’s Convention. It’s not your typical rap film, though. Yes, we hear from Ice-T, yes we hear from a few other rappers and MCs but the main concerns here are social and historical. Particularly fascinating is where the Last Poets are now, and how they feel about the record’s fame and notoriety and the fact that due to lawsuits beyond their control the record was forced underground and they were not paid for it. The main joy of the film though, as with Mavis!, is the music, and it was an absolute pleasure to see Lightnin’ Rod in person, talking about his music and rapping sections of an as yet unreleased sequel to Hustler’s Convention, Hustler’s Detention. Though this film, with Mavis!, was screened in the relatively tiny Molinare Library basement, it had a pretty whooping reception.
The last film of the day saw us move along the main road and into the Odeon complex for:
The Damned: Don’t You Wish We Were Dead (Wes Orshoski, 2015, 110min)
We were expecting a rather more raucous film and we got one. It was brash, loud and rather obnoxious, pretty fitting really. From the guy who brought us Lemmy, The Damned takes us back to the late 70s and the birth of punk, and the birth of the band who pretty much kicked it all off and then fell by the wayside. It’s a fairly standard film structurally, with the usual mix of interviews, archive footage and footage of the band now – it’s the importance of the footage that stands out here, and the quality of the music. As usual, as a fan of the era and the music, and as has happened throughout this festival, I’ve been familiar with a lot of the footage on the screen but have been amazed by the amount of new, unseen footage the director has been able to assemble. It’s also good to see a film that doesn’t gloss over the problems the band caused and dealt with, and a filmmaker that is honest about his subjects – dealing with some of the members of the band wasn’t easy and he said as much, but his love of the material and the music made it all worth the effort, and it shows.
And just like that, half way through the festival, and so far ist’s been fantastic. Still to come though were films about Outlaw Elephants and sheep, William Buckley and Gore Vidal.