“Documentary changes what people think about what they think they know already” – Roger Graef, recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award
Another fantastic programme at this year’s Aldeburgh Documentary Festival marks its 20th anniversary of celebrating documentary film on the picturesque Suffolk coast. The 2014 programme boasts a remarkably diverse collection of documentaries on a global meets local theme. The British premiere of Jonathan Nossiter’s Natural Resistance (2014) opened the festival, with other highlights including an exclusive documentary film regarding Aldeburgh cinema’s local projectionist Neville Parry, an inspiring and moving documentary about student political activism in Hong Kong, and a challenging and controversial examination of the relationship between Israel and Palestine.
American-Brazilian director, producer, and author Jonathan Nossiter flew to Aldeburgh from Rome to witness the British premiere of his most recent documentary Natural Resistance (2014). This wonderfully eye-opening film explores the lives and industries of Italian winegrowers and the contemporary dilemma for crop developers everywhere: ecology or economy? The film looks in more depth at the dangers of pesticides, the livelihoods of these organic advocates, and their reputations as ‘natural wine rebels’ against the ‘New World Economic Order’. Natural Resistance argues that we live in a connected world, and as these winegrowers argue for a more organic growth process, Nossiter himself perfectly complements his subject with a more organic filming process. He admits himself that he had no intention of making this film, and the entire documentary grew out of some home video on a hand-held camera as he visited friends around Italy. In both cases, Nossiter appears to argue that nature, in its purest form, is more important than anything preened, modified, or contrived and what he calls the ‘dirt behind the aesthetics’ brings an element of magic to both his film and the lives of the winegrowers that he captures.
Saturday morning began with an inspiring rendering of the background behind the current riots in Hong Kong. Matthew Torne’s remarkable documentary Lessons In Dissent (2012-14) follows two young boys – Joshua Wong and Ma Jai – and their respective experiences protesting against censored national education in Hong Kong. Torne’s film highlights the ironic dualism of free thinking v brainwashing and patriotism v party obedience by tracing the political movements of Scholarism, a movement established by students as young as 15 and 16, and fronted by a young middle school student Joshua Wong. Lessons In Dissent showcases a generation of students, teachers, and parents who reject mainland China’s Communist education policies through Joshua’s rhetorical command over the media and his intelligent debates with prominent politicians and Ma Jai’s experience of fighting political oppression in the streets. Against all the odds, and despite ongoing unrest, Torne presents a Hong Kong of Hope epitomised by the passionate political activism of a new generation. This is a vital documentary for an understanding of contemporary Hong Kong, featuring stunning cinematography, and a powerful political message.
Saturday afternoon saw veteran documentary filmmaker and ardent supporter of the Aldeburgh DocFest Roger Graef receive his Lifetime Achievement Award. Graef’s extraordinary compendium of work showcases some of the first examples of observational documentary and also some of the first examples of crime documentary. Rather than simply comment upon contemporary political issues, Graef’s documentaries are unique in that they have a proven record of actually mobilising social justice. His Bafta award-winning series POLICE (1982) changed the way that police handle victims of rape while his unique Channel 4 documentary Feltham Sings (2002) gave a voice to young offenders and victims of the youth criminal justice system. With a documentary archive spanning 50 years and more than 160 documentaries on social issues, science, current affairs, criminal justice and the arts, there is no more deserving recipient than Roger Graef for the Aldeburgh DocFest’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Saturday night was arguably the highlight of the festival for many local and international audience members, as it recognised the World Premiere of locally-filmed documentary A Life Illuminated: Neville Parry, Cinema Projectionist. Created by Jon Saward, the film traces the life and experiences of Neville Parry, Aldeburgh cinema’s 81-year-old local projectionist, believed to be the oldest working projectionist in the UK. Apart from the touching and amusing anecdotes from Neville’s own life in the projection room, Saward’s film explores the art of projection in the context of cinema history. This short documentary makes for a touching personal watch as well as an educative one. In her introduction to the film, Diana Quick describes Neville Parry as a living example of cinema’s development, having experienced every aspect of its technological evolution first hand.
In-keeping with the global-meets-local theme of the evening, A Life Illuminated was closely followed by Thomas Balmes’ documentary film Happiness (2014) which explores the life of a young eight-year-old monk, who leads an isolated experience in the Himalayan mountains and dreams of acquiring a television set. The beauty of the Himalayan mountains to a Western audience may appear to be no comparison to the trivialities of the television, but Balmes’ film captures the wonder of a young boy as he travels to the city for the first time, encountering new technologies through which he is able to experience new cultures, new activities, and new ideas. Its tone is ultimately bittersweet as it ruminates upon both the joys of a simpler time and the wonders of technological development, and, thus, the notion that progression comes at the cost of sacrifice.
Nadav Schulman’s The Green Prince (2013) was perhaps the most provocative and controversial documentary of the festival, tracing the story of Mosab Yousef, the son of Hamas co-founder Sheikh Hassan Yousef, who agreed to spy on his father for the Israeli security service Shin Bet. The film looks at a turbulent 10-year history in the life of a politically-compromised adolescent, and appears to think more deeply about what happens to an individual when he is torn between two such violently-opposed political ideas. For some, Mosab Yousef was a hero, but for many others the film was an uncomfortable and challenging watch. During the fascinating post-film debate about The Holy Land, featuring William Sieghart, Professor Avi Shlaim of St Antony’s College Oxford, and Palestinian filmmaker Osama Qashoo, the biassed tone of the documentary was called into question, along with the argument that there was substantial background to the Israeli state with no political background to the Palestinian situation. Despite being so contentious, the film was certainly successful in demonstrating the notion of character assassination, and the weight of political rivalry on a single individual.
Once again, the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival has presented a thoughtful and provocative programme, always challenging its audience with greater intellect, greater insight, and, most of all, great filmmakers.