Sunday, 30 June 2013

Feature : Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013 Round-Up

Words by Simon Christie

For the 20th year running the city of Sheffield threw open the doors to its cinemas, screening rooms, theatres, clubs, bars, churches, and even a Peak District cave to welcome in the great and the good from the world of documentary film-making.

Fittingly for a city founded on steel production, the festival’s line-up was as carefully balanced as a complex alloy; created through great endeavour, and tempered with purpose and direction to result in a programme with as sharp a cutting edge as anything a Sheffield Master Cutler could hope to forge.

The opening night saw Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre present The Big Melt -  a fusion of music and film that blended an eclectic mix of musical styles and forms, with the city’s own Jarvis Cocker leading proceedings with his usual quirky exuberance. At times astoundingly beautiful and at others rousing and impassioned (the introduction through the auditorium of the City of Sheffield Brass Band in fine fettle), the piece did at times however lose its way - there being a slight disconnect with the archive footage of steel production and the music on stage. Nevertheless, these missed beats were forgotten when Richard Hawley was finally allowed to unleash his full potential on guitar - bringing the piece to a climatic and euphoric ending as hot anything ever mixed in any steel works.

That same night saw the screening of Nick Ryan’s The Summit - presented to great effect inside the cave at High Peak Cavern in Derbyshire.  Beautifully shot, the film charts the misadventure of twenty-four climbers who reached the High Camp of K2 in August 2008, going far further to explain a climber’s motivation beyond George Mallory’s 1923 assertion “because it’s there”. When you consider that statistically 1 out of every 4 climbers who make the summit of K2 die on the subsequent descent, this film nevertheless goes some way to demonstrate why the ‘mountaineer’s mountain‘ remains such a draw for climbers.

The expedition in question cost eleven of the party their lives in the worst K2 climbing disaster in history. At the film’s centre is the balance we strike between hubris and nemesis. Despite setting off for the summit later than intended, the driving force of determination in some of the party to keep making for the top is unquestionable. There exists an unwritten code of mountaineering at these heights - if someone falls, leave them for dead - and yet when things start going wrong, this notion of self-regard is interpreted very differently by individuals. Visually stunning, undeniably tragic, The Summit considers life and death at over 8,000 meters - where morality and purpose are tested far more than physical endurance and technical ability.

“Because it’s there” is, however, something the scientists featured in Mark Levinson’s Particle Fever were certainly hoping to ascertain. Charting the build up to the first running of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, this documentary took some of the most complex theoretical and experimental physics theories and practices and distilled them neatly into an engaging and informative film that proved to be one of the festival’s real highlights.

The search for the so-called ‘God Particle’, the Higg’s Boson, is now well documented and known, and Levinson is very careful to focus less on the actual discovery itself, and more on the sleuths behind the investigation. Much like the mountaineers featured in The Summit, the scientists at CERN are involved in an all-or-nothing battle, the epic grand proportions of K2 in The Summit matched equally by the epic significance of the smallest of small things in Particle Fever. In keeping with the Hadron Collider, smart editing from Walter Murch of 450 hours of footage to a comprehensive 97 minutes ensures the film rattles along at a tremendous pace, building to the eventual discovery - a triumph made all the sweeter due to the presence at the screening of a number of the key scientists involved. It is the connection Levinson has established with his characters, the investment they have in the project and the importance of the discovery not just to the whole of the world as we know it, but specifically how it resonates with these particular individuals, that makes this film ultimately so satisfying.

Whilst the science at the Large Hadron Collider continues to make new discoveries, documentary has always served well as a form to help discover more about the past. A prime example in Sheffield was Chris Marker’s Le Joli Mai. Examining life in Paris, May 1962, allows the viewer rumination over how our value systems have evolved these last 51 years. With intelligently intuitive free-roaming camera work picking up detail that would often be overlooked, Marker’s Paris of 1962 presents a city moving towards political apathy, with a gradual shift away from communal concerns to individual. The increasing influence of television, the stock market, the hedonism of a growing Parisian night life all stand stark against some Parisians’ basic expectations of family life and home ownership. Marker has captured a city close to crossing the Rubicon, looking for a solution to an economy based on scarcity, but finding answers that in the narrator’s words mean “with each step forward a structure collapses”. Compelling viewing.

At a documentary film festival, questions around form abound, and some of the films this year work hard to bring a fresh perspective to the medium. Sadly this wasn’t the case with Jessie Versluys’s film The Murder Workers which had the feel of being shot and edited specifically for television. The film followed three workers who help the relatives of murder victims negotiate the mixed and varied challenges of losing someone at the hands of another person, and the content was both heart-breaking and devastating - and yet at the same time the format remained formulaic with beats for potential commercial breaks interrupting footage that whilst being painful to watch was nevertheless the very least the subjects of the film deserved. 

From the young girl explaining what she saw when her father killed her mother in front of her, to the mother forced to watch the CCTV footage of doormen carrying her dead son’s body out of a nightclub, to another mother trying to comprehend how any amount of financial compensation could ever be acceptable for losing the son she loved, this documentary moved me more than any other I saw, but at the same time I can’t help but wonder what might have been had the freedom from the shackles of the televisual format been removed.

That said, not so pleasing a change in form was John Kastner’s NCR: Not Criminally Responsible. An interesting and important premise - the re-introduction into society of criminals not deemed responsible at the time for their actions - was instead subverted into something that left an uncomfortable feeling that the perpetrator involved is being manipulated to facilitate the narrative. The case concerned the brutal stabbing by Sean Clifton of a stranger at random in a shopping mall. Clifton is seen recreating his detainment and elements of his schizophrenic condition prior to twelve years of rehabilitative work and medication. This is made all the more harrowing and offensive when it is apparently obvious that Clifton has an abject fear of relapse and also shows genuine remorse for what he has done. Playing out the old pathology not only seems counter-intuitive to rehabilitation, but also seems to add an element of directorial puppetry that this film and it’s subjects little need or deserve.

This can be conversely contrasted to many a viewer’s festival highlight, The Act Of Killing, where rather than manipulate and stage-manage his subjects, director Joshua Oppenheimer gave them free-reign to control much of the content.
The film follows members of the Indonesian paramilitary directly involved with the purging of over 500,000 communists. Beginning in October 1965, the violence saw the elimination of the Indonesian Communist Party and the start of Suharto’s thirty-one year presidential reign. 

Oppenheimer had begun his work talking with survivors and relatives of the victims of the purges, but would quickly find his lines of enquiry closed and his crew arrested, so at the suggestion of the survivors, he instead turned his focus to talking directly to the perpetrators.

Given assurances those responsible for the killings would be forthcoming, doubtless Oppenheimer didn’t expect just how candid and open his subjects would be, nor how far they would be prepared to go to provide an insight into the mass-murder that took place.

The film focusses on Anwar Congo - a local self-styled ‘gangster’ who willfully agrees to to act out the crimes he has committed in the styles of his favourite movie genres. Oppenheimer provides the camera, but the scenes, the scripts, the depiction of violence are all from Congo himself.

The western, the musical, gangster film noir - all are in evidence, and it is watching these scenes that it is almost (very incorrectly) easy to forget that these relate to real life atrocities. Poor special effects, over the top acting, ridiculous costumes and a penchant for drag all add to a fantastical and disconnected world, far removed at first from the initial horrific events of 1965. 

It is only when the cameras stop rolling on these heightened and stylised recreations that the reality really begins to bite, as one man talks candidly about the rape of children in villages that were purged, or as we see a television interview openly applaud and hold up Congo and his fellow criminals as heroes - something very alarming happens as the realisation dawns ever more on the viewer and the dots are slowly put together to reveal a picture of terrible disgust and disgrace. 

This audience realisation is matched smartly in equal turns with a realistion dawning on Congo, whose motivation for carrying out the project begins as something unashamed, but ends altogether differently. Whether the film-making is cathartic for him is uncertain. Congo states he had hoped that the process “would be like medicine, it would reduce the pain”. Ultimately though it more likely delivers an awakening for him that he is surely a soul damned - a scene in which he plays one of his own victims captures vividly the etching of realisation on his face. Whilst the killers may assert that “morality is relative” - it is actually subjective and personal to each individual - and a stark comprehension of the crimes he has committed unfolds in one of the film’s final scenes when Congo returns again to the roof-top location of so much bloodshed.

What remains undeniable is that this is a documentary like no other, and one can only hope that the attention it is now garnering brings a large audience its way. Oppenheimer was present in Sheffield to talk about the effect the film is now having in Indonesia, and this served as a perfect coda to the festival demonstrating just how important and compelling great documentary film making can be.

Words : Simon Christie

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