Sunday, 22 June 2014

Festival: Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014

Now celebrating its 21st anniversary, Sheffield Doc/Fest truly came of age this year with a programme of films, industry sessions, speakers and social events as equally bold, curious and energetic as any vicenarian.

With a strong history of political activism in Sheffield, it was perhaps quite apt that the so-called ‘People’s Republic of South Yorkshire’ should play host to a programme of films covering a wide-range of socio-political content. This included the world premiere of Amir Amiranii’s We Are Many which energetically examined the events leading up to the largest mobilisation of people in history. Taking its name from The Mask of Anarchy by Shelley, the film chronicles the day that over 36 million people in 789 cities across 72 countries took to the streets on February 15th, 2003 in protest against the war in Iraq. Moving at a relentless pace with an albeit partisan viewpoint, the endeavours of the protestors really gain much more credence as the film goes on to document how the protest directly linked in to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that in turn led to the Arab Spring and the subsequent reticence of the UK and the USA to put ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria.

Equally absorbing was winner of this year’s Doc Fest Audience Award Still The Enemy Within – a film by Owen Gower examining the frontline battlegrounds of the 1984 Miner’s Strike. Playing to an impassioned audience, many of whom were directly involved in the pickets, the film had extra resonance this year being screened nearly 25 years to the day of the nearby Battle of Orgreave. Intercutting witness accounts and documentary footage, Gower’s work succeeds where We Are Many fails in putting a set of real faces to the protest of over 160,000 miners engaged in industrial action. Not afraid to show both positive and humorous moments, Still The Enemy Within demonstrated beautifully how the sum of many small parts can achieve a critical mass effect, from one miner’s story of single-handedly stopping 6 lorries crossing a picket line to the perhaps unexpected alliance of pit workers and the gay and lesbian community, the documentary is touched with moments that really resonate and sustain. Just as the protest in 2003 didn’t stop the war in Iraq, the 1984 miner’s strike also failed – but as one miner noted, perhaps apt in both situations – ‘we lost, but we were right.’

Industrial action was on the programme elsewhere with the opening night screening if Rehad Desai’s Miners Shot Down – a powerful documentary detailing the events leading up to the killing by police of 34 miners on wildcat strike in South Africa. The events of August 2012 demonstrating that in other countries, still to this day, the right of protest should never be taken for granted.

Exercising that very right in the United States were the LGBT community in Ben Cotner and Ryan White’s The Case Against 8 – a documentary examining the legal challenge to California’s Proposition 8 which banned same-sex marriages only months after they were first permitted. With excellent access to the team of lawyers and the two gay and lesbian couples bringing the action, the film brings a nice juxtaposition to the emotional and legal arguments in favour of same-sex marriage. Whilst the cause for the action is grounded firmly in law and constitutional interpretation, the effect is measured and weighed in real emotion, and Cotner and White perform a deft feat in effectively weaving these two contrasting elements of a civil rights case together.

Elsewhere Doc/Fest achieved something of a coup in hosting the world premiere of Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi’s The 50 Year Argument – a compelling and edifying examination of the history of The New York Review of Books. Illustrative of a creative endeavour born through passion, free-speech and debate, the film examines the wonderfully accommodating and supportive publication that gave free reign to a rich tapestry of contributors, from James Baldwin to Gore Vidal, and Noam Chomsky to Susan Sontag. Where Scorsese and Tedeschi succeed is giving credence, relevance and vitality to the work of so many great writers, theorists and commentators, tangibly demonstrative of their significant contribution to the changing face of society. This wonderful pabulum was sadly lacking in Nancy Kates’ comparative piece Regarding Susan Sontag – a film devoid of any real intent that served only to marginalise and trivialise rather than exult and raise aloft one of the 20th century’s greatest writers. Whilst Sontag noted the price for genius may be solitude, it is also the price this particular documentary deserves to pay.

Brighter notes were nevertheless to be found, and with such a vast kaleidoscopic spectrum of films at this year’s festival, it is hard to mention all those of note, but amongst many films worth your consideration is Brian Knappenberger’s The Internet’s Own Boy documenting the life and death of web sensation Aaron Swartz.  Elsewhere in the wonderful world of cyberspace Hilla Medalia and Shosh Slam’s Web Junkie examines the remarkable growth of rehabilitation centres in China specifically for the treatment of internet addiction. A strange mixture of Full Metal Jacket boot camp and Cuckoo’s Nest therapy sessions collide most curiously in addressing what the Chinese authorities have now officially classified as a clinical disorder.

Interactivity was also one of the orders of the day at Sheffield this year with a full programme of hands on experiences and events, including the strangely enchanting Choose Your Own Documentary which allowed audience members to vote on the path of the film’s protagonist, in a manner very similar to the popular children’s books of the same name. Gimmicky, narratively flawed but an awful lot of fun thanks largely to the enthusiasm and warmth of the story-teller Nathan Penlington. It’s probably not the future of documentary films, but still proved a worthwhile and enjoyable folly.

Ruminations a plenty were to be found in director Thomas Balmes’ excellent film Happiness – surely one of this year’s festival highlights. Following the journey of eight-year-old Bhutanese Monk Peyangki as he travels with his uncle to the city to buy their first television, the film explores the changes brought to this most remote part of the planet by the advent of electricity and the window to the world that is TV. Stunning cinematography captures both vast panoramas of exquisite beauty and simplistic moments of touching intimacy and innocence; this film is not to be missed.

Documentary of the Festival however must surely be Eddie Martin’s All This Mayhem – a wonderfully energetic and kinetic film looking at the meteoric rise and subsequent tragic fall of the Australian Pappas brothers, Ben and Tas, in the vivid, rough and tumble world of competitive vert ramp skateboarding.

Moving from the highs to the lows, much like the pro vert skater up and down the ramp, All This Mayhem demonstrates that the demons within us have both the capacity to motivate and channel success whilst also breeding hubris and destruction in equal measure.
Nevertheless this is not a documentary about skateboarding, but more consideration of family and an extraordinary fraternal bond between two brothers, and their respective self-immolation to support each other.

Flying so high together up the vert ramp but ultimately resulting in a tragic Icarus-like fall from grace, All This Mayhem nonetheless shows the power of redemption and rehabilitation, albeit with the burden of carrying internal scars and wounds far greater than those ever externally inflicted by any extreme sport.

As Doc/Fest closed for its 21st year, visitors would do well to reflect on the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald: “When a man is tired of life on his 21st birthday it indicates that he is rather tired of something in himself.” Here in Sheffield, quite the opposite was to be found, the festival remains more engaged, vivacious and inspirational in character than ever. I am already looking forward to next year.

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