Festival: Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015

by Simon Christie

With the arrival once more of June and just the hint of summer in the air, all roads once again pointed north as thousands of documentary film fans made their annual pilgrimage to Yorkshire in order to take in 150 films from 35 different countries as part of the 2015 Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Now in its twenty second year, the festival continues to grow in both size and stature, rapidly becoming one of the most credible and eagerly anticipated documentary film festivals in the world. Yet is probably fair to say that 2015 perhaps represents something of a transitional period for Sheffield Doc/Fest, with Heather Croall – director of the festival for some nine years – stepping down from her role and her freshly appointed replacement Liz McIntyre not officially taking post until September.

Also missing from the list of Doc/Fest usual suspects was veteran festival programmer Hussain Currimbhoy – responsible in recent years for curating programmes that were both rich and layered with thematic cohesion and yet still wildly varied in style and context. Indeed, it was Croall and Currimbhoy in 2014 who successfully secured something of a Doc/Fest coup – the world premiere of Martin Scorsese’s The 50 Year Argument – and the loss of the effective captain and first officer of Doc/Fest was always bound to leave a big gap for successors to fill.

This wasn’t to say that the programmers this year didn’t engage such a challenge head on, electing to open proceedings with a screening of heavyweight doc-maker Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence. Doubtless many Doc/Fest fans present in 2013 will recall the screening of Oppenheimer’s critically lauded The Act of Killing and it was therefore perhaps apt that the festival this year should elect to screen the director’s follow-up companion piece. Indeed, as utterly compelling as The Act of Killing was, it distinctly felt like one very moving side of a particular horrific coin, electing to focus on the perpetrators of crime at the expense of the story of their victims. It followed that the one overriding feeling from The Act of Killing was that there was still another film to be made, and with The Look of Silence Oppenheimer has delivered a fitting follow-up that somehow actually manages to eclipse the original. Describing this film as “a backward looking poem, somehow composed in memoriam”, Oppenheimer alludes to exactly why this was such an important film to make – the sheer and vital exposure found in The Act of Killing making a follow-up that focusses the lens in another direction a compelling piece of work that history itself demands.

Focussing this time on Indonesian optometrist Adi, Oppenheimer follows his protagonist as he slowly uncovers more and more about the genocide that ran rife through his country and that took his brother’s life two years before he was born. It shouldn’t be lost on an audience that throughout this documentary film, much of Adi’s own discovery comes via documentary film footage, which at times can either enlighten or distort a country’s history depending on the source material and the interpretation provided. Tragically Adi’s voyage of discovery is one where each revelation only adds to the disbelief and ever growing trauma, and yet despite this Adi is still able to arrive at a point of understanding that at least gives some hope for the future. Compelling documentary film-making deserving of its top-billing at Sheffield this year.

Just as Oppenheimer used documentary film as a retrospective tool for understanding, so too did much of the 2015 Doc/Fest programme, with a number of films reflecting on decades now long gone. Whilst the accepted notion is that documentaries often demonstrate how things have improved for the better over the course of time, there was a sense this year when comparing the historical with the contemporary that we have in many ways regressed both as consumers and creators of art and perhaps even in society as a whole.

In Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s Best of Enemies, we’re able to reflect on the titanic battle that ensued between master wordsmith Gore Vidal and right-wing intellectual champion William F Buckley, during ABC’s coverage of the Republican and Democratic primaries of 1968. The verbal sparring of these two diametrically opposed individuals zings back and forth and demands of an audience that it raise itself to the loftier and more nuanced notions of argument and debate. Thrust, parry and counter thrust between these two men ensures the rapt attention of most of America in a series of debates that both transfixed the public and energised the political dialogue of the day like no time before in recent history. Initially one can only marvel at these two political pugilists, each intent on using skill and verve to deliver a knockout blow. Yet what is perhaps most interesting is that across a series of ten programmes, the debate is ultimately reduced to atavistic throwback, with Vidal resorting to base name-calling (referring to Buckley as a “Crypto-Nazi”) and Buckley ultimately threatening Vidal with physical violence. The tragedy of the debate is that both men remained staunch iconoclasts, intent on the destruction of the very thing the other stood for. Whilst Best of Enemies beautifully demonstrates these men at their intellectual best, it also shows them at their worst, where mutual respect for each other’s abilities is in fact replaced by a far more primeval desire to see an enemy completely vanquished. This ‘reduction to destruction’ is ultimately enlightening as to humankind’s fight and flight conflict, as we see two cerebral powerhouses lurch and default to base instincts. A fascinating, gripping and enthralling piece of observational documentary filmmaking.

Contrast this work to Michelle Coomber’s depressingly formulaic and tired Generation Right which attempts to examine the effect of the Thatcher years in shaping the UK we now live in today, and one can only long for commentators of Vidal and Buckley’s calibre to still be with us delivering their polemical judgment on the Iron Lady. One can only hypothesise that in both defence and prosecution of 1980s Tory Britain, both Vidal and Buckley would deliver a seemingly more obvious and cogent analysis than Coomber manages through use of stock footage and very little substantive analysis. This is made only the worse when it becomes apparent that Generation Right had access to a number of key political heavyweights of the time, but reduces much of their contribution to caricature and conjecture rather than push for any real understanding of motivation and prevailing attitudes at the time.

This partial regression by some filmmakers of political commentary in the arts today is more apparent when one views the brilliant films that formed Doc/Fest’s John Akomfrah retrospective. Showcasing the best of his work, it is 2013’s The Stuart Hall Project which stands out as a stark example of a political figure who was able to inspire genuine hope in people – not through the soundbites of a televised political election debate or the ever increasingly dumbed-down weekly showings of Question Time and This Week but through considered and well-reasoned ideas. Yet whilst this piece of work focusses on Hall – described as having a reasonable claim to being the foremost intellectual of the left – the film still touches on Enoch Powell’s 1968 Rivers of Blood speech as a counter-point. Just as the debate raged on in Best of Enemies between Vidal and Buckley that year, the political scene in the UK was clearly no less charged and volatile. One can only reflect that these documentaries serve above all else to show how our political debate has regressed, and today’s documentary filmmakers must have to take some of the responsibility for arresting this decline.

Completing a likely unplanned trilogy of documentaries to touch on 1968 was Stanley Nelson’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, chronicling the formation, rise and ultimate dissolution of the Black Panther Party in America. The catalyst for their growth undoubtedly being the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4th of that year; the film casts new light on the party for those perhaps only familiar with a particular stereotype. Socially conscious and progressive, the Black Panthers ran community breakfast clubs for children and published their own newspaper – setting about to create a sense of community for those who felt disenfranchised and ostracised.

Interestingly, from the future world of Generation Right echoes backwards Thatcher’s assertion that “there’s no such thing as society” – a fact that many Black Panthers may well assert was the case for them in 1968, and was one of the main reasons for the movement itself gaining such momentum. Well-paced, with a coherent narrative arc and populated with vivid characters, Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution was a festival highlight.

Greater variety was to be found elsewhere, and indeed it wouldn’t be Doc/Fest in Sheffield if there wasn’t an obligatory film about a mountain somewhere in the schedule. This year the excellent Meru carried that honour, as filmmakers E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin relentlessly document the repeated attempts of an expedition to climb the never-before-scaled ‘Shark’s Fin’ on Mount Meru in the Himalayas. Meru would make an excellent companion piece to Nick Ryan’s The Summit, screened at Doc/Fest in 2013, with both films attempting to understand the drive and determination that dominates the psyche of the mountain climber. The fact that neither seem to manage this only makes the films all the more interesting. In Meru the protagonists not only face death themselves, but lose loved ones to circumstances that would put most people off ever clipping on a carabiner ever again. Yet as one commentator noted, when there is a mountain that has been described as impossible to climb, “to a certain kind of mind-set that is an irresistible appeal”. At the foot of the mountain some 10,000 feet up, the team receive a religious blessing. Fitting perhaps in that the story of Meru is one group’s attempt to scale the final unchartered heights in order to touch fingers with God.

Other films in the programme this year worthy of a mention were Brian Hill’s The Confessions of Thomas Quick and the enthusiastically executed but technically flawed Death of a Gentleman from directors Johnny Blank, Jarrod Kimber and Sam Collins. It is perhaps only at Sheffield Doc/Fest where a film about the death of 39 individuals in Scandinavia can sit comfortably alongside a film about the death of the game of cricket. Whilst both suffer with problems of pacing towards the end, they are nevertheless insightful and thought-provoking in their own individual ways.

Finally turning to the film of the festival, we arrive at Matthew Heineman’s double Sundance award winner, Cartel Land. Examining the US-Mexico border, Heineman deftly acquaints the viewer with two vigilante groups on either side of the divide. The US group focus on the perceived problem of illegal immigration and the flow of drugs into the country (crystal meth cooked less Walter White and more Bear Grylls). What becomes apparent is the sense of isolation these vigilantes feel, under-supported and frequently outmanoeuvred  across barren terrain that even the staunchest border control operation would struggle to maintain. Yet still others come from far to join their cause, helping to engender a rough and ready esprit de corps in the men and women who guard their country as though they were protecting Capitol Hill itself.

Even more interesting though is when Heineman turns his attention to the situation in Mexico, and the viewer is left tied up in knots as ethical lines are not so much blurred as tangled up into a cartel-dominated ‘Cat’s Cradle’ that no one party or individual ever seems capable of untangling. Heineman’s skill lies in honest presentation of facts that would seem to be precursors of certain moral absolutes, and yet consistently and repeatedly the viewer is forced to reconsider their position. Cartel Land is far too clever to deal in binary terms. There is no distinct right or wrong to anyone’s particular position, only interpretations  for the viewer to make as to those ethical lines in the sand. The viewer is the ultimate arbiter who will pass judgment, and in this respect Cartel Land will undoubtedly be a very subjective experience for each individual audience member.

Heineman was this year’s Doc/Fest recipient of the Tim Hetherington Award – given to a film which best reflects the legacy of Hetherington’s desire “to take audiences to a faraway place that they could never travel to without the help of an intrepid filmmaker“. At clearly much personal risk to himself, Heineman achieves this. It is exactly what the goal of good documentary film should be, casting light on the unseen, challenging accepted notions and highlighting the very best and worst of human endeavour.

Sheffield Doc/Fest continues to champion these filmmakers and bring their work to new audiences. The 2015 festival seemed like a programme in transition, as one director passes the torch to another. New festival director Liz McIntyre will have her work cut out to emulate the previous successes of Heather Croall and Hussain Currimbhoy, but the fundamental festival DNA remains dominant and strong. We’re already looking forward to seeing what they have planned for 2016.