The best of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013

This year’s finds and favourites at the UK’s biggest documentary showcase.


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The Summit, projected inside Derbyshire’s Peak Cavern

The Summit, projected inside Derbyshire’s Peak Cavern

The confab formerly known as Sheffield International Documentary Film Festival turned 20 this year. Comfortably the UK’s biggest big-screen showcase for non-fiction movies (and one of the  top three in the world, according to its own website, presumably bowing only to Amsterdam’s IDFA and Toronto’s Hot Docs), it’s still growing at a rate of knots, at least as a professional attraction. Delegate numbers this year surpassed 3,000, up 18 per cent on last year and fivefold since 2006, when the festival hired its Australian-raised director Heather Croall – whose energies combine with those of her Canada-born programmer Hussain Currimbhoy to lend the festival a decidedly post-colonial zeal. (Though there are increasing signs Currimbhoy may be preparing to break out for the comedy circuit.) And I heard remark from several quarters that the festival was starting to usurp visitors from Edinburgh’s, which it has preceded by a week since 2011.

Meanwhile the festival’s forays into web and interactive documentary – hosting a preliminary day-long summit in tandem with Crossover Labs, amongst other initiatives – marked its fifth anniversary. And the MeetMarket pitching forum is now sufficiently well-tried and -tuned that it can boast a healthy number of successful pitches that have come full circle to the festival’s programme, including Joshua Oppenheimer’s singular and devastating genocide exposé redux The Act of Killing [homepage], which perhaps inevitably scooped both the festival’s Grand Prix and (with Walter Murch’s Particle Fever [homepage]) shared the audience award. (It won prizes at three other festivals that same weekend.)

Murch was one of the weekend speakers I missed, along with PBS radio hero Ira Glass (of This American Life) and something like half the British TV establishment (Michael Palin, Melvyn Bragg, Sue Perkins, BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow and Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt), having shunted my visit forward to catch some (!) of the festival’s special-anniversary opening night salvos. First bite was of The Big Melt, a British-history tone poem collaged from the archives accompanied by a new live score, very much in the vein of last year’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond (Penny Woolcock, British Sea Power), although déja vu was offset by the novelty of seeing Jarvis Cocker in his hometown conducting a motley gathering of musicians in front of longtime collaborator Martin Herbert’s remixed images of Sheffield’s lost steel-making heritage. I’ll be posting a separate review of that and another archive collage film, John Akomfrah’s The Stuart Hall Project (Working Title) – perhaps my favourite film at the festival – in a following post.

The remaining two opening-night premieres – Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer and Nick Ryan’s mountaineering disaster doc The Summit [homepage] – clashed, but the choice of incarceration or death as subject matter seemed to define much of the programme as I picked it. I went with The Summit, an attempt to piece together the mishaps that led to 11 climbers dying in the course of 48 hours at the top of K2, the ‘savage mountain’, which was scenically screened inside a cave – Castleton’s Peak Cavern (or Devil’s Arse).

This was a fun way to see it; bewildered birds, water drips and a rising chill lent a vaguely appropriate atmosphere, while the film’s crisp HD re-enactments (pretty well blended with mixed-format archive material from the mountaineers themselves and prior K2 climbs) looked suitably stunning on the big screen. The film’s multi-perspective narrative is quite compelling, and it conveys a good sense of these elite climbers’ passions and dilemmas, not least in the character of Irishman Ger McDonnell, whose big heart may have been his downfall. But it certainly suffers by comparison with Kevin MacDonald’s simpler, sharper Touching the Void; The Summit’s skittish narrative took ages to settle into a present moment, and the absence of a key group of Korean climbers left a bit of a hole in the film’s testimony. I found the music and screen captions pretty fussy, too.

I was less impressed with Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish [homepage], a sad but lumpen corrective to the SeaWorld corporation’s propaganda about their performing orcas, who clearly shouldn’t be kept in captivity, any more than SeaWorld’s management should lie to employees who hazard their lives with the animals.

The Crash Reel

The Crash Reel

I feared a similar level of obviousness – and sympathy tested – with Lucy Walker’s The Crash Reel [homepage], a portrait of elite snowboarders who risk death or permanent brain damage when they fall on their heads, as they do. Infiltrating the cool, male-heavy, sun- and sponsor-kissed world of beautiful young Americans, it initially seems to exude the same brashness as Stacey Peralta’s skateboard and surfing docs, rollicking in archive footage of astounding athleticism. (Walker cites 232 different sources for this found footage.)

But Walker’s storytelling is masterful, turning the tone of this first act on its head, and subverting its spectacle, when she picks up and carries forward the story of former Olympic challenger Kevin Pearce, whose post-crash learning difficulties chiefly concern the fact that his physical recovery has used up all his luck, and that to keep on living he will have to give up what he used to live for. He meets others who’ve not learnt this lesson until it was too late. The tone perhaps is that of Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days’ in extremis, with added unease about the siren calls of sponsored youth culture. Also striking is the portrait of East Coast upper-middle-class culture to which Kevin retreats; the Pearce family host a series of huddles and gatherings that are almost eerie in their projection of care and unity. His father is a super-soft-spoken, twinkly-eyed glass-blower; his mother seems to follow Kevin to clinics across America with a worried brow. It’s another world, again.

Across the pond and across the tracks, parental and state/social failures combine as the backdrop to Garry Fraser’s brave and powerful diary film Everybody’s Child, in which he ushers us around the deprivation of Edinburgh’s Muirhouse, where 51 per cent of heroin addicts have HIV and “they” (us) have left “a full generation of people die forgotten.” He revisits old friends and his own too-familiar history: from a raging alcoholic father and loveless mother into the care system at eight (he has care files rather than photos of his childhood); sexual abuse, drugs, serious dealing and violence.

Everybody’s Child

Everybody’s Child

“What was it like seeing me getting stabbed?”, he reminisces with his wife. She, their three kids and his turn into filmmaking (and teaching) have set him to the right, although it’s a process: his attempts to come off heroin and an HIV test are in here, along with plaintive attempts at rapprochement with both his parents. Voices like Fraser’s are – we all know – rare, hard-won and vital.

The Act of Killing wasn’t the only film to broach genocide. Callum Macrae’s No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka [homepage] has none of the art of Oppenheimer’s movie, but certainly aims to redress the crimes against humanity it exposes in considerably sooner time.

Apparently it’s a further iteration of two previous investigations Macrae made for Channel 4 about Sri Lanka’s brutal final battleground victory over the insurrectionary Tamil Tigers in 2009. I haven’t seen them, but this film certainly carries powerful evidence that the Sri Lankan military deliberately attacked civilians in their declared no-fire zones (and used Red Cross geo data to target hospitals) and conducted mass rapes, torture and summary executions of the defeated, including children. This was all but winked through by outside diplomats, and the settlement now being imposed by Colombo on the Tamil north is as defiantly unjust as those in the West Bank, Tibet or The Act of Killing’s North Sumatra.

There were a handful of compelling studies of the oppression of women. The Doc/Fest jury gave an honourable mention to Xu Huijing’s Mothers, a verité glimpse of the workings of China’s one-child policy in the filmmaker’s hometown of Ma V​illage, Shanxi Province (pop. 2,226), a small, hardscrabble village turned stage for a dystopian vision of physically invasive authoritarianism worthy of Orwell or Ballard.



“If less than 85 per cent of the population is on birth control, officials will be immediately fired,” Beijing commands; and in Ma, where 345 of 483 women of childbearing age are sterilised, and 121 on birth control rings, the few women who haven’t yet submitted themselves are harried and hounded by the local fertility committee, who are also of course their family and neighbours. There’s black comedy with one errant lass who gives them the slip, but her fate is far from funny.

More uplifting were Kim Longinotto’s Salma [homepage] and Mona Eldaief and Jehane Noujaim’s Rafea Solar Mama, portraits of defiant, iconoclastic female agency in the midst of entrenched traditions of repression and confinement of women. Salma, a renowned Tamil poet in South India, is surely as insistent a writer as you’ll find. Locked up in a room from the onset of puberty by her parents until she consented to marry (“that’s how it is for Muslim girls”), then again by her husband – two decades of house arrest for being a woman – she would dream of writing, write on loo roll, have her poems smuggled out of the house. When her publisher first met her, he says, he could tell she had never crossed a city street, or been to a restaurant. Her fortitude is writ large, but so too her ambivalence about her ongoing load, and the film’s knottiness extends to her family. (Her husband may have imprisoned her, but he also made her run for local office.)

Eldaief aind Noujaim’s film, which also screened at IDFA and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and in the BBC’s Why Poverty? series, is comparatively feelgood, following a Bedouin housewife to India’s Barefoot College as she trains to become Jordan’s first female solar engineer, and back to her doubtful community and shamelessly inconstant husband. In a good festival for Noujaim, her Cairo Spring record The Square (Al Midan) won the festival’s inaugural Tim Hetherington Award.

The festival’s Innovation Award meanwhile went to Miquel Dewever-Plana and Isabelle Fougère web and iPad documentary Alma, a Tale of Violence [homepage], a portrait of a female survivor of Guatemala’s vicious gang wars. It’s a production from the interactive unit of the Franco-German TV channel Arte, but it was Canada’s National Film Board that dominated this year’s Crossover presentations, with show-and-tells on A Journal of Insomnia, NFB chair Tom Perlmutter revealing plans for a global Video on Demand platform for documentaries, and a keynote from Kat Cizek, the director of Highrise [homepage]. Look out for an interview with her here soon.

Mirage Men

Mirage Men

Finally, two stories of misinformation, dissimulation and traps of the mind, Western style. Samantha Grant’s A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair at the New York Times [homepage] follows Andrew Rossi’s 2011 Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times; a post-facto reprise of the plagiarism scandal that rocked the grey lady in 2003 built around a present-day interview with Blair, it doesn’t have the insider highs of that film, but nor the ill-structured lows.

It’s very talking heads-bound – almost begging for the small screen – but Blair seems to be reaching for honesty about his drink- and drug-fuelled slide into a moral abyss of theft and fabrication, and there’s a good accounting of the structural and cultural conditions at the Times that let him get away with it for as long as he did. But as we know from other recent scandals, journalism stands and falls on trust…

Mark Pilkington is an old colleague and friend of mine – though not so close that I’ve actually managed to read his 2010 book Mirage Men: A Journey into Disinformation, Paranoia and UFOs. At any rate, you can discount what follows accordingly, but I will say that Mirage Men [homepage], a long-gestating doc on part of the book which he made with John Lundberg, Roland Denning and Kypros Kyprianou, is the Doc/Fest movie I’m most keen to revisit, testimony to the disorientation of both its subject matter and its style and structure.

At its heart is the allegation that the US government – through the offices of the US Air Force Office of Special Investigations – pays fabulists to hoax its own citizens, perhaps to throw them, or perhaps foreign agents amongst them, off the scent of its secret tests in the deserts of New Mexico. These experiments might range from the development of the Stealth bomber to experimental nuclear fracking (“the stupidest idea ever”), which might explain the mutilated cattle carcasses dramatised in Alan Rudolph’s 1982 feature Endangered Species. The principle “weapon of mass deception”, meanwhile, is Richard Doty, a small, bespectacled, genial legend in the “UFO community”, able to bring men and women into his confidence, drip-feed them fantastic stories of “lessons to aliens”, official encounters with “creatures not of this earth” and leaked presidential papers about humans being a genetic-mutation experiment by aliens, and drive them mad.

If it sounds like The X Files, pop culture has supposedly been a part of the deliberate disinformation web, doubt and confusion being the most virulent of weapons. Linda Moulton Howe, the author of Strange Harvest and a target of Doty’s attentions, calls it “a fractured hall of mirrors with a quicksand floor”. It’s clearly a movie for sci-fi buffs, of course, but also fans of Philip K Dick, Victor Pelevin, Robert Stone, George Orwell and so on.

And in the August 2013 issue of Sight & Sound

Cabinet of curiosities

In its second year under new management, the Edinburgh Film Festival has made a virtue of its eclectic programming. By Nick James.

Film of the month: Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer

Reviewed by Sophie Mayer.

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