My day at Sheffield Doc/Fest

The big films sold out weeks ago but Dan Cave still had a packed day at one of the world's leading documentary festivals

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Sour Grapes, directed by Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas, charts the rise and demise of prodigious wine savant Rudy Kurniawan and was the first film I watched at the 23rd Sheffield’s Doc/Fest.

It was not my first choice viewing. I arrived at Doc/Fest with a rigorously planned schedule of films to see and industry schmoozing events to loiter around the edge of – primarily to drink free beer and gorge on film-world canapés.

Yet the festival’s ever-increasing popularity on the global non-fiction film festival circuit calendar meant tickets for the films of big-name directors – or from production houses with large marketing budgets – were fully booked days in advance.

By late morning, the delegates hub – where press and invited others vied for tickets and argued for privileges with bemused volunteers – housed small groups of journalists, marketers and guests holding tense meetings about which of the leftover tickets was most worth their time.

Passes for films by Ken Loach, Louis Theroux and Michael Moore were scooped up by only the most ardent, well-connected or well-organised fans and press.

This left the rest of us to figure out if it’s choreography or coffin-making we hold a latent passion for and whether we should devote two hours to watching a documentary on these crafts.

This lesson in pre-planning meant that I sat down to watch Sour Grapes (main picture) with only a resigned interest, having been unable to get tickets for In Pursuit of Silence or Ambulance, which looked at noise pollution and the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict in turn.

These were films I thought asked more pertinent questions than whether an old bottle of fermented grapes is from Burgundy or not. However Sour Grapes quelled any reservations I held.

Subtle, funny and thorough, Sour Grapes uses Kurniawan’s story – the gregarious wine merchant with a mysterious past – to chart the nature of super-wealthy rare wine collectors.

As he disappeared completely from the screen, towards the latter end of the film, Atlas and Rothwell’s dupe became clear.

By convincing some of America’s wealthiest men to participate in filming – allowing them to believe they were providing anecdotal evidence on a large-scale wine con – the directors gained access to a social circle that usually shrinks from in-depth journalistic analyses.

Although it is impossible to comment on every film shown, Sheffield Doc/Fest’s heavyweight reputation and ability to obtain national and international premieres ensures a high level of quality.

Throughout my day I saw punters and industry heads alike disappointed to learn that tickets for their chosen viewing had sold out days, if not weeks, in advance.

Yet with over 160 films over six days on offer, tackling a wide range of subject matter, I found it worthwhile to say yes to tickets to films that had not been booked up.

ITV’s marketing event at the Crucible Theatre was where I began to collect business cards from attendees wishing to seek out openings and collaborations.
Jamie-Leigh Richmond and Amber Gough were two such people, trainee filmmakers from Angela Ruskin University, Cambridge, who saw Doc/Fest as an unmissable opportunity.

Richmond said: “We came here for more experience as we need to network for career opportunities and good advice.”

Presenter and DJ Reggie Yates. Photo: Phill Taylor
Presenter and DJ Reggie Yates. Photo: Phill Taylor

Having spoken with actor, TV presenter and DJ Reggie Yates, as well as picking up filming techniques from the documentaries they had seen, Gough spoke about the necessity of such festivals.

She said: “There is a chance of getting a real position working for one of these people. We’re attempting to get out at least 20 business cards each so we can start a career in film and TV.”

Not just for the wide-eyed hopefuls, I learnt that Doc/Fest provided a platform for journalists and filmmakers to circumvent censorship issues they have experienced in their home countries.

Sona Jo, who produces for South Korean independent production house OP OT Pictures, spoke to me about the importance of visiting film festivals in her search for film distributors.

In 2014 her production house previewed Non Fiction Diary at Sheffield Doc/Fest. It followed Korea’s first serial killer case and went on to win the non-fiction Berlin Webfest award.

The film was controversial in South Korea, not least because it explored the military junta of 1988 and the arrival of the global free market, meaning Jo looks to these festivals for protection.

“We deal with sensitive issues and therefore it’s an important weekend for networking as it is possible to meet a Western distributor to get the film out.”

The film she was promoting at this year’s Doc/Fest follows a Korean punk band who, among their many seditious acts, watch Seth Rogen’s The Interview – banned in both Korean countries.

“They have been arrested in North Korea and have ridiculous lyrics which criticise government. As only government-approved films can get released we need a Western distributor for protection.”

Many of the films were supplemented by Q&A sessions by directors, producers or journalists – with Michael Moore’s interrogation by Owen Jones the festival’s most talked about event.

Plaza de la Soledad documented the lives of aging sex-workers in Mexico City. It portrayed sadness, regret and their need to be loved by following their routines, relationships and conversations.

Plaza De La Soledad charts 20 years in the lives of Mexico City sex workers
Plaza De La Soledad charts 20 years in the lives of Mexico City sex workers

Director Maya Goded, a photographer, spent years with these women, gaining their trust and highlighting their fragility while learning how the process of documenting changed the subject.

She said: “I worked in my city as a photographer and I met these women. Since then I have visited them, made a book and an exhibition on my 20 years filming them.

“I love that the film has its own life. I am used to being alone with the person I am photographing. Doing this movie, I learnt a lot. It’s difficult to do this film and for them it’s hard.

“They showed me the pressure involved in being a woman in Mexico. All my work is about sexuality and its realisation in prostitution is interesting as it is a work which talks about sexuality.”

Although it is possible, at international film festivals such as Sheffield Doc/Fest, to literally rub shoulders with the stars, as they themselves become punters, it is the variety of shows and conversations on offer that astounded me.

Doc/Fest was an educative experience that gave a platform to hidden issues. I can’t wait for next year’s programme.

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