Preview: Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019

The publisher at Sheffield-based And Other Stories on the written word and translation at the documentary festival

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Sheffield Doc/Fest is one hell of a balancing act: while of global importance in the film industry, it is also open to the general public and makes a big effort to be accessible to all, whether or not they have ever seen a documentary before. You could say it’s kind of like Cannes, but with fewer fancy frocks and more friendly faces. The festival runs 6-11 June, and the programme is up. The verdict? In a word – go.

There are premieres by big names. To pick out three: Werner Herzog, Ai Weiwei and Nick Broomfield. Herzog’s Nomad is about his friend, the travel writer Bruce Chatwin, Weiwei’s The Rest follows refugees in Europe, and Broomfield’s Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love tells the story of Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse Marianne Ihlen. All three directors are appearing for talks too.

But it is the discoveries from less well-known names that make the festival. The range of films is such that it effectively explodes the idea of the documentary as a single genre, so the festival has strands that help to give a steer. These include the particularly arty (the Doc/Vision strand), issues-based reportage (Doc/Exposé), music-based films (Doc/Rhythm), more intimate stories (Doc/Love), dramatic tales (Doc/Adventure) and finally new ways of thinking (Doc/Think). There are also extra focuses on new hits, new Japanese and UK films and a retrospective of feminist British film-making.

Interviewees bring out the links between military camps of the 1960s and 1970s and organised crime and femicides today

The Doc/Exposé strand certainly doesn’t disappoint in its films shining a light on issues, Dark Suns by Canadian director Julien Elie (still pictured) among them. A film about violence in Mexico, it starts by investigating the murders of hundreds of women from 1994 onwards in Ciudad Juarez near the US border, a horrific reality familiar to readers of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. Although the origins of the killings remain murky, soon the murders were being done by powerful men “simply for sport”. Interviewees bring out the links between military camps of the 1960s and 1970s and organised crime and femicides today. “They’re the same people, back then and now, and their children join the business.”

Chillingly, just as the local factories export their wares, the city’s model of violence seems to have been exported to the rest of Mexico. The film is beautifully shot in black and white, and it’s atmospheric, giving time for the telling details of a scene and providing a welcome balm to a story otherwise so disturbing to watch.

One film arrives with particularly high praise already: For Sama, made from video diaries shot in Aleppo, Syria, takes us from the start of the city’s uprising to its fall. This spring it has already had a few outings at important festivals and been rewarded with best documentary prizes at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, at Cannes Film Festival and at Toronto’s HotDocs, North America’s biggest documentary festival. The videos were shot by the young journalist Waad al-Kateab, and she co-directs the film with Edward Watts. The film is about and for the children victims of the war in Syria. It is addressed by Kateab to her daughter Sama and includes heartbreaking footage of her husband’s work as a doctor running the only hospital in Aleppo that the Russians hadn’t destroyed.

But documentary isn’t always about the toughest stories – sometimes it’s a pure delight. Misericórdia by Catalan director Xavier Marrades is a near-perfect short film. It takes us to a tropical island off the coast of Bahia, north east Brazil, and is filmed with beautiful symmetries and innate energy, without the need for rush cuts. The colours and sounds are rich, whether the sea and the boats on it or the bright lights of a carnival truck as it carries dancing kids around town. Townsfolk talk about their life on the island and about what they have been dreaming.

If I had one bone to pick with the film, it’s one I could pick with many: it fails to spend enough time – or probably money – on the subtitling, its title in English for a start. Misericórdia is the name of the town – as a local says: “A good place to live. You can sleep with your doors open and no one bothers you.” In Portuguese the word “misericórdia” chimes with that, as it means “mercy”, but your average English speaker will hear “misery”, an unfortunate suggestion particularly in this positive portrayal of an Afro-Brazilian community.

There is a recognition in this year’s programme of what the written word can add to film

Given how many of the documentaries in the programme for this year’s Doc/Fest include poems (not always overtly flagged as such in the narration, but often clear by the names in the credits), there is certainly a recognition of what the written word can add to film. Poems crop up in all sorts of films, including one about football hooligans: Andres Torres’s The Fortress. It’s a high-energy film that follows three teenagers on the violent fringe of a Columbian football team’s fan base, which goes by the nickname of the Fortress. Truly barrier-breaking, the camera is the fourth protagonist as the boys and the film-maker jump onto the backs of trucks to get across the country for an important away game.

Thanks to Arts Council England funding, there’s also a growing alternative reality strand – the “bat-shit crazy inter-mersive stuff”, as Doc/Fest’s Alternate Realities curator Dan Tucker called it at the programme unveiling. Among the installations are Algorithmic Perfumery, in which personal data will be used by AI to create a personal scent for every visitor, and the Doc/Fest commission Spectre, a cautionary tale powered by personal data.

There are live events and site-specific screenings too. I’m particularly looking forward to dropping into Paradise Square for one of the 10-minute screenings, running from the noon to 9pm on 8 June, of A Soft Rebellion in Paradise. This is artist Chloë Brown’s film of 200 women taking to Paradise Square last year to remember where, in 1851, for the first time in the UK, a group called for women’s suffrage. Brown’s film mixes a Geraldine Monk poem, music by Die Hexen, protest and even the Wigan clap, as developed by Northern Soul audiences.

Throughout the festival, the Doc/Fest Exchange space is its beating heart in Tudor Square. It’s free and open to all, with free screenings and talks all day. On 10 June, 11am, don’t miss the artist Jeremy Deller and Site Gallery’s artistic director Sharna Jackson discussing art and social movements. It feels just right, given that Orgreave is just a few miles’ walk away and Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to One is an Injury to All) is a masterpiece of art and documentary film.

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Interact: Responses to Preview: Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019

  • Northern Soul Unmissable Sights and Sounds: introducing Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019
    05 Jun 2019 14:35
    […] on offer is incredible. I’ll focus here on a couple of films in the Doc/Rhythm music strand. (In a parallel piece on Big Issue North, I’ve had a look at other films in Doc/Fest 2019 that you might want to check out.)The Sound is […]

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