Hannah Patterson has returned from Sheffield to report on the best of this year’s doc/fest.
Winner of the Jury Award at this year’s doc/fest was Steve James’ The Interrupters. Coming in at over two hours, it delves into the world of ex-gang members in Chicago, who train to intervene in situations in their community that could turn violent; ultimately to prevent people from being injured or killed. Daughter of an infamous gang leader and a reformed gang member herself, Ameena forms the backbone of the film. She has an indefatigable belief that she can make a difference, that with help, people can change, and her insider knowledge give her a crucial respect on the streets when dealing with gang members. People listen when she speaks, using her own experiences to prove there’s another way. With the wrong handling it’s a topic that could easily stray into preachy or sensationalised territory, but James (of Hoop Dreams fame) manages to navigate a perfect path, getting right in on the action, and making us forget on several occasions that there must have been a filmmaker present.
Calvet is that rare documentary which manages to follow one single character for its entirety and grip our attention throughout. Directed by Dominic Allan, who chanced upon Jean-Marc Calvet whilst travelling in Nicaragua, it’s a portrait of a man who came close to death and rehabilitated himself through art. Told by Calvet himself, who recounts the events of his life and the extraordinary effect that painting has had on it, his story – best encountered as it unravels in the film rather than being detailed here – absorbs and moves, not least because of the extraordinary intimacy he allows us to see, and his willingness to reveal every dark and painful aspect of his life.
Project Nim, the latest from Man on Wire (2008)team Simon Chinn and James Marsh, is an equally dark tale, a profoundly disturbing insight into what the human race is capable of. Mixing archive and talking-head interviews, it recreates the details of a scientific experiment from the 1970s, which placed a baby chimpanzee with human beings to chart the extent to which he would develop communication skills. The brainchild of the operation is Herb Terrace, who talks us through his original hopes for the idea, coming across as the villain of the piece who’s a little too in love with his new-found celebrity. Also contributing are a range of carers (mothers, siblings, teachers) who became intimately involved with Nim, the majority of them far too much, crossing an ethical line and losing any perspective of their responsibility to the animal. Shot with Marsh’s customarily high production values, but more sinister than his crowd-pleasing Oscar-winner Man on Wire, it will be fascinating to see how audiences respond to it.
Directed by Alex Gibney, Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer, whilst not as wholly satisfying as his earlier films Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, or Taxi to the Dark Side, is still an eye-opening glimpse behind news headlines. Adopting the tabloid style of its subject, the film pieces together Spitzer’s rise from New York State Attorney General and corporate scourge to Governor, with powerful enemies who were only too pleased to capitalise on the revelation that he was visiting high-class call-girls. It’s grounded by an interview with Spitzer himself, who rather frustratingly talks a lot about the political shenanigans, but much less about the implications of his foray into the sex industry. However, it’s adeptly told and very entertaining, and I for one came away thinking he’d been thoroughly stitched up.
You’ve Been Trumped – winner of the Green Award and directed by Anthony Baxter – takes us on another journey behind the hype and headlines, into a very real, human story: the effect of Donald Trump’s bid to build a golf course in the North East of Scotland on the locals who live there. When several of them refuse to succumb to his offers to buy their land, or his subsequent bullying tactics, they feel the full force of the Trump machine, aided and abetted by a greedy local government and the police, who appear to be in the pocket of industry. With no regard for the people who have lived there all their life, Trump simply cannot see why they wouldn’t welcome his scheme, or his workers digging up the dunes outside their window and trampling over their land. An allegory of sorts for a certain strain of American hegemony, it shows a physical clash of opposing value systems, where one side cares deeply about community, nature and heritage, the other wealth and power, and the harnessing of nature. A David and Goliath story, which is still unfolding…