Hannah Patterson reports from Sheffield doc/fest, the film festival dedicated to documentaries.

The perfect opening night film for Sheffield doc/fest, Searching for Sugarman is the gripping, revelatory story of musician Sixto Rodriguez, who, despite recording two excellent Dylanesque albums remained relatively unknown in America, where he lived and, unbeknownst to him, became an enormous phenomenon in South Africa via bootleg copies, and an inspiration to white anti-apartheid protestors. Rumoured to have killed himself onstage, when two of his most ardent fans go on a journey to find out the truth, the results are entirely unexpected and extremely moving.

Equally riveting is 5 Broken Cameras, made by Emad Burnat who lives in the Palestinian village of Bil’in, where aggressive Israeli soldiers are attempting to pave the way for Israeli settlers. The 5 cameras of the title are the cameras he has used to witness the tragic events over 5 years, replacing each one as it stops working. It’s a simple, eloquent device which gives the film an added poignancy, whilst commenting on the very nature of documentary itself. It was co-director Guy Davidi who persuaded Burnat to make the film as personal as possible, using his own family’s story as the route in for the audience, and it works brilliantly. A must-see for anyone who wants to get under the skin of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Another documentary about contested land is The Island President, a Maldives version of the West Wing, which focuses on Mohamad Nasheen after his appointment as president of the islands, following his torture and exile at the hands of the former dictator, and his subsequent fight to change global warming legislation. Including fascinating behind-the-scenes footage at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, and the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting, it’s a tragedy that Nasheen, who’s so passionate about defending his home and people, has since been ousted by a military coup.

Also themed around resistance, Call Me Kuchu spotlights the fight of homosexuals in Uganda against an irresponsible sector of the media and draconian laws, which threaten the choice and safety of the country’s citizen, and the horrifying impact on openly-gay campaigner David Kato. Still on the subject of obstructive legislation, The House I Live In, from director Eugene Jareki, is also worthy of mention. A tough look at the effects of drugs on society, told through the people on the frontline, interviewees include David Simon, who speaks eloquently about how the hard line ‘war on drugs’ will never work.

Beautiful and nuanced, Lucy Walker’s 40-minute Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, looks at the impact of last year’s tsunami in Japan through interviews with the people affected and how the hardiness of the eponymous tree that is so important within Japanese culture signals renewed hope as it blossoms.

Winner of the Youth Jury Award, and a reminder that the personal can be as powerful as the overtly political, Photographic Memory is the latest offering from legendary American director Ross McElwee. Commonly referred to as the Woody Allen of documentary, McElwee uses his films to mine the meaning of his relationships, both romantic and familial, exploring wider social issues along the way – whether it’s place and identity, racism, or tobacco. But it’s always through the prism of the personal, and where his earlier films, such as Sherman’s March, Backyard or the exceptional Time Indefinite often dealt with his relationship with his own father, Photographic Memory is about his relationship to his son, and subsequently to his own past and a woman with whom he was involved in France when he was his son’s age. Rewarding viewing for anyone interested in the dynamics of family, and the power of memory and nostalgia in a non-digital age.

For a full list of winners, visit the festival website