The opening night of doc/fest kicked off with The Big Melt, a buzzy, live event helmed by Jarvis Cocker, accompanied by members of Pulp and the Verve, a rousing brass band and a youth choir. Playing an uplifting, rave-like score of sounds and music against a backdrop of extracts from over 100 years of archive on Sheffield, it perfectly captured the spirit and essence of the city of steel.
The official opening film, Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, though undeniably of the moment, was a less emotional ride. Despite some fascinating moments – in particular the girls in court, placed like curios in a glass box –it doesn’t really feel like it really goes under the skin of them as people or the situation itself. Worth seeing, but more contextualisation or personal detail would really bolster the film.
After the Mirage Men, an intriguing if slightly dense film about the deliberate disinformation created by US intelligence to encourage people to believe in UFOs and thereby distract them from secret defence development, The Secret Life of Uri Geller – Psychic Spy? provides a more humorous take on such shadowy presences. The premise – that for many years Geller has in fact been a spy working for Mossad and the CIA – is almost incidental, a MacGuffin if you will to lead us into his world of smoke and mirrors. Whilst Geller himself never really denies or affirms, he’s very happy for the filmmakers to talk to former ‘colleagues’, who posit that he was indeed (and may still be) an agent, using his powers of telepathy and ‘remote viewing’ to assist with covert operations. The ultimate showman, displaying a Tom Cruise-like self-belief, Geller’s more than happy to play to the camera whilst entertainly promulgating and maintaining his mystique.
Salma, the latest from filmmaker Kim Longinotto, sees her back in India, this time to follow a woman who, from age 13, was locked up by her family and forced into marriage. During this time, she wrote poetry – much of it about her situation – which was smuggled out and published, making her the famous poet she is today. As ever, Longinotto directs with honesty and humor, and her roving camera gives fascinating insight into village life, and the wit and strength displayed by local women in the face of adversity.
A personal favourite for me, After Tiller is a documentary about the four doctors in America who are prepared to undertake third trimester abortions, all former colleagues of George Tiller who was shot by pro-lifers in 2009. The sensitivity and skill with which the directors Lana Wilson and Martha Shane handle the topic and their subjects really stands out, and it feels like a privilege to spend time with the doctors who put their own lives on the line as they try to make the difficult choice about whether or not to grant people permission for the procedure, and also the men and women grappling with their own decisions. Most want an abortion because their children have extremely debilitating illnesses – which on the face of it, is easier to comprehend – but many have equally complicated emotional reasons. Refreshingly unjudgmental, the film reveals how quick we can be to judge other people’s sitatuations, that circumstances are rarely as black and white as we assume, and also highlights the importance and privilege of a decent education. My one criticism would be the slightly heavy-handed music – with such a topic we don’t need to be emotionally led – but it’s a minor detail in an otherwise fascinating film.
A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power & Jayson Blair looks back 10 years on at the 2003 scandal at The New York Times which exposed the fact that one of their journalists had been using other people’s articles as the basis of his own. Questioning what caused Blair to act the way he did, the film also examines the fallout for everyone involved at the paper, including Howell Raines, executive editor, whose career was effectively ended. Whilst a fascinating topic, and featuring insightful contributors, it suffers, rather ironically, from an opaque central protagonist, which on occasion renders him less than interesting the situation he created.
The Fear of Thirteen, conversely, has an utterly compelling character at its heart, Nick, who, after 23 years on Death Row, petitions to the court asking to be executed. He’s the only person we see for the entire film and delivers his astonishing story in a performative monologue direct to the audience. Directed by David Sington (In the Shadow of the Moon, The Flaw), and still a work of progress, it’s already a gripping piece of dramatic filmmaking with an unexpected denoument.
Amongst the many talks and discussions, one of the highlights was a masterclass on editing by Walter Murch, who was attending the festival with Particle Fever, co-winner of the Audience Award, which he spent over a year working on. Showing the differences between his approach to films, such as Apocalypse Now, The Conversation and The Godfather, and today’s digital projects, his talk was full of anecdotes and insights, including a fascinating account of how he created the ‘documentary’ footage in The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Awards went to:
The Special Jury Award: The Act of Killing (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer).
Audience Award: The Act of Killing (Dir. Joshua Oppenheimer) & Particle Fever (dir. Mark Levinson).
The Sheffield Youth Jury Award: God Loves Uganda (Dir. Roger Ross Williams)
The Sheffield Innovation Award: Alma, a Tale of Violence (Dirs: Miquel Dewever-Plana & Isabelle Fougère)
The Sheffield Green Award: Pandora’s Promise (Dir. Robert Stone)
The Student Doc Award: Boys (Dir. Marc Williamson)
The Sheffield Short Doc Award: Slomo (Dir. Josh Izenberg, US 2013 16 mins)
The Tim Hetherington Award: The Square (Al Midan) (Dir. Jehane Noujaim)
The EDA award: Rafae Solar Mama (Dirs. Mona Eldaief, Jehane Noujaim)