Here's how good Sheffield's documentary film festival is - that picture there is of a film we saw by accident. Taking a break in between screenings to indulge in our two favourite food groups at self-explanatory restaurant Craft & Dough, at one point I look out of the window we're sat next to and realise that Paradise Square is full of people. It takes a few seconds longer to realise that they're watching a short film that was shot in that very location. Chloe Brown's A Soft Rebellion In Paradise has got a nice idea at its core, but a) taking a poetic feminist call to arms, b) filming several hundred women yelling it in a public square and c) playing that film back in the same public square doesn't do much for your audio quality: ironic for a film about letting women's voices be heard.
In a way, it's rather terrific that Doc/Fest takes over the city so much, with its branded tote bags visible on every other shoulder, and films showing everywhere you look. However, the majority of their events are held in normal venues with roofs and soundproofing. Here are seven of them.
From its opening image - a procession of obsolete electrical devices sliding off a conveyor belt and crashing to the floor in a gigantic heap - the visual style of Sound is hugely inventive, as much so as the sounds it accompanies. It's framed by Ozvold herself walking through a building-sized art installation that looks like a graveyard for dead tech, which allows her to bring a degree of unity to the five interviews. Her chosen subjects each bring a very different perspective to the subject, which makes it all the more joyous when you realise what the final scene is going to be. It's a fine start to our festival weekend, capped off by the first ever filmmaker Q&A I've attended where the director breastfeeds her child while on stage.
Bees! They're fashionable right now, aren't they? Or, at least, their mysterious gradual disappearance from our planet is. I think this is what attracted me to Sarah J Christman's Swarm Season, and blinded me to the fact that ecodocumentaries are a tricky thing to get right. The central focus of this film are a woman and her daughter, who keep bees on the volcanic island of Hawaii. Dad tends to keep out of their way: he spends his days elsewhere on the island, protesting against Americans stealing Hawaiian land and building observatories on ancient burial grounds. Sadly, all I could think of while watching this was that the Hawaiian film industry has the potential for a magnificent sci-fi remake of Poltergeist in its future.
There's no denying that Swarm is visually ravishing, from the glorious panoramas of the landscape to some astonishing macro closeups of bees dying. Narratively, however, it's a mess, touching on various ecological issues without ever really coming to any sort of point. The bees on the island seem to be going through the same traumas as our own bees, but nobody knows why: the protestors seem to be the sort of nimbys who aren't interested in the benefits of an observatory: and worst of all, the child gets to vocalise all of the director's eco messages, at one point appearing to suggest that right angles are an abomination against nature. There's an enjoyable twist at the end as we're suddenly introduced to a set of characters who've been literally hiding offscreen, but it's too little too late.
As with any other festival, there's a huge number of films to choose from, and sometimes you have to plump for a famous name and hope that works. Like Ai Weiwei, for example, whose contribution to this festival is The Rest. I always get twitchy when artists branch out into cinema, but it has to be said that Ai has made a proper film here, rather than a piece of installation art with delusions of commerciality. It's surprisingly the only film in our first day that isn't desperate to look stunning, and that's probably right given the subject matter: it follows various groups of refugees from Syria, collecting their stories as they attempt to cross various border checkpoints into Europe, and seeing how well they do with all that.
Later in this festival, no less an authority than Werner Fucking Herzog will express his dismay at how many current documentarians act like journalists rather than filmmakers. In this case, however, I think Ai's made that choice wisely. He mostly stays out of the way of his material: you could argue that he's a little too fond of the visual imagery when the jungle camp in Calais is torn down, but that's as far as he goes. Generally, he's content to find the most articulate people he can in each refugee camp, and let them tell their story in their own way. Their stories are funny, sad and terrifying, and remind us that these are people who are currently being demonised by first their own government, and then by everybody else's. He generally avoids showing anything of the other side, and when he does it's to let them cheerfully incriminate themselves out of their own mouths, like the protester who complains that she can't eat the local fish any more "because of all the dead bodies in the sea."
Ai Weiwei's a pretty major name globally: Nikolaus Geyrhalter may be less well known to a general audience, but he's a superstar to a festival of documentaries like this one. He's probably best known for Our Daily Bread, which The Belated Birthday Girl enjoyed with reservations at LFF 2006, and I kept stored unwatched on a DVR for several years until I eventually moved house and lost it. His latest film Earth opens with a simple, jaw-dropping statistic: nature is responsible for 50 million tons of earth being moved every day, while people are responsible for moving three times as much. What follows is a set of seven vignettes depicting large-scale earth-moving projects: valley clearances, tunnel boring, mining both above and below ground, and the sort of archeological excavation that involves the use of high explosives. Geyrhalter interviews the people responsible, asking them how they feel about being part of an industry that has literally shifted the axis of the planet over time.
Earth went on to win the International award at Doc/Fest, and it deserves to pick up many more gongs in the future. Its visual ambition is way above that of anything else I've seen this weekend: each of the seven chapters opens with an enormously wide shot of the site in question, taken from above by satellite, and then continues as a demonstration of the director's willingness to attach a camera to anything that moves or is liable to explode. If this was just eye candy, it would already be a great film: but the interviews provide huge food for thought, from the ways people justify their jobs causing physical harm to the planet ("nowadays we know all our jobs do that," says one interviewee), to the logistics of ensuring that an old salt mine is a safe place to dump nuclear waste, and can be guaranteed to stay that way for at least a million years. Earth may not be for everybody - it had the biggest number of walkouts of anything we saw this weekend - but if it gets a proper UK release, you need to see it on the biggest screen you can lay your eyes on.
And so on to Sunday morning, and a hurried breakfast of pasteis del nata at Lisboa on the way to see Werner Herzog at the Crucible Theatre, sadly not playing an exhibition match against Ronnie O'Sullivan. (This variation on that conceit didn't get the love it deserved on Twitter, I'm afraid.) He's always good value in a live interview situation, and host Edith Bowman (dressed in her best Annie Hall cosplay gear) knows just when to probe and when to let him run loose. The 90 minute session is in a masterclass format: the projection booth has access to a couple of dozen clips of his work, and every so often he calls out a number and talks us through what appears on screen. His first clip sets the tone gloriously: we watch the start of his Kuwait film Lessons Of Darkness, and learn that his opening quote is made up and at least one of the shots is faked. As he explains, he's a filmmaker, not a journalist, and you wonder how he'd do in a fight against Ai Weiwei.
Herzog makes the assumption that quite a few of the audience are documentarians themselves, and he's full of the sort of dangerous advice that could get lesser filmmakers into all sorts of trouble. He talks about the 'criminal energy' required to make the best movies, and his hatred of overshooting on both documentaries and narrative films. (There's a lovely story about how his producers on the Bad Lieutenant sequel complained about how little coverage he was shooting, only for him to be loudly defended by his star Nicolas Cage: "finally I'm working with someone who knows what he's doing.") There are tips on how to evade the authorities when they spot you're shooting without a permit, and general advice on life for all of us (learn how to read people, and learn how to read books). Even if he gives up making films at some point in the future, he's delighted that he has a second career "playing badasses" in films like Jack Reacher 2: but I really hope he doesn't.
Every film festival has one: the film with a berserk one-line pitch you can tell to the people back at the office, which makes them back away from you nervously. Sunrise With Sea Monsters is our one for DocFest 2019: to quote the programme, it "follows a wandering desktop hard drive as it journeys through the British landscape in a quest to explore new ways to store and preserve human knowledge for humanity in the future." A large proportion of Myles Painter's film consists of shots of uncredited locations around the UK, with that little fella with the one blue eye sitting in the middle of them. Meanwhile, in voiceover, Painter talks to various people about the nature of data, and how it's changed over the years. Back when he bought his first hard drive, it was a state-of-the-art storage medium: so how did we get to the point now where records of our era are so fragile, people are considering alternatives like going back to ceramic tablets, or encoding information inside DNA? At the same time, there's a more human story running in parallel throughout the film, explaining how Painter ended up with so much film of his hard drive.
Maybe this works best if you've ever had a job in data storage. Or in filmmaking, perhaps: the opening scene shows the film we're about to watch being rendered on the drive, and there are groans of familiarity from the Doc/Fest audience as the status creeps up from '1 hour remaining' to '1 year remaining'. It shows that under the conceptual framework, there's a wit and playfulness that stops the film going too far up its own arse, even as it hurls around huge ideas of transhumanism towards the end. Deliberately shot in fuzzy 16mm as a snub to the failings of digital video, it also works as a kind of surreal travelogue, although you could argue that Painter's reluctance to explain the significance of his location choices leaves a bit too much to the viewer's interpretation. (Mind you, I gave a little internal whoop at a shot of the John Rylands Library, which may prove his point.) Sea Monsters reminds me a lot of another film I saw last year, Ian Mantgani's Weeks In The West End: both of them are documentaries about niche subjects which become more universal as the filmmaker's backstory starts to seep through. Ignore your knee-jerk reaction to the one-line pitch and see it if you can.
We wrap up our Doc/Fest with The Pit, in which Hristiana Raykova examines the clientele of a thermal open air swimming pool - the 'pit' of the title - located in Varna, Bulgaria. For the most part, it's become a hangout for old men (we see a few women there too, but the film apparently isn't as interested in them). There's the Russian émigré who runs a petting zoo: the former dance band musician who's about to turn 80: the younger gay man who turns tricks in his spare time: and the taxi driver who recently got himself a Russian girlfriend and is starting to regret it.
After half an hour of hanging out with these guys, it's suddenly revealed that the local council wants to close the pool down. It feels like a bit of artificial jeopardy created in the edit, though Raykova insists in the post-film Q&A that the announcement didn't happen until part way through the shoot. Anyway, as you'd imagine, this starts to impose a bit of a narrative on top of what until now has been a loose collection of character studies. The funny thing is, it turns out to not be that much of a narrative: despite the ticking clock, by the end of the film none of the stories has really been resolved to any great degree, and it just peters out rather than coming to a climax. Still, that's life for you: there's pleasure enough in getting to know these guys, and coming to enjoy their company despite their various flaws. Sometimes that's all you need. (Though the delicious widescreen photography helps, too.)
So, that's our first Doc/Fest. I suspect it won't be our last: once you've got used to the hair-raising nature of the seating system (where unoccupied seats are offered to the returns queue five minutes before the start of a film, even if a ticket's been sold for them), there's a lovely atmosphere in everywhere the event touches - the official cinemas (we made it to the Light, the Curzon and the Crucible, but somehow avoided the Showroom), the free screening areas, and every bar we went to where at least one person was carrying one of those damn tote bags. Can we get one next time?