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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020

About a year ago - well, yes, a bit more than a year ago now, ha ha, shut up, I've been busy - anyway, last June The Belated Birthday Girl and I went to Sheffield Doc/Fest for the first time. Over the space of two days we saw six feature-length documentaries, one short film (by accident) and an on-stage interview with Werner Herzog, which you can now watch over on the left there. (See what I meant at the time about Annie Hall cosplay?)

"I suspect it won't be our last," I said at the end of the 2019 festival, having no bloody idea what 2020 would have in store for us. Mind you, let's be honest: the main barrier to future visits to Sheffield Doc/Fest was that it was in Sheffield. And this year, it wasn't. Doc/Fest transitioned to video, making a decent-sized collection of films available online from June 10th to July 10th via their Doc/Fest Selects online platform, together with a bundle of pre-filmed introductions and post-screening interviews. Best of all, the films were competitively priced at £4.50 each. Although if you were some sort of film-obsessed lunatic, you could pay £36 to have the opportunity to get a 30 hour rental of every single film over the space of that month. But who could possibly consider that kind of commitment?

Deep breath.

The Go-go'sDoc/Fest this year was split into four main sections, and we ended up hitting Rhyme & Rhythm the most heavily. That isn't a surprise: with its focus on musicians and the creative arts in general, it's basically the equivalent of the LFF's Create strand. Sam Osborn and Nicholas Capezzera's Universe sounded just like the sort of story that would pack out NFT1 on an October Saturday night. Universe was a piece of music that Wayne Shorter wrote for Miles Davis in the sixties, but the two musicians fell out and it never got an airing. Before he died, Davis passed it on to his protege Wallace Rooney, and this film follows his preparations for the first public performance of Universe. But then, for totally unexplained reasons, it refuses to let us see that performance, while scattering fragments of the piece throughout the background score without ever really giving us a feel for its scope. You suspect there are bigger issues we're not being told about - Rooney died earlier this year, and the recording he made of the piece still hasn't been released - but the film refuses to budge.

Some of the better films in this strand look at how music engages with wider society, in some cases coming into direct conflict with it. Take Maja Meiners' Breaking Barriers - The Casteless Collective, an enjoyable portrait of a music group that mixes Indian and western styles with a political edge. It's interesting to see that for all the bluster and anger on display, they don't really get into trouble until the female one starts talking about going into temples, which is when the death threats start happening. Phil Collins' Bring Down The Walls is trying to tell two stories at once - the collapse of the American prison system, and the birth of house music - by looking at an organisation that's a prison reform program by day and a house club by night. It's not that much of a stretch: after all, the communities responsible for house music are the same ones disproportionately represented in prisons. It makes for a useful companion piece to Ava DuVernay's 13th, though the two strands don't integrate quite as well as they think they do. Rob Curry and Tim Plester's Southern Journey (Revisited) is the most effective mix of music and politics, a delightful recreation of musicologist Alan Lomax's 1950s tour of the Southern states, reconfigured as a road trip taken around the time of the 2018 US midterm elections. Your heart sinks a little at the possibilities, but the people they meet along the way are a lovely bunch - I suspect focussing on folk musicians will do that.

It's not just music in this section, though - the visual arts also get a look in. Marsha Gordon and Louis Cherry's All the Possibilities... Reflections on a Painting by Vernon Pratt is a breezy look at the history of a monumental artwork consisting of 65,636 small images, one which they only found a way to display in public several years after the death of the artist. Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdottir's The Vasulka Effect looks at the lives of video art pioneers Steina and Woody Vasulka, seen here as an elderly couple looking back at their legacy and starting to be appreciated in their final years. You could also mention Keith Haring: Street Art Boy here, although its run at the festival was truncated because it was lined up for an airing on BBC Two later that month. (I don't know whether it's the presence of the BBC logo in the corner of the screen that does it, but this last one feels less cinematic than the others: it's got all the modern TV documentary cliches, including an opening sizzle reel of shots you'll see again in the next 90 minutes anyway.)

The best of this year's music documentaries has also had a British TV outing since Doc/Fest: Alison Ellwood's The Go-Go's has subsequently turned up on Sky Documentaries' online player and seems to be getting intermittent reruns on telly (the next one's on September 2nd). Women working in music always seem to get a bit of a raw deal - it's also the subject of Moe Najati's short film Uproar about the sexism encountered by women in the mambo scene. But this film makes the case that we really should appreciate what The Go-Go's did a lot more: they wrote their own songs, played on them, and topped the charts with them, and no other female group has achieved that before or since. (Stewart Copeland finding out that the Go-Go's have never been admitted to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame results in what just might be my favourite bit of swearing in all 21st century cinema so far.) It's a film that has the full co-operation of the band, but Ellwood doesn't pull any punches when it comes to recalling their bad behaviour, without getting too tabloid about it. Like all the best pop groups, they seem like a proper gang, which means that the Zoomed Q&A which accompanied the film is a terrifically raucous thing. As they say in the new song they recorded for the end credits, some 42 years after they started: zero fucks given.

Space JourneyTo people who aren't so obsessed with the performing arts, Doc/Fest's Into The World strand is more the sort of thing you'd expect a documentary festival to give you - glimpses of bits of the world you haven't seen before. This is where the short film programmes come into their own, although frustratingly some of the shorts shown have no internet presence at all now that the festival's over. Shorts like Danielle Swindells' Stop Nineteen, a punchy bit of observation on how the main battlegrounds of the Troubles have become Northern Irish tourist spots. Or Fergus Haughton's Wellspring, one of those puzzle films where voiceover and images tell the elliptical story of two women's life and work, and at the end a caption tells you if you worked it out correctly. Or Carol Salter's Breadline, a simple but effective depiction of a day in the life of a food bank.

Two other shorts in this strand are worth noting, and do have some evidence on the web that they exist. Laura Wadha's Isle Of Us is a lovely student short about a family of Syrian refugees who've set up shop on the island of Bute, much to the delight of the locals who come to Mounzer's barber shop to test their courage against his nose hair waxing technique. There's a more reflective air to Tamar Lando's Our Mother The Mountain, which follows the separate stories of three modern-day cowboys coming to terms with how redundant they're becoming. It's downbeat and dignified without being depressing, although it's a bit distracting that one of the cowboys sounds unnervingly like Eccles fron The Goon Show.

A couple of the films in this strand look at the world's problems, although they don't necessarily come up with any solutions. Florence Lazar's You Think The Earth Is A Dead Thing is a slightly cliched eco-doc - you know the sort of thing, small agricultural workers are good, banana processing factories are bad - but it's nicely shot, and its points come across regardless. Anthony Baxter's Flint takes on a more specific ecological problem - the ongoing crisis regarding the quality of the water in Flint, Michigan - and has an unnerving present-day relevance as it shows people initially coming together to solve a problem, before conflicting scientific opinions smash any hope of consensus into pieces. But it's a little too slickly constructed for my liking, with its narrative revelations feeling rather contrived in the edit. If it's not the environment, it's the economy, stupid, and Carmen Losmann's Oeconomia has a bold aim - to explain the financial mess we're in, and how we live in a world where debt literally has to exist to keep everything else moving. Again, however, its slickness works against it, with glossy shots of financial buildings battling against a sound mix that's either idiosyncratic or clumsy - I could never quite work out which.

The two best films in this strand are much more organic affairs, and have a similar structure: start from a ludicrously basic observation point, and use it as the foundation for a broader picture of a whole society. Pavel Cuzuioc's Please Hold The Line follows cable installers from four Eastern European countries, observes their dealings with their various customers, and covers a broad swathe of humanity as it does so. For the most part it's more about the customers than the cable guys, until towards the end where one of the technicians muses on camera about how all communication will eventually take place over wires rather than face-to-face, which feels a bit on the nose these days. Carlos Araya's Space Journey does roughly the same thing but within an even more limiting framework, presenting a portrait of Chile through a series of perfectly framed shots of its bus shelters - I mean Wes Anderson-style perfectly framed here - and the overheard conversations of the people waiting there for buses. Some of them we only meet once: others keep coming back as we begin to piece together their backstories. But they're all fascinating to watch and listen to.

We Have BootsFor me the Ghosts & Apparitions strand was the weakest at this year's Doc/Fest, mainly because it's the one where the overall theme was least apparent. Inside there was a sub-strand of work by director Lynne Sachs, though I only saw one short film in that: Sachs and Lizzie Olesker's The Washing Society. It's an overly mannered mixture of two elements: a history of the organisation of New York laundresses the film gets its title from, and a performance art piece recently staged in the last few laundromats still standing in the city. Either would make a fine film in its own right, but leaping around between the two just irritates. Similarly, Charlie Usher's Ascending Ballard Down has an interesting subject - the time spent by the British surrealist artist Paul Nash in Swanage, and the effect it had on his work. Unfortunately, its scattershot approach to the various narrative threads means that we never get to spend a satisfying amount of time with any of them.

The one other film in this strand we saw was Atsushi Sakahara's Me And The Cult Leader / Aganai, which is a deeply odd piece of work and incredibly personal to its director. Sakahara was one of the victims of the 1995 sarin gas attacks in Tokyo, the work of the Aum Shinrikyo cult. A couple of decades later, he's decided to make a film about Hiroshi Araki, one of the current administrators for Aum Shinrikyo (now rebranded as Aleph, presumbably because the old name has negative connotations for some reason or other). As he spends several weeks following Araki around with a camera, Sakahara's questions gradually transition into full-on bullying, at one stage asking him 'why didn't you die?' The thing is, you get the impression that Sakahara's aware that this will be uncomfortable for the viewer, and doesn't care what we think, making for an incredibly uncertain tone. It all comes together in the final reel, where what's been for the most part a very intimate film opens out in spectacular fashion, ending in a splendidly dark punchline.

The world may be turning to shit, but there are people out there trying to do something about that. Which brings us to Rebellions, the fourth and final strand of this year's Doc/Fest, and the one which contains my two favourite films. Jonathan Perel's Corporate Accountability could almost be considered conceptual art, from a one-line synopsis. Over a series of static shots of Argentinian corporate buildings, taken secretly from inside a car parked some distance away, the director reads from a report on the numbers of people working for those companies who were abducted in the late seventies by the military regime - a process aided by the companies themselves passing on the names of potentially subversive employees. In a subtly brilliant touch, the buildings are all filmed at dawn: partly because that's when the light is at its most beautiful, partly because that's the time of day when the kidnappings happened. As the numbers get bigger and the company names get more familiar, there's a palpable sense of Perel's anger at the injustice, enhanced by the rising nervousness that at any moment one of these shots could be interrupted by someone knocking on his car window asking what the hell he's doing.

For a more contemporary example of injustice, and the single best film of this year's Doc/Fest, we go to Hong Kong for Evans Chan's We Have Boots, a comprehensive history of the territory from the Umbrella Movement of 2014 to the chaos of the present day. Even with some hurried post-production recaptioning towards the end, it can't hope to be an up-to-date history: in fact, the new National Security Law was literally brought in partway through this film's Sheffield run. As a long-term lover of Hong Kong since my first visit in 1993, I'd foolishly assumed - like a lot of people, it would appear - that since the Chinese military didn't swarm into HK on the day of the 1997 handover, the transfer of power had been a peaceful and successful one. It's now apparent that China was playing the long game, and Chan interviews many of the key activists who pushed back against that, many of whom have been jailed or are awaiting trial. Thanks to mobile phones, the protests of both 2014 and 2019 are some of the best documented by the people on the streets, and there's some extraordinary ground-level footage assembled here, along with jaw-dropping drone shots of the most recent protests. We Have Boots hit me especially hard because of my personal fondness for HK, but it's hard to see how a viewer could react any other way.

Doc/Fest 2020 has been a brilliant demonstration of how a film festival can be run online, using bonus footage such as filmed introductions and Q&A sessions to elevate a series of online streams into something more like an event. But it's all over now - well, sort of. If you get to read this before the end of August, it's still possible to watch that bonus footage for free (though you'll need to register to do that). And if God is willing and the R number don't rise, there are tentative plans for some non-online Doc/Fest screenings in Sheffield cinemas some time in the Autumn - see the festival site for updates when they happen. We won't be there for those, but we'll have to seriously consider returning to the festival in 2021, wherever it ends up being held.

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