Independent spirit: 21st Sheffield Doc/Fest

Continuing its reputation as the biggest international documentary film festival in UK, the 21st Sheffield Doc/Fest welcomed documentarians and activists from the public domain with a fierce independent spirit this year.

Georgia Korossi

The past is always with us. But who wants to live in an antique shop?
Ian McShane in How We Used To Live

Happiness, dir. Thomas Balmes
Happiness, dir. Thomas Balmes

A programme of at least 327 films and events, running in parallel with meetings on creative processes of brilliant ideas, drew much inspiration from filmmaker Peter Wintonick’s wish to exposing the truth and changing the world. Wintonick’s legacy was celebrated during the six-day long festival with the first ever Peter Wintonick Award that went to director Diana Whitten for her optimistic debut film Vessel, which is based on the story of activist-artist Dr Rebecca Gomperts. Since 2001 Gomperts and her crew provide support to women wishing to terminate their pregnancies for it’s “the basic human right to decide what is happening with their bodies.”

Vessel, dir. Diana Whitten
Vessel, dir. Diana Whitten

The festival this year opened triumphantly with three films. Florian Habicht’s Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets which sees Pulp’s front man Jarvis Cocker and his band back in their hometown, Sheffield; the outstanding documentary Miners Shot Down by Rehad Desai that reflects on the 2012 police crime which took place in South Africa and the astonishing film by Thomas Balmès, Happiness, which travelled festival delegates as far as Bhutan.

Seeing a packed Sheffield City Hall with locals and Pulp fans at the premier of Habicht’s film, it was striking. It was even more so to see these people featured in the film and talking about the unique talent of the city’s band. For most festival delegates, Sheffield is a relatively unknown city outside its centre. But Habicht brought the city’s common people and normal day-to-day things to the enormous City Hall screen, one of the new venues for this year’s Doc/Fest, and actually made everyone appreciate their warmth and admiration for their city’s band.

Pulp: A Film About, Life, Death & Supermarkets, dir. Florian Habicht
Pulp: A Film About, Life, Death & Supermarkets, dir. Florian Habicht

With great back stage images, enduring footage from Pulp’s 1995 Brixton Academy gig, diary footage with the band preparing for their last gig that took place in Sheffield in 2012 and interviews with the band’s members alongside with the people from Sheffield, Habicht’s portrait is a motivation as much as a desire to see the band coming back on stage after the encore. But it was Rehad Desai’s film Miners Shot Down that prepared the ground for skepticism and the value of accepting responsibility for humanity.

It was just two years ago when the police shot down 34 unarmed miners of the British company Lonmin and injured many more in Marikana, outside the land mines in South Africa, at the end of their struggle for better living. To date no police officers have been arrested or charged and nobody has taken responsibility. Neither the National Police Comissioner who ordered the killing nor Lonmin mining company.

Miners Shot Down, dir. Rehad Desai
Miners Shot Down, dir. Rehad Desai

Yet 270 miners out of 3,000 who were striking peacefully for better living and working conditions, without occupying any road or mining location, were arrested: initially charged with ‘public violence’ then for ‘murder’. Through footage filmed by the police and the mining company itself, released upon an investigation request, we see South Africa and its twisted mentality where the life of a black person is so cheap and apartheid heroes become one with the greedy side of the establishment. For the good of humanity everyone must see this film and these events should never be forgotten. Instead they should be investigated further in order to understand what went wrong with the conscience of the people involved in such an atrocity.

In one of the recordings for Amir Amirani’s film We Are Many, shortly before his passing former Labour Minister and President of Stop the War Coalition, Tony Benn, said:

There are two forces at work always. A state of injustice, which makes you angry and the belief you can make a better world, which makes you optimistic. When anger and optimism come together, they are a very powerful force.

Amirani’s heartfelt document of the coalition movement is an affirmation of filmmaker Ken Loach’s vision (who also appears in the film) towards a serious organization for the escalation of a better society.

We Are Many, dir. Amir Amirani
We Are Many, dir. Amir Amirani

There’s nothing like people coming together out of solidarity around a common cause and one simple message, No War, as it happened all around the globe on 15 February 2013 and a month before the war against Iraq begun. Ten years after “Mission Accomplished”, Iraq descents into chaos and despite public calls and the enormity of divide that existed against the war, the truth about Iraq is not known to our collective consciousness. With an array of interviews from the organisers of the coalition movement, the public and politicians, Amirani’s film is a sensational and necessary watch. We have to keep returning, demonstrating again and again because the cause of war was unjust and people know that with their voices they can win the future of humanity.

The Internet's Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, dir. Brian Knappenberger
The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, dir. Brian Knappenberger

As much as hope is crucial in politics, digital giant Aaron Swartz’s hope for a better world caught him within a U.S. prosecution system that builds cases of its own. Swartz’s suicide last year at the age of twenty-eight was an international devastation. With an astounding cinematography of family footage and testifiers from his immediate family and friends such as Tim Berners-Lee, Brian Knappenberger’s film The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz testifies the Obama administration and brings to light how it used Swartz to scare people.

From an early age Swartz was a pioneer of science whose intelligence flourished alongside his passion for bringing public access to the public domain. Access and knowledge is a human right so it’s our duty to always question scientific attitude, support hackers for rights instead of money-centered internet entrepreneurs and demand progress. Knappenberger’s film was quite rightly awarded the Sheffield Youth Jury Award and it’s Aaron Swartz who wins the battle of free information, not the inconceivable prosecution system he sadly got caught up with.

How We Used To Live, dir. Paul Kelly
How We Used To Live, dir. Paul Kelly

Paul Kelly’s collage of archive colour films, the majority of them funded by the British government between 1950-1980 and now held at the BFI National Archive, undresses the city of London to reach the heart of the city’s evolution in his latest film How We Used to Live. Narrated by actor Ian McShane and with glimpses of artist Barbara Hepworth at work and people going about their daily lives in the city, Kelly’s film is a celebration of London from post-war, to a Richard Hoggart influenced green city to an endless city of towers and concrete roads with cars driving to unknown destinations.

With the outstanding music from electro pop trio Saint Etienne, How We Used to Live, is as explosive as our daily imagination can be.  But there’s a question to be asked about architecture in this city today. Anxiety and tension are towering, new urban architecture with stainless steel, anti-social spikes is as hostile and tasteless as it has never been before. Tomorrow is not just another day to shape as we imagine in our individual lives. Hopefully it’s another day to make this city functional for all, including vulnerable people and skateboarders in the heart of London.

Pakistan's Hidden Shame, dir. Mo Naqvi
Pakistan’s Hidden Shame, dir. Mo Naqvi

Quite rightly children had once again an important presence in this year’s Doc/Fest programme. Mo Naqvi’s film Pakinstan’s Hidden Shame, which uncovers the story of vulnerable young boys in cities across Pakistan who are being raped for earning their living, is hard to swallow. Naqvi’s direct approach witnesses paedophiles who seem fearless of the law simply because there’s none for children in Pakistan.

I won’t argue how this portrait might be an attraction to a middle class society or why Naqvi chose to focus only Pakistan’s boys and not the girls, as the post-screening questions from the audience suggested. This is not the point here. But what’s at stake is how we stop this, how much aware we are, how we can help these children who become victims of sex and drugs abuse and why 95% of truck drivers can happily admit having sex with these boys.  This is uncivilized, a devastating truth that can’t be ignored.

Happiness, dir. Thomas Balmes
Happiness, dir. Thomas Balmes

Thomas Balmès’s Happiness turned our attention to another corner of the world for a portrait of a different experience of youth. Eight-year-old Peyangki lives happily in his village Laya, the last village in Bhutan to enter the process of globalization following the King’s authorization for television use and internet access. Peyangki’s mum cannot afford to send him to school and she decides to take him to the nearby monastery to become a monk. Free-spirited Peyangki would not just let his imagination of the world be limited within a tiny circuit of monks, a single fellow student and the Lama, and he decides to spend much of his time outdoors and takes a three-day journey with his uncle to the capital.

The result of a rich cinematographic skill combined with Peyangki’s thirst for life in Happiness is an exploration of love for the natural world on the big screen. Following its premier at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Happiness won the Cinematography Award: World Cinema Documentary. This is not a surprise and the experience of seeing Balmes’s film on the big screen is undeniably a very special thing.

Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn, dir. Ethan Reid
Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn, dir. Ethan Reid

The two documentaries that characterised this year’s Doc/Fest programme for their merit in debriefing the art of film, photography and writing were Ethan Reid‘s story of Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn, who sadly passed away a few days ago on 21 June, and Regarding Susan Sontag, a film by Nancy Kates. The celebrated work of Peter de Rome (1924-2014) is splendidly illustrated through Reid’s film. Thanks to the BFI National Archive’s recent acquisition of his films, de Rome’s work is now introduced to an entirely new audience.

As a filmmaker who was always grounded, cultured and who liked sex, de Rome took great risks to brake the sealing of gay-rights secrecy. His films were the first example of art-erotic-gay filmmaking and without great resources and a studio he managed to create a monumental body of work. From its concept to its ending titles created par excellence, director Ethan Reid’s skill is bringing together an intimate and mind blowing portrait of the artist in his Peter de Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn.

Noteworthy this year’s Doc/Fest retrospective on the work of the greatest living filmmaker, Agnès Varda, is also evidence that the spirit of social engagement, Wintonick came to expose in more recent years, was palpable during the festival. Varda emerged in the same historical moment as critic, essayist, novelist and filmmaker Susan Sontag and as the New Wave. However they were both engaged with a social commitment through their work long before the days of the New Wave movement.

Regarding Susan Sontag, dir. Nancy Kates
Regarding Susan Sontag, dir. Nancy Kates

It was also appealing to have an entry at the Doc/Fest’s programme that gives the actual definition of the writer and nobody could have been more suitable than Sontag. One of the most intelligent women in America, Sontag’s critique of purism pays homage to writers who she describes as “passionate about everything”. The documentary Regarding Susan Sontag by Nancy Kates unravels the life and style of Sontag as an iconic figure who confronted traditional academia. She embraced progressive politics, feminism, homosexuality and Godard and she described cinema as “poetic, mysterious and erotic all at the same time”.

In 2003 during her speech at Vassar College, Sontag said:

Don’t allow yourself to be patronised, condescended to. Which if you’re a woman it happens and it will continue to happen all the time, all your lives. Don’t take shit, tell the bastards off.

Kates’s documentary is an influential and expressive work most purified of independent and experimental thinking. Combined with Sontag’s voice, archive materials and readings from Sontag’s essays by actress Patricia Clarkson, the result is a beautifully illustrated film that makes us identify the importance of thinking and reflecting on present truths.

Sontag’s thought on photography is vividly referenced throughout Kates’s documentary and we learn that Sontag got in a relationship with one of the most acclaimed American photographers, Annie Leibovitz: a pleasant discovery as both women shared mutual creative visions. On photography Sontag once said: “I think the overall affect of photographs, of painful, terrible photographs is that one is very shocked. I think that when we see a lot of painful photographs, we think less.” Perhaps a good topic for discussion next year, Sheffield Doc/Fest? Till then, I hope all the above films will be available to the public this year as widely and globally as possible for their true nature belongs out there, in the wild.

Till next year Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Georgia Korossi is editor of 11polaroids, writer and producer of film based in London and Athens.

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