Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015 – Round Up Part 1

Sheffield circus poster

The festival began for us with a screening of The Greatest Shows on Earth: A Century of Vaudeville, Circuses and Carnivals, an archive-footage film directed by Benedikt Erlingsson. Introduced by acting festival director Mark Atkin, this opening night event was also an opportunity for a very touching speech from Heather Croall. Ms Croall, who is one of the producers on the film, was director of Doc/Fest for nine years before stepping down in March. This represented a touching passing of the baton. The importance of what Heather did for Doc/Fest cannot be overstated. New director Elizabeth McIntyre (who will take over in September) certainly has a lot to live up to!

The film itself was not a locally relevant as The Big Melt, nor a universally comprehensible as From The Sea to the Land Beyond, but does contain some stunning archive footage, set to a lovely soundtrack from Sigur Ros, several members of which were present. Erlingsson described himself as something of an anthropologist, showing human behaviour through the use of archive footage. He predicted big things for the future of archive film.

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Day 2 began with some short films. Of primary interest was actor (and Sheffield lad) Ian Reddington’s doc on Henderson’s Relish, Relish: For the People of Sheffield (for those of you not from Sheffield, look here).  An attempt to explain something of the magic of the city, through the lens of a bottle of condiment, Reddington’s film is short but sweet, and received rapturous applause. Other stand-out shorts included Benjamin Huguet’s touching, subtle film The Archipelago, about people living on the Faroe Islands. Some frankly shot footage of traditional whale slaughter stands out among many memorable images, all suffused with a sense of humanity and appreciation of the world. We sat down a few days later with the director to discuss the film. We also really liked Super-Unit, by Teresa Czepiec. A study of a Le Corbusier-designed apartment block, a ‘machine for living’, Czepiec films it like an urban horror film. Disconcerting, tactile and human.

Next up was Match Me! How to Find Love in Modern Times, from director Lia Jaspers. We expected a film about internet dating, maybe a Tinder travelogue, but actually received something far stranger. Following a trio of people looking for love, the film was more on the participants than the mechanisms of matchmaking. Indeed there could have been a little more focus, with certain aspects remaining tantalisingly vague. You’ll love Sampsa, question Sarah’s sanity and enjoy Johanna’s joie de vivre, but the film is fairly lightweight and not essential viewing.

We finished on Shades of True from directors Violaine Baraduc and Alexandre Westphal. This is an interesting film, focusing on women prisoners who were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Occasionally terrifying, sometimes blackly comic, the film succeeds in highlighting the human side of the genocide, often divorced from the political background. Questions of how racism starts and how it is promulgated are raised amongst stories of redemption, hatred and the weight of history sitting heavy on the shoulders of the present. Shocking and thought provoking, this is an important film that should be seen.

Mavis

On Sunday boss lady Fohnjang arrived. While I went to talk relish with Ian Reddington, Fohnjang got her festival party started with Mavis!. As a member of the family group The Staple Singers, this biography looks back on the life of Mavis who, in addition to her “Pops”, was a staple part of the formidable group. Funny, rousing, heart-warming and oh so soulful, Mavis! was a tough act to follow.

Iris

After getting down with a soulful sister in the Library Theatre, we then settled in to watch Iris, about the nonagenarian fashionista. It is also the final film from documentary master Albert Maysles. One of the strands of this year’s festival was a retrospective for Maysles, who died earlier this year. Iris is a fitting final work from Maysles, with the central figure every bit as intriguing as his previous subjects such as the Edies or Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Yet Iris, while seeming intimate, remains somewhat guarded, despite the impressive access to her apartment. The director’s daughter, who produced the film, referred to the effort involved in building a relationship with the titular icon, which took place over four years. Despite potentially juicy references to Jackie O, we walked away feeling that we hadn’t really learned anything new about Iris Apfel. While it would have been interesting to really get behind the signature lunettes, the film stands as a testament to Maysles unique style, and is definitely worth a watch. The Fohnhouse team were particularly happy when Ms Maysles also mentioned that her father had finished his long-awaited project In Transit, something he discussed at Docfest back in 2011. It premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this year.

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