The 23rd annual Sheffield Documentary Festival marks the debut of festival director Elizabeth McIntyre. After last year’s changing of the guard, Heather Croall has finally left for pastures new. We wish her all the best – she really put Doc/Fest (and Sheffield) on the map. Ms Croall is certainly a tough act to follow, but things are already looking good for our new director – she has managed to gather an incredibly impressive line-up of talent, even by DocFest’s usual standards. Michael Moore, Louis Theroux, Sir David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley and Tilda Swinton have all made the voyage to the steel city to share their wit and wisdom, and they are but the famous-faced figureheads of a year filled with exceptional talent.
The opening night film was Moore’s latest work, Where to Invade Next. The most overtly comedic of his films to date, the premise sees Moore set off across the world in search of things other countries do better than the United States. For a European audience, this seems rather like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs but this is clearly not intended for us, and these are eggs that desperately need sucking. Healthcare, education, penal reform and many other social and political issues are covered, and Moore has a great time globetrotting and soapboxing. This is not as fizzingly powerful as Bowling for Columbine, but it also avoids the preachy excess of some of his other work (Moore is, lest we forget, the ‘giant socialist weasel’). It won’t rock your world but it is certainly worth a watch, and made for a nice opening to the festival.
The second day started with Reset (Relève), a beautiful exploration of Benjamin Millepied’s first steps as director of the Paris Opera Ballet. I know next to nothing about ballet, but I was drawn in by Millepied’s passion and the use of a countdown to opening night which gives an added urgency to even the most banal moments. Stylishly shot and edited to perfection, Reset also boasts incredible access to its subject. I spoke to directors Thierry Demaizière and Alban Teurlai about their craft, Millepied’s managerial style and the difficulty of making documentaries that are pleasing to critics.
Next up was The Land of the Enlightened. An exploration of war torn Afghanistan, focussing on young children living amongst the wreckage, the film is a hybrid documentary which combines traditional – well-executed – point and shoot documenting with a fictionalised depiction of childhood hopes and dreams, venturing at times into magical realism. I later met up with director Pieter-Jan de Pue for a conversation which included discussion of his approach to the fictional elements of the film and the ennui of sitting on top of a mountain top with a bunch of soldiers watching out for trouble.
On day three we started with Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise from directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack. This was another doc with incredible access to its subject, but also to her pals: having the Clintons talking about their affection for Angelou adds impressive weight to the film, highlighting just how important she was to changing social mores. The warm recollections of those who knew her are matched with a wide selection of archive material and the most recent interviews that she gave. Watching her friends tear up as they think of the gap she left in their lives brought a lump to the throat. Co-director Whack was present for a very informative Q&A.
Today saw the premiere of Ambulance, a film about the 2014 attack on Gaza by first-time director Mohamed Jabaly. Jabaly follows the crew of an ambulance throughout the 51 days, showing the horrors that they faced. The film is, as you might expect, terrifying, honest, brutal and sad…but it’s also hopeful, showing people fighting to live on even when their homes are crashing down around them. A tie-in with the film saw director Mohamed Jabaly hosting live Skype talks with people from Gaza from inside an ambulance parked on Tudor Square. This was a great initiative, though weirdly nerve-wracking. I had the chance to talk with Jabaly’s friend Khamis: it was a bit strange, a bit awkward and a little bit wonderful. I later spoke with Mohamed about his journey towards becoming a filmmaker, and the struggles he faced documenting in the middle of a war.
Our next film, Notes on Blindness, was another hybrid, using artifice in a different way to The Land of the Enlightened but equally bridging the gap between documentary and fiction filmmaking. Using recordings made by academic John Hull when he lost his sight, and newer interview content featuring John and his family, filmmakers James Spinney and Peter Middleton use actors to lip synch with the recordings to add an immediacy to the archival material. It mostly works well, though one or two fantasy sequences feel oddly out of place, despite their beauty (I thought I spotted a visual nod to Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, but maybe not). Spinney and Middleton were on hand for a Q&A, accompanied by both the actors who lip-synched John (Dan Skinner) and his wife Marilyn (Simone Kirby), and Marilyn herself. It was fascinating to hear Marilyn’s take on the way her life has been documented, and equally great to hear from Skinner and Kirby the issues involved in lip-synch acting (something we haven’t ever seen before).
These were a strong opening few days for the festival – it was just a pity that the changeable weather we’ve had in Sheffield recently decided to settle on rainy. I’m having trouble remembering the last time I saw the sun at Doc/Fest…