Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016 – Round-Up 2

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The fourth day was taken up with interviews, unfortunately meaning that we didn’t get a chance to see Sir David Attenborough discussing his long and magnificent career. We did, however, get to hear Ken Loach doing a lengthy Q&A following the screening of Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach. His enthusiasm and sharpness belied his age (nearly 80!) – he is still the same brilliant little socialist elf he always was. Guardian writer Simon Hattenstone kept him talking with some nicely probing (but RATHER LOUD) questions, though Loach remained tight-lipped about whether or not he will be making any more films following his Palme d’Or winning ‘final’ work I, Daniel Blake. Louise Osmond’s Versus was itself a marvellous portrait of Loach, especially good when detailing his ‘wilderness years’ in the 1980s.

This day also saw the UK premiere of Care, Deirdre Fishel’s captivating look at the world of home care in the USA. Passionate, intimate, uplifting and yet at the same time heart-breaking and profoundly chilling, the film follows a number of home carers in an exploration both of the issues they face and the greater menace posed by an ageing population and a lack of care provision. We spoke to director Deirdre Fishel and producer Tony Heriza about the film and their ongoing engagement with the problems it examines.

The penultimate day began with Miso Hungry, which sees Australian comic and director Craig Anderson switch from junk food to Japanese food in a bid to improve his health. As with Where to Invade Next, none of this is going to blow your mind but it is an enjoyable way to pass an hour and a half and I was chuckling all the way through, as were most of the audience. Anderson’s an affable subject and it leaves you hankering for Japanese food. Luckily, Sheffield provides…

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Next up was Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato. A collection of those who knew the controversial photographer in his short life, family and friends, conjure up a powerful image of a fame-hungry figure who enraptured and enraged in equal measure. His brother’s testimony is almost painful to listen to, but essential.

Later in the day were screenings of Noma: My Perfect Storm and India in a Day.

While it would have been perfect for a fifteen minute short, there really isn’t enough meat on Pierre Deschamps’ Noma: My Perfect Storm to justify the feature treatment. The film tells the story of Danish chef René Redzepi’s struggles running Noma, which has four times been voted the best restaurant in the world; a potentially fascinating subject, but with scenes where we have Einaudi music playing over people telling you how marvellous it all is, it comes across as achingly pretentious and hollow. The subjects never engage either – they spend half the time telling you how unimportant winning awards is to them, only to be borne away on a sea of their own smugness when they get one. You might imagine that the film is being critical of this hypocrisy, but then we watch René ride away on his bike as The Cinematic Orchestra’s ‘To Build a Home’ swells on the soundtrack and you realise, with this explosion of bathos, that we were actually supposed to have identified with these people. Overall you might end up with the feeling that Deschamps has rather over-egged the pudding – surely something which would be frowned upon in Redzepi’s kitchen!

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Following the same pattern (a film compiled from footage all filmed on the same day by members of the public) but with a slightly more political bent than the previous ‘In A Day’ films (2011’s Life… and Britain…, and 2012’s Japan…), India in a Day is a well edited and at times highly affecting portrait, capturing the dichotomy of India and showing as much of the beauty as the ugliness. We spoke to director Richie Mehta about what it took to compile this multi-layered portrait of a day, and a country.

The final day began with Jean Carper’s film Monster in the Mind: The Convenient Un-truth about Alzheimer’s. Journalist Jean Carper places herself at the heart of an investigation into the truths surrounding dementia – and brings up some interesting facts. The playful use of monster movie clips was a little jarring to begin with, but their continued use eventually worked really well to counterpoint the menacing portents which have surrounded Alzheimer’s for the past forty years. Ending with a rallying cry for everyone to just get out there and improve their general health (a recurring theme in films this year), echoed in producer Lee Koromvokis’s assertion in the Q&A that they do not want this to be simply ‘a film for old people’, Monster in the Mind is a heartfelt work from first-time director Carper. I learned a lot.

Next came Solitary, Kristi Jacobson’s film about prisoners in solitary confinement in a ‘supermax’ Virginia prison. Jacobson allows the prisoners to speak for themselves, detailing their lives leading up to their incarceration, and in doing so paints a depressing portrait of some of the great failings of the US prison system. In many cases you feel that these people definitely need to be kept away from the public – a sentiment echoed by many of the prisoners themselves – but the sheer dehumanising aspect of the prison seems self-evidently the wrong way to treat these damaged individuals. Solitary is powerful and depressing, though sadly not particularly shocking given that the state of prisons in the USA has been explored so much already. The solitary confinement aspect was something we were not familiar with, however, and makes this worth seeking out.

We ended the festival, as we did last year, with Adam Buxton’s Best of BUG. This year’s was rather special in that it was entirely devoted to one artist, the late David Bowie. Buxton’s love for Bowie was clear, but he did not let it stand in the way of his usual searing irreverence! We laughed solidly for two hours, and we cannot ask for better than that (though listening to the Bowie/Bing Crosby duet of ‘The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth’ without laughing is going to be VERY hard come Christmastime!).

The usual problems of scheduling and fatigue plagued us, especially as our usual twosome was reduced to one, but this year’s festival was as impressively put together as it always was under Heather Croall. Bravo to Elizabeth McIntyre and her team for continuing the tradition of excellence. See you next year, Sheffield Doc/Fest!

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