Sheffield Doc/Fest 2011: Day One

The first day of Sheffield Doc/Fest was every bit as exciting as we could have expected from what is fast becoming an international ‘event’ on the film festival calendar. Now in its 18th year, the festival has, in the past few years, grown to be an incredibly popular few days where likeminded people gather, pitch and exchange ideas, socialise, write, blog and, most importantly, enjoy an eclectic mix of the best documentary films. The word around the press desks was that this rapid growth of the festival is due to the work of Heather Croall, who took over the running of Doc/Fest six years ago. Whatever she’s been doing, it’s worked! This year’s slogan of ‘Sex & Docs & Rock ‘n’ Roll’ does not seem far off the mark – the atmosphere was electric, in spite of the somewhat bizarre weather conditions.

We started our day with Ecumenopolis: City Without Limits, Imre Azem’s film which looks at the problems inherent in Istanbul’s incredible rate of growth. It certainly made for an appropriately deep subject with which to begin our Doc/Fest experience. An extremely well crafted film, Ecumenopolis explores several layers of the expansion issue, leading up to a fascinating mediation on the point at which capitalist expansion comes into conflict with the very laws of science. The film’s prognosis is not good, and is summed up in one word by an interviewee at the end: chaos. The way in which Azem makes as much of a character of Istanbul as of the people involved in the film is echoed in the short film which preceded it, Avijit Mukul Kishore’s Vertical City. This looked at the plight of Bombay’s slum dwellers who have been relocated into crumbling tenements.

Avijit Mukul Kishore

We spoke to Mr Kishore after the screening and asked him how he had come to work in documentary film. “I definitely did not want to be part of the Bollywood studio system…the hierarchy of the stars and everything…Just dealing with the kind of subjects I was interested in – real people, real situations – pushed me into documentary and I really liked it!”. He drew our attention to the fact that Vertical City uses devices which are not strictly documentary in order to make it more interesting, emphasising the need to ‘mix and match’ from different genres. When we asked what his next project might be he apologised to us for falling back on cliché and explained that he is working on a few things.

Our next stop was Morgan Super Size Me Spurlock’s latest film, Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. A witty commentary on product placement, the film shows Spurlock funding a film about product placement by getting companies to sponsor him for using their products. A very modern metanarrative, it is a tremendously enjoyable and unpretentious watch. Equally unpretentious was the man himself, in Sheffield to open the festival. Of course, this Wandercat posed the most important question of all to the moustachioed documentarian: when looking for sponsors for the film, did he contact McDonald’s? “Of course we did! The whole idea was to create a ‘docbuster’ – a documentary blockbuster – and if you’re going to do that, you need a Happy Meal!”.

Morgan Spurlock

The final film of the day could not have been better. The first of several films being shown over the festival to honour their director Albert Maysles, the godfather of cinema verité documentary, Running Fence is his 1978 documentary on the efforts of the artist Christo to create a 24 mile long fence of nylon sheeting. At times laugh-out-loud funny and at others oddly emotional, the film is a masterpiece, and representative of the hugely personal films of the master Maysles. The man himself introduced the film and then crept back in for the Q&A just as it was finishing. With his air of dignity and immensely affable manner, it was difficult to choose which side of the cinema to watch. He thrilled us afterwards answering questions about his career, with mention of his unfinished opus In Transit making us hope that the 85 year old veteran of documentary has many more years ahead of him yet!

Albert Maysles

From verité genius to new egocentric comedy, Doc/Fest showcases a dazzling range of documentary styles and formats. This was but day one, and already it is going to be difficult to top!