Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019: An accessible, exciting opportunity to unearth cinematic pearls
There’s always a lively audience in Sheffield. When Doc/Fest chairman Alex Graham comes on stage and names the city, a great roar goes up in the City Hall venue, where Asif Kapadia’s Diego Maradona has its UK premiere on a gigantic screen to celebrate the 26th edition of the event. It makes for a perfect opening night film, a pulsing, crowd-pleasing biography of the iconic, contradictory footballer. But compared with last year’s goldmine of films like Shirkers, Minding the Gap and Hale County This Morning, This Evening, this year’s festival is relatively sparse of big releases with popular appeal and awards potential. The main draws here are Apollo 11, Channel 4 Aleppo exposé For Sama and documentary legend Werner Herzog in the flesh, presenting his latest, the slight Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin.
Doc/Fest promotes itself as the major networking event for the documentary industry. In her opening speech, interim director Melanie Iredale highlights the festival’s range of cinema, talks and parties. There’s a Boiler Room set, if you really fancy getting ketted up alongside film professionals (not typically renowned for their partying skills). While a pint in most Sheffield pubs sets you back about £2.50, in the private events for Doc/Fest attendees you’ll find drinks inflated to London prices. Sheffield locals appear excited about the energy the festival brings to the city though, and there’s no hierarchical ticketing and plenty of free opportunities. More than once strangers stop just to chat about what there is to see in their city.
If only there were more films that challenge our notions of the documentary form. Youtube clips, or industrial films, or even something like last year’s The Rider, which blurred the lines of documentary and fiction film, might push our boundaries even further than the eclectic lineup already does. But there is such a dense programme, and it’s so busy, that you can miss out on a gem if you don’t do your research.
Through circumstance, our programme includes three different films about 21st-century Russian culture. The highlight of these is undeniably Hey Bro!, A hangout movie about two teenage wannabe-Soundcloud Rappers, who party and fight their way through Moscow until they’ve been banned from every club, then go on holiday to Crimea to do more of the same. With some hilarious set pieces and disturbing behaviour, it’s Withnail and I for the Lil Pump set. It’s troubling how director Aleksandr Elkan’s music video aesthetic seems to revel in the wall-to-wall misogyny on display, but it shows a Russia not often depicted onscreen: not a repressive state as much as a zone of total capitalist anarchy.
On Saturday morning it’s time to settle in for the riveting 4-hour History Channel film Watergate, which seamlessly mixes archival footage, new interviews and verbatim reconstructions of the Oval Office interior to present a definitive document of one of America’s most notorious political scandals. It slyly operates as a warning to those who think impeachment is a simple process that necessarily results in justice. Equally exciting are a pair of 16mm films presented by London based collective The Machine that Kills Bad People, The Sky On Location (1983) and O’er The Land (2009). Together, they paint changing landscapes and corrosive American culture. Aside from these, and the restored David Hockney docudrama A Bigger Splash (1974), about the artist’s breakup from Peter Schlesinger while he was painting A Pool with Two Figures, there is little in the way of programming older and classic documentaries to celebrate the history of the form as well as its exciting present.
The best film of the weekend is Don’t Be A DIck About It, an unpatronising slice of life in which director Ben Mullinkosson follows his cousins, the bickering brothers Matthew and Patrick. There are touches of Maysles brothers, of Ross McElwee, but it gets away with being a comedy about Autism because Patrick is so goddamned funny. We don’t laugh with him, but rather the filmmakers gently push us to understanding his sense of humour and mindset through several sustained comic set pieces. Patrick’s commitment to the TV show Survivor as a way of life is fully accepted by the family, who go along with his gameshow view of the world. The filmmaking leans into this by editing scenes to more closely resemble the series in question, turning the living room into the jungle – as the subject sees it. For a setup not dissimilar to something like Rain Man or The Fighter, the film manages to avoid the usual pratfalls of cinema about neurodiversity. Patrick is presented as fully autonomous, exuberant. This challenge to conventional wisdom around cinematic depictions is exactly what keeps me coming back to Sheffield Doc/Fest, a superbly organised, accessible festival that forces audiences to take chances to unearth cinematic pearls.
Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019 took place in venues across Sheffield from 6th to 11th June 2019. For further information visit the festival’s website here.