Former Youth Juror Alex Lancastle shares his Top Picks of the Festival, available to watch now.
This year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest was my second year of attendance, and quite frankly I can’t fathom a legitimate reason why I won’t go every year from now on. My first year was spent volunteering as a member of the Film Crew, filming Q&As and several industry Talks & Sessions (I saw a lot of films). My second visit was this time serving on the Youth Jury, and this involved two preliminary visits to London and to Sheffield, for training and shortlisting the films that would make up the Youth Jury award, and of course, a Delegate Pass to the Sestival (I saw a lot of films). It truly was a privilege and an immensely rewarding experience to have your opinion matter, and debate films amongst four other inspirational young people, with purpose and focus. This year’s programme, a first for Director of Film Programming Luke Moody, was a vibrant and eclectic selection. With 46% of films directed, co-directed, or produced by women, a full-hearted embracing of VR and interactive projects, and a vast international reach, Doc/Fest is one of the year’s most essential festivals. Here are the films that stood out:
The Work (Dir. Jairus McLeary, Gethin Aldous)
Following one of the most physically intense, borderline primal methods of group therapy you’ll be likely to see; The Work is an utterly captivating piece of reportage. Pioneered by the Inside Circle Foundation, made up of inmates and ex-convicts, the breakthrough rehab shouldn’t work on paper. Having run for almost 20 years (seven of which one of the filmmakers attended) the therapy sees inmates and members of the public (all male) attempting to heal their shared wounds; exploring the razors edge where the potential for volatile behaviour can land you on the wrong side of the prison bars. The film unfolds as if we are attending the therapy, and benefits from this vérité style immensely. We focus on three members of the public and the inmates tasked with guiding them through the therapy, whilst together they discover the wound from which their violent outbursts are birthed.
Made up of an Aryan Brother, a Crip and a member of the Native American Brotherhood, it’s unbelievable the level of maturity and empathy these men show in order to be present, and a testament to the power of the programme that these men are willing to leave gang affiliations at the door. The film’s transcendent potency lies in the pivotal moments of the therapy where, when the group sense one of its members unearthing a past trauma, they all rise to their feet and crowd around, providing the (literal) push to the almighty shove that dealing with profound pain releases in these men. It’s a ‘goosebump’ moment, of which there are several, and you’ll leave the screen emotionally broken, but all the better for it. As one of the inmates affirms: ‘It’s the work man…it’s the work’.
Click here to find out how to watch The Work.
Brexitannia (Dir. Timothy George Kelly)
Placing the English populace in a wide, locked-off 4:3 black and white frame; each cut like turning a page of a photobook, Timothy George Kelly’s Brexitannia was one of the most visually striking documentaries of the Festival. Focused around 2016’s hottest trigger words – Brexit – Kelly investigates the nations thoughts on our membership of the EU and the decision of whether to stay or leave. The film’s subjects are found from each corner of the nation and on every strand of the political spectrum. Some answers are more questionable than others but for the most part we fully understand the reasoning behind the varied responses. Kelly’s minimal cutting only draws us in further to the conviction each subject delivers their thoughts with. What emerges is the baffling inability of a ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ referendum to remedy the nations complex and layered issues, and the inevitability that the result would be too close for the nation to draw a meaningful conclusion from it.
Enter the third act, where Kelly breaks his well-established visual rules and introduces us to the ‘experts’ – sociologists, economists and the like. Reviews I have read all found fault with this section. Whilst it does sit uneasily with the rest of the film, structurally and formally, I found it to be an effective counterpart to what comes before, framing the individual thoughts of the nation within a wider, more theoretical context of the failures of neo-liberalism, the rise of nationalism and the role that the media play in guiding the nation’s political unrest towards targets of their choosing. The first hour is a feast for the eyes and the mind, painting an uneasy picture of our little island. Kelly doesn’t let us leave without reminding us that there’s bigger forces at play.
Click here to find out how to to watch Brexitannia.
Rat Film (Dir. Theo Anthony)
Managing to be both pungently damning in its exploration of theme and dazzlingly original in that method of exploration, Rat Film was without a doubt one of the highlights of the Festival. Beginning innocently enough with a rat desperately trying to escape a trash can that the cold autonomous narration explains is "34 inches high; rats can jump an average of 32 inches" before jumping directly into the lens with the film’s title exploding onto the screen. By this point you know you’re in for a hell of a ride.
Simultaneously digging into the story of rats in Baltimore and the story of social engineering and man-made segregation affecting the ethnic minorities, filmmaker Theo Anthony mixes dystopian ruminations with concise historical analysis. Along the way we encounter a virtual reality world from the POV of a rat, a glitch in a Google Earth realm, a community of people who kill local rats with dart guns and fishing rods, and minuscule recreations of crime scenes (often cutting from one scene to the next on the sound of a Geiger counter, because why not). The final image speaks volumes about the chaotic destiny of communities less fortunate. It’s a shell-shocking 80 minutes of filmmaking.
Anchoring the film is its other-worldly orchestral score which sways and evolves as the film itself does. To say much more about Rat Film would be to spoil its many rewards. My time on the Youth Jury at Sheffield Doc/Fest allowed me to see this film twice and I was smiling in astonishment both times – I urge you to see this film.
Click here to find out how to watch Rat Film.
Unrest (Dir. Jennifer Brea)
I saw Unrest about half way through the Festival, and the thought came to me as it begun – ‘I haven’t cried yet, I wonder if I will at all?’. Within 10 minutes of Jennifer Brea’s pummelling, intimate documentary, me, and the whole audience, were in floods of tears. Chronicling Brea’s downfall from normal, intellectual adventurer (with husband Omar, equally talented) to a woman inexplicably paralysed with the rare, and wildly misunderstood condition ME (referred to often as chronic fatigue). Unrest did for me what the best documentaries do – educated me about a subject I knew nothing about and galvanised me to care about what it was saying. Beginning with the personal effects it has on Brea and her marriage, detailing in incredibly raw footage the debilitating physical pain felt by Brea and the mental exhaustion it extolls on both her and her husband, peppered with their varied attempts to self-medicate, as and when the cruel illness dictates.
The film then blossoms naturally into an exploration of the disease worldwide, and the different stories of people affected by it. Directing in her bed through arranged Skype interviews, Brea unearths a shattering misunderstanding circulating ME: men who leave their wives because of suspicions of feigning illness (until the daughter gets it too); a doctor's struggle to gain funding to help save his light and noise-sensitive son; and the Danish government, which shockingly turfs victims out of their homes and places them into psychiatric wards for ‘proper treatment’. What Brea manages to influence is a global activist movement towards better understanding and the demand for real action to be taken. It’s an achievement that this film exists – that it’s so powerful is something else entirely. When Jennifer and husband Omar arrived for the Q&A, they were met with tears, applause and huge thanks for their contribution to documentary cinema. Rightly so.
Click here to find out how to watch Unrest.
Strong Island (Dir. Yance Ford)
Another devastatingly personal essay film is that of Yance Ford’s Strong Island, depicting the emotional decay of a family due to the depressingly common maltreatment of a dead black man at the hands of the police. It is a composed, complex and expertly paced film that demands attention, quite literally. Talking to us in close up, Ford’s anguished face fills the entire frame and stares right down the lens, telling those uncomfortable with the death of a black man to leave the cinema. This close up returns throughout the film and, whilst stylistically divisive, I found it to be arresting – my eyes studying the pain on his face as he questions and doubts his own responses.
What the film does marvellously is take the time to paint the picture of a black family happily living in America. Ford’s hand moves family photos into the frame like a jigsaw, as we get to know what brings each character to the excruciating moment where the promising eldest son, William Ford, is murdered. What follows is an indictment of the treatment of black people through the justice system, despite clear and mounting evidence to who the culprit was. It’s familiar territory, sadly, but rarely has it been told through the lens of a 20-year wound tearing through an honest family. Operating through personal grief and wider political injustice, there’s lots here for audiences to connect to. Yance Ford’s unreliable intimate narration take us on his journey with him. Despite struggling with several moments where we think the film is ending, overall this is an astonishing feat. Whether Ford decides to continue in the documentary field will yet to be seen, but he’s got a talent for it.
Strong Island is available to watch on Netflix.
City of Ghosts (Dir. Matthew Heinemann)
Winner of the Grand Jury prize, Matt Heinemann’s (Cartel Land) City of Ghosts is a bombastic, blunt and at times, heavy-handed documentary that receives its plaudits for its essential contribution to the mainstream media narrative that is ISIS, reminding viewers that the lavishly publicised terror being spread around western civilisation has a stolen home in the sacred city of Raqqa. However, if it’s considered complexity and formal experimentation you’re after then you’re in the wrong place.
Telling the story of RBSS (Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently), a group of middle class Syrians whipped into becoming revolutionaries and subsequently citizen journalists by obligation and necessity, who secretively leak the atrocities taking place in Raqqa at the hand of power-snatchers ISIS because no-one else can and no-one else will, Heinemann seems troublingly compelled to frame his narrative as an Action/War film – the poster contains the back of a hooded figure that would look as much at home on the back of a video game, and the title equally underneath a picture of Liam Neeson. That being said, the fallen comrades of RBSS do disturb the memories of the remaining members, as even from the safe houses of Turkey and Germany, walking down the street becomes a hazardous journey.
This is a war film not of violence and gore, but primarily a war of ideology, and of media output. Most appalling are the Hollywood-ised recruitment videos coming out of ISIS, putting viewers in the shoes of a real life Grand Theft Auto player; their executions being filmed with jib shots and a ghastly shallow depth-of-field. Heinemann, on the other hand, hopes that more shocking will be the harrowing videos of the public executions happening in Syria, captured via smartphone by RBSS front-liners on the streets of Raqqa. Heinemann seems to revel in these awful videos, shunning the idea that richer, more psychological fear can be conjured using restrain and suggestion.
Whilst the amazing sacrifices and achievements of RBSS come fully across, most of their work is done hunched over digital devices in hotel rooms – smoking and joking. Not the most cinematic. Their charisma and resolve engage you completely; the film falters when Heinemann includes a far-right protest in a lacklustre attempt to contextualise proceedings in a complex Europe. An essential piece nonetheless, Heinemann closes the film with subtlety: as one of the members flicks though photos of friends loved and lost, he sits and shakes uncontrollably. Stress, fear, exhaustion – a mixture of all? A punching image showing the cost it takes to ensure truth prevails over fabrication.
Click here to find out how to watch City of Ghosts.
Risk (Dir. Laura Poitras)
Only seen once, Risk is a documentary as hard to pin down as the subject it tails – both an endorsement and a critique. With Risk we trade narrative resolutions, and contextual commentary for unprecedented access to the murky Assange and his inner circle. We do get some observations in the form of audio production diaries and thoughts on the documentary from Laura Poitras herself, an interesting meta-level that provokes more questions than it answers. It’s one of several re-edited additions following a one off screening at Cannes last year, and several big-time developments in the WikiLeaks narrative.
Poitras paints a difficult picture of a man, rightly celebrated for his expose of the American military, but invites you to wonder that perhaps the man has become too entwined in his own idea of himself. He often muses on his beliefs and principles with a vagueness and tone that suggests part of him is doing it to remind you, and him, of his status. The film’s strangest portion of the film (of which there are several) sees a flippant Lady Gaga appear and wave a recorder in his face in what loosely resembles an interview. Assange, for a man so keen on truth, skirts around the subject of his own backstory, seeming much more at home when firing off a list of all the organisations after him, in what is one of Risk’s several, less severe, condemning of the toxic ‘nerd’ machismo which infects the hacktivist community.
So why does Assange, a man who holds secret conversations in bushes and jumps at every blow of wind, allow such intimate access? It suggests a preoccupation with his own image and that of his organisation – solidified with outrage from Assange, both at Poitras’ choice to leak Snowden to The Guardian instead of him, and at the contents of the film itself. Frustratingly there’s aspects of Assange’s role in wider political on-goings that Poitras chooses not to probe him on, mostly his feelings on playing a pivotal part in unleashing Trump on the world. All part of his geopolitical chess game, we assume. Risk invites many interpretations; one thing’s for sure – the story’s not over.
Click here to find out how to watch Risk.
Alex Lancastle is a 2017 Sheffield Doc/Fest Youth Juror. After completing the programme, he went on to be a Festival Assistant at Doc/Fest. Click here to follow him on Twitter @AlexLancastle and read more of his writing.
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Originally published on Five Minute Window, edited for use by Sheffield Doc/Fest with persmission from the writer.