Monthly Archives: July 2019

My Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019

Overview

In its 26 years, Sheffield Doc/Fest has steadily put on weight, expanding and maturing into a festival that tries to offer a little something for everyone interested in the art of nonfiction storytelling. Having attended every year but one since 1997, I have enjoyed a long relationship with the festival. I’m currently an Advisory Board Member, and I write some of the film copy; in years past I also ran the festival’s now defunct daily newspaper, helped to program, and produced a number of panels. I have easily watched more than 1,000 Doc/Fest films over the years, and I am a better person for it.

This year’s Doc/Fest, entitled Ways of Seeing, seemed to unfurl in stages over its six days, putting on different faces for its nearly 3,500 delegates from 59 countries. I attended over the weekend, which was dominated by young, aspiring filmmakers attending packed-out screenings. They had a chance to worship at the altar of Werner Herzog, looking back on his career and discussing his latest film, Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin. Asif Kapadia gave a masterclass for his latest film, Diego Maradona, which opened the festival. Nick Broomfield was also in attendance with his story of Leonard Cohen and his muse Marianne, whose lives intersected with Broomfield’s as a young man. Paul Greengrass was also on hand to discuss how  docs have influenced his career as a feature film director.

Many of the screenings generated a buzz. I heard the most rapturous feedback for For Sama, which added the Sheffield Doc/Fest Audience Award to its growing number of awardsJeanie Finlay, who, as a northerner, lives close to Sheffield, had two well received films in the program: Seahorse, which tells the story of a man giving birth, and Game of Thrones: The Last Watch.

By midday Monday, when I had to return to London, Doc/Fest had morphed into the British television event that has always been at its core. Industry execs and decision-makers travelled north by train to participate in panel discussions and pitching forums. The frenetic MeetMarket, now in its 15th year, hosted 62 projects, whose makers speed-dated their way through an assembly of potential funders, broadcasters and consultants. Industry talks included sessions on how to tell new climate stories, repurposing celebrities for new projects, commissioning priorities across British broadcasting, the surge in podcasting and short-term video, directors’ well-being, and a case study of Michael Apted’s Up Series, the latest installment of which, 63-Up, broadcast the previous week on ITV (see here for an interview in Documentary with Apted for a previous Up edition).

As always these days, the massive growth in the streaming industry loomed large over talks about the state of British documentary. In a fascinating session on developing policy frameworks for feature docs, producer Elhum Shakerifar noted how difficult it is to get feature docs seen that aren’t celebrity-driven. She complained of the Netflix effect, where documentary directors develop unrealistic expectations of their film’s potential. “People hear of others receiving $1.2 million for their film,” she said. “It’s incredibly disruptive when you are making long-term observational documentaries that don’t get sold to Netflix, and maybe never will. And maybe you know that, but nobody else believes it. It’s really hard because one of the things you are doing is managing everybody’s expectations, while keeping everything stable and ethical at the same time. So for me the Netflix effect is this dream thing that has been waved in front of filmmakers, and is really making it difficult as a producer to manage expectations.”

Fellow panelist and producer Christo Hird agreed, adding that documentaries are valuable in many ways but people need to understand that they are not profitable. The Doc Society’s Lisa Marie Russo said that part of the problem with training documentary producers is that “Documentary people can come from anywhere; fiction people usually work their way up the food chain.” The panel was trying to formulate some policy recommendations for feature documentary in the wake of Whicker’s Foundation research, showing that 65 percent of feature doc producers’ time is unpaid. The panel’s chair, Steve Presence, is heading up a UK government-funded research project into British feature docs, which is running its own survey of the state of play.

Alternate Realities

While I enjoyed dipping into the festival film program, and industry sessions, my goal this year was to really experience Doc/Fest’s Alternate Realities, its ever-expanding platform for nonfiction interactive and immersive artworks. Its popularity over the last few years has often outpaced the ability of the festival to meet demand, and last year I managed to try out only a couple of VR projects, losing out on the more popular ones to attendees with sharper elbows.

Clutching my press pass, I was able to sample the projects at both Alternate Realities sites before they opened to the public. At the Hallam Performance Lab’s VR Cinema, a dozen chairs were grouped in a circle, each equipped with VR headsets, headphones and a dedicated festival volunteer. Twelve curated projects under the banner of Converging Sensibilities highlighted racial injustice and modernism.

I began with 4 Feet: Blind Date, and was completely taken into a world where I sat beside “Juana,” a wheelchair-bound teenage girl as she pushed back against her mum at the breakfast table and foraged ahead on a blind date, determined to explore her sexuality. The camera places us in next to Juana, as it jumps back and forth in time between her awkward date with Felipe, and the days leading up to it. I was only halfway through it when I started to wonder about its placement in a documentary festival, as it was clearly a scripted drama, albeit one steeped in realism. Its lead writer, Rosario Perazolo Masjoan, is a wheelchair-user, and the entire project (this is the first in a series of VR films about “Juana” ) came about as a result of a TED Talk she gave. Writing about it several weeks later, I’m struck by how clearly I remember the film, and felt a part of Juana’s world, for a short time.

From Maria Belen Poncio’s 4 Feet Blind Date. Photo: Anna Vollenweider
Maria Belen Poncio’s 4 Feet Blind Date. Photo: Anna Vollenweider

I also really enjoyed Nyasha Kadandara’s Le Lac, from the Climate and Care strand of the VR cinema, which won the Digital Narrative Award. In ten minutes it tells the story of the impact OF the massive shrinking of Lake Chad, from the perspective of the lake itself.

The other project that really stayed with me from the VR cinema is Roger Ross Williams’ Traveling While Black. A beautifully constructed and multilayered experience, made for New York Times’ OpDocs (the 300th in the strand), it tells the story of The Green Book. Beginning in an empty cinema, scene by scene takes us closer and closer to the experience, until the film culminates with us sitting across from Tamir Rice’s mother, as she is sympathetically quizzed about the police murder of her son. There were so many nice touches throughout, including the wall of the DC diner that serves as the set giving way to a dramatized past, actors depicting the interviewees telling their stories. Artful, visceral and heartbreaking, it’s hard to imagine a 20 minutes better spent for anyone interested in the African American experience.

From Roger Ross Williams’ Travelling While Black. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest
Roger Ross Williams’ Travelling While Black. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest

While the VR cinema was straightforward 360-degree video with headsets, the second location for the Alternate Realities was much more complicated and sometimes more about the form than the storytelling. The Subconscious Sensibilities collection consisted of 14 multidisciplinary installations that invited users to “showcase the stories of others and explore the elusive story of the self.” A few of these, sampled briefly, I just didn’t get. Among them was Algorithmic Perfumery, which asked a lot of questions via a device to produce a small perfume bottle with an original scent for every visitor. Mine came out smelling strongly of apple, with little explanation. Others I spoke to shared my bewilderment—and annoyance at how many questions it has asked. But the project won the Audience Award, so clearly hit its mark among many of the delegates delighted with their small bottles.  I was similarly underwhelmed by To Call a Horse a Deer, a game that calls for you to lie quickly, which I immediately felt too old and too honest to do. Both projects I felt strayed too much from the theme of nonfiction storytelling.

Aftermath: Euromaiden promised to take you to the heart of a deadly protest in Independence Square, Kiev. Through the VR headset I wandered through the Square and its environs, all eerily deserted. It was a strange set-up for a project describing massive crowds and a deadly protest, and while there was archive to engage with that helped bring it to life, the impression I am left with is of that quiet emptiness.

I had better luck with the thoroughly engrossing Accused #2: Walter Sisulu, which capitalizes on 256 hours of audio from the early 1960s trial that ended with Nelson Mandela, Sisulu and eight other activists receiving sentences of life imprisonment. Pairing audio sequences with black-and-white animation, the experience succeeds in immersing us in this moment in history and shining a light on the Sisulu’s heroism, whose life played out in the shadow of Mandela. I was also charmed by the storytelling in My Mother’s Kitchen, through which you can hear eight LGBTQI+ people discuss childhood memories through the lens of the layout of their respective mother’s kitchen.

My favorite of the Subconscious Sensibilities was Darren Emerson’s Common Ground, which powerfully and innovatively tells the story of the largest housing estate in Europe, the Aylesbury Estate, now being cleared to make way for developers. In an early gripping sequence, the idealistic plans for the community merge with animated photos of the reality, with a cogent explanation of what went wrong in the design. After that, a number of the residents told their sometimes harrowing stories, bringing us into their flats. I was able to engage by grasping photos, pressing elevator buttons, and spraying graffitti on the walls of the stairwells. The video archive, residents’ testimonials and expert interviews effectively intermingled to tell a story that kept me completely engaged for the entire 30 minutes. Common Ground really complemented the themes of Push, playing in the festival program, an alarming, masterfully made film by Fredrik Gertten about the global housing crisis.

Finally, the winner of the Best Digital Experience Award, Echo, very effectively brought home how easily it is to “deep fake.” After my face was scanned, and I chose someone’s story to tell, I watched on a large screen as the person’s face as they told their story, changed into my own—alarming and sinister as it’s all too easy to imagine the technology in the hands of the Dark Web. (See my Instagram film of it here).  

From Georgie Pinn and Kendyl Rossi’s Echo, whoch won the Best Digital Experience Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest
Georgie Pinn and Kendyl Rossi’s Echo, which won the Best Digital Experience Award at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest

The takeaway from my four hours of Alternate Realities underscored what I already felt about forms of immersion and documentary. Done well, and with a strong story at their heart, they are immensely powerful, delivering long-lasting impressions. There is a lot of controversy around describing VR as an empathy machine, but I do believe that it can go further at putting ourselves in others’ shoes. There is a striking sequence in Greg Barker’s The Final Year, where UN Ambassador Samantha Power emerges from a UN showcase having just viewed Clouds Over Sidra. “Do you have 15 minutes?” she asks the ambassador to Saudi Arabia. “They’ll put a pair of glasses on you and take you into the Za’atari refugee camp.” As the ambassador begins to walk away from her, she pulls him back and says, “Seriously, if you do nothing else that I ever ask you to do, please do this thing. It’s amazing.”

Indeed 360 video experiences like Clouds Over Sidra can immediately appeal across a wide variety of ages and cultures. Once I had my 12-year-old watch it with a VR headset, which he wordlessly handed back to me afterwards. But two years later I overheard him describing it in detail to a friend, to my immense gratification. Projects like Traveling While Black can convey a lot of information and leave a lasting impression in a short amount of time through the relatively simple medium of 360-degree viewing. I can envision its increasing use in classrooms as a way to make an impact quickly and rise above the noise.


Doc/Fest just announced a new festival director: Cintia Gill. Elizabeth McIntyre stepped down shortly after last year’s festival, with interim director Melanie Iredale steering this year’s edition.

This article first appeared in the International Documentary Association’s Documentary Magazine

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Producer Elhum Shakerifar: “How Are We Going to Challenge the Industry’s In-Built Elitism?”

Over the last decade producer Elhum Shakerifar has established herself as a vital voice in the world of international documentary, working with a range of directors on highly acclaimed films, including A Syrian Love Story and Almost Heaven. She has won numerous awards including the 2016 BFI Vision award and the 2017 Women in Film & TV’s BBC Factual Award; she was also named one of Screen International’s 2018 #Brit50 Producers on the Rise. As she explains below, Elhum is an outspoken advocate of the need to challenge mainstream narrative and to bring quieter voices to the big screen. I sent Elhum a number of questions about her work – her written answers are printed here in full. 

Elhum Shakerifar

Can you tell me a bit about how you came to be a documentary producer? 

I have been making films for about 10 years and came to filmmaking from an unusual journey through Persian literature, photography, anthropology and many years working in a community centre with unaccompanied minors (young refugees who are separated from their families). 

The first film I produced was about a long distance runner from the Western Sahara – The Runner (2015) by Saeed Taji Farouky. I actually became involved in the film out of sheer surprise that I didn’t know anything about The Western Sahara, a territory larger than the United Kingdom. It is the last colony in Africa, under Moroccan occupation since 1975. I thought that making a film about a territory most people have never heard of – by design – would be the most challenging part of the equation. But I was wrong – it was showing the finished film that was a bigger problem. We were told informally several times that the film “couldn’t possibly be screened”, some screenings were complicated by complaints from the Moroccan embassy, etc. This first experience already underlined that the biggest challenge is being seen and being understood on your own terms – whether as filmmakers from diverse backgrounds, or filmmakers making work that challenges the mainstream understanding of things, which is dictated by the loudest voices. 

Making The Runner was in many ways my baptism of fire. I thought that things should be simpler after all the learning of that experience – how wrong I was! I have since produced films all over the world – in Yemen, in Nepal, in Syria, in Japan, in the UK. They each have their distinct worlds, issues and surprises. The one thing that unites all of my work, I believe, is that I am interested in the quieter voice, the untold side of the story. And sadly, it has not become easier to do that work – which really says something about the world we live in. 

How do you decide to take on a project? What do you look for in stories? Can you give some examples? 

I only work on films that mean something to me – there needs to be a strong personal reason and drive to getting involved in a film, because that determination will be key in carrying you through from conception to the finish line, from the good days to the bad. The creative process is a vulnerable one, and it is important to know why you are engaging in that space, even if just for yourself.

I would say that I’m a director’s producer – I work with people whose vision I understand, admire and want to bring to fruition. Shared vision and teamwork enables the strongest films to be made – teams make films. And so it is also important to work with people who you can have a cup of tea or an ice cream with and really talk things through, talk things out. 

For example, Sean McAllister, who I have now made three films with, had been filming in Syria for some time when we first met. The footage he showed me was unlike anything I had seen coming out of the country, and his relationship with the family was intense, direct, and also complicated – just like human relationships really are. I respected this directness and honesty, and it is something that I value in our relationship as collaborators as well. 

How has the documentary industry changed over the years you have been working? Is it easier or more difficult to get your films made? How has distribution changed? 

I would say that reality TV and celebrity documentary biopics have all but destroyed the mainstream understanding of documentary, and have certainly changed the dynamic of making non-fiction. The prominence of these films have also made variety in documentary filmmaking styles difficult – the space for creativity, to stray from format and ‘known’ values much more challenging. The space for newer voices to emerge on their own terms is essentially impossible without external support (read: trust fund) to enable years of unpaid and never adequately funded work. 

The documentaries I have made to date have all been fairly unknown entities at the start of the process. I enjoy the layered space of the documentary journey, rather than contrived formats where you know what you’re going to do and say from the beginning. In the absence of partners who will get involved early and share a creative risk with you, to really develop documentary work, I would say that no: things are not getting easier. 

I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms?

Finally, I feel that we have lost the ability to respect documentary’s value outside of box office and easy to quantify audience numbers – but film is an art form, should it be measured only in these terms? To my mind, the art of non-fiction filmmaking is in holding a mirror up to the world. There is undeniable value in longitudinal, artistic, unexpected, creative, divergent and diverse approaches. We must see things from different perspectives to better understand the world, but also to challenge ourselves. If we valued the variety of mirrors, of voices and the range that non-fiction can represent – we would be living in a very different world today. 

What are the biggest challenges for the films you produce? Do women face particular challenges?

There is a vulnerability to making films that is seldom talked about, and that makes every film into a distinct struggle – creatively and financially. As an independent producer, it is a challenge to take the risk of jumping into a film, time and again – in knowledge that you will be carrying that risk alone for a long time before anyone else shoulders it with you. 

My biggest challenge right now is understanding how we are going to challenge the industry’s in-built elitism. How can I keep – ethically, and realistically – producing so called ‘diverse’ filmmakers, in particular people who do not come from an affluent background? How can we possibly expect people with no fall back to take on the level of risk and uncertainty that a documentary requires? How can I ensure that people don’t feel more disempowered by the status quo, when it is exactly these voices that I want to hear? There is some good work being done out there, but I have been struggling with this question a lot recently – I don’t need any more training, accolades or schemes – I need cash funding to pay highly competent people properly. 

Let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.   

And yes – women face particular challenges, most importantly to my mind, of not being taken seriously. When I first started working in the industry, people always assumed “Elhum” was a man’s name– sometimes to the point of telling me “no, I’m waiting for someone else”. I have been asked on numerous occasions whether I would like for a male colleague to corroborate my decision. I have been asked by Sales Agents whether I am dating filmmakers whose work I produce. I am currently developing work with a male and female co-directing team – nine times out of ten, people pivot to talk to the man to ask questions about the film, regardless of who had been speaking in the first place. The inability to dissociate women’s gender from their work is a burden placed on women by others. There is great work being done and some good spokespeople but let’s not pretend that we don’t live in a patriarchal society, and that the film industry isn’t a sexist and elitist space.   

Can you discuss one of the projects you are most proud of, and why? 

I am proud of all the films I have produced – the (often long) journeys of making them really are woven into my life, and I sometimes revisit them like I might old photo albums. The people in the films we’ve made become like distant relatives – you share some sort of genetic information and oscillate in and out of contact depending on the order of the world. 

A good recent example, however, would be Island by Steven Eastwood. Island follows four individuals to the end of their lives, including one, Alan, who you see breathing until he doesn’t breathe anymore. When I first met Steven, I was already juggling quite a lot and certainly wasn’t planning of getting involved in another film, but the visceral connection I had to his idea of giving an image to death – a reality that we all too often turn away from – was something I had to listen to. I truly believe Island to be a film of distinct, bold beauty. I have seen it countless times, but it still mesmerises me, as if it had its own magnetic field. I am incredibly proud of having produced it, and I am moved every time it is screened. I am proud to know that it is a film that has challenged and helped many people reflect on death and dying – we still receive emails and messages to this effect, particularly from people as they prepare to say goodbye to their loved one, or reflect on the death of someone close. Challenging the silence around death was important to me on a personal level, but I am also proud of the relationships we build with the hospice where the film was shot (Mountbatten, on the Isle of Wight), with the families of the beautiful individuals in the film. We are currently developing pilot toolkits for the film to be used for training NHS junior doctors and nurses – this was a tangential outcome, but really underlines how far a film can travel when a story is told with intent. 

How many projects do you have on the go at the moment, and what work of yours can we look forward to seeing soon?

Making creative documentaries is an all encompassing, all consuming reality. Whilst you might develop several ideas at once, I have learnt (the hard way!) that it’s too much to be involved in full production of too many films at once. You never known how long a film might take – A Syrian Love Story ended up being made over six years; Even When I Fall over seven. And once the film is finished – its festival journey, distribution, future…the full span of a film’s life is long. When you make documentaries, you’re also working with real human beings, whose life you have depicted in a moment in time, but the relationship exists far beyond the film. Does your responsibility to that representation ever end? 

At the moment, I am developing a few exciting projects with emerging directors Ana Naomi de Sousa and Omar El-Khairy, as well as working on new ideas with Steven Eastwood, and Sean McAllister, which I look forward to sharing more information about in due course. I am currently putting finishing touches on a film called Ayouni by Yasmin Fedda, which reflects on forcible disappearance in Syria through the prism of families searching for their loved ones. We began making the film five years ago, after Father Paolo, the subject of a film we were making at the time, was forcibly disappeared in Raqqa. We still have no concrete or reliable information of Paolo’s fate, though the Italian press have recently been reporting on new evidence that would suggest he was killed shortly after he was disappeared. The film depicts his sister Machi’s search for him, alongside that of Noura Ghazi, lawyer and wife of Syrian Creative Commons developer and hacker Bassel Safadi, who disappeared in 2014.   

On the curation side, this July will see the return of Shubbak, the festival of contemporary Arab culture, for which I have once again curated the film programme at the Barbican (it runs 3-7th July) around the thematic of generational change in an exciting programme of films from Algeria to Tunisia, and a focus on Arab-British directors, a hyphenated identity that is rarely discussed in these terms, which is in itself quite interesting.

How do you think the industry will change in the next few years? 

I don’t know, but one thing I hope for is greater support for producers. Receiving the BFI Vision Award in 2016 was a game-changer for me – it gave me an insight into what working with a secure overhead could be like, it enabled me to develop new work from scratch and so to champion projects that were too malleable and raw to be pitched to funders before being more fully developed. Essentially: to be supported to take risks. It also positioned me amongst my peers – most of whom work with fiction exclusively – which also gave me a lot of insights into the bigger picture, broader industry. The way that I see it, documentary hardly has a place at the table. 

I also think that there is a discussion around mental health that needs to be had in relation to both creative processes, and the industry. I found this recent Filmmaker Magazine article “Disclosed: Producers and Therapists on Dealing with the Stress of a Demanding Profession” painfully pertinent, and have seldom seen this addressed in a meaningful way. There are so many complex questions that need to be discussed, that would challenge the reality of this profession as a particularly lonely and complex space. Should independent producers be supported to be more mobile and visible in a dense and competitive international space? When do you pay for someone’s time – taking part in panels, hosting events, imparting wisdom in other ways? Should there be budget lines for therapy worked into complex projects? Shouldn’t the ‘aftercare’ for subjects of complex films be the responsibility of all film partners, and not just the filmmakers? I could go on. Rebecca Day is doing interesting work in this space, having recently set up Film in Mind and offering tailored therapeutic workshops, support and consultancy. 

I know you also do an impressive amount of work outside of producing creative documentaries, including film programming, translation and publishing. What underpins all the work that you do, and does your other work inform your doc producing? 

I would say that all my work looks to challenge a mainstream narrative. In the film world, I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed. I crossed into distribution space after producing A Syrian Love Story and realising that if nobody inherently saw the ‘value’ of the film, that we would have to create the conditions for it to be understood – our self-devised release strategy enabled a reach of over two million people in the UK in the month of release alone. 

Perhaps the film’s framing and visibility was so important to me because I had spent a decade working in a community centre with young refugees – in the years directly following the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq. I think that all the different hats and spaces I’ve occupied – from translating Persian poetry, to producing photography (and even once upon a time, a band!) – have contributed to how I understand the world, and to the work I am doing today. 

I produce, distribute and curate – but I believe that all of these things are in essence a form of storytelling: deciding which films get seen, and how those films are framed.

I think there is real value in this kind of cross pollination, and don’t believe that everything needs to necessarily follow a certain pattern or format. I remember walking around Paris’s empty streets on a hot August day (I grew up in Paris), wondering what I should do after school. I was drawn to the postcards outside a bookstore – one was a stunning piece of Arabic calligraphy, in brilliant blue. Its meaning was a saying by Lao Tseu “Le parfait voyageur ne sait pas où il va” – meaning, a good traveller doesn’t know where they are headed. That postcard (by an Iraqi calligrapher called Hassan Massoudy) has been up on my wall ever since. I interpreted it then as having the confidence to not always know the exact answers. This doesn’t mean not having plans or goals, but being open to enjoy the journeys that life takes you on, to see the opportunities as they present themselves. Similarly, Rebecca Solnit has written about getting lost in a way that reminds me of the creative process. (Apart from the fact that I have a terrible sense of direction ) I think it says a lot about why I make the films I make.


You can learn more about Elhum’s work on www.hakawati.co.uk. Shubbak’s film programme runs 3-7th July at Barbican – for more info about the line up, and the whole festival, see https://shubbak.co.uk