First Word: A Look Back at Sheffield DocFest World Premieres

It’s time for Sheffield DocFest 2022. Although I won’t be attending in person this year, it’s sprung to life across all of my socials, reminding me what a wonderful festival it is, and how instrumental it has been to my professional life.

From 2002 to 2019 I wrote film descriptions for the festival, a job that I loved. In the early days I’d be sent a huge box of VHS tapes, then later DVDs, and most recently streaming links. As I watched the films with my notebook in hand I built up an enormous documentary database in my head. It serves me in good stead juggling a number of doc teaching gigs.

One of my biggest pleasures was being the first to write about a film for its world premiere. Many of these were television films, showing at Sheffield before their broadcast. Some of them were so new I’d travel down to the edit suite to watch them. 

Here’s a selection of my write-ups from some of these world premieres. With Channel 4 and the BBC both under threat, I think revisiting them can remind us that public service broadcasting can indeed be a fertile environment for quality documentary storytelling:

Battle Hospital (Olly Lambert, 2003)

Nobody wants to be at the Battle Hospital. The giant tented camp close to the Iraqi border is run by the British Territorial Army to provide crucial trauma care to coalition soldiers. But more often doctors find themselves treating injured Iraqi children on fly-ridden operating tables. The hospital’s 650 staff, most of whom have abandoned their civilian practices, try to escape their surroundings through brass bands and discos, but it’s an uphill struggle. And now the increasingly frustrated Iraqi fathers and children in ward 2 are threatening to go on hunger strike in a bid to persuade the army to take them home. Embedded filmmaker Olly Lambert’s exclusive access provides a rare and sobering glimpse of modern war field hospitals, first made famous in M*A*S*H. In stunning cinematography – shot on DV – Lambert contrasts the graphic horrors of the operating theatre with the dreamlike state invoked by living in a desert limbo. 

Battle Hospital

The Liberace of Baghdad (Sean McAllister, 2004)

Life is a little complicated for Samir Peter. Once the most famous pianist in Iraq, he now plays to half empty lounges, sleeping in a hotel basement, afraid to cross Baghdad to his seven-bedroomed mansion. Samir’s string of Western girlfriends over the years led to his wife and two of his kids leaving for the States. Now he too has a visa to move to America, but he is having second thoughts. Samir is happy to introduce director Sean McAllister to his world, but as the months progress and violence escalates around them, he grows understandably nervous about filming. And indeed it seems that nowhere is safe – Samir’s next door neighbour’s body is discovered by his son: she had been shot three times. As conditions deteriorate, the pianist and the filmmaker together try to survive the ‘peace’ of post-war Iraq. 


The Lost World of Tibet (Emma Hindley, 2006)

A recently restored treasure-trove of colour films from the 1940s and 1950s provides the core of this astonishing film, which allows us to see what Tibet was like before its brutal occupation by China. As members of the aristocracy and the Tibetan government in exile recall, the Tibetans’ world revolved around a series of colourful religious festivals, taking up 68 days of the year. In the great Prayer Festival, monks took over from the government for a few days and, whilst ceremoniously whipping their subjects, imposed fines for such offences as singing in public or having a dirty house. The film includes a revealing interview with the Dalai Lama, who reminisces about how much he missed his mother and his envy of his brother who got to play with all his toys. The Dalai Lama found himself studying for his rigorous final monastic exams – which included public debates with his elders – at the same time that the Chinese were preparing to take over the country. “We were just so engrossed in our little pond,” recalls one interviewee. “We knew nothing, what was happening in the world, what could happen. And so we lost our country.”


The English Surgeon (Geoffrey Smith, 2007)

When brain surgeon Henry Marsh first visited a Ukraine hospital in 1992, he found the medical conditions absolutely appalling. Since then he has worked with his Ukrainian protege, Igor Petrovich, to help create a viable clinic using discarded NHS equipment, and to bring hope to people where there was none. In Geoffrey Smith’s moving, beautifully shot documentary, we follow Henry on his latest trip, to yet another corridor filled with patients for whom he is their last chance. Marion is among them, determined to do something about the enormous brain tumour threatening his life, even if it means undergoing an operation he must stay awake throughout. As Henry tackles increasingly risky procedures, he is haunted by the memory of an operation which went catastrophically wrong. 


The Fighting Spirit (George Aponsah, 2007)

There aren’t a lot of ways to leave Bukom. A pooer village in Ghana, its main industry is fishing, with a paltry annual salary of three hundred dollars. So its young people are fighting their way out – literally. Thanks to tenacious coaches who turn rough street fighters into money-churning professional boxers, the village has produced several champions and is looking for its next big winner. Twenty-two year-old George is excited to box overseas for the first time, but has girlfriend troubles back home. Known as the first lady of boxing, Yarkor is using the memory of her cheating ex-boyfriend to fuel her fire, but is struggling to win her first big fight. Having already achieved international success, Joshua is training for the world featherweight title, with the help of dodgy manager Vinnie Scolpino. A spirited look at Ghana through the eyes of those fighting for their dreams.


Just Do It (Emily James, 2011)

“I put my body in the way and I don’t mind being arrested.” Marina Pepper is a domestic extremist, renowned for making tea for police officers and bailiffs while they are in the middle of evicting her. Marina is one of a growing number of modern-day outlaws – people who care about what is happening to our planet and are prepared to take action to stop it. Previously a secretive world, filmmaker Emily James was granted unprecedented access to follow a community of UK environmental activists. It’s an action-packed time, with activists scaling the chimney of Didcot Power Station, locking themselves to the Royal Bank of Scotland and tangling with gung ho policemen at the Copenhagen Summit. Articulate, funny and engaging, the ensemble cast care passionately about the environment on a global level, but work locally, with courage, determination and manners to take a stand.


Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die (Charlie Russell, 2011)

It’s a plotline he can’t rewrite: Sir Terry Pratchett has Alzheimer’s. In his early 60s and faced with a failing brain, he is terrified that he will no longer be able to write novels – he has 37 under his belt. He can try, however, to control the ending and sets out to investigate the option of assisted dying. His query is a simple one: “is it possible for someone like me, or like you, to arrange for themselves the death that they want?”. He meets two British men with degenerative illnesses who have booked appointments at the Suissse assisted death clinic Dignitas in the same week. Thirty years apart in age, both are engaging, articulare, stoic, and accompanied by equally stoic loved ones. And both men are utterly determined to die, long before their illnesses have run their course. In powerfully heart wrenching scenes, Pratchett and his horrified assistant observe their final hours. 


The Man Whose Mind Exploded (Toby Amies, 2013)

Draco Zarhazar lives in the here and now. He doesn’t have much choice: his anterograde amnesia means he can’t create new memories. He’s certainly had his share of life’s woes – he’s quick to tell you he has survived two comas, two nervous breakdowns and two suicide attempts. Despite past angst, the Drako of the present is cheerful and extroverted, and more than happy to let Toby Amies film him, in all his tattooed, frequently naked glory. His heaving Brighton flat is a phallic-themed art installation, with many mementoes of Drako’s colourful past. It’s also increasingly a health hazard. Over the months, Toby becomes more than documentarian, filling in as both carer and friend. He struggles to keep Drako safe and under the radar from social services in this tender and nuanced portrait of an outsider. 


The Road to Fame (Hao Wu, 2013)

Beijing, China. At the Central Academy of Drama, anticipation is running high. The prestigious school’s graduation production of Fame will be the first official collaboration between China and Broadway. As musical director Jasper arrives from America to run auditions, the students find the pressure intense. It’s something they are used to: as only children born of China’s one child policy, they carry the hopes and dreams of the older generations on their shoulders. From wildly disparate backgrounds, some families have sacrificed everything to send their children to the Academy. Most of the students hope to compete on sheer talent – but know that connections in China, like in America, are all important. With 300,000 actors already in Beijing, there is everything to lose. Director Hao Wu weaves an intricate portrait of modern China through the stories of these students and their families. 


Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime (Jacqui and David Morris, 2014)

As editor of the Sunday Times for fourteen years, Sir Harold Evans proved to be the right man in the right place at the right time. In an investigative climate all too rare by today’s standards, Evans had the freedom and resources to allow teams of journalists to work on long term projects, including the exposure of Kim Philby as a Soviet spy. As Evans himself details in this stylish documentary, his longest and most hard fought campaign was for the victims of Thalidomide. Originally developed by the Germans in World War II to counter effect sarin gas, post war the drug was blithely prescribed by British doctors as an antidote to morning sickness, leading to tens of thousands of children being born with serious defects. The Sunday Times’ fight to win compensation for their struggling families would take more than a decade, as Evans tenaciously pursued the drug companies through the English courts and beyond. 


Addicted to Sheep (Magali Pettier, 2015)

In the North Pennines, tenant farmers Tom and Kay spend their days looking after their flock of prized sheep, and hoping that this will be the year they breed the perfect one. Director Magali Pettier, herself a farmer’s daughter, follows a year in their lives, capturing both the stark, stunning beauty of the landscape, and the brutally hard graft it takes just to survive. Their three children are growing up close to the land, attending a school entirely comprised of farmers’ children, thoroughly immersed in their remote rural world. As the seasons change the couple help birth, groom, nurture and sell their sheep even when the odds often seem stacked against them. A treat for the senses, Addicted to Sheep allows us to experience life on a hill farm without having to get mucked in ourselves.


The Divide (Katharine Round, 2015)

Alden is an ambitious Wall Street psychologist, while Rochelle struggles as a carer on a zero hours contract and Keith tries to make sense of his life behind bars, as a result of Clinton’s “three strikes and you’re out” policy. Through their stories, and four others, Katharine Round humanises the bleak fact that growing inequality is driving a terrible wedge through modern society. Jumping back and forth in time, and between characters and experts, this is an engrossing, cinematic, thought-provoking essay which flags up some root causes of today’s societal woes – and raises disturbing questions about the future. Inspired by the bestselling book The Spirit Level, The Divide demonstrates the terrible impact that decades of misguided economic decisions is having on modern lives – and the truth behind the adage that money can’t buy happiness.


Sheffield DocFest runs from 23 – 28 June.

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