When filmmaker Nira Burstein picked up a Black Magic camera, she knew where she wanted to point it: at her own family. Over the course of six years she would re-enter her cluttered childhood home in the Queens borough of New York City, on a cul de sac called Charm Circle, where her parents eked out a precarious existence. Against the background of her younger sister’s impending polyamorous wedding, and through childhood home videos, Burstein explores the dysfunction and mental illness which have been a constant in her family. Charm Circle is an intimate, emotional and often funny foray into Burstein’s family life, richly deserving of the audience award it won at Sheffield DocFest, where it had its world premiere and was a word of mouth hit. I met with Burstein during the festival to ask her about the making of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: Could you talk me through the process of moving out and whether you began to look through your family differently once you left home and how the film came about?
Nira Burstein: I moved out when I was 18 or 19 and it took me a while to want to go back again. As the years went on after I left, it seemed to feel increasingly worse going over there. Bringing the camera in was a way to bring in something that I enjoy doing to their house. And in a selfish way I thought ‘if I’m going to be here I have to figure out a way to feel welcome’. The filming started in 2015. I would go over maybe every two or three months. And then as I saw a story element developing I would spend more time there. I thought ‘I need to be around to get this while it was happening. No one’s reaction is ever the same in hindsight so you have to get it in the moment.’
CN: How did you go about getting their participation and being on board with it? I know you have one scene where your dad is snapping at you about filming and it’s great to have that in there. Talk me a little bit through their cooperation and did you feel like they ever acted differently because you had the camera there?
NB: I honestly think it was very natural. I don’t think they treated me any differently with the camera or without a camera. I had just bought the camera and I was really wanting to shoot and make something. I don’t know if any of us knew that it would get quite as involved as it did. But my parents have always been really supportive about my projects and have participated in other ways.
There’s this idea in American culture that there are certain things you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to be really strong and everything is a blessing.
CN: That’s what’s so great about the film is that it’s clearly a loving family but with a lot of problems.
NB: Yes it’s very much the way things are. What I am so grateful for about my family is how much love there is. I think that is what gives people space to watch this movie even in the more difficult moments, because that does exist. And I think that’s the way that people feel safe about it. I am very inspired by my parents. I think they have a wonderful spirit for what they have been through and their sense of humour is incredible.
CN: Did you get them to talk about things that they wouldn’t usually have talked about, as is often the case in autobiographical filmmaking? Like the disparity in their sex drives – I felt like your mum was getting that on the record.
NB: I definitely feel that my mum felt this was a platform to let things out that she maybe hasn’t had a chance to say. And whether it was just meant for me or whether she meant it for the whole world I’m not really sure. Ultimately she’s okay with sharing all of it.
CN: What was it like for you looking through all those home videos? I imagine it was a bit painful to see your parents, as it was striking in the film how much they have changed, and how much more mainstream they seemed thirty years ago.
NB: This was part of the journey that went on behind the camera: me recognising how one can take for granted their childhood and not realise how that ends up playing a part in everyone’s life. And realising how much this thing they went through affected them; it changed them.
CN: Which thing is that?
NB: Specifically I think taking care of my older sister (who has lifelong learning disabilities). There’s this idea in American culture that there are certain things you can’t talk about. You’re supposed to be really strong and everything’s a blessing. And that’s all true but it’s still really hard.
CN: You look back on your childhood as a happy one, do you?
NB: Yes for the most part. When I was eight, and this is in the movie, for various reasons my childhood just kind of stopped. It just became a lot of responsibility. But there was still a lot of happiness and fun after that.
CN: You’ve described how the camera was useful for you, giving something that you like to do when you visit them and I totally get that. Is there anything that you are hoping that the film does in a larger sense now that it’s made? Is there an impact that you hope it has?
NB: The personal is universal. If we can be okay about sharing personal stuff then it opens a conversation. And so I do hope that the film gets seen. I hope that it brings some joy and brings about a conversation they might not have had otherwise. We don’t really know what’s going on with the person across the room or on the sofa or wherever they are.
Rob Lemkin always does a lot of reading in preparation for his films. As an Oxford-based filmmaker, perhaps it’s par for the course. In the years he spent making the award winning Enemies of the People, as well as his earlier 1990s BBC films about colonialism in Southeast Asia, he came to realise that there were very few films that really query colonialism. “So I kind of gravitated towards thinking about readings that I had done and thinking about how Heart of Darkness has been a universal text that still stands, notwithstanding all of the criticisms that are made of Conrad’s racism, language and so on and so forth.”
In the course of further research into Heart of Darkness, Lemkin discovered the story of a rogue French army commander, Paul Voulet, who was slaughtering his way through Niger in 1898 at the same time that Conrad was writing his book. Lemkin persuaded the BFI to fund him to go to Niger to see what he could find out about Voulet.
During his recce trip he found that the Voulet story was still incredibly present, not least because Voulet’s terrible path of murderous destruction led to the highway that runs through the country. “The idea that that his journey still existed now as a road just felt to me like wow this was a way of really connecting Colonialism to a universal present,” Lemkin says.
After his recce trip, Lemkin was wondering how to approach the film when his partner came across Femi Nylander performing in a pub down the road from their home. “He was performing songs including one about the Congo, which obviously is where Conrad’s book is set. She came back and she said ‘maybe you should look at him’”. Nylander is a British-Nigerian poet-activist who had recently been active in the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Soon Lemkin and Nylander decided to make the film together.
In African Apocalypse, which had its world premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Nylander follows the path of Voulet’s destruction, with the help of two local guides. On top of scenes of their journey, and various encounters with the locals, we hear Nylander’s thoughts as he reads the diaries of Voulet. In the verité footage, however, when interacting with descendants of his victims – who are clearly still traumatised – Nylander often seems impassive.
Extraordinarily, in the middle of the film, the two guides confront him about his lack of emotion. “I think it’s a testament to him and to his courage that he was happy to have that scene included, because it was a bit of a forceful personality critique,” says Lemkin. “He is a young guy for whom colonialism is an enormous issue amongst the student population. In the environment of the student hothouse, world colonialism is an issue, a subject, a topic for discussion, a thing. You don’t actually breathe it, touch it and feel it; you read it, you watch about it, you talk about it.”
Lemkin says that whilst Nylander is very effective at being forceful in television discussions, he found it much more difficult on the road with limited language and various pressures. “I realised that Femi would need a lot of orientation because suddenly were not in the Oxford Union or in some student hub. And it’s raw but it’s also random and there’s a lot of different kinds of things that are going on– present tense issues and awareness of historical issues.”
Lemkin says Femi found it quite hard to be constantly under the scrutiny of the camera. “It’s a difficult pressure to be on for anyone,” he says. “When he was going into the real community he still had the feeling that he was a consumer of testimonies. One of the things that we were able to deploy as a mechanism is trying to ask: How does a young black person coming from a formerly colonised country deal with this kind of history?”
This question works as a motif that threads through the narrative, Lemkin says. “Although at the time when we shot that scene, I wasn’t really thinking about it in such a motif and narrative kind of way. I was just thinking more about the fact that in reality both of the guides and myself were feeling a sense of frustration about the fact that he did not seem to be able to or want to connect in a totally full throttle human way with the groups of people that we were meeting.”
Lemkin says that although Nylander had learned rudimentary Hausa and French for the trip, the rushes reveal that the people really couldn’t understand him. “It’s kind of google translate hausa and they’re not getting it. And the people that we are speaking to are not necessarily literate people, so there’s quite a gap. But I think they also feel a sense of feeling like they can educate Femi with what they say to him in a way that responding to me as a white person there is a different power dynamic.”
By interweaving Nylander’s voiceover with the verité footage, and existing archive, the final film is an engrossing narrative with many layers which succeeds, as Lemkin intended in querying colonialism and bringing its often terrible legacy into the here and now.
Lemkin’s aesthetic approach to filming was to treat the shoot like a road movie. “We wanted to really capture the sense that we were going from encounter to encounter, and it was actually going into places where Femi was meeting people for the first time. This was really critical for me. Even Claude (Garnier, the DoP) was saying ‘do we really have to film them going in?’ and I said ‘yes we really have to film them going in’. And we use that a lot of the time just because I think it gives you a feeling of the freshness and unpredictability of the encounter”.
The meetings that we see Nylander have are the result of Lemkin’s two previous trips to Niger, where he spent a lot of time scouting the right people to talk to. “What appears to be a spontaneous journey isn’t,” he admits. “It was very important to have actual community meetings very well established so we could put in archive and make it feel it was something that you are mentally flipping to and from across time all the way through.”
Such personal connections are necessary for the viewer to then be able to connect with the archive, Lemkin says. “Otherwise you could just end up feeling that the whole thing was theoretical and abstract and academic. Not like I don’t like academic, but I think it’s important that it’s rooted in human experience.”
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 awards. Jeanie 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
Hot on the heels of their Emmy award-winning documentary Mosul, James Jones and Olivier Sarbil have delivered another masterful foray into the dark side of human behaviour. On the President’s Orders takes viewers to the Philippines where President Duterte’s brutal war on drugs has led police to murder thousands of drug users and dealers. Arriving to embed themselves with a police force in Caloocan just as Duterte pledges a killing moratorium driving the violence underground, Jones and Sarbil’s film is an astonishingly framed narrative which manages to tell a story full of menace and intrigue. In the lead up to their festival run, before it airs on PBS, BBC Storyville and Arte France, I sat down with the filmmaking partners to discuss how they made it. This has been condensed for length and clarity:
Carol Nahra: Can you tell me how you came to this story?
James Jones: Yes, we were finishing Mosul together and thinking what story we wanted to do and which subject might play to our strengths. I think we had both been aware of the mass executions in the Phillipines. We’d seen some great photojournalism. Basically we went out to Manila to try to get access to the cops. A lot of the coverage had been quite formulaic – dead bodies in the street and sobbing families. We didn’t really get under the skin of it, understand who was doing the killing, the rationale behind the murder. We wanted to see it from the police’s perspective – not sympathising with it but understanding how they could justify this mass murder. And so we showed up in Caloocan which is the hot spot. And Duterte the President had had to basically pause the drugs war and say ‘we’re going to clean it up’. So we actually had very little faith that they were going to give us access. We’d come halfway across the world – they would guess why we were choosing them. But we were lucky, we met the police chief, who quite liked the attention. And there was a kind of push from above to show that they had changed – the drugs war was going to be cleaner. So we just had full access and spent the next six months going back and forth.
Olivier Sarbil: We didn’t go through the official media centre for the police. We tried to get the access directly with the commander because we knew that if we had something too official obviously we would be on the radar of the police; obviously it would be more difficult.
JJ: It was great on the one hand because we had no official oversight. We were able to do whatever we wanted. But there was also this worry that because we had nothing on paper he could just wake up one morning and get fed up with us and kick us out.
CN: How would you define what plays to your strengths?
JJ: I’ve done a film about police shooting in America. So journalistically I was drawn to it and Olivier was drawn to it. And I think in terms of the type of filming Olivier had done in Mosul in terms of getting access to a group of men, it felt like a combination of the two of us. We could win their trust. We could get access that no one had got before. And Olivier would shoot it in a way that was incredibly cinematic. So it felt like on one level an important story – an injustice that we wanted to expose – but also filmically it was set up for film noirish atmospheric: quite dark and beautiful images.
CN: That of course is what is really striking and will gain some attention. How did you go about planning the look of the film?
OS: It’s a story filled with violence and darkness. For the film, we went for carefully composed shots. We wanted to create a style with a dramatic mood and an emotional connection with the city to enhance our characters’ feelings and the story.
CN: You had to build this picture of menace. Did you discuss how you were going to do this as you were shooting?
OS: First we had the shooting recce. We discovered the country and all the lighting and how we would be able to visually tell the story. So we had a pretty clear idea of what will work and how we will make it cinematically. And actually on a daily basis we were working and trying to edit short sequences to see how it works. So as soon as we decided to have a style for the film – the look – we really kept to it.
JJ: We wanted actuality, but actually the thing that was happening while we were there was the killing was going underground. Had we gone six months to a year earlier, there would have been more operations where they just bust into slums in uniform and shot people. Whereas now they were being a bit smarter and it was vigilantes or plainclothes off duty cops executing people on a motorbike. So the challenge was to kind of capture the fact that people thought the police were behind it – and even the cops privately were admitting to us that they were behind it. There were these clues along the way but it was a balance of not damning them by innuendo but making it feel solid that you knew that these guys were the killers.
OS: We didn’t want also to just be focused – if we had the chance to have more actuality with the police we would have followed them. But at the same time we didn’t want to make the film running after the police. We wanted to spend six months with the cops plus going underground, behind the scenes of the killing, and to have a chance to know the people a little bit better.
“They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back.”
CN: So you were there off and on for six months. How did you plan that schedule?
JJ: We had twelve weeks on the ground, which is a good amount of time. And Olivier doesn’t shoot very much in a day. Visually it’s all very well covered but he’s not someone who just rolls for three hours. So twelve weeks on the ground. Four trips of three weeks. So for the first three trips filming almost entirely with the police and a bit with the funeral parlour director. And then on the last near the end of the penultimate trip we started filming with Axel and the family in the slums.
OS: It was a bit risky to suddenly leave the cops and go to the slums. We were quite conspicuous.
CN: What did everyone make of you?
JJ: They quite liked Olivier and were impressed by his military background and the fact that he had been in Mosul. They didn’t fully wrap their heads around what a documentary is, and I think were probably surprised we kept coming back and back and back. They thought we were more of a news crew but we kept coming back and we’d want to film stuff that to them felt quite inconsequential, which is often the way with documentaries.
CN: Was it just the two of you?
JJ: And local fixers. I was doing sound; Olivier was shooting. Which worked, was a perfect set up for the environment. We would put a radio mic on our main characters and a boom on a stick. In the slums we weren’t out on the streets with our characters that much. We did drone footage later on – a note from one of our commissioners was they wanted to get a sense of the space. With our characters in the slums we mainly filmed inside their flats. And we tried to get in and out as unobtrusively as possible. And the kit would be hidden in bags and we would dash quite quickly.
OS: One of the reasons the filming was stressful was by definition you might think the police were following where we were going.
CN: You were again working in a language not your own, although lots of people do speak English in the Philippines. But there were nonetheless some revelations in what they were saying that I assume you found out back in the edit?
JJ: It was kind of ideal in a way that we could communicate with them well enough in English. So we could establish a proper relationship and give instructions or get information. But because they knew that we didn’t understand Tagalong, they would be quite indiscreet. And say things like ‘I asked the boss if we could go overboard, and he said no’, ie we are not allowed to kill this one. Or ‘the killings have caught up with us sir’, or ‘there are things we should talk about later’. So those little moments which as you say when we are filming we have no idea about but when we get the transcript back realise it’s gold and that there’s something else going on.
OS: Because they got so used to seeing us in the station – at some point we could just walk in and walk out, sit on the sofa, spend the day in the police station, going from one building to another, and no one would ask the question: what are we doing there? We built that trust with the police officers, and sometimes they’d forget that we were there. That’s the magic in observational documentary.
On the President’s Orders, a Mongoose Pictures production, has its UK premiere at Sheffield Doc/Fest, running 6-11 June 2019.
While Donald Trump refuses to accept climate change as a reality, it doesn’t take a stable genius to understand that we are all interconnected. And most of us now also grasp that the damage that we are doing to the environment is in turn having a very real impact on human health — the study of this is known as Planetary Health. Next week’s Global Health Film Festival will award a £10,000 Planetary Health prize to a film to help it achieve impact – getting it in front of those who need to see it the most. The subjects of the four films up for the award range from the Ebola pandemic, to chemical pollution in the US, plastic pollution in the Pacific Ocean and an agrarian crisis in India.
Throughout its programming the Global Health Film Festival focuses on the interconnectivity of the human experience. When I attended the festival last year – its third edition – I was really blown away by the atmosphere (as I enthused in the below highlights reel). A stimulating, diverse range of health professionals, journalists, filmmakers and students descended on the Barbican for two days. In a single afternoon I went from attending an NHS session fronted by Jon Snow to immersing myself in fascinating VR installations, to watching a film I still think about, twelve months on.
The festival’s fourth edition kicks off next weekend. Transferring to Bloomsbury with the Wellcome Collection as its hub, it promises to be equally engrossing and inclusive, with a number of intriguing themes. According to Festival Director Gerri McHugh, in addition to the planetary health strand, this year’s programme highlights the lack of access to healthcare throughout the world. “Inequity in health care is not just a developing world issue. There is poverty and hunger and exclusion in every city in the UK and just about any part of the world,” she says. “Some of those inequities in the developed world are actually far harder to tackle than the inequities that we have in the developing world. They’re quite hidden – society hides them.” A related theme is how belief systems interact with health choices.
The US comes under particular scrutiny in the programme. No Greater Law features a sheriff in Idaho determined to try to get a law changed that allows a group of evangelicals to refuse any health treatments for their ailing children – even as the bodies mount in their graveyard. A short, Restoring Dignity, will look at period poverty amongst teenagers in the US – something which should resonate with a group of American high school students attending the festival. Their inclusion is a deliberate attempt to broaden the range of delegates. “Often in a meeting like this the demographic breaks down to the giants and leaders in the industry and then the early career professionals,” says McHugh. “And whilst we have quite a lot of that in the film festival we also want to plug the gaps in between. So we’re increasingly bringing in mid career professionals but also increasingly a focus on even younger people. We have a collaboration with Brookline High School in Boston, Massachusetts, who bring a class of 16-18 year olds to London specifically for the film festival every year. We work hard to involve them as much as we can in all different parts of the programme.”
Another timely theme of the two-day festival is unresolved trauma, mental health and post traumatic stress disorder. On Sunday, 9 December I’ll be chairing a panel following a screening of Evelyn, in which Oscar-winning director Orlando von Einsiedel probes the long ignored impact of his brother’s suicide on his family more than a decade ago.
The festival will again have a strong focus on virtual reality, in partnership with Crossover Labs. A number of installations echo the themes of Evelyn. When Dan Hett lost his brother in the Manchester Arena attack, he used his skills as a game developer to create The Loss Levels as a way to document and share his experience. Homestay places viewers amongst a Canadian family mourning the loss of their exchange student, while Is Anna OK? considers the experiences of two sisters, one of whom suffers from traumatic brain injury.
The Global Health Film Festival takes place Saturday, December 8 – Sunday, December 9. The festival sells day passes; some single tickets to screenings are available.
For the fifteenth year running I’ve had the good fortune to watch a good chunk of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s programme to help write the film catalogue. Of the 35 features that I’ve seen, here are five of my favourite:
This powerful vérité documentary (pictured above) tells the story of American Joe Carman. The 40-year-old blue collar worker gave up cage fighting years ago, but claims it’s the only arena where he feels confident. When he returns to fighting without the blessing of his wife and four daughters, his dangerous hobby soon threatens to tear the family apart.
A groundbreaking observational documentary with the feel of an indie drama. Dina and her fiancé Scott, both neurodivergent, have moved in together to ready for their upcoming wedding, and have set about the messy business of forging lives. In increasingly intimate scenes, Dina is determined to let Scott know that her difficult past doesn’t stop her wanting a passionate future.
Facing a catastrophic decline in wild animals, big game hunters and conservationists often make uneasy bedfellows, as highlighted in this gripping documentary. South African rhino breeder John is convinced that legalising the sale of rhino horns will save the species from extinction. Meanwhile, American hunter Philip ventures to the remote wilderness of Nambia and Zimbabwe in his personal quest to hunt the “big five” in their natural environment.
In Dmitrii Kalashnikov’s mesmerising compilation of dash cam footage, we are spectators to a series of extraordinary moments. From reckless drivers and hammer wielding thugs, to extreme acts of nature and the occasional wild bear, this film is an eccentric portrait of contemporary Russia, as seen, all too briefly, through the front windscreen.
A profoundly personal film from one of Britain’s most talented documentary directors. To establish a better rapport, Morgan Matthews begins filming his dad, and carries on for a decade. Once a high flyer, Geoffrey lives precariously with his eccentric partner Anna. As revealed in very intimate scenes, Geoffrey has more than a few regrets, not least his emotional distance from his six children.
Coming from doc champion Britdoc, the Sheffield Doc/Fest’s new Director of Film Programming Luke Moody has deliberately set out carving a space for marginalised voices in his film programme, as well as encouraging more experimentation with the form. In a recent telephone interview he outlined his vision for film at Doc/Fest, and highlights a number of docs to look out for in the upcoming festival, which will screen some 133 features and 55 shorts. Here’s an edited transcript:
You joined in November and you’ve got a June festival so you’ve had to hit the ground running. I’m wondering what was it like putting together this huge programme in that amount of time?
It was a challenge, definitely. One of the major challenges this year was to restructure strands because I was quite clear in what I wanted to do in terms of reducing the number of strands Sheffield has. Partly for audiences locally to be able to navigate that programme and understand the different genres and themes within it, but also to allow me as a programmer and the festival to be able to expand into showing more creative forms of documentary, particularly with this new strand called Visions this year. But I think also for me it was very important to do that this year, to begin to create a kind of legacy or a bit of an identity for the programme. To basically allow authored filmmakers to know what we do. Now we have these six kind of core strands. I think they can also see their place within the festival.
I come from a background of funding documentaries, funding from development to post production film. So for that reason I’m very much across global production – what’s out there, what’s being made at the moment. But that relationship to films, where you’re looking at them as a funder as opposed to a programmer is very different because it operates between different criteria of what you want to support. So it’s been a challenge doing it in such a short space of time. But what I hope I’ve managed to do is change the structure in which I operate to allow the programme to flourish in future years. And to really permit a discovery and a champion. One of the things I most enjoy in programming actually is being a champion of voices who don’t have a platform elsewhere. I think the danger of a lot of documentary festivals is that they just become the best of fests. They’re safe – they repeat what is being programmed elsewhere. And that’s been a challenge, to not do that this year.
Can you give examples of films that were completely unknown to you until they came through the submission system?
I think our numbers this year for submissions officially were like 2200, which is an increase on previous years…There are a number of things which have come through the system from international filmmakers, that I’d not encountered previously. Armed with Faith is one of the films from that pile. And that’s a story of a bomb disposal unit in the North of Pakistan, who are on the frontline of a terrorist infiltration of Northern Pakistan. And it’s really quite a visceral piece – you’re essentially accompanying a bomb disposal unit operating with very little equipment to dispose of landmines and various contraptions which are meant to terrorise local communities in the north of Pakistan.
Another one is Freedom for the Wolf, which I think is a very strong directorial debut from a British filmmaker who I think is not based in Britain at the moment called Rupert Russell. And it is a highly stylised, quite essayistic look at the question of freedom globally, and the question of what freedom means in relation to democracy and whether other systems of governance permit freedom more than democracy perhaps. And it just feels highly confident in what its trying to do. Normally on paper at least I’m quite dissuaded by things that are like pick a theme and visit ten places in the world to explore that theme, but he’s managed to do it in a very confident and articulate way.
Do you have a couple of examples of the short films that you would highlight?
What I’ve tried to do specifically with the shorts programme this year is firstly to have the ability to show more short form content, but also giving it a different range of the types of shorts that we show here. I think historically they’ve been reasonably conservative, the types of shortform storytelling that the festival has championed. But we’ve moved into things that are already online – investigative projects that are much more responsive to what’s happening in the world this year. And also experimental pieces that are also artists’ interpretation of the documentary form. Which I think gives the programme more richness in terms of just developing those voices.
In the more experimental area, in the Visions programme we have some emerging talents including a lady called Emma Charles. Who’s a British artist filmmaker. And she’s made a 16 mm film of a subterranean centre. And it’s a really beautiful piece. And I understand that it was developed when she was studying at Royal College of Art and it’s her first piece since graduation.
We’re also giving a platform to a lot of films from the Stop Play Record programme which was a partnership between ICA and Dazed Magazine funded by the Arts Council, with Channel 4. It’s essentially a training programme for young filmmakers aged 16-22 to create 3 minute films. Championing those filmmakers showing new forms of documentary and animation for me is one of the best things a festival can do – to give a platform and exposure to those voices.
I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about how documentary storytelling is evolving creatively and expanding and overlapping with drama?
There are two directions, or trends that I’ve seen in particular. There’s a renewed interest and passion for verité storytelling. Really strong observational films produced over three or four or six years in some cases that are just like really close and warm narratives. The majority of those are family stories, things like The Cage Fighter, or Quest, which is a really outstanding debut by a filmmaker who was a photographer. And he started making a photo project with this family in Philadelphia. And gradually what he was doing evolved into a different form or storytelling, shooting a little bit of material here and there and increasing the confidence of the family and their trust in what they both wanted to do and achieve by telling their story. And Mama Colonel is another one of those, by Congolese filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi, which is like a Kim Longinotto film. So there has just been this – I guess it’s not a reemergence of that style of storytelling, because a lot of them are made over a long period of time – but perhaps it’s a reaction to the presence of fake news these days. People are wanting to return to very much the nitty gritty of factual storytelling and observation and just being very embedded within a community that they’re trying to portray. So that they get some sort of shared truth within that development. And I think the majority are films which have not been initially funded. They are things that have evolved from other projects.
Within the Visions strand but also within the Adventure strand there are films that have this really strong conceptual approach to filmmaking and the way that we interpret reality to storytelling. Ghost Hunting is one of the most powerful. A really reflexive piece that explores the power between direction of a filmmaker and those portrayed on the camera, to the point where the tide turns and they start to question what he’s trying to achieve with the film. And he has to then become open and become vulnerable as a director to be part of that shared experience of change within the film. And other films, Do Donkeys Act, a new take on ethno zoology. It’s looking at the relationship of individuals and animals. And again it’s something that’s not developed through the life of a donkey. The filmmakers had a concept and executed it in that case.
You’ve taken the helm during a particularly turbulent time. How much does what is happening environmentally, politically and humanitarian wise inform your choices?
Definitely there’s a spine of films through the programme which are about the environment we live in. Particularly a reflection on European politics at the moment. We’ve got the world premiere of a film called Wilders, which is a portrait of Geert Wilders and has access to him being frank and very strangely open to potential criticism within that piece.
We also have things like the Jo Cox: Death of an MP and Brexitannia too which are both very close to home reflections of changing politics within Britain and the question of who actually has the voice within media and who is represented through what we consider storytelling. When politics are questioning essentially whether certain voices in society are ignored, you have to try to look and in some ways address that. And I don’t think there are enough films out there that are coming from the non represented communities within Europe. So yeah it’s a challenge as a programmer: if the film doesn’t exist out there which give an alternative perspective on that political shift then you can’t play it.
You are the first British programmer that Sheffield has had in many years. How to you approach to selecting British films for the programme and what are you throughts about the health of British documentary genre in particular?
We don’t preference British filmmakers in the programme. Obviously the festival as a UK institution has a responsibility to British cinema and developing particularly the kind of theatrical form of documentary with the film programme. For me exposing filmmakers to different forms of storytelling is one of the greatest ways to develop cinematic language and allow filmmakers to grow in their own confidence and storytelling…We’ve got a section called Focus UK which will continue to be in the programme. But this is a mixture of celebrating British storytellers but also allowing us to give a platform to filmmakers from other parts of the world looking in on Britain. Because I think that as important as British filmmakers covering stories at home. You can get entirely different interpretations of British narratives from people from other parts of the world. I’d like to see more of that to be honest. There’s been this historical imbalance of British, European and American filmmakers going to what they see as exotic parts of the world. I’d love to see the kind of turn where parts of the world that are now far more developed than they used to be in terms of the film industry and otherwise come and reflect on Britain and see this as an exotic and alien environment or interpret it through a different lens.
During the 60th BFI London Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday, one of the most acclaimed dramatic features was British director Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, a coming-of-age story acclaimed by critics for its “visually fascinating aesthetic.” But far away from the buzz surrounding such Oscar hopefuls, in the relative quiet of the Documentary Competition, I found a clutch of coming-of-age films that equally shone. Together, they employ a battery of storytelling techniques to bring their young protagonists’ lives to the big screen.
All This Panic, a feature debut by husband-and-wife filmmaking team Jenny Gage (director) and Tom Betterton (DP), follows a handful of private school-educated teenage girls in Brooklyn over three years of their late teens. Ginger is “terrified of getting old,” clashes with everyone in her family, and finds herself adrift as her friends begin university without her. Her father tells her she can stay in the house, musing that they used to be best friends but have spent the last six years fighting (a haunting line that brings chills to those of us with young daughters with whom we are still on good terms). The other main subject, Lena, is self-possessed and articulate, and at the film’s outset, preoccupied with having her first stab at love. But Lena also has bigger issues on her mind: Her brother has significant behavioral problems, and both her parents—now separated—are living turbulent lives. Indeed, despite their privileged education, most of the girls here are dealing with significant issues, from broken families to self-harm and emerging sexuality. Photographers-turned-filmmakers Gage and Betterton manage, without formal interview or narration, to capture the complexity of teenage lives with the film’s striking visual style.All This Panic is beautifully shot, very close up, and in a dreamy-yet-pacey style that mirrors the girls’ inner lives, consumed with whom they are and whom they might become. The film is very effective at evoking the storminess of the high school years, as well as the fleetingness of this period.
Covering similar territory, in at times a strikingly similar visual style, is Alma Har’el’s Lovetrue. She interweaves the stories of three young subjects spread out across the US: a young erotic dancer in Alaska, a surfer-turned-single dad in Hawaii, and a teenage girl in a New York City family of singers whose parents have dramatically split. Each is navigating difficult relationships and trying to make sense of a world that often seems cruel. Har’el’s 2011 debut feature, Bombay Beach, was an innovative hybrid, with her rural Californian characters often breaking out in dance. She continues to break new ground inLovetrue, which features enacted scenes (filmed in a home-movie style reminiscent of Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell) that include both flashbacks and flashforwards, often with the subjects interacting with their dramatic counterparts (see featured photo above). While I admired the beauty and innovation of the film, the stories of the three protagonists were strong enough that in the end I felt the dramatic elements were sometimes more of a distraction than a service.
Less innovative in style, but no less compelling, were two additional coming-of-age films in the documentary competition. Mehrdad Oskouei’s Starless Dreams takes us inside a detention center for 18-year-old Iranian girls. Their crimes sound shocking—they range from larceny to murder—but their back stories, revealed matter-of-factly to a sympathetic Oskouei, are even more disturbing. Together they paint a portrait of the most dysfunctional rung of Iranian society, where drug addiction rules and families violently turn on each other. But inside the center, the girls act much as any other high-spirited teenage girls living together, and the film says more about what we have in common than our differences. The press notes say that Oskouei worked for seven years to gain access to the institution, an effort that more than pays off for a film that has already garnered both an Amnesty International Award and a True Vision Award and went on to take the LFF’s Grierson Documentary Competition Award.
At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum are the French students who are the focus of Claire Simon’s observational documentary The Graduation. They have come from all over France to take an astonishing entrance exam to the country’s most prestigious film school, La Femis. Over three months the wanna-be auteurs undergo a host of tasks, mulled over by the film’s real stars – the industry figures who serve as the selection committee, offering up withering critiques once the candidates have left the room. I emerged in awe of the articulacy of the candidates, and in wonder at the complete Frenchness of the whole scene, which comes with more than its share of chain-smoking and Gallic shrugs.
Not surprisingly, many of the festival’s fare across the genres reflected the turbulent times in which we live, with a host of films focused on stories of migration and war. Among these was the winner of the short film category, the documentary 9 Days – From My Window in Aleppo. Finding his apartment smack-dab on the frontline when war breaks out in Syria’s largest city in August 2012, photographer Issa Touma begins filming from his window; this compelling short is an intriguing insight into the opening days of the ongoing destruction of Aleppo.
While nonfiction media is never going to dominate at the BFI London Film Festival, where the focus remains firmly on the dramas and the red carpet, it can be said that there has never been a better time for cinema documentaries in London. There has been a boom in arthouse cinemas opening up in the last few years (my North London neighborhood, Crouch End, which formerly had none now has three within a mile). And in order to differentiate from the temptation to remain at home in front of the television, cinemas are featuring many documentaries with Q&As or panel discussions afterwards. During the LFF I took a side trip half a mile away to the Bertha Dochouse, which has been exclusively showing documentaries for more than a year. There I hosted a panel following the screening of yet another coming-of-age documentary, Driving with Selvi. Directed by Canadian Elisa Paloschi, it’s an inspiring tale of how a child bride in India escaped her life to become a taxi driver. Having spent ten years filming Selvi, Paloschi eschews dwelling on the abuse that she suffered as a child bride, focusing instead on the confidence she gained as a taxi driver and through a second marriage, this time for love. This week I’ll be returning to moderate another panel, following Rokhsareh Ghaem Magham’s multi award-winning Sonita, yet another tale of an inspiring young woman whose story continues to put “bums on seats,” as they say here.
For quite a few years I’ve had the good fortune to preview large chunks of the Sheffield Doc/Fest programme, in order to help write the film catalogue. Of the thirty-five films I watched for this year’s festival, which opens on Friday, here are a few of my favourite:
Talented but isolated, New Orleans care worker Samantha spends her spare time uploading acapella videos of her original songs to YouTube, to a smattering of viewers. Unknown to her, in a far away kibbutz, Israeli mash up artist Kutiman is composing his next viral sensation – with Samantha as the star. Following them both, director Ido Haar brings us a gratifyingly heartwarming fairy tale from the digital age.
Two years after resigning from Congress for tweeting a picture of his bulging yfront, Anthony Weiner is running for Mayor of New York. His loyal wife Huma is at his side, and the tenacious politician has even invited a documentary crew along for the ride. The trouble is, he’s neglected to curb his digital dalliances, giving us jaw-dropping access to a campaign that is soon in total meltdown.
Immerse yourself us in the world of modern dance through the vision of Ohad Naharin, artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company. Through extensive archive, observational footage and beautifully filmed dance sequences, Doc/Fest returnee Tomer Heymann focuses on the fascinating stories underpinning Naharin’s creative process, and how an untrained veteran spurned the tutelage of the dance world’s maestros to become one of the most talented choreographers working today.
In this legal thriller from vérité legends D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus ,we follow Harvard professor Steven Wise, who is arguing to a series of sceptical judges that New York’s chimpanzees should be persons in the eyes of the law. Wise is convinced he can make legal history – if only he can keep his primate plaintiffs alive long enough to represent them in court.
After years of silence as a child, Owen Suskind amazed his family by beginning to communicate through his biggest passion: Disney films. Now leaving home, Owen is learning that not every step in life has a Disney guru. Director Roger Ross Williams (God Loves Uganda) returns to Doc/Fest with a masterful film about how one close-knit family navigates life with autism.
Lisa Ling regrets the 121,000 lives she spied on electronically in a two-year period for the US Air Force. She’s now trying to make amends by visiting bombing victims in Afghanistan. National Bird follows Ling and two other whistleblower veterans wracked with guilt about the secret US drone war, and the many civilian casualties that continue to be denied by the powers that be.
Sheffield Doc/Fest runs from 10-15 June. I’ll be moderating a discussion about the power of drones, and the themes stemming from National Bird on Tuesday afternoon.
A film about an eccentric early adopter of autobiographical filmmaking kicks off the Open City Documentary Festival tonight. Sam Klemke’s Time Machine, directed by Matthew Bate (who made the fabulous Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure) tells the story of how Klemke for 35 years has documented his own underachieving life – in end of year video diaries detailing his spiraling girth and roller coaster love life. It’s just one of many intelligent, thought provoking docs dominating the festival, whose 5th edition sees it expand to cinemas across London.
Since its inaugural year in 2011 the festival has grown four-fold in numbers, from 1,000 to 4,000, according to festival founder and director Michael Stewart: “We’re trying to grow about 20% in terms of audience each year, up to the point where we have the right kind of audience. We’re not in the business being a 100,000 person festival,” he says.
The festival maintains a principle of showing films which otherwise wouldn’t get distribution in Britain. Whilst the first year showed an overambitious 180 films, the festival has decreased the number of films, in order to ensure each one receives the attention it deserves, according to Stewart. University College London continues to fund about a third of the festival, but this year all screenings have shifted from the university’s lecture theatres to cinemas. The ICA, Bertha Dochouse, Regent Street and Picturehouse Central are among the venues, which Stewart hopes will draw a diverse crowd of doc lovers.
It remains to be seen whether the geographical expansion of the festival will detract from its feel: “How you build a festival in the middle of London and which is all over London but has a festival hub atmosphere is a challenge,” admits Stewart. “We’re working on that.”
Open City is also running a number of industry events, including a session on Wednesday, A Smart Portrait of London, on the data generated by digitization of our cities. The industry events also include a number of radio sessions, as well as making online docs for the likes of the Guardian, Vice and Dazed. According to Stewart, practitioners in London are hungry for such fare: “What we have put on for industry has really expanded. We’ve got a whole week of events, doing things which people can’t get elsewhere. There are 100,000 people working in the digital film industry in London and they’re not served properly. They don’t all go to Sheffield by any means.”
Open City closes on Sunday evening with a moving personal doc from Scottish filmmaker Karen Guthrie, The Closer We Get, in which Guthrie returns home to look after her ailing mother and explores some painful family secrets.