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.
After releasing his film A Jihad for Love, exploring Islam and homosexuality, Parvez Sharma is a marked man, having been publicly labelled an infidel. But Sharma is unwilling to give up the faith that has been overshadowed by extremists. “Oh Prophet: Is there a place in Islam for sinners like me?” he asks – and decides to go in search of the answer. Leaving his husband behind in New York, he journeys to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, to undertake the Hajj pilgrimage, considered the greatest accomplishment within Islam. With filming forbidden and homosexuality punishable by death, he films surreptitiously on his IPhone. He follows thousands of pilgrims through garbage-filled streets, and from the holiest of sites, the Kaaba, through to the air-conditioned Starbucks 700 metres away. Throughout, Sharma weaves a thoughtful meditation on modern Islam that is also a brave and moving autobiographical documentary.
Excited at having landed a place at the University of North Carolina, Annie Clark’s elation evaporated when she was raped before classes began. She is far from alone: studies show that 20% of women will suffer a sexual attack at university. In a masterful, wide-ranging investigation, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering present dozens of testimonials detailing how universities of every shape and size collude to cover up sexual crimes on their campuses, creating an ideal “hunting ground” for serial offenders. Fear of damaging their reputation – and enrolment – drives shocking behaviour throughout the universities, with the fraternity and athletic communities covering up the most grievous assaults. For many victims, the institutional denial proves even more painful than the crime itself. But hope is in sight as Annie and other victims begin to fight back through the courts, hitting universities where it hurts – by threatening their revenue streams.
In this multi-award winning companion piece to The Act of Killing, filmed before its release, Joshua Oppenheimer further explores the terrible legacy of the Indonesian genocide fifty years ago, this time through the lens of one family. Adi was born in 1968, two years after his brother Ramli was slaughtered in front of many eyewitnesses. Now an optometrist, Adi lives with his elderly parents and his children. Not only does he live under the ongoing rules of his brother’s killers, he has to listen to his children regurgitate the propaganda which led to the slaughter, and is still being perpetuated in schools. Adi decides to confront some of the murderers, who are surprised when his questions are more intense than Oppenheimer’s. His breaking of the silence leads to some electrifying scenes, in a film where the beauty of the Indonesian landscape belies the bone chilling horrors carried out there in the name of democracy.
Amer met Ragda, when both were locked up in a Syrian jail for speaking out against an oppressive regime. Twenty years and four sons later, filmmaker Sean McAllister comes into their lives, as Amer is waiting for Ragda, who has once again been imprisoned. When she is unexpectedly released, the family is overjoyed – they need her, particularly three year-old Bob. McAllister and his subjects’ lives become irrevocably intertwined when McAllister himself is jailed, and footage of the family is confiscated. Amer and Ragda must flee overnight to Lebanon, with nothing but their children. McAllister follows their story over five turbulent years, as they struggle to find their feet as refugees; Ragda in particular can’t bear to be away from Syria in its hour of greatest need. As they watch Syria descend into chaos, they struggle to repair their troubled relationship. A powerful, moving story of family and exile from one of the UK’s most talented independent filmmakers.
A loner from an early age, Thomas Quick went on to become Sweden’s most notorious serial killer, openly confessing to the gruesome murders of more than 30 people. Held for decades in a psychiatric institute, Quick’s confessions emerged after years working with a group of touchy feely therapists, convinced that the recovery of memories would cure patients of their criminality. In a country with a low crime rate, the nation watched with horror as Quick’s confessions mounted, accounting for many of the country’s unsolved murders. With testimonials from a range of people whose lives have been dominated by this story – including Quick himself – and dramatic reenactment, Brian Hill weaves a stylish noir thriller that works a treat on the big screen. What appears at first to be a tale of unimaginable evil evolves into something much more layered as Hill digs deep into the motivations behind those working closely with Quick.
In nearly twenty years as a filmmaker, Daisy Asquith has told human stories the length and breadth of the UK, and beyond – not least in Crazy About One Direction, where she memorably explored the legion of passionate One Direction fans. She has also taken viewers into the world of clowns, young mums, Holocaust survivors and house clearers, in empathetic, nuanced portraits which have earned her multiple awards.
Her latest film is a departure for Asquith, in that for the first time she points her lens at her own family. In My Mother the Secret Baby, she embarks on a journey with her mum to find out more about her grandparents, who gave her mother up for adoption after she was born illegitimately in Ireland in the 1940s. In going in search of details about her birth grandfather, Asquith alienates a number of her Irish relatives, who vehemently resist airing their family’s secrets in public – their objections becoming part of the narrative of the film. I spoke to Daisy about the film, and what it was like making a film about her own family.
Can you tell me a bit about the origin of the film?
I had a lot of wobbles over whether or not to make the film, because one of my aunts…is really really against my talking about our illegitimacy in public; she wanted it kept private and a secret. So I kept chickening out basically. (BBC) Storyville have supported it very patiently for about five years. I kept saying I’m not doing it. And they would say, hmm okay and then three months later it was back on again.
Is this a journey that your mum would have taken if the film wasn’t driving it?
No, she says she wouldn’t have done it. And that kept confusing me too – that I was dragging her into it. But I think it just needed all that time. We needed loads of time. She kept changing her mind as well. I tried not to push her and to be patient really. And they allowed me to do that. She came to the realisation that she really did want to know more about her father. And now she’s so delighted that she made that decision. She loves the film and she loves the information that she has about who she is – who her father was. It’s somehow kind of filled in loads of gaps that you wouldn’t expect – why you are like you are. I think it has made her happy, actually.
You’ve pushed some family away, and others have become closer, like your aunt who is in it.
Yes, my Aunt Siobhan has been incredible. Her courage – I don’t know how she is so courageous. She is the one who has given us the confidence to do it. She kept saying ‘you have the right to know,’ and not backing down either.
And has that led to her having difficulties with her own siblings?
Yes, it has caused her all kinds of trouble.
What was it like discovering your main characters, Johnny and his wife?
It was delightful. When I first saw Johnny and he sort of emerged from his milking shed with hay sticking out of his hat, I thought, this is just amazing. I fell in love with him really. Luckily he likes me. I must be quite challenging for him, but he seems to like it and handle it, and is in full control of me when I’m over there.
You have made a lot of films – is this the first autobiographical film that you have made?
Overtly, yes. You could say all of your films have much subjective stuff in them, but yes overtly it is the first autobiographical film. It is so different. And of course they pressured me to be in it, which is of course out of my comfort zone.
You weren’t in it that much!
I don’t’ think I needed to be in it that much – do you?
Well I have a sense of who you are already. But I do usually find myself craving to see more of the strong personality behind the camera.
I think it is a bit of a cop out to hide and not do that and pretend that you weren’t affecting everything all of the time, so maybe I didn’t do it enough.
Can you expand on how it was different making this film?
You can’t see clearly when it is your family. It’s too emotional. You get sucked up into lots of different people’s feelings, all of whom you love and all of whom are not going to mince their words in their criticism of you. I try to treat the people whom I film with huge respect and some love, and to try to collaborate with them. But actually what happened was my vision was fogged by it. I had to separate how I felt about them being angry with me to how I present them in the film.
Will any of them end up watching it and coming around?
I want them to watch it – I’ve offered. They have not taken me up on my offer yet. But you never know. I’m hoping it is way better than they imagine.
My Mother the Secret Baby premieres at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival the 26th March (under the title After the Dance) and will be broadcast on BBC Storyville, 30th March, 10pm. There will be a special screening at the new Bertha DocHouse in London on 31 March at 7pm, which will include a post screening Q&A with Asquith.