Tag Archives: Broomfield

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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Watch Now: Channel 4 Documentary Jewels

So I’ve heard from a fair number of people that they’d like more blogs about films they can actually watch *now* rather than new docs which could take an eternity to come to a small screen near your sofa. So, obligingly, here’s a few films that you can watch now (if you’re in the UK, that is…will follow up soon with a US Netlix post).

Channel 4’s factual archive hosts more than a few outstanding documentaries and is altogether more satisfying in its scope and range than the BBC online archive, including films from a number of the UK’s leading documentary makers. Here are a couple of my favorites:

The Day I Will Never Forget (Kim Longinotto, 2002)

thedayiwillneverforget

A classic from Kim Longinotto, this is a great introduction to her work. Here’ s my write-up on it for Sheffield Doc/Fest 2002:

Nine year old Fouzia stands in her finest white dress to recite her poem called “The Day I Will Never Forget.” But instead of a tale of a cherished holiday memory, she talks about her forced circumcision at her mother’s insistence. Kim Longinotto’s latest film demystifies the practice of female genital mutilation through engrossing stories of Kenyan women. As young girls like Fouzia cope with the painful aftermath of their trauma – and in the film’s most difficult scene we witness it firsthand – older women demonstrate how entrenched cultural beliefs can override the maternal instinct to protect. But times are changing. Nurse Fardhosa teaches hygiene to circumcisers in Nairobi, while quietly encouraging them to stop. And a group of runaway girls are seeking court action against their parents…Gripping devastating, but ultimately hopeful.

Here’s an interview I did with Kim when the film came out.

The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife (Nick Broofield, 1991)

the leader

Nick Broomfield’s dogged following of the South African white supremicist leader Eugene Terre’Blanche comes to a climax in one the most famous scenes from Broomfield’s impressive body of work. Deliberately showing up late for a long-requested interview, the tongue lashing Broomfield receives sheds more insight on Terre’Blanche than a tradtitional interview ever could. Funny and riveting in turns, this is Broomfield at his best.

Finally, be sure to check out From Russia with Cash (top picture above), which will be available on Channel 4 for a couple more weeks. Director Dan Reed sheds a long overdue light on just how easy it is to launder money through London’s property market. Secretly filming throughout, Reed sends actors posing as Russian government minister “Boris” and his trophy girlfriend to five top end properties, where estate agents eager to earn their hefty commissions prove all too willing to provide advice on how Boris can buy the property with what he clearly states is dodgy money. In the aftermath of the film’s broadcast last week, two investigations have been launched, as well as parliamentary questions. Reed is one of the most talented documentary makers working today – you can see several of his films on the Channel 4 archive including the multi award-winning The Paedophile Hunter and Terror in Moscow.

Docs on Screens is taking a summer hiatus – and a lengthy trip to the US. See you in the autumn, and thanks for reading if you have got this far!

NFTS Documentary 2015: The Ones to Watch

Last week, after years of wanting to attend, I finally made it to the NFTS Show, the National Film and Television School’s showcase of films made by their Directing Documentary MA graduates.  I took my documentary students to see the eight films at the BFI Southbank – an impressive venue which also played host to some outstanding fiction and games student projects.

There’s every reason to keep an eye out for NFTS documentary students: graduates include many of the UK’s top doc makers, including Nick Broomfield, Molly Dineen, Kim Longinotto and Sean McAllister. Kim Longinotto’s own NFTS graduation film, Pride of Place, about the boarding school she loathed as a student, was so successful at showing up the school’s shortcomings that it closed shortly afterwards.

Long after my own students filtered out, I sat mesmerized. Despite tiny budgets of £4,000, not one of the films was based in the UK – shooting locations included Cambodia, Thailand, California, and Brazil.  A couple films followed a strong observational narrative, including a senior citizen on an overseas mission, and a drug addict on a Buddist detox. But as the NFTS’s head of documentaries Dick Fontaine noted whilst compering the afternoon, those students without a strong narrative worked intensively to develop a cinematic language of their own in these films. It showed. In an age of formatted television, where action is heavily narrated, and follows a predictable storyline, as a whole these stories were beautifully told without titles, narration, presenters or archive. Although made on a shoestring, the directors had the support of the abundant resources at the NFTS, and a sizeable crew of fellow students, introduced by the directors after each screening.

Here are my favourite films from the day:

The Archipelago

This portrait of the Faroe Islands, as it struggles to hang on to its traditions in the modern world, is not for the squeamish. Following an unnamed character known in the credits as “the young man”, director Benjamin Huguet sketches the community through his daily life as a butcher, capturing him scratching the cows behind the ears, and in the next scene carving them up into steaks. Huguet was also along for the ride when the community turned out for a practice bringing them international condemnation: pilot whale hunting. By filming the blood drenched slaughtering of the whales, and the allocation of their parts to local families within minutes, Huguet’s immersive camerawork shows how close to nature the Faroese continue to live.

Esta Vida (This Life)

Director Lyttanya Shannon’s at times heartbreaking film shows child advocate Rita as she works to encourage a group of vulnerable young girls in rural Brazil to fight against a cycle which sees them all too often the victims of drugs and sexual abuse. Shannon’s cinematography places her in the center of these girls’ worlds, as they perch on the edge of a frightening adulthood.

Pioneers

Grace Harper takes us onto the streets of the eccentric Pioneertown – a former Hollywood film set now inhabited by a number of characters carrying abundant personal baggage. It’s a beautifully shot ensemble piece, which paints a portrait of a town as unique in its populace as its history.