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