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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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Time Travellers: Boyhood’s Doc Cousins

boyhood

I‘m delighted that Boyhood is getting some awards love. It’s one of my favourite films of the decade – watching it a second time on a transatlantic flight it again held me spellbound for nearly three hours. Like most people, its appeal lies mostly in watching its subjects age over twelve years – in this case actor Ellar Coltrane’s wondrous journey from a six year-old boy to a young man.

This on screen time-lapse is a pleasure I first encountered twenty some years ago, discovering Michael Apted’s Up series, which famously has been following the same documentary subjects since they were seven years old. They are now nearly 60. If you haven’t seen any of it, get thee to youtube for a sample (you might then want to binge watch the box set). It’s funny, and sad, and thought-provoking, and shows how film can make even the most ordinary of lives compelling. No wonder it topped a Channel 4 list of the greatest documentaries ever made – and led Roger Ebert to call the films “an inspired, even noble, use of the film medium”.

56-up-the-girls
56-Up

In thirteen years of watching and writing about films for Sheffield Doc/Fest, I’ve seen scores of documentaries that travel back and forth in time in memorable ways. As most of us now have the potential to cut one together, thanks to the smartphone archive in our pocket, it’s worth paying attention to how footage shot over many years can be crafted into a work of art. Here’s a few of the best of the Doc/Fest films I’ve seen, together with my original write-up:

112 Weddings (Doug Block, 2014)

 112 Weddings

Despite being one of the U.S.’s most acclaimed documentary makers, Doug Block still needs his bread and butter work. For him, it’s weddings – in fact he’s filmed 112 of them over the last 20 years. In this engrossing doc he revisits some of the couples he has made wedding videos for, asking how they stay married – or didn’t, as the case may be. His long-standing relationship with his subjects fosters an easy intimacy and his follow-up interviews take on the veneer of a counselling session. The passage of time shines a torch on the many issues that can derail the happiest of couples, from mental illness to crying babies and infidelity, whilst Block’s wedding archive allows us to look back on their most optimistic of days. The film is funny, moving and often tragic – much like marriage itself.

We Went to War (Michael Grigsby, 2012)

we went to war

In 1970, in the midst of a drawn out Vietnam War, a young British director Michael Grigsby made a film about three young veterans returning home. I Was a Soldier is an acclaimed classic – the first to depict the ravages of the war on soldiers considered to be home safe and sound. Forty years later,  Grigsby and his co author Rebekah Tolley have made an equally powerful follow up, returning to Texas to see what has become of his three characters. In a visually arresting, contemplative style that suits the dusty small town locales, and creatively merges past and present, we learn just how much their war experience shaped their lives. Still unable to understand what they were fighting for, the scars run deep. Dennis has tried not to be defined by his experience, but is unable to form lasting attachments. It took 38 years for David to receive counselling, while Lamar’s journey back to normality, would prove to be one of the hardest battles of all.

Photographic Memory (Ross McElwee, 2011)

photographic

One of the masters of autobiographical filmmaking, American legend Ross McElwee returns to Doc/Fest with another film very close to his heart. Having long filmed his children, McElwee is dismayed to observe that his once sunny young son Adrian has grown into a grumpy and sullen young adult. He uses his many hours of footage to remember and mourn Adrian’s lost childhood, his ruminative voiceover reflecting the universal realities of parenting: “The young child – the one you loved so much – is still contained in the obnoxious teenager…Teenagers have no idea of how they’re protected from a smaller version of themselves that rises up to defend them.” McElwee decides to go in search of his own younger self, and heads to Brittany, where he once served as a wedding photographer’s assistant. Flitting back and forth between his past and his present, McElwee offers up another moving and memorable exploration of the human condition.

Hit So Hard: The Life & Near Death Story of Patty Schemel (P. David Ebersole, 2011)

hit so hard

Aware that her rock and roll lifestyle was yielding some crazy episodes, Patty Schemel picked up a video camera in the early 1990s. A rising star in the flourishing music scene of America’s Pacific Northwest, Schemel’s pals included Kurt Cobain and his wife Courtney Love, who hired her as the drummer for her band Hole. Capturing some extraordinary scenes, including Cobain and Love at home with their baby daughter, Schemel also recorded her own descent from playing sell-out world tours to destitute heroin addict, and her ultimate rehabilitation. The footage is interwoven with entertaining interviews with Schemel and Hole’s surviving members (their base player Kristen Pfaff died of an overdose just two months after Cobain’s suicide) and Schemel’s own family. “I couldn’t get over that she gave up a good job at Microsoft,” says her mom. With a pace as fast moving as the music, director P. David Ebersole’s film is destined to become a classic music doc on the joys and perils of life in the fast lane.

A Man’s Story (Varon Bonicos, 2010)

a man's story

He’s neither white nor gay but somehow Ozwald Boateng has risen to the dizzying heights of British fashion. He was the first black tailor to have a business on Savile Row and the youngest to boot. A long line of A-list celebrities like Jamie Foxx and Paul Bettany sing his praises, while sporting his colourful suits. Director Varon Bonicos began filming Boateng in 1998, when his life was in tatters. A nasty divorce and the collapse of his business had left Boateng at a low ebb – not helped when his entire collection was stolen. Bonicos went on to follow the charismatic stylist over twelve years, as he was appointed Givenchy creative director, starred in his own American reality series and married a Russian model, a union made difficult by Boateng’s peripatetic, workaholic lifestyle. As stylish as the man himself, A Man’s Story is an enjoyable foray into the fashion industry through one of its most vibrant stars.

Position Among the Stars (Leonard Retel Helmrich, 2010)

position among

Twelve years after setting off to explore his mother’s homeland, Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich completes his trilogy on three generations of Jakarta’s Shamsuddin family with the masterful ‘Position Among the Stars’. Family matriarch Rumidjah has returned from the countryside to rein in her granddaughter Tari – the entire family’s hopes are pinned on the girl to lift them out of the slums. Tari’s Uncle Bakti is finding her difficult to control and would rather be cultivating his fighting fish business, much to the annoyance of his wife. As always, the family’s everyday tribulations reflect the wider, rapidly changing Indonesian society. Far from ‘fly on the wall’ Helmrich’s constantly roving camera is always in the middle of the drama, often at ground level in scenes of astonishing intimacy. Well deserving of its major prizes, including the Special Grand Jury prize at Sundance, this is not to be missed.

The Kids Grow Up (Doug Block, 2009)

the kids grow up

Director Doug Block has suffered from Empty Nest Syndrome for some time, and has been talking to friends and family about the traumas of having your children leave home. The thing is, his only child Lucy hasn’t gone yet, and she’s getting quite sick of Dad’s moping around after her with a camera. Anyone lucky enough to have caught Block’s last Doc/Fest outing, 51 Birch Street, will recognise his accomplished style of personal film making, with great use of family archive, and probing , funny conversations with those nearest and dearest to him. Block and his friends are the first of the new breed of dads totally involved in their children’s lives, rather than the detached providers that their own fathers were. Surrounded by images of his many filmed conversations with Lucy over the years, Block finds it difficult to be at peace with the rapid passage of time and can’t contemplate life without her at home, much to the annoyance of his sanguine wife Marjorie. A moving, intimate exploration of family life.

René (Helena Třeštíková, 2008)

Rene

A petty crime as a teenager earned Rene a prison sentence, and set him off on a life of crime. Misanthropic, intelligent and introspective, he spends his life in and out of prison, struggling to fit in anywhere in the quickly changing Czech Republic. Veteran film maker Helena Trestikova began filming Rene in 1989, and kept up with him over the next two decades, even after he robbed her flat. Their collaboration, and his brief fame as a documentary star, spur him to writing, and he becomes a published author. Yet the demons driving him remain. This engrossing film takes us on a journey of a life lived outside of society. As his rap sheet lengthens, his body tattoos multiply, a visual testimony to the anger fueling his blighted life. His letters to Trestikova and access to the many cells which he calls home enhance this must-see film.