It’s a real pleasure to be attending this diverse, challenging and enriching festival for the second year running. As ever, this year’s Doc Fest at the Steel City has a predictably packed and bewildering schedule of sessions, discussions and films. Sadly, I was on a stuffy train by the time the action begun on Saturday morning and it was painful to miss the highlights of the afternoon. The only downside to a film festival is the inability to be everywhere at once.
Comedian Sue Perkins (The Great British Bake Off) led a talk about her career in documentary, comedy and factual TV. Auteur Agnes Varda’s ’60s documentary Cleo From 5 to 7; a French New Wave film full of dreamy, delicious shots of Parisian fashion and cityscapes. Martin Scorsese’s The 50 Year Argument , a doc spanning the cultural history of The New York Times, would have likely been been a treat to behold. Understandably excitement was brewing for Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets but I opted to see The Case Against 8, an incredibly moving film about the struggle for gay marital rights in California between 2008 and 2012. The doc charts the five year struggle between the US Supreme Court and an LGBT cross team that included a very unlikely lawyer, conservative attorney Ted Olsen, who assisted Bush in his presidency campaign. We know the outcome, but the film follows the case intimately behind the scenes, and how those that involved experienced it first hand and brought it to fruition. There’s plenty of laughs along the way. Tears were steaming and mouths were grinning and gasping. The viewing experience of The Case involved streaming tears, huge smiles, and grimaces and gasps. The content actually suited, and wasn’t spoiled by, the grandiose, emotion building background music. The audience was sat with huge grins when the gruelling and arduous case came to its triumphant and euphoric close.
Following this, one of the three opening night films (yes there were three, just because), was Miners Shot Down. This is just one of the films that is exploring untold stories from South Africa at this year’s Doc Fest. There’s also a recurring theme this year of Miner’s strikes; films exploring the similar threads that arise repeatedly in crises the world over, such as Still The Enemy Within, about the miners strike in ’80s Thatcherite Britain. Miners is focused on the ongoing post-Apartheid struggles for workers in South Africa. In 2012, workers for the British Company Lonmin went on strike, but were faced with an unresponsive union. After six days of protest, 34 miners were murdered by police as they attempted to walk away from the scene. The police claimed self defence, but the astonishly sourced footage tells an entirely different narrative. The brutality of what we see non screen is not or the faint hearted, a man next to me was shielding his face from the screen with his hands. Several of the injured miners are actually on trial for murder, whilst the policemen go free, a startling result considering the blatant evidence. In the Q and A afterwards the director Rehad Desai stressed that the aim was to tell the truth, to spread the word as far and wide as possible, and for the children of the murdered miners to make sense of what had happened when no other reliable sources exist. Surely this sort of relentless digging and probing is precisely what documentary film-making is about; to disclose what would otherwise be left unheard and unseen. I may have only seen two films on day one, but it was a great introduction to a festival that started as it meant to go on with two different but equally powerful viewing experiences.