One of the delights of the Doc Fest is how discussions and events are in the mix as well as films. Wednesday began with a panel discussion at the Crucible Theatre about sex in television on film. The title of the discussion was ‘Sex on Screen; how far can we go?’ and amongst the panel were Channel Four commissioners and a woman who made a documentary called ‘Slut Phobia’. However interesting the talk was, the title was misjudged. The discussion didn’t really address this question specifically and, really, ‘Sex on Screen: how close can we get? would have been a more apt title. The talk addressed the underrepresented issues surrounding sexuality; the elderly and sex, female masturbation, sex addiction. The issue really wasn’t how many breasts we can get away with seeing, as I’m sure Game of Thrones have shown enough to last the decade. The most poignant moment when we were presented with a clip of a woman in her ’80s, talking boldly and frankly about how her climaxes are just as good as they ever were. It illuminated how, for all the nakedness we see on screen, as a society we still retain a very specific ideal of those who are allowed to enjoy their sexuality.
Having missed the highly sought after The Girl Who Talked To Dolphins with queues all the way down the Showroom cinema stairs, I wandered into a screening of dance documentary Born To Fly, holding next to no expectations. It’s a rule of a festival that you should wander off schedule just once, and see something totally unplanned, as you never know what’s waiting to be discovered. This film about choreographer Elizabeth Streb was an immediate pleasant discovery. Far from the delicate and graceful movements we usually associate with the art, Streb’s groups move as if dancing was an Olympic sport. Bold and dangerous, they make routines out of averting metal beams and slamming brutally against pexiglass. Streb’s ethos of what she calls “pop action” is if it isn’t risky then there is little point. It was a fascinating novelty to witness a dance group where the strong, muscular women take their turns at lifting the men. An intriguing gem with surprising mass appeal from documentarian Catherine Gund.
The third of the day was a sweet, touching film named After The Dance. It’s a deeply personal work, as filmmaker Daisy Asquith films her mother’s journey to the remote Irish West Coast to discover her real heritage. Conceived out of wedlock, an abhorrent notion to the strident Catholicism dominant at the time, Asquith’s mother was handed over to nuns and then adopted after her grandmother had her in secret. With only a name to go on, the mother and daughter team eventually track down a married couple living on a farm, living a life unrecognizable to them both, who turn out to be cousins. The result is moving, affecting and rough-around-the edges in a charming sort of way, but it must be said the film is a work-in-progress, so my I shall refrain from revealing too much.
After the screening of this half the audience hurried onto a coach to the beautiful Chatworth House, to watch a screening of the eagerly anticipated Love Is All:100 Years of Love and Courtship, an archive film with a soundtrack by Richard Hawley. A huge tent in a field, burger vans and porta-loos, what sort of festival is this again? The film combined footage from the British Film Institute archive and Yorkshire Film Archive to tell the story of courtship on British celluloid since the movies began. I watched the film, directed by Kim Longinotto and edited by Ollie Huddleston, whilst nursing a hot chocolate to keep warm after the sun went down. It was all very lovely, but actually wasn’t a patch on a similar work, last years utterly beguiling How We Used to Live. Also made up of snippets from the British Film Institute archive, the film is a portrait of London in the ’50s and ’60s, accompanied by a charismatic philosopher for a narrator as well as the music of Saint Etienne. Doc Fest attendees would have been blown away by a showing of this beautiful film on the final night of the festival, also with a live performance of the aforementioned band just to make it that bit more memorable. Shame I missed it, a second viewing would have been a treat.
The must sees from Sheffield Doc Fest 2014? Doug Blocks hilarious study of marriage, 112 Weddings, and the captivating Jury award winner Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans And The Last Nazi War Crime. Dare I repeat it once more, it would be a real crime to not seek out How We Used To Live. The Audience Award winner Still The Enemy Within, about the miners strike under Thatcher’s rule isn’t one to miss either. The Doc Fest has also placed Agnès Varda on my radar, admittedly I’m slightly late to the party, but watching her ’80s black and white anti road movie Vagabond made it easy to see why she’s such a big deal. But personal highlights aside, it difficult to go wrong watching a whole bunch of documentaries that leave you feeling ever so slightly less woefully ill informed.