Sheffield Doc / Fest: Saturday In Review

Wednesday through Sunday Sheffield played host to the fabulously conceived, wonderfully produced Sheffield Documentary Festival (Doc/Fest for short). By all accounts it was a great festival, certainly I felt so, and even though I was only able to be there Saturday and Sunday I managed to pack a lot in. It’s difficult to know where to start except at the beginning so here’s my festival in a chronological nutshell.

The Great White Silence

A labour of love from BFI archivists this is a restored masterpiece charting the Antarctic expedition led by Captain Scott from the cinematic lens of Herbert Ponting. While keeping the tints and tones of the original documentarian’s vision and using interspersed script commentary from the man himself this has no doubt been a restorative expedition akin to that of Scott’s itself, and it has most certainly born rich fruit for the documentary community.

Beginning with the ship Terra Nova’s journey into the icy heartlands of the last great unknown a possibly grim and foreboding sail is contrasted with the warmth of the sailors and the wry sarcasm of Ponting’s words. This tonal brilliance is continued throughout with it not being until the horror of the cold comes to bear in the third act which exposes both the sensitive radiance and tough resilience of the human spirit.

Much of the feature acts as a pseudo-nature doc in which Ponting catalogues and narrates about the animals he and his fellow journeyman encounter there. While it could have dragged and distracted from the central, chilling, reality of the feature it does quite the opposite effectively conveying the expeditionary team’s ability to find humanity, humour and relief in the hardy inhabitants of this barren wilderness. Moreover with techniques like capturing the birth and hatching of eggs, along with geographical changes, it serves to convey a passing of time that otherwise may have remained an intangible background to audiences, when in fact, it needs to be an ever present theme of the documentary proper. More time is more time in the cold and thus more time chipped away from the spirit of the brave men who stalked the ice.

A nature documentary with its warmth and delicacy is in stark contrast to the bitingly harsh inescapability of the journey into the dark heart of the tundra. Once this plunge into the icy wilderness begins the feature is steeped in melancholy, simultaneously compelling and horrifying but ultimately serving to display the unconquerable nature of the human spirit.


POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

Unorthodox documentarian Morgan Spurlock returns after hit Super Size Me and not so hit Where In The World Is Osama bin Laden? to turn his playful-creative gaze to the pernicious power of brand advertising and product placement, principally in the movies. Using his own brand image leverage he sets out to raise the money to make his documentary purely off the back of brand investment with comical and poignant results.

Comical intricacies abound such as contract small print necessitating interviewing an expert on a plane or in a select restaurant as well as Spurlock’s continued chastising of companies that fail to endorse him, but who can blame them. Ironically it’s those brands that do that come of best with their enthusiastic sentiments and open to opportunities nature placing them, in reputation at least, far ahead of those that refuse point blank to be involved.

More sinister themes emerge however when it becomes appropriate to question the legitimacy of a script or movie that necessitates branding every couple of frames or that distorts the filmmakers narrative due to the advertisers overbearing nature. Parallels can be drawn with the invasive nature of military authorities in many movie scripts over the years when they deem a feature as maligning the institution. Nonetheless as to whether accepting brand deals is selling out or buying in is never really reconciled and Spurlock seems to think he’s made another doozy by selling in at the same time.

It’s interesting if slightly overlong and British audiences likely will not respond in as knowing a manner as our friends across the pond because thankfully our television sets, cities, and school buses have as yet not been entirely colonized by the pervasive advertisers and their malicious methods. It’s interesting to muse on the thought though of whether it’s really a good thing to have morally obsolete advertisers funding films that influence generations; but on the flipside whether it’s better to have films capable of influencing generations for virtue of the funding advertisers provide.


Bombay Beach

The indomitableness of the human spirit is ever apparent in Alma Harel’s documentary Bombay Beach. Beginning with retrospective footage of the heaving ebb of tourism and holiday makers and quickly dissolving into a fractured, sun cracked expanse, void and vacuous of humanity except for bits of human debris; the remnants of an ill fated blizzard of desperation, hopelessness and last ends.

But Bombay Beach doesn’t capture the traditional narrative of no hopers attempting to forge their own distorted prism of the American dream. It does something so much more difficult, so much more nuanced than that. It portrays its subjects most basic, indeed most human quality, the ability to transcend any environment, any impediment, to truly flourish in even the most unfertile of landscapes.

Charting three stories, all located in close geographical proximity but with a narrative chasm between them, this documentary’s subjects are full of vibrancy and light. The introspective maturity of a mother who is trying so hard to right her wrongs and deal with the hyper reality of her son Benny’s existence; Ritalin-infused but charming and wise with it. Or CeeJay who dreams of fame and a world distinct from the gangs and deaths of his inner city youth but who is becalmed by the overpowering nature of his feelings leading to one of the purest expressions of love ever committed to screen. Even Red, a drifter with a hangover of the old ways, whose insides are made of tobacco and whisky, but who recovers from a stroke to be seen quad biking across the desert in search of further adventure.

Their stories are told through improvised dialogue and mesmerising, dreamlike choreography that looks more David Lynch than real life but serves to convey the emotions of these select examples of human nature. From a child’s traumatic battle with the fickle friends of exclusion and inclusion to the fluid and passionate first dance of a couple that ends set amongst faceless masks; so apt it is in showing the introverted guarded nature of blooming love.

Indeed there’s a real sense of the brilliance of diversity existing outside of the hustle and bustle of the bastions of culture, New York, Tokyo, London. This diverse microcosmic community is us, the representation of our global in this local. And it is that hard relevance that demands the empathy of the audience and binds our fears and emotions with those of this forgotten community.

The world of these subjects, the subjects themselves, appear on the surface so distant but many will likely feel a pang, a sense of deep familiarity in at least one of the generations portrayed, so ubiquitous is the subject on display here. For the real subject is not the people themselves but the means by which they flourish.

Bombay Beach exposes humans in raw unforgiving fashion; a movie that will plunge inside you and foster the flame of the human spirit with its moving beauty and lyrical emotiveness. Mostly though it’s a reminder that that flame will never cease, indeed it will light even the most empty of dark places; a paean to life and the beauty and tragedy of existence.


Life in a Day

Kevin Macdonald returned to his documentary roots in the visionary filmmaking of the Saturday night Secret Screening ofLife in a Day. Chronicling the odyssey of a day in the life of the Earth Macdonald has successfully, with the help of thousands around the planet, weaved together a map of human existence which exposes humanity in all its visceral diversity while layering over the theme that while we are all different, we are indeed also all the same. And while many will find this saccharine it’s an important message that is timely relevant for the times in which we live.

Rationalised from 4,500 videos from 192 countries the project is self evidently a mammoth one but Life in a Day flows smoothly from one contributor video to the next in chronological manner as we follow the natural course of the day itself, the 24th July 2010. From banal acts like toileting to inhumane acts of animal killing Life in a Day reveals people and events in all their forms, beautiful and ugly, glamorous and unglamorous, right and wrong and it’s a heart-warming sentiment to peer into this scrapbook of mutually supporting actions as they transpire across the globe.

While its contributors are likely not entirely representative Life in a Day’s egalitarian sentiments are absolutely crucial to the period of time it holds a mirror to, our time. However its same but different message is both obviously manipulative and idealistic, lulling audience’s overall into an uplifting sentiment that can, and will, no doubt be proven wrong. Its charming naivety ignores the wealth of existing structures that keep us, not same but different, but different and separated, power, politics, wealth, social structures and prejudices, values themselves, all compound to form impediment to Macdonald’s world view.

Ironically in spite of this though and notably because of it Life in a Day’s message and universalist sentiment must be heard and headed, a necessary thought process required to reach that same but different ambition if it is ever to achieve real actualisation. With our crucial juncture in history, where liberties are contested in the Arab Spring, nature collapses in the accumulating environmental crisis and counter intuitive wars pass by the apathy of those distracted by the power of advertising campaigns maybe we can look towards the sentiments and themes outlined in Life in a Day as a first way station on the journey to those great ideals; balance and tranquillity.

Intensely humanist, wonderfully engrossing, beautifully human and worth revisiting as many times as there are contributors, to fully reflect on the nuance of human behaviour, emotion and motivation. This is an intensely important documentary that peels back a layer of human defence to reveal that theme that cynics love to dispel – that we really are the same but different – but the truth is there’s never been a more important time to reaffirm it.


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