Sheffield Doc Fest Diary: Day Two

Renowned ’80s drama Vagabond, by Greek-French auteur Agnès Varda, is set in the French countryside during a grim Winter. It’s an experimental film that has elements of a documentary but is in fact all fiction, and imagines the life of a female drifter who meets her demise frozen in a ditch. Sandrine Bonnaire plays Mona, a woman who abandons her life as a secretary in Paris to wander free of all responsibility. Her freedom is far from idealised. Mona is trapped rather than liberated by her complete lack of ambition and dependence on the kindness of others. Her dignity slowly ebbs away as gradually, she begins to repel those around her. The story begins with a farmer discovering her frozen corpse, and traces back her steps, featuring pseudo-documentary style with those who encountered her. Despite its melancholy air, this beguiling anti-road movie has a distinctive dreamy quality and I enjoyed it immensely.

The next on the agenda couldn’t have been more of a contrast. Euphoric in tone, Ethan Reid’s Peter De Rome: Grandfather of Gay Porn is exactly as it sounds. Peter De Rome was essentially the original gay porn filmmaker. Previously ignorant of his works, this film proved educational with all I needed to know about this daring and provocative artist. Peter De Rome is now ninety; a small and spritely, perfectly spoken English gentleman who lives in a quaint cottage in a Kent village. Judging by appearances, you would hardly suspect he actually spent his career filming orgies and men in tight hot pants masturbating. His films, blurring the lines between porn and art, have been honoured and preserved by the British Film Institute. The film features entertaining interviews with the man himself as he muses on his adoration of the male form and the joyful experiences he’s had with his work and with his sexuality. Much of Rome’s work was created in New York, where he lived for years. He would often seduce a man on the street, take him back to his apartment and film them both having a wonderful time. We are treated to snippets of his brazen, artful and intriguing erotica that attracted the likes of Andy Warhol and David Hockey.  The only downside to this delightful documentary is that, for all of the interviewees remarking on his work, there are no women in the film whatsoever. This does females a bit of a disservice. Women may not be the target audience, but they can still appreciate art in all its weird and wonderful forms. A collaboration of Rome’s films have also been showing at the festival under the title The Erotic Films of Peter De Rome. So, these gay gems are no longer circulating on the sly in the ‘7os, but showing in the middle of the afternoon at a cinema in Sheffield. That’s something to celebrate.

Steve James’ Life Itself, the film about the Pulitzer Prize winning American film critic Roger Ebert, is essential only for die hard admirers of his work. As as we know the well loved critic passed away last year, succumbing to the cancer that rendered him unable to speak, eat and drink. Based on Ebert’s memoir, the film is a reflection on his fruitful career as well as a study of the struggles of illness and impending death. Those who knew him speak his praises and tell amusing anecdotes, and we witness clips from his hit TV show At The Movies, which he collaborated with friend and nemesis Gene Siskel. The director also worked with Ebert and his wife to film his last days at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Whilst witnessing painful procedures that are immensely difficult to watch, I was left wondering whether this was really necessary. I couldn’t help but think audiences should remember Ebert for who he was and what he achieved, rather than an image of a man’s discomfort in his latter days. I was relieved when the two hours came to a close. Although incredibly warm hearted and well intentioned, Life Itself would have benefited from some ruthless editing.

The problem I had with Concerning Violence, a film about the discord inherent in the colonisation process, is how little all audiences were considered. The beauty of documentary, I find, is the ability to educate and enlighten a viewer who is unaware of the subject. Documentaries make the inaccessible accessible. Directed by  Göran Hugo Olsson, who brought us The Black Power Mixtape, this documentary doesn’t concern itself with accessibility. Postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravatory Spivak leads a long introduction, perched in a room filled to the brim with textbooks. Words from Frantz Fanon’s post-colonial theory text The Wretched Of The Earth are imposed onto disturbing archive footage from pivotal moments in African history and from the Swedish television archives. The words are then calmly narrated by singer Lauryn Hill. The result is stylistically intriguing, but somewhat alienating, and warrants a second watch to fully absorb all that it has to offer.


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