Sheffield Documentary Film Festival wound up on Sunday, with a brief interlude before the Scottish Documentary Film Institute hosts the Edinburgh Pitch on Tuesday and prior to the Edinburgh Film Festival officially kicking off on Wednesday. Filmtastic week. As was probably part of the rational to shift Sheffield to June (which it has wanted to do for almost 4 years), many of the commissioners who’ve come from abroad will also make their way to Edinburgh in the week. How well this plays out over the next fortnight, for ‘decision makers’ and film-makers, we’ll find out once Edinburgh gets under way.
But back to the closing weekend at Sheffield, which hosted a masterclass with Nick Broomfield, and a UK premiere of Hell and Back Again by Danfung Dennis - the movie everyone headed for on Saturday night. It struck me that at both events’ Q and A sessions, the curiosity - when not technical - revolves around the film-maker’s personality: what are the relationships with protagonists; how do they get the access; what are the moral implications at times for a film-maker’s politics?
Dennis’s film is an exquisitely shot work focused on a batallion posted 18 kilometres inside ‘enemy’ lines in Afghanistan, and more specifically on Sergeant Nathan Harris, badly wounded and recuperating back in North Carolina. This is Dennis’s first film; his background is as a war photographer, which results in a filmic aesthetic more often found in grand cinema than an on-the-hoof documentary. Careful composition, stunning resolution and a shallow depth of field combine to take us a long way from the rather garish grain of the low-budget video look. The result is extraordinary considering that Dennis was a solo operator and his rig was a Canon 5D stills camera with a boom and radio mic combined and balanced on a monopod. As a man of slight build and quiet personality projection, that he was inches from where bullets and incendiary devices landed made one aware of the physicality of such film-making. But it also explained the film’s visceral impact: immediacy ensures the powerful imagery because the decision-making and shot-taking are simultaneously in his hands. Broomfield, in commenting on footage caught for Soldier Girls, pointed out that capturing extraordinary moments is about trust between collaborators – there often just isn’t time for discussions with crew when drama kicks off. He cites an example of a crew member being practically assaulted by Sarah Palin security when they were ejected from a meeting: Broomfields’s camera people were so freaked that they couldn’t shoot. For him, what happens on the way to filming is where the story is, so you need to know that the cameras will keep rolling, whatever happens. And as Dennis illustrated, at times with very graphic footage, backing off is not what he does at any point.
And this brings us to the issue of politics. Dennis side-steps them - the story is very much from the soldiers’ viewpoint. This does leave the Afghanistan sequences rather untethered, notwithstanding an instance of jaw-dropping irony delivered by an officer during one of many contretemps with Afghan villagers. He expressed the hope, in the course of a hearts and minds talk, that the villagers - whose homes and fields they’re trampling through or squatting in - will come in time to consider him a village leader. But US imperialism aside, there’s also the politics of editorialising, and Dennis included a scene of a horrifically wounded man (from a 100 hours of footage shot), which he said was necessary in order to represent the brutal reality of war. But this was an Afghan member of the platoon, and as this was a battalion who had lost 13 men in total, the sub-text of the question asked of Dennis was; would he have shown a US soldier in similar circumstances? The death of an American early in the film was respectfully unintruded upon.
Broomfield was dealing with politics of a different kind in The Leader, His Driver and His Wife – the latter two characters apartheid supporters, even if not of the venality of Eugene Terre’Blanche, ‘The Leader’ in this case. Broomfield maintained that it’s the place and time of a person’s birth which determines their politics – so there but for the grace of God go all of us. Broomfield’s intolerance is of dishonesty, or a subject window dressing their own representation on camera; generally his moral compass points to non-judgement. In relation to access, Dennis needed to clear a mountain of bureaucracy to get access to the platoon – Broomfield, one sensed, would get it with sheer force of will. I wouldn’t like to be up against Broomfield in a war of anything: I know who would win. But Broomfield is engaging and fun, and I imagine that the bug-eyed innocent face he deploys when in trouble with either his producer or Heidi Fleiss oils many a cranky cog in the production process.
Broomfield is the docu success story, a name that will let an idea fly, as well as the celebrities he covers at times. But as a sales and distribution exec told me, docs are very, very hard to sell. But although we kinda know that anyway, successes such as Broomfield, or now, Spurlock aside, there is inventiveness afoot and I said I’d big up Distrify, a new net toolset for trailering and reviewing films and making money out of both. Business models for cultural forms on the net are now redressing the demand issues that supply lagged behind. So it’s less pay-walls imposing on access in the Distrify model, but rather maximising the share ethos of the net, and make it make money in niche markets. Although Peter Gerard, a co-founder, also makes pretty mean vegan coconut ice-cream which was being well-scoffed as a festival freebie. Can’t get that online I guess…
And in terms of multi-talented film types, my last compliments come by way of the Festival’s social life. It ain’t quite red carpets at Cannes, but I challenge any attendant junkets to be more enjoyable than Sheffield’s Saturday party. The catalyst for a lot of fun was down to the breakdancers from ‘Rationale’ who crashed last year’s party in the Showroom Bar but were there by invitation this year. Not only did they entertain us as we gathered round to watch their impressive dance-offs, they good-naturedly encouraged the by-standers to join in. As more and more people got in the groove, the second half of the night was witness to the entire bar (about 100 people) engaged in lines of synchronised steps that would have put many a pop video to shame. Seems doc-makers can cut some fairly fierce moves as well as make film.
One shouldn’t go to festivals just for the finishing parties, but it’s a big reason why Sheffield is such fun and a place where everyone gels, making meeting people and so making contacts – be it for business or creative connections – very straightforward and extremely pleasurable. And as creatives tend to live to work, some fun along the way is absolutely crucial.