With a new chair this year in the shape of Scotsman, Alex Graham, presiding over a delegate list now 2,500 in number and Aussie Heather Croall still proving to be an assured hand in the Director’s role, Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012 is still on a steady and upward trajectory. Funding and making docs is tough territory but in these financial anni horribili the festival itself succeeded in not only keeping funders on board but even bringing ITV back into the supportive fold.
Flavours and impressions from Sheffield run aneclectic gamut, from moshing to a Finnish punk band whose members have learning disabilities (main players from The Punk Syndrome; directors, Jukka Kärkkäien and JP Passi) to a standing ovation for the buzz film of the week, 5 Broken Cameras (directed by Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi). Sheffield takes your head and heart through dizzying territory, reminding you that documentary can confound as well as meet expectations given the right circumstances, people and ethos.
Sheffield had two openers this year, neither piggy-backing on already established popularity as arguably the Joan Rivers and Morgan Spurlock choices over the last two years might attest to. The first, Inspiration Award recipient Penny Woolcock’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond, is a piece made specifically for Sheffield and partnered with the BBC, Arts Council England and the BFI. The result was a lovely 71-minute montage of archive footage, some of it a hundred years old, backed by live music from British Sea Power. Part of the BBC/Arts Council of England’s The Space project (thespace.org/items/e00009su), it was streamed live and is now viewable on line. It was a moving and revealing portrait of British life chronologically arranged from Edwardian blokes swimming in the sea with top hats on, to hardy holidaymakers facing storm force winds and crashing rain screeching, ‘I HATE Blackpool’.
The musical theme continued with the opening film, Searching for Sugar Man, one of those docs with an extraordinary personal story that appears to be the niche speciality of independent productions, and director Malik Bendjelloul’s first feature. Detailed description risks a massive spoiler, but in the vein of all good character-led work, it also gives us insight into political and social situations remaining under the radar in sweeping histories or current affairs. In this case, a perspective was given on the white community in South Africa in the early 70s who latched onto the music of Sixto Rodriguez – the protagonist in our film – as a conduit for forming their hopes for change in a society where media restriction was total and protest crackdown was fierce under PW Botha’s apartheid regime; no matter what the colour of your skin.
The Special Jury Award winner this year was Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present. Director Michael Akers is a graduate in sculpture who was extremely sceptical about performance art, which may be a contributory factor to the success of his film. Abramovic, now 63, was, and still is, a performance artist who does not compromise, and her earlier work was often harrowing as she subjected her body to brutal intervention; cutting, flagellating, drugging - all in the name of art. Akers' film leads up to another physical and psychological tour de force: sitting for 7 hours a day in New York's Museum of Modern Art for 3 months in 2010 undertaking an interaction of the gaze with individual visitors. The emotional impact of Abramovic's presence is extraordinary to watch, and was an entirely unexpected outcome for the film: there is a shamanic quality to her, and Akers - through specific camera decisions - succeeded in illustrating the charisma and force of her personality. His decision to do more than 'document' an artwork, which would have been the traditional art world approach, arguably broadened and deepened Abramovic's work: the film itself a part of The Artist is Present exhibition and performance at MoMA.
5 Broken Cameras took us explicitly into troubled contemporary territory where brutal oppression still reigns. A collaboration between a Palestinian and an Israeli may suggest an idealistic reaching across the divides, but as co-directors Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi explained, the decision was based on mutual creative instincts. The strategy to interweave Bil’in villager Burnat’s family situation into a broader political tale of Israeli militarization and settlement impact was an attempt to create identification rather than provocation for Israel’s mainstream population - and it’s a powerful device for a deeply emotional experience for the viewer. Davidi, an Israeli Tel Aviv citizen, cited the denial of his fellow nationals in relation to the Palestinian situation. Neither director had grand hopes about the task ahead of them, but Burnat’s compulsive filming was his means of protecting his community during confrontations and healing the scabrous wounds both physical and psychological inflicted by land-grabbing and murderous occupation. He said there is no healing if situations are forgotten.