Sheffield DocFest 2012: Documenting politics and the politics of Documentary

Written by Ann McCluskey on . Posted in Festivals

from the sea to the land beyond 01With 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.

The-punk-syndromeSheffield 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 (, 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.

Marina Abramovic by Shelby LessigThe 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.

Footage of Israeli soldiers arriving in the middle of the night to arrest children – boys of 13 or 14 – was one of many sequences that left you wondering about the sanity and desperation of Israeli state decisions. We can only hope that Davidi’s empathy reaches further into Israel and its population who will take heart from the courageous non-violent movement afoot in the West Bank’s Bil’in, which 5 Broken Cameras so eloquently was a testament to.

5 Broken Cameras

Politics aren’t always as brutal as apartheid era South Africa or present Middle East, but nonetheless come in many shades. Industry sessions at Sheffield have been pretty robust and at times polemical over the past few days. The most pointed case was that of an ‘interview’ between Sunday Times journo, AAGill, and Nick Fraser, BBC4 Storyville Editor. The former - supposedly interviewer – took to conversing more with the audience as the format for the Fraser interview than getting much out of Fraser. The session was advertised as an analysis of truth and fact on TV but BBC high honcho Fraser revealed a disquieting inability to engage with pertinent and pointed audience comment, curtly dismissing observations tackling the ideological structure of news output as ‘Marxist’ or ‘Gramscian’. It’s at sessions like this that you’re reminded why the internet was so desperately needed as a redress for what media conservatism presents as ‘balance’. 

 On a lighter note, but still dealing with large mammals, the turbulent world of politics and messy debate gave way at another session to fascinating insight into the making of Frozen Planet. Long before killer whales ambushed seals or polar bears were caught shagging on snowy peaks, cameras were tested in a deep freezer outside Bristol. The ones that could be turned on in the morning went to the Artic to face -40 degree temperatures. The tried and tested tape VariCam proved its mettle and scientists provided the expert information required to characterise animals, find locations and provide access to Antarctica. The directors present said the programme was only made possible by scientists’ knowledge – which they helped to expand – and, what was implicit, was the technical determination of the camera teams. After the famed orca and Weddell seal sequences, it was revealing to know that the albatross and Adélie penguin were the foreseen original stars. Turns out birds are a hard sell to the US who made a concession for penguins – ‘honorary humans’ as cameraman Doug Allan commented - so anthropomorphism won the winsome day. 

frozen planet

Further technical delights were supplied in a Masterclass by editor Chris King who glued sports footage together to bring the amazing Senna to cinematic status and more remarkably turn 200 unlabelled DV tapes into a key part of the extraordinary world of Exit Through the Gift Shop which many (myself included) thought was spoof from beginning to end. The mind boggled at King’s capacity to wade through these mountains of what is mostly ‘crap’, as he commented, and fashion it into filmic gold. A true alchemist and a chatty, witty and lively interviewee.

While we go to Sheffield as viewers and fans of theatrical documentary films, a lot of debate is still circling ferociously around TV factual approaches and what that means for an audience and the political and ethical nature of our documentary format and content. 

Reithian principles of informing and educating underpin the ethos of many fact-based productions, but the need to entertain is the hard-wiring every one needs for success. Even the pressing and visceral story of 5 Broken Cameras was a deliberately taken emotional route to politically inform. Common humanity and emotionality is the binder for our national, international and virtual communities and it’s the key to transformative politics in doc world. It’s a heady mix of creativity and profound connection to people on the other side of the camera lens. And it’s the reason festivals like Sheffield succeed - by bringing people together to celebrate our humanity as well as a love of film.

(images from the film companies - Marina Abramovic by Shelly Lessig, CC-BY-SA)