All in Huck

In the summer of 2017 director Alison Klayman – the film-maker behind the Emmy nominated Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and Netflix’s remarkable Take Your Pills – received a call from producer Marie Therese Guirgis, asking if she wanted to shoot a vérité documentary of Steve Bannon. With a newly energised Republican party controlling all three branches of government in the US, Brexit having engulfed parliament in the UK, and far-right politics on the ascendancy across Europe, Klayman couldn’t pass up the chance to capture history in the making, no matter how antithetical the subject might be to her personal politics.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, filmmaker Ryan White learnt some of his earliest lessons about sex from a tiny, Jewish psychologist in her mid-50s with a thick German accent and a titillating disregard for anatomical prudishness. The darling of radio call-ins and television talk shows, Dr Ruth Westheimer was a powerhouse of sexual literacy, renowned throughout the country as much for her liberal use of the words ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’ as she was for her diminutive 4’7” frame.

XY Chelsea follows Manning full circle, from her release in the spring of 2017 to her recent re-incarceration for refusing to testify before a grand jury against Julian Assange earlier this March. As much a testament to her resilience as it is a record of her activism, XY Chelsea offers an intimate portrait of a woman struggling to survive under the weight of unparalleled public scrutiny.

A funny, touching portrait of Frank Sidebottom, Manchester’s maverick comedian, and Chris Sievey, the eccentric and obscure artist who created him; Being Frank tells a twisted tale of split personalities. With insights from Chris’ family, friends, and colleagues, including Jon Ronson, John Cooper Clarke and Ross Noble amongst others, Being Frank reveals the unknown story of a wayward genius.

Transmilitary, a documentary more than six years in the making, captures the highs and lows of a dedicated group of activists as they lobby for the recognition they deserve. It’s a rousing and necessary feature that’s fundamentally grounded in the honesty, openness and courage of its four lead characters – Senior Airman Logan Ireland, Corporal Laila Villanueva, Captain Jennifer Peace and First Lieutenant El Cook. Hopeful and heartbreaking in equal measure, Transmilitary reminds us of the power of personal stories to affect political change.

An international porn icon, Jonathan Agassi, has had a meteoric rise to fame, but at what personal cost? Tomer’s film sensitively explores the tension between professional success and personal loss in a way that’s never once prurient or judgemental. It’s a moving examination of loneliness, addiction and trauma that deserves to be seen.

Featuring a powerful, thought-provoking and eclectic mix of features, shorts, discussions, talks, workshops and club nights, this year’s BFI Flare reflects on themes of sex, identity, politics and community. We spoke to festival programmer Zorian Clayton, to help shortlist a selection of essential docs from this year’s programme.

2018 was a remarkable year for documentary cinema. We enjoyed insightful and unsettling features about the impact of anonymous lobbying groups on America’s political system in Dark Money; mind-bending psychological puzzles and thrilling family dramas in Three Identical Strangers; necessary and informed explorations of what life is like growing up in an Islamic caliphate in Of Father & Sons and poetic, intimate portraits of race and class in the deep south in Hale County This Morning, This Evening.

Once dominated by bros shouting over one another about sports, or straight, white comics making jokes about ‘the missus;’ the last few years have seen podcasting breath new life into spoken word stories. From much-needed investigations into ISIS, to fictional feminist stories about art and attraction, we shortlist our favourites from 2018.

Throughout 2018 we’ve seen widening social divides as our beliefs become more entrenched, and the stories we see and share become increasingly tailored to our interests. Political unrest has been catalysed by erratic, and frustratingly binary approaches to nuanced social, economic and international issues, and, whilst some journalistic institutions have been attacked, undermined for the way they seek to challenge authority, others have begun to thrive in a new age of misinformation. Throughout it all, a host of insightful and necessary documentaries have catalogued these changes, reflecting this new set of preoccupations back at us, working to inform viewers about the changing status quo whilst simultaneously providing a platform for marginalised communities to raise their voice above the din.

Robert Shafran’s first day of college in 1980 got off to a peculiar start. Classmates he’d never met kept calling out to him, welcoming ‘Eddie’ back to school, as if greeting an old friend. When Eddie’s slightly bemused roommate – who knew that Eddie hadn’t planned to return to class that year – found Robert, he was stunned. Whilst certain that the man standing in front of him wasn’t Edward Galland, he was the spitting image of his absent friend. The hair, the eyes, the nose, the mouth, even the way Robert carried himself, was indistinguishable. After a frantic drive to Eddie’s house, the two men, newly reunited, soon realised that they were, in fact, identical twins. When the story ran in the New York Post, and another 19 year-old, David Kellman, realised he was their triplet, the story went from a happy accident to an unthinkable coincidence.

Posing as an extremist, Syrian-born filmmaker Talal Derki spent more than two years, on-and-off, living with a Jihadi family for his Sundance-winning documentary Of Fathers And Sons. The end result is a thoughtful, nuanced and profoundly shocking portrait of what life is like for those living in an Islamic caliphate. It’s a world so rarely seen – except through political dog-whistles and sensational headlines – and Derki pulls back the curtain with unflinching honesty.

With thoughtfulness, clarity and a meaningful sense of urgency, Reed’s Sundance Grand Jury-nominated Dark Money begins by looking at how dark money groups have influenced the politics of her home state of Montana, before zooming out to consider the macro effects of unbridled campaign donations on the US government as a whole. Dark Money is a gripping and essential watch that posits the frightening possibility that House Of Cards might not be quite as removed from reality as we would like. Ahead of the documentary’s broadcast on PBS this October we spoke to Reed about America’s current political climate, why dark money poses more of a threat than Macedonian article farms, and what we can do to combat its influence.

One of the largest and most significant celebrations of non-fiction filmmaking in Europe, the 25th edition of acclaimed documentary film festival Sheffield Doc/Fest returns to South Yorkshire from 7th to 12th June this year. Featuring a powerful, thought-provoking and eclectic mix of features, shorts, discussions, talks, workshops and live performances, this year’s festival reflects on themes of race, identity, sexuality and mental health amongst others.

Drawing on his personal experiences with Paris’ ACT UP pressure group, Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM is a rousing, heart-breaking celebration of queer activism. Set in the height of France’s 1990s AIDS epidemic, the film follows introspective, HIV-negative Nathan as he gradually gets pulled deeper into the group’s agitating political demonstrations, direct action and protest rallies. An intimate and deeply moving love story as much as it is a thoughtful and well-paced historical account, 120 BPM has a vitality and urgency to it that perfectly embodies the pulse-racing energy of its title.