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.
Including talks from Munroe Bergdorf about her new documentary What Makes A Woman, and special previews of Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s McQueen – which uses archival footage and personal testimonials to present an intimate portrait of revolutionary British fashion designer Alexander McQueen – this year’s programme boasts more than 220 full-length features, incisive shorts, interactive and immersive events. To help navigate the days of back-to-back viewing you’d need to get through the full line-up, we spoke to Luke Moody, Director of Film Programming at the festival, to help shortlist a selection of unmissable screenings.
This excellent documentary presents a montage of social media videos of people coming out to close family members and friends. They’re very intimate portraits which prompt strikingly different reactions depending on the community and the place where it’s set. You witness elderly grandparents who are totally accepting and very loving in their response, to much more hardline religious families who react in quite a shocking way. It’s essentially a coming of age portrait of young people going through this process. It offers a window into these tender and intimate moments which the majority of people wouldn’t choose to share publicly I think. It becomes a statement about how difficult it can be to come out on an individual level, no matter if you’re living in a relatively liberal society or an extremely conservative one. It’s not trying to make a political statement, rather it shows a unique sense of joy and power that comes from within after the individual has shared who they really are. A particularly moving scene shows an American man who’s come out to his parents, the response is pretty bad but the strength he shows in that situation is super inspiring. I think it’ll inspire people who are in a similar situation.
This portrait of a Brazilian pop star called Linn da Quebrada and her sidekick Jup do Bairro won the Berlinale at this year’s festival. Linn is a black trans woman, and an absolutely incredible avante garde musician, artist, designer and maker who truly commands the stage when she’s performing. Her music is very political, it pointedly questions gender and gender fluidity both in Brazil and internationally. The filmmakers Kiko Goifman and Claudia Priscilla respond in a very creative way that blends some of Linn’s music videos (which function as performance pieces) with personal archive from Linn and footage of her performances. It’s super progressive and an incredibly exciting piece of cinema.
What I like about this film, as with the two above, is that they come from the scenes, they’re not being extracted by directors who drop in and tell the story of another. That brings a huge sense of rapport, a huge sense of solidarity and association. It gives a voice to the community itself. Shakedown is another avant garde piece of filmmaking. It’s fragmented in its structure, it uses archive from a lesbian strip club in LA from the 90s onwards – Shakedown was the name of a night held at the club which a huge number of the African-American queer community used to go to. It was a space routinely subjected to police oppression, officers used to barge in and try to shut it down for some daft reason, they’d claim the club didn’t have a licence to operate at those hours etc. On one occasion they come in and handcuff one of the strippers during one of her performances which is such a violation not only of her bodily space, but of the physical space of the club too. From the 90s through to the present day if follows the gradual decline of the club, whilst also capturing these wonderful details about the music, queer culture, fashion, costume and dance of the scene, all recorded on phones and handheld camcorders.
HALE COUNTRY, THIS MORNING THIS EVENING
This is an excellent film by a photographer called RaMell Ross. It’s an observational film that presents a different way of looking at a particular community. It has a unique lens and a particular way of glancing that you don’t usually encounter in cinema. It has a patience to it, a subtleness that isn’t trying to tell a story, rather it’s a statement which seems to say, “this is my world, and this is how I look at it.” As an accumulation of small scenes and small moments, it’s really poetic and beautiful. It gives viewers a chance to look at a world in a more nuanced way than some of the simplistic portraits of poverty, crime or hiphop that are often used to frame African-American stories.
Black Mother is another feature from a street photographer turned filmmaker called Kelly Gallagher. It’s a super poetic vision of Jamaica, of the female body in Jamaica and of landscapes in particular, shot on a mix of 16mm and DSLR. It’s somewhere between photography and cinema. What’s really interesting about it, is the use of quotes and snippets of street conversations that create the soundtrack and movement through the film. They almost become chants that recur throughout the work, they’re rhythmic. Kelly uses these sounds to create a hypnotising tapestry of voices that spreads throughout the film which takes you on a remarkable journey.
This is a film about British youth and the radicalisation of British youth. It’s a portrait of a young British Somali guy who goes to fight for Al-Shabaab in Somalia. He marries in London, was radicalised then went to fight for Al-Shabaab, then has a change of heart and decides he wants to leave by which time the British government have revoked his passport. He’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, his wife and child are still in London but he can’t return home. It’s really tender portrait of a young man, he’s I believe, in his early 20s and his partner is in her late teens.
OF FATHERS AND SONS
This Sundance winning documentary follows the director who managed to gain access to a Jihadist group in Syria by pretending to be a believer. He spent lots of time with a Jihadist family, particularly the father who is a leader in his particular group, and who begins to train his young boys turning them into fighters. For the two boys it’s a coming-of-age story, will they follow their father’s footsteps and become Jihadists or are there other chances in life? The fact that the filmmaker got access is incredible. What’s also remarkable is how through the film, you begin to understand the normality of the situation. It’s a portrait of a family who happen to be Jihadists. They raise their children in a very different way to how we might but they’re still a family, there are family quarrels and moments of tenderness. Those moment happen right alongside these incredibly chilling moments of children training with guns at the age of 9 or 10, of watching them discuss beheadings.
WORLDS OF URSULA K. LE GUIN
Arwen Curry worked with Ursula right up until her final moments, so the film includes some of her last ever interviews and some astounding archive footage. Ursula is such an incredible author who I think still needs to be discovered by new generations. It’s a playful, intimate and dedicated piece of cinema. She remained creative until her final days and thought about the world and gender in a really revolutionary way.