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DocFest 2015: The Curtain Closes

The mighty Mark Perkins gives us his DocFest round up

Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.

It won’t be easy, but I’ll try to remember this for the next few weeks whenever I’m asked ‘How was DocFest?’ And I’ve already cried a fair few times this week. Truth is often said to be stranger than fiction, and on several occasions this week I’ve thought, ‘Fiction, get back in your box, you can never compete with this.’

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The film ‘Don’t Breathe’, which was shown at the Curzon, had me totally engrossed. Director Nino Kirtadze has made a documentary, the like of which I have truly never seen. She has seamlessly blended fact and slightly absurd fiction, but who can really tell which is which? To make the film she lived with Levan and Irma, a couple from Georgia, and documented their experiences after he had a rather inconclusive scan of his painful shoulder. The film is a combination of re-enactments, real observation, and even staged scenes but you’d be hard pushed to tell one from another. It opens with a Charlie Chaplin quote: ‘Life is tragedy when seen in close up, but a comedy in long shot’, and this film illustrates that perfectly. The director uses the camera in a way documentary film makers aren’t supposed to, sometimes carefully setting up artistically framed shots, whereas at other times the feel of the scenes put me in mind of the French New Wave cinema of Godard or Truffaut. An absurd but absorbing film – which I have thought about every day since I saw it.

One of the big hits of the festival was ‘Addicted to Sheep’. Well, you’d have to be wouldn’t you, to spend every day with them. A sheep’s ambition, we learn, is to die. A sheep is never happier than when it achieves its goal of lying down with its feet in the air, dead. The intervening years are just an inconvenience, and need to be carefully managed by hill farmers such as the Hutchinson family from Teesdale. I was upset to find out that they’d actually been to the previous screening, as by the end of the film we were all totally in love with them. The film follows them as they toil against the stunning landscapes with hard work and good humour that binds this remote community together. Their attempts to breed the perfect sheep, make for a beautiful, often laugh-out-loud funny film, and I urge you to see it when it gets a theatrical release.

‘Dark Horse’ was the feel-good film of the festival that everyone told me I had to see, and I managed to catch the repeat on the final day. We laughed and cheered and cried as one, at the incredible true story of Dream Alliance – a horse who won races when he clearly wasn’t meant to. Only thoroughbred horses, owned by established stables are meant to win races, aren’t they? Winning the Welsh Grand National isn’t for a horse from the valleys, owned by 22 friends from a Working Men’s Club, which they bred themselves and stabled next to an allotment. It was the sort of story that would have been dismissed as implausible at best, had it been submitted as a fictional screenplay.

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In a wonderful example of cross-pollination, DocFest teamed up with Festival of the Mind, (another Sheffield event, held in September), to present ‘The Sounds of the Cosmos’ at the Crucible. In this, the Sheffield Rep Orchestra, together with the Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, performed Gustav Holst’s ‘The Planet Suite’. Between each piece of music, Professor Paul Crowther gave a narration outlining the latest mind-blowing discoveries in astronomy. The accompanying visuals used NASA images and computer animation to great effect, and it all worked perfectly together.

Away from the cinema lies the world of the TV documentary. Lately film-makers have felt that this has been dominated by a few high-profile programmes such as Benefits Street, but that moment seems to be passing. I must confess, I’ve always been a bit sniffy about ITV’s Long Lost Family, thinking I knew what it would be like from the title, without having to actually go to all the bother of having to watch it – but you can’t judge a book by its cover. OK, if it’s a telephone directory, maybe you can, but after tonight I think I may have been a little hasty. Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell appeared at the Crucible in ‘The Making of Long Lost Family’, and the care and professionalism that the pair of them and their team bring to this show is, I now appreciate, quite remarkable. After a few clips from equivalent shows in other countries, just to show us how wrong it is possible to get this concept, we were left in no doubt that ITV have got the tone just right. The turning point for me came when all the talk and film clips of reunions suddenly, and unexpectedly turned into an actual event, which had the entire audience cheering.

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The most fascinating episode of the show is surely the one about twin sisters, living three miles apart in Rotherham, totally unaware of each other’s existence until Davina and Nicky rocked up. After we’d watched their emotional reunion on screen, the tables were joyfully turned on our heroic presenters, as, unbeknown to them, the sisters were sitting in the audience! Cue another tearful reunion of all four of them. This was when the evening got real. The sisters talked about what it had meant to them, and how their lives changed since they found each other. But what hadn’t been anticipated by anyone was that when the session was opened up for audience questions, it turned out even more grateful ‘reunitees’ had bought their own tickets and took it in turns to pay grateful thanks to the show. Emotional dials were now set to overload, but it was a privilege to be part of it. These people had turned up just to say thank you, but had in their turn, given the show a seal of approval which it wasn’t fishing for, but nonetheless welcomed. Nicky Campbell, himself adopted, is certainly the man to front this show, and Davina, despite initially being dismissed by some as ‘that Big Brother woman’, has confounded her critics and helped lead the show to a BAFTA recently. A top BBC executive, when asked which ITV show he wished he made, had no hesitation in saying Long Lost Family. He was right. I see now what a worthy piece of TV documentary it is.

Adam Buxton’s ‘Best of Bug’ show was my most anticipated event of the festival. Last year he did a show so hilarious that I’d told several people to come along, and I was a bit worried he might not live up to the build-up I’d given it. No worry: he was even funnier than last time. His show largely consists of dissecting and critiquing YouTube music videos, but the funniest part, which really won’t seem as funny when I describe it, was a home movie of his children he’d edited to some Prodigy music. I thought the woman next to me was going to have a seizure, she laughed so much. In fact I thought I might join her at one point. Glad I recommended it now.

DocFest 2015 closed with the world premiere of the documentary, ‘Monty Python: The Meaning of Live’ which chronicled the build up to the recent O2 reunion shows. Terry Gilliam’s daughter Holly co-directed the film, and to cap it all off, Michael Palin was there for the Q&A afterwards. He was interviewed by the lovely Josie Long (who I interviewed for Exposed a few months back)

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And she was an ideal choice. She’s a fan, but a discerning one, who asked some insightful and interesting questions before opening it up to the audience. Michael Palin was charming and funny; he was always the funniest of the Pythons for me, and tonight just confirmed it. I’ve often wondered just how well Python ‘translates’ to other cultures, particularly the US, but I was lucky enough to be sitting with Dava Whisenant, a leading US documentary film director/producer and she confirmed that in the States they are massive. That being the case, this documentary will have a guaranteed audience, and not just within the UK.

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So, there it is, DocFest has finished for another year and really does go from strength to strength. I hope I’ve conveyed some of my enthusiasm for documentary films. The truth is rarely pure and never simple, and when a real story is put in the hands of a skilful film-maker, the results can be extraordinary. And there is no better place to see this than at Sheffield’s rightfully acclaimed DocFest, which I count myself as being extremely privileged to be able to attend. Whether you just go to one event, buy an access-all-films wristband or get yourself a full festival pass, I don’t care, just go to something, and get a taste of why people are so obsessed with documenting the world around them on film. See you next year!




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