Up The Narrow Stairs visits Docfest

Our Up The Narrow Stairs Blogger takes a look back at Sheffield's Doc/Fest.



Sheffield’s DocFest has come of age. Now regarded as one of the top 3 documentary festivals in the world, alongside Amsterdam and Montreal, it’s come a long way from an event which started out 21 years ago as a weekend event at the Showroom. Its success is mainly due to the vision of Festival Director Heather Croall, and her conviction that once directors, producers and delegates discovered Sheffield, they’d tell their friends, and come back year after year for more. Those yellow bag carrying folk around town recently were the 3 500 plus visitors from all corners of the globe that proved just how right she was.  I joined them for a few events. Now, in case you hadn’t noticed, you can take it from me that documentaries and the world surrounding them are the new rock n roll. Recently they have become much more exciting, ultra-cool and sometimes even a bit more sexy than they were just a few years ago. So, while the movers and shakers from the film world were meeting, networking, making deals and pitching ideas to prospective sponsors, I busied myself by sampling just a fraction of the bewildering choice of events on offer, most of which incidentally, were open to the public.



The first event for me was perhaps a bit too early on the opening day for many of the delegates. They were too busy checking-in to our swathe of new city centre hotels, so on their behalf I parked my self in the Memorial Hall, in the company of Sue Perkins, who regaled us with the story of how she came to be the face of the bake-off. She’s gathered herself a nice little crowd of admirers over the years, and there were some very entertaining clips of her many TV incarnations.


Pulp-fever hit Barker’s Pool in the glorious early evening sunshine, and as I arrived, an all women’s choir were singing ‘Common People’ on the City Hall steps. To their right, a scrum of attention and turned-heads indicated that the Man Himself had arrived. Jarvis was indeed being interviewed for TV, before he disappeared into the cavernous depths of the auditorium. Inside it was packed right up to the back of the top balcony with fans eager to see the premier of ‘Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets’. It might have disappointed some with the paucity of in-concert footage, but I thought the balance was fine, as it left time for interviews with the band, the Sheffield public and performances of Pulp songs by other people.



What did disappoint was Paul Morley’s poor questioning of the band in the obligatory follow on Q&A. He seemed to ask the same question again and again, and it wasn’t until they opened it up to the audience that things became more interesting. It didn’t help that the director didn’t seem to have much to say of any interest to say either.


Off then by coach to Castleton, to finish the night in the Peak Cavern (I’m not giving it the stupid name that seems to be its given nomenclature) for a screening of ‘Happiness’. This film followed the life of a small boy, Peyangki, who was sent to a monastery from his village in Bhutan, and looked at the impact of the arrival of the modern world in hi mountainous village in the guise of TV and the internet. Good film, and a worthy cinematography winner from the Sundance festival, but I was getting cold by the end. I suppose I should have realised. Film. In a cave!




The most moving documentary I saw that weekend was ‘Night Will Fall’. In 1945, remarkable and shocking footage was filmed by the Allied Forces as the Nazi concentration camps were liberated. The sights they saw and filmed were almost indescribable, and when the film was sent back, Sidney Bernstein, Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Richard Crossman were all involved in editing it into a record of the atrocities they uncovered, but within months, the US and UK governments had a change of heart and withdrew their support for a film, which remains the only documentation of the horrors of the Holocaust. ‘Night Will Fall’ was the untold story of the film’s history, and how for years, politics and ambition scuppered the production of one of the most extraordinary films ever made.


Sunday saw the full utilisation of all the venues across the city centre, which numbered more than a dozen this year. Panel discussions, film shows, interactive events and just plain socialising in that inflatable cube in front of the Crucible, all took place. The most entertaining panel I attended was about the future of the often overlooked and neglected radio documentary, and yet easily the most evocative and easy to make. All you need is a reasonable microphone, a good story to tell and a computer on which to do some digital editing. There were extracts from a few fascinating projects, all broadcast on the BBC, but all made by independent companies.



Gene Cernan was ‘The Last Man on the Moon’, and after the screening of the new film of his life story, he appeared on stage to answer some questions. He got a standing ovation, and I was excited to see him, but even more thrilled because I’d arranged a chat with him to doing an interview for Exposed magazine, which should be in our August edition. The film is obviously his story, but it also reflects his relationship with his family and friends. As his wife said when there was a problem with Apollo 10, ‘if you think going into space is hard, try staying back here on earth’. The reason he agreed to make the film was so he could make a plea to anyone watching, especially children, to always strive to achieve their very best, whatever the odds, and believe in themselves. As a boy, it was all he could do to dream of flying a jet in the navy, but he kept pushing himself until he found himself recruited to the space program. It is an inspirational film about a remarkable man.



Another event deserves a special mention as being great fun. Remember those old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books? Nathan Penington does, and has made his obsession with these books into an interactive documentary, ‘Choose Your Own Documentary’. In this hugely entertaining and funny event, he searches for the owner of a set of books he bought from ebay, and in particular wants to know the meaning of a diary which fell out from one of the books. Instead of making a conventional film of his quest, we are allowed to make our choices via a keypad every few minutes, about who he should talk to, where he should go. In short, the sort of choices you could make when you read one of the books. He claims there are over 1 500 different shows you could experience, so it’s entirely possible that our version had never been seen before.


The pattern was pretty much set for the week. I’ve learned from previous years not to concentrate on one aspect of the festival. There’s so much to see so I settled into a mixture of films, panal discussions, live music and interactive events, of which there were more this year than ever. It’s easy to over-plan, and often the best things come by just wandering into somewhere unplanned and sampling what’s on offer. Such an event was an activity called ‘I’d Hide You’. Not an easy one to describe, but essentially it’s a hide-and-seek game played from your computer, but with live players who run around the centre of Sheffield. You can influence the players by telling them where to go by typing messages which they can see on a heads-up display. At your computer you can see what they see though a live streamed head-cam which they all wear. Confused? Well, it took me a time to get into it, but once I’d mastered the technique of switching between players, I could send messages to any one of them to try to get them to ‘capture’ another player. From the comfort of my computer I could then score points by pressing a key whenever another player was in view. I first played this in the Interactive Exhibition in the Millennium Gallery, but then carried on playing when I got home by logging in on my home computer.



The best and most unusual of the interactive features was the ‘Door Into The Dark’. It took place in the old Niche nightclub building, and was an immersive documentary but with no visuals! I was led into in the dark and left all alone. Through a headset I was forced to rely on my remaining senses to experience the true stories of three people who had been profoundly lost, and the immersive, walk-through documentary guided you through a world where you must navigate in total darkness. The feeling of giving yourself up to the experience lasted long after I had emerged back into the daylight, and through an ingenious piece of trickery at the end, had me feeling lost and slightly removed from the world for a good half an hour after I had left.


As a climax of sorts to the film festival, their most ambitious event to date was an open-air screening in the grounds of Chatsworth. Busloads of delegates were all totally bowled over when they found themselves walking through the grounds of Chatsworth House, so much so, a good proportion of them wandered off to take photos before they found their way to the massive marquee. The film was preceded by a performance by the Everley Pregnant Brothers. Quite what the global audience of film-world professionals made of them I’m not sure, but the film that followed, ‘Love Is All’, with a specially commissioned Richard Hawley soundtrack was hugely enjoyable. The sight of a full moon rising over the house as we made our way back to the coaches through the gathering mist, will live with me for a long time to come and was the perfect end to the evening.



The film festival itself finished on the Thursday, but this year was extended to the following Sunday to take in some musical events. My favourite of these was the film ‘How We Used to Live’, a compilation of rarely seen footage of London. The group Saint Etienne had already composed a soundtrack to this, but they performed it live for the very first time at the Crucible. They said that the Crucible was such a perfect venue for this that they couldn’t say no. The film itself had footage unseen for years, including the Queen going down the escalator on the Victoria line and driving a train!



It all finished on the Sunday with a perfect afternoon of music from the High Llamas and some Felix the Cat cartoons; something I’d not seen since I was very young. Felix was the world’s first animated superstar, long before Walt Disney put on that silly high-pitched mouse voice. Felix was known throughout the world in the 1920s, and I was reminded that silent films were anything but, as they always had music played alongside them, even if it was improvised on a piano. Just as I thought I’d have a gentle end to the DocFest, along came Adam Buxton with his hilarious David Bowie show. He visited several key events in the life of David Bowie and through videos, TV interviews and his own scripted animations, gave us an idea of what might have been going on in Bowie’s life at those times. It was extremely funny and entertaining. His final comment as he left the stage echoed my own feelings. ‘See you next year…. if you’ll have me back’.


The whole event was a massive success. I talked to quite a few delegates who’d never been here before, but who all said they’d certainly be back. Can’t wait for 2015.




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