DocFest 2023 Preview: “Six solid days of watching films, discussing films and discovering films – what could be better?”
Back for its 30th edition this month, our resident dochead Mark Perkins previews this year’s Sheffield DocFest event.
I’ve been covering DocFest in these pages for over ten years now, and each year I can barely contain my excitement when the internationally renowned film festival rolls back into town.
Six solid days of watching films, discussing films and discovering films – what could be better? But on top of all that, we get the chance to hear from and talk to the people who make them. And there’s no predicting which films will win over the attendees for the coveted audience award. Last year it was a charming, funny film about a bunch of amateur filmmakers from Bradford that stole our hearts. Three years before that, it was a harrowing story filmed in a Syrian hospital in war-torn Aleppo.
With all the anticipation running around in my head, I went to the launch event in the Showroom a few weeks ago. This place has been the home of DocFest since its humble beginnings as a documentary-themed weekend of films 30 years ago. I was hoping to have a quick chat with some of the team behind the festival, but most of all I wanted to see what 2023 had in store. After a quick coffee and a pastry, we were all herded into the cinema for the big reveal.
As ever, the breadth and range of events are inspiring and daunting in equal measure: world premieres, live podcasts, post-film Q&A events, alternate reality installations and much more. There’s far too much going on to summarise succinctly (there’s a handy online programme at sheffdocfest.com), but I’ll scratch the surface and mention a few films that look particularly enticing along the way.
Somewhat perversely, I’ll start off by mentioning a few events being staged not in the Showroom but the Crucible. There are several new music documentaries this year: the world premiere of the film Wham! And the international premieres of the Cyndi Lauper film Let The Canary Sing and TLC Forever (subject matter self-explanatory, especially if you know your 90s pop). Fun fact on that note: TLC are actually the biggest-selling American girl group since the Supremes. All of these screenings will be followed by Q&A sessions with the films’ creatives, plus the possibility of some ‘special guests’. Not promising anything here, but who knows who might turn up?
The opening night always features a screening at Sheffield City Hall, and this year it’s the world premiere of Tish by Paul Sng about trailblazing creative Tish Murtha, a photographer who dedicated her life to documenting the struggles of working-class communities in the North East of England. Tish was driven by a fierce conviction to record the impact of post-Thatcherite, de-industrialised Britain upon her local communities, and the film follows her daughter’s fight to preserve her mother’s legacy. Guest of honour at the festival this year is Rakhshan Banietemad, an Iranian filmmaker, a selection of whose films are being shown in tandem with some new Iranian documentaries.
The programme of films and events is pretty mind-blowing at first glance, but to help us navigate, and perhaps home in on films that might be of particular interest, the festival has handily divided the films up into six strands. The first of these is Debates, where there is a focus on films that talk about issues and topics people are discussing right now, such as interracial fostering and the identity of intersex people. Praying For Armageddon is my pick here, which follows fundamentalist Christians promoting and actually praying for the apocalypse.
Journeys is a strand that could include literal journeys from one place to another, or how people’s lives are changed in some way as they go on a metaphorical ‘journey’ in life. My choice in this strand is The Deepest Breath, a film where we’re given a front seat to exploring the deepest oceans.
Films under the Rebellions banner look at people striving for social change and fighting for what they think really matters. Be it politics, gender equality or the climate crisis, these films act as a witness to and also a tool for change. I’m going to choose While We Watched for its exploration of the changing news media in India.
Memories is the strand which is intended to embrace an exploration of how the past impacts on both the present and the future. Donyale Luna: Supermodel is one such film I’d like to see, exploring the revolutionary life of the pioneering African-American model who became the first woman of colour to appear on the front page on Vogue magazine.
The Rhythms strand is always my personal favourite, as it groups together films celebrating all aspects of music. I’ve mentioned a few already, but watch out for Maestra exploring the world of female classical conductors and following several women from around the world as they compete in the highly competitive La Maestra competition in Paris.
The final strand is People and Communities, a celebration of togetherness, families, friendships and communities. And if only for the title, I’ll be making sure I see Otto Baxter: Not A F***ing Horror Story – a feature-length documentary following Otto, a 35-year-old man with Down Syndrome, as he writes and directs a foul-mouthed, autobiographical comedy-horror-musical.
Elsewhere, DocFest will be exclusively showing episodes of upcoming TV documentary series under the banner of First Impressions. I’m looking forward to Evacuation, which documents the harrowing and chaotic exit by allied troops from Kabul in 2021, and The Greatest Show Never Made – a film about people agreeing to appear in a reality TV show without knowing it was a hoax.
There will also be some live theatre for what I believe is a DocFest first. Jews, In Their Own Words is a special 60-minute abridged version of Jonathan Freedland’s 2022 play, produced by the Royal Court Theatre. It uses interviews with 12 British Jews, looking at the roots and effects of anti-Semitism, often to be found in the most unlikely places.
As memorable events go – and DocFest always comes up with some corkers – the Alternate Realities exhibitions have provided me with some of the most outstanding experiences over the years. I’ve swum through coral reefs, been locked in solitary confinement and I still haven’t quite recovered from the Door In The Dark immersive event a few years back. It’s easy to think of documentaries as always having to be films, but, of course, telling a story can take on so many forms. There are 15 works at the Site Gallery, open to the public and completely free. One that caught my eye is Surfacing, a 360-degree VR documentary about mothers and children who live in prison. This part of the festival always contains something new; their stated aim is to break the boundaries of what we expect from documentaries. It makes full use of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, alternate reality, video gaming platforms and interactive installations, and every year creators seem to be pushing the boundaries of how they use these new and exciting technologies.
There are several Broadcaster Talks taking place, which over the years have been some of the most popular events of the festival. Laura Whitmore will be talking about her move into documentaries and her new TV series Laura Whitmore Investigates. The BBC Interview is always a flagship event, and this year David Harewood will be discussing his career in documentary filmmaking and the effect it has had on him. Strictly Come Dancing winner Rose Ayling-Ellis will be discussing her upcoming BBC documentary Signs For Change, while TV historian and recent BAFTA winner David Olusoga will be returning and talking about a much-discussed topic, the state of the union in this country, which he explores in his upcoming documentary. X-Factor winner Dalton Harris has made a film, Dalton’s Dream, about how he has navigated the harassment over his sexuality while representing his home country. The Syrian swimmer, Sara Mardini, who pulled a boat carrying 18 refugees to safety, is just another one of the compelling guests who you’ll be able to hear from.
DocFest has made a pledge to connect with the community of Sheffield and beyond. In their 30th year, they will be connecting with a minimum of 30 local charities and community groups over the next year through screening films, conducting school tours and arranging special events and workshops, such as one connecting with the themes and issues raised in the previously mentioned film, Dalton’s Dream. This aims to explore issues most relevant to LGBTQ+ individuals, along with community group access and will be staged at the Central Library to invited groups.
There is now also a local advisory team on board helping to make the festival more relevant to the community. For the first time, there will be a DocFest exhibition charting the 30-year history of the event and its links with Sheffield. This has been created by Hallam University and will be held in the Hallam Pop-Up Shop inside the Hubs on Howard Street. For anyone looking to get involved but are worried about the costs, it’s important to note here that there will be a wider range of concessional and complimentary tickets available this year, with the launch of a Docs For All concession, available to anyone who needs it and offered on a trust basis.
On that note, I best be getting back to the programme and planning out my week. I’d strongly recommend you do the same too!
Sheffield DocFest takes place 14-19 June 2023. The full programme and information on tickets is available online at sheffdocfest.com.
PERKO’S TOP SHOUTS: OTHER FILMS/EVENTS THAT CAUGHT MY EYE
The fight for free press looks like being a very common thread this year. The Price Of Truth follows the editor of what is now Russia’s only independent newspaper and looks set to be an intriguing watch.
In Not A Bedtime Story, the director confronts her father over the stories he told her as a child, which she has come to realise were in fact about what he did as a Colombian guerrilla fighter.
The Body Politic is a portrait of Brandon Scott, Baltimore’s youngest black mayor. He may well be at the world premiere, too.
Short films are often by necessity what documentary filmmakers produce. Wim Wenders has worked with four young Iranian filmmakers, and their films will be screened under the heading of Iran: A Sense Of Place, made about places not people.
Two live podcasts will be recorded at DocFest. One called Witches, about being a witch in the modern world, and the first-ever live episode of BBC Radio 4’s Soul Music.