DOCFEST 22: THE STORIES THAT STAYED WITH US
Exposed writers on their pick of the bunch from this year’s celebration of documentary filmmaking.
Man on Earth
Director: Amiel Courtin-Wilson
DocFest rounded off the weekend portion of its programme with the premiere of Man on Earth, part of its International Competition. This strand of the fest covers a wildly diverse range of international premieres and subject matter, and none more niche, in fact, than Man on Earth, which made for a somewhat sombre Sunday night screening at The Light Cinema.
Man on Earth follows Bob, a 65-year-old Jewish New Yorker, who after living with Parkinson’s Disease for four years has decided to end his own life using Washington State’s ‘Dying with Dignity’ legislation (imagine a country where you can be euthanised legally, but it’s illegal to have an abortion!). The film captures the last week of Bob’s life with intimate and at times wincingly up close and personal access as he faces his own mortality, wrestles with the choice he’s made and its effect on others and reckons with the legacy he’s leaving behind.
Part of that legacy is his son, Jessie, who has ‘stepped up’ for his dad in those final days, becoming his primary caregiver and meds dispenser. Jessie is the first to admit that he’s ‘not a people person’ and struggles with empathy, leading to an at times strained, but never unaffectionate, relationship between father and son. We learn from the filmmaker after the screening that Jessie also died in a car accident just six months after the film was completed, the knowledge of which adds yet another layer of tragedy.
At the heart of the documentary is a meditation on time. Bob feels he often has no real concept of it as he staves off the boredom of those final days doing quizzes with Alexa, while at the same time there is an urgency to tie up loose ends and a feeling there simply isn’t enough time. One of the loose ends is Bob’s other son, who can’t bring himself to come to Bob’s death and is instead at a martial arts competition he’s competing in. One of the most gut-wrenching scenes is their final phone call, which ends with Bob throwing the phone on the bed and collapsing to the floor, almost apoplectic with grief.
Given the nature of the subject matter and scenes like the one described above, it’s obviously powerful stuff; but it also isn’t without its humour and warmth either, and is surprisingly uplifting at times. The unrelenting tragedy of it all might have been unbearable if Bob himself wasn’t such a funny guy, and his sense of humour remains charmingly dark right to the end.
And it is a definitive end. It’s a disconcerting experience to watch a film, and get to know a character, knowing in the final scene you’re going to watch him die. The finality of it is heartbreaking. The final scene lingers tight on Bob’s face after he’s been given the ‘the mix’ that has knocked him unconscious and will ultimately end his life, before cutting to a shot of Bob hovering in a doorway before retreating into the bedroom where most of the film is shot, and then cutting back to Bob as he slips away.
The genesis for Man on Earth came out of director Amiel Courtin-Wilson’s work on another documentary, Traces, but it was actually Bob’s idea. As a frustrated performer, Bob gives a staggering amount of access to himself in those final days and in return the piece gives a powerful insight into a relatively new phenomenon.
A Film About Studio Electrophonique
Director: Jamie Taylor
Ken Patten and his Studio Electrophonique is a piece of Sheffield music history that almost disappeared unheralded into the mist of time. Jarvis Cocker opens the film, talking about how, at the start of his musical career, he was told he should save up some money and go see ‘The Colonel’ in his recording studio to make some demos.
The studio turned out to be in a semi-detached house in Handsworth. Ken (The Colonel) was a car mechanic and panel-beater, who was fascinated by sound and recordings and had set up a studio from his council house. The synthesisers had to be perched on a coffee table, and other parts of the house were utilised as needed. The drum kit went into the bedroom; the singers were in the kitchen extension. He called it Studio Electrophonique – although everyone just referred to it as ‘Ken Patten’s’ – but the name seemed to attract the more electronic acts, which was a perfect match in Sheffield in the late 70s/early 80s. These bands weren’t loud enough to annoy the neighbours; they could do it all on headphones.
Adi Newton, who went on to form Clock DVA, and Martyn Ware of Human League and Heaven 17 both recall creating soundscapes rather than music, which formed demo tapes for them to take to record companies in London. Yet, if you ask musicians from Sheffield today, almost no-one remembers Ken or his studio despite many Sheffield bands going there to record right up to the 90s, making this one of the great untold stories of pop.
Ken died in the 90s, at the age of 66, and Jamie Taylor’s wonderful, engaging film embarks on a hunt to discover more about him, celebrate what he achieved and make sure his name isn’t forgotten. He talks to neighbours, discovers what happened to some of Ken’s equipment and at one point meets John Umpleby, Ken’s son-in-law, who hands over a couple of carrier bags full of cine film unseen for 30 years. He meets Michelle, Ken’s daughter, and even persuades the current occupants of the house to let him film in Ken’s kitchen extension, where so much of the history of music in Sheffield was made.
Jarvis Cocker tells how he managed to give one of the cassettes of music made in Ken’s house to John Peel when he appeared in Chesterfield. He promised he’d listen in his car on the way home. He did, and Pulp were invited onto his show. In the film, Jarvis says, “It was an absolutely key thing in the development of my musical career. We were still at school.” It is an indication of how Ken directly influenced the musical landscape, not just in Sheffield but for British pop music as a whole.
Director: Tomáš Kratochvíl
Pongo Calling tells the remarkable story of a lorry driver in Manchester who became an unlikely social media sensation, founded a refugee charity and became an influential voice for change. Stefan Pongo came to the UK from the Czech Republic 13 years ago, along with his family. He obtained UK citizenship while keeping his Czech nationality, but primarily regards himself as a member of the Roma community. When Milos Zeman, the president of the Czech Republic, branded 90% of Roma as workshy and lazy, Stefan was annoyed. So annoyed, in fact, that he went online and encouraged the Roma community to send him photos of themselves working. Without realising, and while still working as an HGV driver around Europe, the live streams he made from the cab of his lorry went viral. People from far and wide shared videos and a mass protest movement started to form, to the point where President Zeman was challenged by reporters to respond to the online backlash against his uncaring comments.
Stefan was becoming a voice and wanted to help the most deprived Roma communities, so he formed the Czech Slovak Roma Union, which raised funds to provide this assistance. In the film, there is some harrowing footage as the director follows Stefan driving a van loaded with supplies to be delivered to a community in Slovakia. Even though he knows that his efforts are only a sticking plaster, that real change cannot come until attitudes change, he fights on. The film takes a shocking turn at the end but stands as a powerful celebration of what one man can achieve. I managed a word with one of his sons, David, ahead of the screening, and he was clearly very proud of his dad’s legacy, telling me: “Lots of people claim to be helping the Roma people, but my dad created a public account for donations, and actually drove a van himself and went to help these cut-off settlements.”
Director Tomáš Kratochvíl has crafted a small masterpiece here, capturing the essence of an ordinary – but at times extraordinary – family man simply doing what he thinks is the right thing. No voice-over, no grandstanding here, just a remarkable story of a reaction to intolerance towards minorities that is as relevant today as it has ever been.
Director: Wim Wenders
There’s a tried and tested rule I subscribe to when it’s DocFest time: however slight the story might seem, a well-made documentary will confound your expectations. Pina Bausch was one of the most important choreographers of our time. Her work and influence have been well documented, both throughout her life and since her death in 2009. This film follows rehearsals for two shows being prepared to mark the 10th anniversary of her death.
The stage directors are both former dancers with Bausch’s ensembles, and the shows they have chosen to bring back to the stage are taken from early in her career. The Semperoper Ballet in Dresden are working on the 1974 dance opera Iphigenie auf Tauris, while at the École des Sables in Dakar, dancers from all over Africa prepare for the choreographer’s sublime 1975 interpretation of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. The rehearsal footage, filmed simultaneously in Germany and in Senegal, is mesmerising from the start and illustrates dance as a universal language which transcends the spoken word; it can communicate with an audience, whatever language they speak. It soon becomes clear that these new performances are not intended to be copies of long-ago staged shows, but they are fresh and new so that audiences experience a unique version.
Bausch was famed for the intimate involvement of her dancers within productions, with the expectation that each one brings part of themselves to the performance. She also railed against the idea that there was an ideal body shape for a dancer, and encouraged performers who had at times been told dancing wasn’t for them. Many of the dancers, particularly those from Africa, faced opposition from their families and communities when they decided to become professional dancers. This forms the heart of the film, which soon becomes more about the performers than it is about the dance performance. Florian Heinzen Ziob has created a marvellous, intimate record of the creative processes behind a stage show, with some astonishing cinematography. In particular, some of the Senegal scenes on the beach, which are stunning.
Director: Brett Morgen
Far from your standard rockumentary, Moonage Daydream is a visual and sonic assault. No talking heads, very little biographical information, just raw Bowie jumping off the screen.
Writer, director and editor, Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Crossfire Hurricane), warns us before the film starts that the movie is very loud, prompting a mass exodus to collect some complimentary ear plugs from the theatre entrance, rather derailing Brett’s opening speech. But with hindsight, that kind of felt in-keeping with the anarchic style of filmmaking we were then treated to, and he wasn’t lying either, the musical montages roar off the screen at you – it’s bloody loud!
The ear bleeding is mostly limited to these musical montages and rare unseen footage of live performances. Performances which are visceral and unrelenting (did we mention it was loud?). These bursts of volume punctuate the narrative, as much as there is one, that loosely follows the distinct stages of Bowie’s career. They are often intertwined with interview snippets, in which Bowie remains admirably patient, honest and witty in the face of some pretty idiotic lines of questioning from the conservative press (we’re looking at you, Russell Harty).
These interviews, and the small bits of autobiography Brett does choose to include, emphasise Bowie’s feelings of isolation. The film touches briefly on his idolisation of his half-brother Terry Burns, and Terry’s well-documented mental health struggles with schizophrenia, as well as his tense relationship with his mother. In one interview sequence on the Russell Harty show, when being asked why his accent is the same (we told you the questions were idiotic), Bowie proclaims he doesn’t talk to anybody. How much of that is the tongue in cheek on Bowie’s part is hard to say.
What is often at the forefront of Morgen’s film is the fans. The kids at the Hammersmith Odeon and Earl’s Court shows in particular are transformed into their very own version of Bowie and the public mood of the 70s is never far away, with one fan remarking, “You don’t have to be bent to wear makeup.” The public ‘working’ Bowie is the focus of the film. It portrays a solitary travelling artist, with no roots, following his creative instincts across continents.
Morgen seems to suggest that Bowie’s best work was done in the 70s, but that the simple fact of him being Bowie maintained his relevance through the heady success of the 80s, his hit and miss big-screen appearances, and well on into the 90s and beyond. The film isn’t particularly revelatory in that sense, it’s more of a love letter, or eulogy, to the star man – and we’re very glad Morgen took the painstaking time to pore over the avalanche of archive to make it.
A Bunch of Amateurs
Director: Kim Hopkins
In the 1930s, everyone loved films. It was pretty much the only entertainment they had. The rise of the lavish picture palaces such as the Gaumont and the Odeon meant that watching films in cinemas became an affordable part of everyday life, but what has been forgotten is that there was a similar growth in local cine clubs – groups of people who loved to make their own films. Dozens of amateur film clubs once thrived throughout the north of England, but one by one they’ve gradually disappeared.
However, head up the M1 to Bradford and you’ll find the world’s oldest amateur film club is still bravely soldiering on. At the start of the film, Harry proposes to the rest of the Bradford Movie Makers a remake of the musical Oklahoma – just the first five minutes, mind – but as Joe points out, they’re going to struggle to find grass growing as high as an elephant’s eye in Bradford. That seems to be a minor concern as it becomes clear that Harry, now in his 80s, has no idea how to ride a horse. Yet, in the true spirit of amateur enthusiasm, none of this will stop them.
As the film shows the foregone glory days of the Bradford Movie Makers, it becomes clear that belonging to the club is just as important to the members as making the actual films. For many of them, it forms a support group in a world where some of them have very challenging lives. Kim Hopkin’s wonderful documentary is about the joys of a shared passion: a bunch of enthusiasts still clinging onto the dream of making their own movies, in a world where everyone can shoot their own videos, without ever needing to consider the art of filmmaking.
There are challenges, namely funding and the fact that new members are hard to come by, and the forced isolation which arrives during the pandemic is the last thing they need. The end of the Bradford Movie Makers club looks an inevitability, but this is the world of film, isn’t it? Who knows what their own brand of cinematic magic will bring? If there was ever a film which was odds on to win the Audience Award at this year’s DocFest, this one had it in the can. I can predict it will be just the start of a slew of awards heading their way, and wider distribution should mean we can all enjoy this charming and heart-warming film.
No Place for You in Our Town
Director: Nikolay Stevanov
In 2011, the Bulgarian Football Union was fined 40,000 euros following the racist abuse England players received at a European Championships qualifier in Sofia. In 2019, a repeat of the fixture was halted twice due to Nazi salutes and racist chanting. While hooliganism, racism and hate speech among extreme sects of football fans is visible across the globe, with the UK being no exception, Bulgaria’s football culture remains particularly infamous within the sport.
In exploring the darkest side of the beautiful game, Director Nikolay Stefanov brings us his feature debut – a gritty, surprisingly intimate portrait of the supporters of Minyor Pernik, a side fighting for promotion from Bulgaria’s third division. Following the collapse of communism and the coal industry in Pernik, we are introduced to a struggling town where sons fight to emulate the identities of their fathers’ grandfathers as the masculine, hard-working backbone of Bulgaria.
Through his use of handheld cameras, Stefanov brings the themes of masculinity, poverty and fatherhood into focus as underpinning features of this complex narrative. Perhaps most admirable is the bravery with which Nikolay approaches this project. Not simply through ingratiating himself within this violent sub-culture, but most significantly in attempting to provide some level of understanding to the social realities of these individuals, many of whom spout irrevocably damning slurs and ideologies. In this way, the film challenges us, not in any way to like these people, but to understand some of the social factors which have led them to this lowest form of comradery and communal identity.
While the documentary features a number of Minyor’s ‘ultras’ (extreme groups of fans associated with violence), we follow the story of Tsetso, a single father who grapples with identity, health issues and his duties as a role model to his son. Ultimately, it is this prolonged exposure and interaction with the camera which, when removed from the bravado and animosity of his gang, allows the audience to develop genuine emotional insight into Tsetso’s mindset. Tsetso’s gradual familiarisation with the camera is visible throughout the film’s duration, as he becomes ever more candid about his aspersions around the ideology and lifestyle he has fallen in to. This is typified in his battle to become a positive role model for his son: fishing trips between the two include tales of his youth and lessons in the craft, providing brief respite from the violent culture that threatens to consume his identity.
In exploring this collision of fatherhood and masculinity against repugnant notions of fascism and hate, Stefanov walks a tight-rope. Challenged with weighting the revealing investigation of the gang as individuals in contrast to his exposure of the ideological extremes of far-right hooligan groups, I would argue he does so with impeccable balance. Make no mistake, the documentary reveals humanity in all its focus, but Stevanov pulls no punches in conveying the vile extent to which this group are committed to finding some form of identity. We see Tsetso struggle to inflate an air bed while a swastika tattoo stands brazen across his chest, while in another scene fans worry about covid passes while being asked to hide their knuckle dusters. All of which comprises the story of a man living in a social reality which, to some extent, he clearly hates.