Sheffield Doc/Fest Online Reviews: Stolen Fish, Back Yard, Concrete Forms of Resistance, The Go Go’s, The Story of Plastic, Uproar

Exposed’s resident dochead Mark Perkins reviews some of the online offerings from this year’s celebration of documentary filmmaking.

Stolen Fish
Director: Gosia Juszczak

Fishermen in The Gambia have a problem. Their fish are being stolen by Chinese corporations. 

The methods the Chinese use to fish are illegal, destroying the marine eco-system despite local protests. However, the Gambian government is reluctant to ‘scare away investment’, so it goes largely unchallenged. Protestors are arrested, but the outrage continues. One large boat can take in one night what 30 local fishermen will catch in a month. They damage the nets left out by local fishermen, have even capsized their boats and men have drowned. To compound the problem, local fishermen sell the fish they do catch to the large factories before sending them to market, creating local shortage and price rises.

The film, Stolen Fish, follows three Gambians who share their stories and their struggles, but, as the film tells the depressingly familar story of how poor counties are exploited, another narrative emerges. We see first hand what it is like to live in a place where you have been deprived of the chance to earn a living, and where the only realistic option is to pay criminals to get you to a more prosperous country. Fisherman Paul John Kaminy did just that, as he was so desperate to provide for his family. He witnessed brutality, even death, and was been imprisoned as an illegal immigrant before being returned to Gambia; but when he sees his mother’s friends being sent money from a son who made it to Spain, tragically, he is still tempted to try it again.

The localised stealing of fish, whilst bad in itself, has contributed to a much more widescale problem, and as so often happens at Doc/Fest, the challenge is that we are left wondering what we can do.

Back Yard
Director: Arlin Golden

The films at Doc/Fest never fail to amaze me, and this is one of them. Often, the shorter the film, the greater the impact. Picture this: You move into a new house, and like to spend time in your new garden. You can’t see into your neighbours’ yard, but you can hear them talking. Slowly you develop a picture of whats’s going on next door, just through what you overhear. If you’re a filmmaker like Arlin Golden, you can make also it into a short documentary, where filming the microcosm of what you can see in your own yard, soundtracked by the voices from nearby, make a compelling film; one that allows your imagination to create a reality out of overheard conversations. In under 10 minutes, it creates tells a fascinating kaleidoscope of narrative and imagined images.

Concrete Forms of Resistance
Director: Nick Jordan

The star of this film isn’t going anywhere. But then again, you wouldn’t expect it to. It is all about an enormous concrete piece of architecture. The film takes place in Tripoli, and is filmed in and around the site of the abandoned ‘Permanent International Fair’. Just as it was about to open in 1975, civil war erupted, and the concrete constriction was taken over by the military. Today they have long gone, but the relationship between the citizens and the aborted construction continues. 

It was designed by renown Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, who expressed huge regret that what he saw as a visionary project came to nothing. The vast concrete construction takes up almost 10% of Tripoli, and has a beauty in its 55-year-old vision of the future, which can still be appreciated today. Niemeyer said he wanted architecture to generate feelings, and it still does. Even if some of those feelings are sadness and regret. Despite never being used for its intended purpose, the structure has been used, and continues to be used today. Some of its history may be brutal, and there is evidence of executions within the walls, but it is being used now by creative industries, being seen more as a place of hope.

It’s a fascinating film, and one which shows how architecture really does affect our lives, through interviews with the Lebanese people living and working in Tripoli today.

The Go Go’s
Director: Alison Elwood

This is a hugely entertaining film, and tells the story of the all-girl group The Go Go’s. Archive footage and interviews with everyone ever associated with the band make for a comprehensive look at how they shone briefly, and very brightly, but then, as with so many bands, how it all fell apart. And no one can deny that they became, and still are, the most successful all-girl group who actually wrote their own material,

They formed as part of the LA punk scene in 1979. In truth, it wasn’t much of a scene at all. The teenage girls who came together to form The Go Go’s were raw and rebellious and didn’t have much more than the ambition to succeed. There’s some fascinating early footage, demonstrating how lack of experience wasn’t going to stop them. They became even more determined, as they realised that women weren’t supposed to make punk music – the only other punk groups were all men. But they saw this as their chance not only to do something as women, but be better than all the men who told them they couldn’t. 

After some lineup changes, they began to realise that if they rehearsed enough, they could be successful, but they needed some luck to make it outside their local scene. Their big break came when they were asked to support touring British bands, who were impressed enough to take them back home for more shows. They toured the UK opening for The Specials and Madness, which was was a dream. Or so they thought. The audiences hated them, but it made them more determined to succeed. They even released a single on Stiff Records, and once back in the US, they were welcomed home as conquering heroes. But as they got more successful, divisions grew within the band. Were they a pop band, or a punk band? Well, pop success was calling, and at just the right time, Miles Copeland, manager of The Police, signed them to his new US label. Their first well-produced album was a massive success, spawned several hit singles, and built them a massive fanbase in the US and beyond. And of course they looked perfect, particularly on the newly-launched MTV channel. On top of that, because there were so few bands with videos, they were repeated every 30 minutes. A world tour opening for The Police (of course) took them from playing clubs to playing arenas, and suddenly an all-girl band, who wrote their own songs, had a number one album. Totally unprecedented.

But the wheels were starting to come off. Arguments over money, the increasing use of drugs, and five female egos out of control led to a toxic situation. Alison Ellwood’s film documents the events leading up to this, and events beyond, up to the present day with charm and honesty. What stands out about this film is how’s everyone with a story to tell is given chance to contribute. Even those who have less than fond memories of how they were treated get to have their say. The careers of successful groups is never a smooth one, and this is a story of women who made it when they were told they couldn’t, the sacrifices they made and how it changed their lives. Highly recommended.

The Story of Plastic
Director: Deia Schlosberg

This is a thought-provoking and sobering film about the crisis we are facing with plastic pollution. It has been made by The Story Of Stuff Project, a non-profit organisation dedicated to changing the way we live our lives to make it more sustainable, healthy and fair. It is as important a film as you’ll see this year, and should be compulsory viewing in every boardroom and business across the developed world.

Recently, plastic became a story. We’ve lived with it for all our lives, and when it first came into our parent’s lives, it was hailed as a miracle. So why do we now get so worked up about something we used to take for granted, and often hardly notice? The reason is, of course, we’ve recently seen how it is choking the rivers and seas we depend upon, and its production is filling the air with the poisonous emissions produced when we manufacture it. This film charts how we got in this mess, but frighteningly, explains how there’s very little we as individuals can do to change anything. We need massive global change, government intervention, and control over  corporate decision-making.

For most of us watching this film, we dispose of plastic, and never need to think about it again. But in some countries, where the problems are not so easily hidden, that’s not possible. It is too easy to blame underdeveloped countries for not having efficient waste management systems; this is a global problem. For decades, there has been a movements to put the problem at the feet, literally, of the consumer. “Keep Britain Tidy” shamed us into not dropping litter, but there was no focus on where the waste came from. This obscuring of the issue has meant that, conveniently for them, we have avoided looking at the real culprits – the producers of the plastics.

The sea in some places is so polluted that we meet a fisherman whose daily catch is 60% fish, 40% plastic. The relentless stream of plastic coming down the rivers will never be solved by clean-ups. We need to tackle the source. The film lays the blame squarely at the door of the petrochemical companies. They have a vested interest in us using more plastic. The film demonstrates how a company forced to use packaging designed for easy recycling in Belgium sells the identical product in single-use sachets in India. And recycling is not the answer. Of all the plastic ever made, over half was made in the last 15 years. Only 2% is truly recycled into usable plastic products, and even that process produces toxic waste.

Eight million metric tonnes each year of plastic enter the oceans every year. The estimate is that we only have 30 years before there’s more plastic in the sea than fish. Rather than reduce plastic use, large corporations are trying to shift the blame to individual consumers and countries for not having adequate waste management. The media has been manipulated to focus on clean-up projects rather put pressure on the producers.

The only real solution is to reduce, reuse and recycle. In that order. Recycling should be the last resort, rather than the only one we apply. This film will hopefully be a step on the road to reducing plastic pollution worldwide.

Director: Moe Najati

Confession time: I play in a large samba band, and there are more women in the band than men. It’s no big deal, and something most people wouldn’t notice or comment on. And the idea that somehow they wouldn’t be able to play as well as the men never occurs to anyone. If we played in Cuba, however, attitudes would be different.

The film opens by interviewing Pedro Farina, who since the Cuban revolution has become the King of Rumba. And in Cuba’s patriarchal society, that’s the way it is. There is no Queen of Rumba, because only men are meant to play. But in the poorest neighbourhoods of Havana, you will find the group Rumba Morena – nine women playing Rumba, who drum and sing as skilfully as anyone else. Now, I’m sure I’m not alone in not knowing much more about Rumba than I’ve picked up from Strictly Come Dancing, but in Cuba the film shows us that it is part of the fabric of society.  Religion is a massive part of everyone’s life so it’s no surprise that drums have been given a religious importance, to the point that a man in the film says he is afraid that a woman playing a drum might weaken its spiritual power. Not surprisingly, the men find it challenging to discover a group of women can play better than they can. Pedro Farina is so steeped in sexism, he doesn’t even think women should wear trousers. But in Cuba, like in the rest of the world, gender dynamics are being challenged. People are now accepting women in ‘men only’ jobs, so the group Rumba Morena is gaining some acceptance. This is a lovely film, and shows how the outdated patriarchal assumptions and prejudices can be successfully challenged. It also makes me want to catch a plane out there and groove and dance along with this band of empowering – and empowered – women. 

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