Review: Doc/Fest 2016
‘Well I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain, I’ve seen Doc/Fest films that I hoped would never end.’
The fire and the rain I’ll explain shortly, but before that, and with apologies to James Taylor for mangling his lyrics, I need to tell you that Doc/Fest has continued to grow in stature and reputation, and 2016 was the biggest and best so far. Here in Sheffield we host one of the most highly regarded documentary film festivals in the world, and if you don’t know that by now, which particular rock have you been hiding under? Film-makers and fans alike assembled here for six days to celebrate films about the world in which we live. No Hollywood blockbusters here it’s true, but there was no lack of drama, and presented in so many ways, that makes it hard to define what makes a documentary film. And for openers, who better to have on stage at the City Hall than Michael Moore? The man who has single-handedly done more to raise the profile of documentaries than anyone else. The tremendous coup that Doc/Fest 2016 pulled off this year was the international premier of his latest film, Where to Invade Next. Or rather that was what was meant to happen, but anyone turning up at the prescribed time found themselves sheltering from the rain under John Lewis’s awning, as a small backstage electrical fire meant that we were left standing outside until the building had been given the all clear. He wasn’t the only big name at the festival this year. Familiar faces such as Louis Theroux, David Attenborough and Joanna Lumley were here, along with some renowned film-makers such as Ken Loach, DA Pennebaker and Sam Pollard. As always happens for me though, it was the lesser known, emerging film-makers, whose films took your breath away and stole the show.
You’ll hopefully already know of Sam Pollard’s Two Trains Runnin’, from last month’s exclusive feature. As I predicted, the screening went down a storm on the Saturday night, and the film-makers involved were last seen partaking of a thoroughly deserved celebratory nightcap in the Mercure Hotel bar at 4am. I’m always a sucker for a music doc, and both Sonita, which won the Youth Jury Award, and Presenting Princess Shaw, which won the Dr Clifford Shaw Audience award, were just the thing to float my musical boat. I won’t spoil the thrill of discovering what these films are actually about, but both bend and stretch the ‘rules’ of documentary film making to great effect, and both are essential viewing. Away from the musical front, Snow Monkey was a masterpiece, as was Cameraperson, which went on to win the Grand Jury Award. It’s not always easy getting to see the films after their Doc/Fest showings, but with the help of Netflix, and some judicious scanning of the myriad of channels available such as C4, Sky Arts and HBO, most of my favourites from recent festivals eventually turn up, so this year’s films shouldn’t be too hard to see.
Talks and lectures are the alternate strand of any film festival, and allow us to emerge, blinking, from the darkness of the cinema and into the light for a while. And who better to find chatting in the Crucible than Sir David Attenborough or Joanna Lumley? She restricted her talk to her documentary work, whereas Sir David talked about his entire career, and most revealingly his role as the first ever controller of BBC2 from its launch in 1964.
Digital technology, and its role in challenging the traditional idea of what a documentary is, has been a strand of Doc/Fest for a few years now, and under the banner of Alternate Realities anyone who visited the Millennium or the Site Galleries had a chance to look at the latest projects. For the first year this was made available to anyone, not just ticket holders, and it was noticeable this year how much the organisers had made an effort to increase free public access to venues, events and talks. I donned my virtual reality headset and was able to move round the outside of the space station, and go on to listen to the testimonies on prison inmates in solitary confinement, whilst appearing to be in an actual solitary confinement cell.
All in all, another tremendous success for the city and for the organisers, despite the rain. Everyone I talked to loved Sheffield, particularly it seemed, those who’d never been here before. The party may be over, but the entertainment has only just begun.