Doc/Fest Diaries

Well it’s here at last. My favourite time of year, OK, joint fave with Tramlines, but the sun’s shining, the inflatable cinema screens are up and here we go again with DocFest 2015!


The evolution of DocFest from a few rainy nights of documentaries in November, to becoming one of the world’s top film festivals is a remarkable one, and in no small part due to the presence of outgoing festival director, Heather Croal. We interviewed her last year on our weekly Exposed radio show, and although she’ll be hard act to follow, a quick look at this years’ programme confirms that her legacy is set to continue. There are live music scores, world-class speakers, UK and world premieres, and so much more, all of which continue to draw over 3500 delegates from 60 countries. And that’s not to mention over 20,000 tickets sold to us ordinary Sheffield folk.

Here’s my round-up of the first weekend, and with the promise of more to come as the week goes on, it’s shaping up to be another feast for the enquiring mind.

Documentaries became sexy some time ago, I don’t really know when it was, but watching a documentary when I was young was more of a worthy thing to do: not what you’d call entertaining. They told you how the petrol engine worked, or how they made stained glass windows, but now they’re as likely to be about the campaign to expose sexual abuse in the US college system as they are the dangers of fracking. In addition to that, the cinematic techniques used to tell the stories are the equal of mainstream cinema releases.

The opening night had two main events: a film about the aftermath of the genocide in Indonesia, and a celebration of circuses, with music by Sigur Ros. ‘The Look of Silence’ was a harrowing and brave attempt by one man, to confront people who, collectively and individually, were responsible for the murder of his brother. His family have never recovered, but to make matters worse, still have to live alongside the perpetrators. It was a brave and compelling film by Joshua Oppenheimer, and a worthy opening documentary for the 2015 festival.

The venue then switched to the City Hall for a celebration of circuses, funfairs and carnivals, courtesy of the National Film Archive, which is actually held at Sheffield University. In the past, the music of Sigur Ros has always seemed to me to be a soundtrack in search of a movie. Tonight they found that movie. ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’ is a stunning film. I was expecting to find the compiled footage a tad tedious after 20 minutes, but that never happened. The scenes which were captured on film, sometimes from 100 years ago, we’re truly astonishing. Animal welfare was no consideration at all, but then again neither was any concession to health and safety or even any thought of protecting children from the most astonishingly dangerous situations. Polar bears in a circus ring, lions trained to ride on horseback, juggling a small baby hundreds of feet in the air: the procession of what would now be totally banned acts just kept on coming. Moments of horror were thankfully balanced with admiration for the sheer commitment to entertain, which comes from a world of carnivals and side-shows which no long exists.


Away from film, the Virtual Reality Arcade has installed itself in the Site Gallery. There was much headset-wearing fun to be had here, and none was more motion-sickness inducing than ‘Oscillate’, which seems to assume that if wearing a 3D headset isn’t disorientating enough, then making you wear one while you’re on a swing is a good idea. This has expanded from last year’s installation, and while wandering round Grayson Perry’s house might be fun with a headset on, it’s never going to seem much more than a novelty to me.

Saturday afternoon’s highlight was a trip to the City Hall. Michael Nyman has a long history of producing music for film, but today in he was performing live to a film he’s had more involvement with than usual. It’s a compilation of archive film from the First World War. Along with editor Max Pugh, he has selected images that have not really been seen before, almost as if this footage somehow fell between the cracks. We see soldiers rehearsing how to fire guns, a disturbing sequence of how gas affects those exposed to it, and chopping up dead horses, presumably to eat. No commentary is provided, instead, Nyman’s music does the narration for us. Along with soprano Hilary Summers and a small orchestra, they skilfully played a soundtrack to the images lending the already emotive scenes extra weight and emphasis.

Saturday night’s big event was an outdoor screening in the Botanical Garden of ‘Mavis!’, a film about Mavis Staples, who at the age of 75 is still touring and playing live. She began singing in the sixties, and after a meeting with Martin Luther King, became allied with the civil rights movement. Musical luminaries lined up to tell us how influential she’s been, but as the sun went down, I was wishing I’d brought a thicker coat, so I decided I was ‘doc-ed’ out for the day.


Sunday’s weather was a glorious, so what better than to coop myself up in a cinema all day? One of the festival headline films on the Saturday was ‘Cobain: Montage of Heck’, and today the director gave a master class about how he went about using some previously unheard tapes that have been discovered after Kurt’s death. There’s a 7 minute sequence in the film of animation, illustrating the music and conversations that he found on hours and hours of these cassette tapes, and these are expertly brought to life. It was fascinating to hear just why he chose the sounds, and what they meant to him, in a post script to a very moving documentary.

The main Sunday treat for any music geeks out there was the film ‘808’.  This charts the success of the Rowland TR 808 drum machine, which became the sound of the clubs in the early 80s, as hip-hop artist and rappers used its quirky analogue sounds to add something to their music. Have a listen to our recent DocFest X-Rated radio show to hear a selection some of the sounds it made. It wasn’t long before a whole host of musicians were incorporating it into their music, from Talking heads to Marvin Gaye, and after tonight’s UK premiere, the audience went straight to the Leadmill for a DJ set by Graham Massey (808 State) and A Guy Called Gerald. Eighties heaven!

OK Doc fans, that’s the round up so far. More to come as the festival draws to a close this week.

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