Sheffield Doc/Fest 2011: Alternative roundup

It has been little over half a year since the last Sheffield Doc/Fest, and while the impetus for the move to June was somewhat undermined by the sodden outdoor screenings, the sheer breadth of films and events more than warrant its return. Morgan Spurlock’s latest effort, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011), opened the festival to a collective, if good-humoured shrug. Detailing the director’s attempts to finance a film entirely through product placement, it bears all the hallmarks of Spurlock’s own brand of cock-sure insincerity. One always feels that Spurlock approaches each project with a trite, preconceived thesis which he steers the film towards, as opposed to allowing the story to unfold organically, and this is entirely the case here.

A welcome remedy was found in the Albert Maysles retrospective, reminding us of the sheer soulfulness of the form, non-fiction or otherwise, when refracted through the eye of an artist. While classic Maysles docs such as Gimme Shelter (1970) were conspicuous by their absence, Maysles’ new film Muhammad and Larry (1980), detailing the infamous Ali/Holmes match of 1980, enraptured the entire theatre. Subsequent screenings of Salesman (1968) and Grey Gardens (1975) were unintentionally elegiac in their ageless beauty, Maysles’ arresting 16mm cinematography dwarfing the digital majority, a passing eulogised by Mandy Chang’s The Camera that Changed the World (2011), which screened parallel to the retrospective and neatly contextualised Maysles’ output.

Choosing to frequent the festival’s less publicised screenings in the hope of discovering a hidden gem, I seated myself in a screening of James Bluemel’s 66 Months, purely as it nestled trimly between two of the more prestige events. The film, which documents epileptic self-harmer Nigel’s quasi-romance with his violent carer Robbie, was one of the finest of the festival, shaking the room so fervently that much of the subsequent Q&A was delivered through choked emotion on both sides of the critical divide. More frequently, however, the smaller screenings were relegated for good reason, with films such as the well meaning but insufferably boring Up In Smoke (2011) providing the very definition of televisual, a distinction that is important to discuss, especially in the documentary arena.

Following the transcendent Man on Wire (2008), James Marsh’s Project Nim (2010) proves the director to be of the finest talents working today, imbuing both his documentary and fiction output with an inimitable poetry. Mostly eschewing the oneiric recreation of Man on Wire or the undervalued Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) – still his masterpiece – for a tapestry of super-8 footage and impassioned talking-heads, the film charts the tumultuous life of ‘Nim’, a chimp raised by a human family and taught to articulate his thoughts and feelings through sign language. Marsh, however, uses the story as a forum to deal with larger themes, scrutinising man’s relationship with his own origins, our desire to contrive an understanding and a kinship with a nature that, though cruel, is neither good nor evil, merely indifferent to man’s agenda. Contrary to all expectation, the final act of the film proves so staggeringly powerful that the entire screening grew humid with saline tears, united in an experience closer to musical harmony than anything visual or literary.

At any other festival, Marsh’s film would be the insurmountable zenith, and it is testament to the quality of the programming that there could be such close contention for the top spot. However, the finest film of the festival – indeed of any I have attended this year – was Alma Har’el’s exemplary debut Bombay Beach (2011). An extraordinary visual poem that blurs, nay obliterates, the boundaries between documentary, fiction and performance art as it chronicles the existence of a small community of misfits living on the dank shores of the Salton Sea, a man-made ocean in Southern California. Bombay Beach centres on three diametric characters – Benny, a young boy whose bipolar disorder is crassly treated through trial-and-error prescription and whose brimming imagination anchors the film; Red, a wizened, whiskey-fuelled man whose stories are etched in the contours of his face; and CeeJay, a teenager with high aspirations (and talent to match) who has fled the gangland slums of LA after his cousin’s murder.

Robert Savage