Sheffield Doc/Fest 2011: Festival roundup

Sheffield Doc/Fest has rightly won a reputation for being one of the most important aspects of the documentary film calendar for industry professionals and fans of the form alike. This year it had moved its slot from November to June and did not suffer from the change one iota, teaming with delegates and full houses for most of the films made this a vibrant and enjoyable event hosted by a great industrial northern city. No less than 14 venues were used to showcase the eclectic range of documentary films and shorts on offer, no-way making it possible to view all of them (120 over five days), but an acute selection is on offer here, categorised into Music Doc, PovDoc (documentary covering life of the poor), Factual, Cult, Gay, Arthouse and DocDrama.

Proceedings were opened by Morgan Spurlock of Super Size Me (2004) fame with the UK premiere of POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011). Morgan would later provide a masterclass looking into the background of his film that provides a satirical take on the relationship between film and product placement. Sheffield was also the UK choice to show Super Size Me to an eager Britain, though POM was not as demanding thankfully on Morgan’s anatomy – this time having only to ensure that he has a fridge full of the anti-oxidant pomegranate drink that sponsored the film – endless supplies of it were made available to delegates. For music fans there was plenty on offer, including a bio of Queen that this reviewer missed. There were two standout treats: one from the UK, the other a bio from the US.

Camden Calling (dir. Anna Edwards) was made with the assistance of BBC Storyville and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and looks into what can happen with some initiative to counteract the hopelessness of poverty, using music as conduit for outlet and progress. A council estate in the very hip and trendy Camden is far removed from the Camden that invites American tourists by the truckload infamous for its punk and vibrant fashionable environ. The guys and girl that inhabit the poorer, less attractive side have lives loaded with despair and form a rap band. This very unlikely trio provide an amusing commentary as to what this initiative brings to their lives interspersed with moving details as to their hopes and fears. One tall stringy band member with few teeth wants a flat in West Hampstead.

Hit So Hard (dir. P. David Ebersole) falls neatly within the rockumentary category covering the life of a girl drummer in the band Hole – fronted by Courtney Love. Inevitably this gem has wonderful footage of Kurt Cobain hitherto unseen and is a treat for the Nirvana fan as well as providing insight as to the rock star life style and the demands that go with it. The footage of Love during her high trash yourself phases on stage and off are a treat, as are the clips of Cobain with his baby daughter. Love’s accounts and retelling are adequately spacey and trippily delivered recounting how she liked having a lesbian drummer. Hole and the interrelations with Nirvana are beset with tragedy; Kristen Pfaff, the bass player in Hole, died of an overdose, Cobain’s death compounding any drug problems that the members of Hole had already. The music is great, as is the concert footage and this will no doubt become a cult classic – not least for the opinions and footage of girl drummers that is tagged onto the end of this worthy addition to the rockumentary cannon.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (dir. Marie Losier) is as much rockumentary and arthouse doc as it is a bent doc. It is the diary of a very close, tight relationship between undoubtedly well suited people who were born different sexes with a good generation between them in age. What Genesis P-Orridge and Lady Jaye have in common is performance art and pop culture. They have both a penchant for dressing up – Genesis confessing that when doing the hovering, she likes to dress up and imagines fetishists all over the house. Their ‘pandrogyny’ – becoming one person, or identity through plastic surgery is given a narrative, but also there is a historical trip through Genesis’s memories and journey with pop art.

Do it Yourself! (dir. Letmiya Sztalryd/Jean Marie Sztalryd) goes behind the scenes of the fashion show of the same name but the title is also a nod to the methodology and philosophy of the ‘Grandmother of Punk’ Vivienne Westwood, who is now 70-years-old. It covers the year of preparation of a show and in doing so gives some insight into the persona, relationships and interests of this fascinating and charming woman whom Britain graced with the title of ‘Dame’. One thing is for sure, Westwood’s designs – at least for the catwalk, are outrageous, avant garde, completely outlandish and unwearable. But her ideas are very accessible, agreeable and wearable. Her Active Resistance to Propaganda is expressed via the slogan I (heart) Crap which is sold on output – of course t-shirts but including babygros. She takes some of her ideas from famous philosophers, notably Aldous Huxley and quotes passages from World’s End. Not coincidentally, this is the name of one of her most famous retail outlets.

66 Months (dir. James Bluemel) is an engrossing but often painful to watch PovDoc seems a lot longer than its 85 minutes due largely to the harrowing nature of its subject matter. In terms of comparison – look to Stuart: A life Backwards the English story of a chaotic homeless alcoholic made into a drama. There is sufficient drama in the real life of Nigel – the central character here, who is an epileptic alcoholic, damaged by a haunted past and carrying around an impossible tie with an equally doomed and abusive man, Robbie – a septuagenarian. Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times (dir. Andrew Rossi) is an inside look into two major challenges for the famous newspaper. The first is the loss of advertising revenue; the second, the rise of tweeting/blogging as news deliverable.

The Camera That Changed the World (dir. Mandy Chang). 1960 was the watershed for handheld camera invention. This is as exciting a journey as is the discovery of motion picture itself and does go some way to travel in much the same way – progression as a pool system of effort, working in tandem, unbeknownst but in this instance kind of competing. The starting proposition is the hilarious footage of the staid 1950s. The contest lies between the French and the United States. Each of them is aware of the pitfalls of the technological status quo, the challenge of following the action with the sound in a portable way. The existing system allowed for 20 second footage only, problematic by any standard. What is evident is the urgency to create an as it is environment. Bob Drew – the picture editor for Life magazine was do or die in his approach and got the green light form the magazine in terms of a $1m up front levy.

Knuckle (dir. Ian Palmer) was the best that Doc/Fest had to offer this year in the opinion of this reviewer. Most notably because there is every reason why it shouldn’t have been made. Bare knuckle fist fighting has not had a good press since 18th century Georgian England when it was conduit for black men to fight their way through slavery, and for the white working class find a means of a living. Regardless of the fact that it is the precursor to conventional and professional boxing, it has the same reputation as bear baiting, cock fighting and illegal blood sports with the same underground means of word of mouth. Everything about it then is left to the imagination of a conventional viewer, imagining the worst. This brave, unique and fantastic film lifts the lid on the truth, or the truth that is the fighting that exists between feuding families, going back a fair few years within a haze of justifications. But it is, at best, and justifiably, as it always was a matter of honour, pride and defence.

Gail Spencer