In its 19th year, this was its busiest yet, with thousands of filmmakers, patrons and industry flocking to the city for a colourful programme of UK and international documentary. Amidst controversy in the form of the Chinese Embassy withdrawing their delegate visitors after the festival refused to cancel its screenings of Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry and High Tech, Low Life, the festival astonished with surprise guests – including a secret gig from the enigmatic Sixto Rodriguez, the enigmatic subject of the opening night film Searching for Sugarman. Delegates let their hair down at the local working men’s club; taken over by the festival and filled with Guilty Pleasures, the glittering Dreambears dancing trio and a never-ending hog roast. After the rollerdisco – a staple of the festival – and the East End Bar parties, the documentary film industry could be found swaying in a sozzled haze ‘til sunrise in the lobby bar of the St. Paul’s hotel. The screens were packed, the films were brilliant; Sheffield Doc/Fest is not to be missed.
Sheffield Doc/Fest opened with a cracker in the form of Searching for Sugarman (dir. Malik Bendjelloul), followed by a surprise gig. With beautiful photography of a snow-covered Detroit, illuminated by lurid neon signs, an absurd story unravels about the musician Rodriguez – a flop, dropped by his U.S Record label who, unbeknownst to him, achieved legendary stardom in South Africa. A sleuth story follows as a couple of fans went on a journey to find their idol, shrouded in vague rumours of a brutal suicide on stage.
Penny Woolcock’s new documentary From the Land to the Sea Beyond unfolds a beautiful cascade of archive footage of the British coastline winding through a social and filmic history. People throw cheeky glances to the camera and pose awkwardly, unsure of technology’s new invention: the moving image. Silly seaside fun carries on and the hypnotic rocking sea relentlessly batters the shore through the decades, while British Sea Power’s evocative soundtrack charges alongside the turbulent waters and awesome visuals.
Marius Markevicius’ The Other Dream Team tells the remarkable moment in history when the Lithuanian basketball team played the Olympics and defeated Russia – reflecting their very recent liberation from Soviet rule. Featuring a neon tie-dye sports kit conceived by The Grateful Dead who sympathized with their plight, The Other Dream is a hugely entertaining and passionate story of the underdog emerging from the shadows of repression.
An extraordinary way of experiencing the world is brought to life in Seungjun Yi’s Planet of Snail. A philosophical writer, Young-Chan is deaf and blind and compares his experience of the world to that of an astronaut. Poetic and engaging, the film’s pace reflects the way he explores the world with his wife Soon-Ho, through touch and smell, from changing light bulbs to hugging trees to using the film crew as target practise with pine cones.
Earning a Special Mention in the Special Jury Award was Call Me Kuchu directed by Malika Zouhali-Worrall and Katherine Fairfax Wright, a powerful film about the LGBT activists in Uganda risking their lives to prevent the passing of the anti-homosexuality bill. With beauty and sensitivity, Call Me Kuchu reveals the bravery of these activists in the face of shocking attitudes and real threat.
Quadrophenia: Can You See the Real Me? by Matt O’Casey is an engrossing, thorough breakdown of The Who’s groundbreaking concept album. Chronologically explored and illustrated with track isolation, the album and blasts through the story as the memories unfold, revisiting tensions within the band, Keith Moon’s sense of humour and the mod movement.
Stacy Peralta’s latest installment Bones Brigade: An Autobiography is an outstanding documentary about his skateboarding super crew in the 80s: Rodney Mullen, Tommy Guerrero, Mike McGill, Steve Caballero and Tony Hawk. Skating represented a sense of liberation from many aspects of their lives and an exhilarating escape. With a whirlwind of remarkable characters, archive footage, super 8 videos and family photos, the passion is infectious in this deeply personal film.
Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present by Matthew Akers won the Special Jury Award. Akers set out with a cynical perception of Abramovic’s conceptual art, but ended up making a surprisingly hypnotic and intimate film about a fierce artist who pushes herself to the physical extremes for the sake of art.
An appearance from the legendary John Cooper Clarke punctuated the finale of the festival, who was received with cheers and roars of laughter as he performed a couple of his new poems before the screening of Evidently…John Cooper Clarke (dir. By John Ross); a smashing end to an imaginatively eclectic programme.