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Sheffield Documentary Festival

Checking the best non-fiction features debuting at the UK's best doc fest with Carmen Gray

In celebration of its 20th birthday, Sheffield Doc/Fest nailed an impressively ambitious and gutsy cross-media opening night in Yorkshire. In a charged, expectant atmosphere the familiarly lanky and bespectacled frame of Sheffield native Jarvis Cocker took the stage in The Crucible theatre to lead The Big Melt, billed as "a new kind of heavy metal music". The live cinema performance was a tribute to the city's steelworkers. It energised footage from the BFI's steel industry archive - from factory women bashing bombs into shape to pro-steel animation and bridge-building silhouettes - with an idiosyncratic, driving soundtrack of regional quotation, a meld ranging from The Human League to a tune from the film Kes. Other Pulp members and a youth choir were among the hoard of on-stage musicians. Introducing, Cocker said he'd been initially reluctant to take on the project since he'd never bought into "the whole steel story", but agreed when promised total creative freedom. And he delivered - raising the show above northern cliches with a sincerity that meant we could only get behind his wry conclusion: "Steel's what made us. That's why we're so rock. And so 'ard. Even though we try to deny it."

Keeping the theme of forceful, creative personalities forged by harsh conditions, the opening documentary that followed started with a line from Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht: "Art is not a mirror to reflect society, but a hammer with which to shape it." It was the UK premiere of Pussy Riot - A Punk Prayer from co-directors Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin, which traces the trial for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred" of anti-Putin activists and hardcore feminists Pussy Riot after their guerrilla punk performance in a Moscow cathedral last year.

For an already much-publicised case, the film manages to be newly eye-opening in insightful interviews ranging from the girls' ambivalent parents to a church lackey in an "Orthodoxy or Death" T-shirt who looks more a disciple of Lemmy than the Messiah and claims the best translation of "pussy riot" is "deranged vaginas". Archive footage of radical performance art collective Voina - which Pussy Riot has roots in - shows past provocations which help pinpoint widespread antipathy toward the activists in Russia as largely based in the nation's deep-rooted conservatism toward gender roles and sexuality. One where they kiss on-duty policewomen on the lips is accessibly amusing; another, an orgy in a biology museum in which Nadia is eight months pregnant, is more radically challenging.

Avoiding hysterical partisanship, the film is still highly persuasive in its portrayal of the group, capturing the girls' poise and articulate resistance in court at close quarters, while drawing parallels to the Soviet-era show trials and a tradition of state control which dictates that to get a lenient sentence you must cry and demean yourself, and "let the government tear you apart".

The Pussy Riot case has revealed much about the way in which technology and social media are changing the face of protest, both through initial action (the cathedral performance was disseminated by viral video) and its dynamic after-life. Echoing our recent Dazed interview with Maria Alyokhina from inside her penal confines via prison Skype, Doc/Fest - which had been hoping to bring members over but was thwarted by Russia's notorious visa process - held a surprise audience Q&A after the screening with Ekaterina Samutsevich (the only of the tried trio to avoid jail), who spoke from her Moscow home. "The government sees feminism as an extreme position, they're not used to that," she said through a translator, expressing concern about a crackdown of new laws that have sprung from their case (including even the banning of balaclavas), and a fear for how young minds are being moulded in Russia: "A lot of values such as homophobia are being promoted at an educational level. That needs to be transformed."

Transforming legacies of political oppression through creative expression was a theme that echoed through a number of Doc/Fest films. Electro Moscow, by directors Elena Tikhonova and Dominik Spritzendorfer, charts the loopy underground electronic experimentation that ran alongside officially controlled technological development in communist-era Russia, defying standardisation, while Kim Longinotto's Salma records the story of a young Tamil poet who smuggles out her work. Most unforgettable was Joshua Oppenheimer's mind-bending The Act of Killing, which took the festival's top prize. It navigates a similar realm of unsettlingly surreal role-playing and theatrical re-enactment to Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997) by Werner Herzog, who endorsed The Act of Killing as an executive producer. Oppenheimer has unrepentant members of the Indonesian death squads of the '60s, who were adulated for killing communists, don flamboyantly coloured costumes to replay their crimes in the style of their favourite movie genres - gangster, western and musical. Like a history lesson on acid, the process sparks a shift in the psyche of the killers, jolting collective memory into something both rawly immediate and defamiliarised for them - and us - to examine.