The best in show from Sheffield's Doc/Fest

Teen dreams, dolphin whisperers and unlikely rock stars at the north's top docs showcase

Arts+Culture Top Ten
Beyond Clueless Still Full

As the weather dramatically shifted throughout the days between thunderstorms, downpours and beaming sunshine, the 21st Sheffield Doc/Fest played out with incredible films, cross-platform projects, talks, live scores, outdoor screenings, and of course, its annual roller disco. Here are our top picks from the fest. 

THE DOG (2013)

With his thick Brooklyn accent and gregarious demeanor, John Wojtowicz – the real character behind Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon – is the star of this film, energetically declaring, “I’m the bank robber, fuck Al Pacino!” Fast-talking Wojtowicz sounds like a missing character from Goodfellas, and recalls watching The Godfather in the cinema before the bank robbery for inspiration. An outspoken romantic and unconcerned with defining his sexuality, Wojtowicz relays the narrative of his life, aligning his own timeline with historical landmarks such as the Vietnam War, the Stone Wall Riots and the moon landing, to the effect that his life plays out like an alternative Forrest Gump. His insatiable libido is a driving force in his life, and he recalls his trail of wives – as interviews reveal their impressions of him – and his wedding to Ernie; the transexual whose sex change was to be funded by his bank-robbing. Colourful, worn archive footage shows New York in the 70s and the interviewees, including John’s mother, are engaging storytellers. Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren’s film is a fascinating cocktail of macho gangster swagger and sexual identity, littered with twists and dynamic momentum.

SEARCH FOR WENG WENG (2013)

Starring as Agent 00 in For Y’ur Height Only, Filipino actor Weng Weng was a 2 foot 9 inch powerhouse of martial arts and wild stunts. Director Andrew Leavold’s 7 year hunt was sparked by the rumours and mystery that surrounded Weng Weng, whose legend and influence became more apparent since the birth of internet. With a pace that echoes the slick timing of Weng Weng’s action-packed B-movies, great clips and humour, Leavold’s film delivers an insight into how cinema culture flourished in the Phillippines after the filming of Apocalypse Now, how Filipinos regard their own film culture and what Weng Weng represented to them. Focusing on a career that was born out of his martial art talent and unique physicality, Search for Weng Weng reveals the exploitation faced by the actor and offers an alternative perspective on disability in film from an academic who compares the spectacle aspect to medieval cultures. Ultimately the film is a celebration of these brilliant, much-loved cult B-movies from an expert in the genre, and an utterly compelling story about an iconic actor named after a notoriously strong cocktail.

HAPPINESS (2013)

In a style reminiscent of early Truffaut and the iconic beautiful colour contrasts of The Red Balloon, Balmès captures a transitional moment in the time of a Bhutanese village, and of a young boy's life. Nine year old Peyangki is sent away to a monastery in the wake of his father's death, his mother unable to afford to send him to school. Peyangki adapts to his new life with courage and an adventure with his uncle to buy a television in the city bombards his senses with the complexities and technological wonder of modern life. The electric wires descend on the stunning village in the mountains, as Balmès explores what it is to be a child; experiencing the world and dreaming with curiosity and innocence. With stunning cinematography, Balmès expresses the parallel of a bittersweet innocence lost as the couch-potato culture of staring at a screen closes in on the community.  

BEYOND CLUELESS (2013)

Riding the storm of teen existence is Beyond Clueless, Charlie Lyne's film-essay which reads between the lines of teen movies in a montage of over 200 films. In a live score at The Crucible Theatre, Summer Camp’s soundtrack swam in and out of the narrative, gathering force as the hormonal explosions of these teenage experiences erupted. Intuitively echoing the moods, traditions and 90s indie soundtracks of this genre, Summer Camp’s original score is the cherry on top to this vibrant, funny and subversive analysis of post-John Hughes American teen movies – and films outside of that stereotype. Divided into chapters and with sequences of close analysis to illustrate readings of the messages beneath the sugary pop, Beyond Clueless navigates the jungle of teen high school life; the rules that exist beyond adult control and the games of conformity. Lyne celebrates the humour of these films and stereotypes, and the timing is brilliant. In close readings of particular sequences, the narration – delivered by cult teen movie actress Fairuza Balk – is interpretative analysis at its most engaging and evocative. Playing out like a zine, pop culture is used to explore the pressures on teenagers, and the forces that drive the strange rituals of adolescence.

Beyond Clueless Still Full

VAGABOND (1985)

Opening with the discovery of a young woman’s body, Agnès Varda’s 1985 feature film explores the circumstances and and coincidences that lead to her lonely death. In her last months alive, Mona drifts through small towns and the countryside in France, hitching rides and pitching her worn-out tent. Although she is only observed by the camera, the people she encounters share their thoughts about her in direct addresses to the camera, in documentary-style sequences. Sexual predators take advantage of her solitude and other pass judgement or project their dreams onto her. Like Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks, she is a blank canvas for the fantasies of others and the film ruminates on what Mona represents or signifies to those conforming to the rules of society. Observed from a distance as she faces rejection, or repels people with her anti-social or uninhibited behaviour, Mona’s character is the victim of abstract subjective interpretation.

PULP: A FILM ABOUT LIFE, LOVE AND SUPERMARKETS (2014)

While documenting the run-up to their farewell concert in Sheffield, New Zealand filmmaker Florian Habicht treats the story of Pulp with a playful dose of self-deprecating humour. As Jarvis struts and thrusts, Habicht bounces off his dry wit, and draws characters of Sheffield into the narrative – whether or not they have heard of the band. Local acapella and dance groups perform hits, kids in the neighbourhood jump at the chance to be in a film, and fans waiting outside the venue share their personal stories and connection to the music. Jarvis recalls his Saturday job as a fishmonger in the market, and Candida discusses the blow of being diagnosed with arthritis as a teen, yet defiantly sticking to her love of music and joining Pulp. The band discuss the loss of normality that fame brought, as the film explores what Pulp represents and how it engages with the residents and spirit of its hometown.

THE GIRL WHO TALKED TO DOLPHINS (2014)

In an ambitious experiment that has echoes of both Project Nim and Blackfish, scientists constructed a purpose-built house at the sea’s edge on the Virgin Islands in the 1960s with a swimming pool, naturally filled with water from the ebb and flow of the tide. Led by scientist John Lilly, they decided to attempt to teach dolphins the English language, a project that received funding from NASA who perceived it to be of potential use in preparation for possible communication with extra-terrestrial life. The team was joined by Margaret, a young local who was keen to volunteer her time. Progress was slow, and Margaret suggested they flooded the house so that one dolphin, Peter, could live on both levels, and she would stay with him on a mattress suspended from a ceiling. As Lilly became more interested in hallucinogenic drugs, his experiments became radical and cruel. Through interviews, photos and voice recordings, the story becomes stranger and tragic – albeit with the patronising, schoolboy error of projecting human emotions onto animals.

MINERS SHOT DOWN (2014)

Rehad Desai’s shocking film reveals the corruption behind the death of 34 miners on strike in Marikana, South Africa. Receiving a pittance for wages, the power structures protect the rich, and keep the miners in a vicious cycle of poverty; unable to pay for school, generations of families remain in the poorly paid mining jobs. With interviews, footage of the strikers and mobile phone videos, Desai shares the events throughout the week leading up to the violent tragedy. A peaceful strike against the platinum mining company Lonmin is initiated with hope and rising support from other unions, but tension rises among police commissioners. Cyril Ramaphosa, the founder of the miner’s union, steps back from the concerns of the miners and carefully avoids questions when interviews, now a board member of Lonmin and part of the fabric that perpetuates opression. Clearly expressing their peaceful intentions to the police, the miners’ words fall on deaf ears and a horrific massacre unfolds. As morgue vans approach, the chilling intentions of the powers that be becomes clear. Some of the footage within Desai’s film has the power to overturn the evidence in court, which is hopeful, but how these officials managed to get away with murder – and even convict the innocent – is baffling and terrifying.

NIGHT WILL FALL (2014)

Winning an honourable mention in the Special Jury Award, André Singer’s latest film explores the never-completed documentary by Sidney Bernstein, with Alfred Hitchcock on board as supervising director, constructed from footage of the concentration camps as soldiers moved in to liberate. The opening images of thick black smoke rising and barbed wire fences set the forboding scene for the atrocities they were about to discover. Interviewed soldiers are brought to tears as they remember the horror, and with graphic footage ‘peering into hell’, the film is visceral and disturbing. Bernstein wanted a film that would be a lesson to mankind, and the documentation was to act as vital evidence in the instance that Nazis denied the existence of these camps. Long shots were used to prove the authenticity of the material, and Hitchcock was struck by the carefree lives enjoyed by Germans in such an incredibly close proximity to the camps. A fascinating narrative develops around the profound message Hitchcock had originally been aiming for, and the hectoring short film that was released by Americans. The footage had been passed to the U.S after the British Foreign Office had halted Bernstein’s project, with the explanation that they needed to nurture a relationship with the Germans instead of alienating them with their guilt.

Night will Fall2

PETER DE ROME: THE GRANDFATHER OF GAY PORN (2014)

Ethan Reid’s film on the charismatic gentleman with the risqué title unfolds with a vibrant soundtrack reminiscent of Kenneth Anger films. Hailing from Sandwich in Kent, de Rome reveals the story of his sexual awakening in wartime England, and subsequent journey to New York, where he began to film his encounters with men. Not advisable for the faint at heart, this film is bursting with erections and ejaculations. Inspired by Jean Genet’s Un Chant d’Amour, De Rome’s professional background in cinema is visually evident in his avant-garde erotic films. In one sequence a circle of naked men unfold in a Busby Berkeley-esque flower of bodies. On beautiful 8mm, De Rome experiments horror and science fiction, as well as pastiches of sequences in his favourite films. In a time where gay sex could have landed him in prison, De Rome sandwiched his films with innocuous footage at the beginning and end for the film processing labs. His involvement with the Civil Rights movement and Stone Wall Riots, and figures such as Derek Jarman, Ken Russell and William S.Burroughs emerge in this colourful biography. de Rome’s celebration of all things playful and the pleasure of excitement emerge as more appealing to him than the act itself, which is what makes his films – recently released by the BFI – so unique.

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