Film and Television Features

Doc/Fest 2014: Conclusion

DocFest closed this year's festival with a screening of Paul Kelly's How We Used To Live, accompanied by a live score from Saint Etienne. The film uses archive footage to chart a social history of post-war London, from the creation of the welfare state through to the imminent rise of Thatcherism. Its purpose isn't to dwell on dates or details, but to suggest the feeling of a world in constant transition, still optimistic about the future that awaited. The dreamlike quality of the footage is complimented beautifully by Saint Etienne's score, which adds a romantic, hazy quality to all that we see. The footage itself is also a real highlight. Rather than draw upon grainy black and white material, How We Used To Live is a film of vibrant colours and unexpected imagery. This footage is combined with wit and imagination, often finding humour in the bizarre juxtaposition of sounds and images. The final result is a visual poem filled with sweetness and optimism. How We Used To Live searches for magic in the archives of the past, and for the most part, finds it.

I hadn't originally intended to see We Are Many, as its subject matter of the Bush-Blair years is an area that's already been well explored by numerous other documentaries. However, it was a film I kept hearing talk of during the festival. In particular, that it'd received a standing ovation on its first showing, leading DocFest to hurriedly arrange additional screenings. The film focuses on the fact that the 2003 anti-war demonstrations were the largest global mobilisation of human beings in history. The enormity of this event is effectively conveyed by the film's exciting and pacey approach, which constantly conveys a feeling of ever building momentum. The film also successfully captures the scale of the protests with the impressive number of interviewees who appear on screen, which works greatly to the film's favour. Though the anti-war protests didn't manage to stop the invasion of Iraq, the film doesn't dwell too much in regret. Instead, We Are Many argues that the impact of these protests set into motion ripples that could be felt in later, more successful, political unrest. Yes, there are numerous documentaries about the 'war on terror' era, but this is a very strong example of its type. More than that though, We Are Many is also an effective celebration of political protest that acts as an energising and impassioned call for further action.

That wraps up my final review for this year's festival, which has offered everything from music docs to fly-on-the-wall dramas to experimental film. Here are my choices for the top five films of the festival.

5) Web Junkie
Web Junkie takes you into the world of Chinese internet addiction centres, where teenagers are effectively held prisoner by the doctors and soldiers who monitor their progress. Rather than probe too clumsily at the issues behind the addiction (an area other films can explore later), Web Junkie adopts a delicate observational style that's an enormous success.

4) Life Itself
Life Itself is a loving, warm-hearted tribute to Roger Ebert, told with the skilful storytelling I've come to expect from director Steve James. More importantly though, its also a poignant film that taps into the universal themes of death and how we go about preparing for the end.

3) Point and Shoot
Point and Shoot tells the bizarre story of Matt VanDyke, a sheltered, middle class resident of Baltimore with severe OCD, who transformed himself into a motorcycle-riding revolutionary and soldier in the Libyan conflict. Its a consistently gripping story, aided by its intriguingly flawed protagonist and themes of self identity.

2) In The Shadow of War
In The Shadow of War is a sensitively handled film about how the scars of war can be seen even decades after the fighting has ended, in this case in the teenagers who found themselves growing up without real parental care. I only had room to discuss two out of the four main characters in my original review, but each of them presents a rich, and moving, story.

1) The Overnighters
I'd been intending to use my top spot as a platform to celebrate something smaller and more unusual, but in this case I find myself in agreement with Sundance film festival, who awarded this film a Special Jury prize. The Overnighters is both a compelling character study, an empathic snapshot of the American working class, and a celebration of human compassion.