Film and Television Features

Doc/Fest 2014: Day Four and Five in Review

There was a pleasingly international theme to days four and five of DocFest, with stories from Mexico, China and South Korea, as well as a film with great relevance to DocFest's Sheffield home. I also caught my first live soundtrack of the festival with Summer Camp's score to Beyond Clueless.

Strongest of the films was The Overnighters, the well deserving winner of the Special Jury award at this year's Sundance. The film is set in Williston, North Dakota, a community overrun by the arrival of thousands of desperate workers lured there by the emerging fracking industry. Pastor Jay Reinke provides these new arrivals with somewhere to sleep in his church, many of whom have simply arrived in town with a one-way tickets and no real plan. Reinke is a man compelled to help broken people partly because of his faith, and partly because he sees something of himself within them. This quickly creates friction in his community, who see these new outsiders as a dangerous unknown, especially when it becomes clear that the pastor is secretly providing shelter to a sex offender in his own home. Reinke is a man who is struggling to balance the sometimes contradictory demands of his public role with his overwhelming desire to help others, a tension which makes him an extremely compelling lead character. Also fascinating is the film's subtle explorations of the aspects of Reinke's character that he keeps hidden from others, which culminates in a stunning and unexpected final act. The Overnighters also succeeds as a great film about the American underclass and economic decline, which it approaches with humane sensitivity. Director Jesse Moss has crafted a beautifully told film, with moments of surprising emotional rawness that occasionally feel uncomfortable to be present for. The Overnighters isn't just a compassionately told film, but its also an exceptional film about human compassion itself.

Web Junkie opens on an imposing building surrounded by barbed wire fences, and a silence disturbed only by the sound of marching soldiers patrolling the perimeter. Surprisingly this isn't a military prison, but a centre for treating teenagers addicted to online gaming. The patients there have taken internet gaming to ridiculous extremes, often going days without sleep or food. Many of them were drugged by their families to get them into the centre, and are understandably furious about the bootcamp-like conditions they suddenly awake to find themselves in. Web Junkie achieves an admirable balance in its approach, carefully giving voice to doctors, parents and cynical patients alike. Its a film that is careful not to lay blame too heavily, and its quiet non-judgmental style works wonderfully. The film is also extremely impressive in the intimate moments it manages to show us, from late night torch-lit conversations to explosive family therapy sessions. I only picked up a ticket for Web Junkie as a last minute decision, but it unexpectedly turned into one of the highlights of the festival.

The 'Shorty' of The Legend of Shorty is Joaquin Guzman, leader of the most powerful drugs cartel in history. Guzman's empire extended across the world, yet US and Mexican authorities seemed unable to determine his whereabouts. Filmmakers Angus Macqueen and Guillermo Galdos set out on a ridiculous, and likely absurdly dangerous, quest to find Guzman, and its a pleasure to be taken along on the adventure with them. While the endings of quest films don't always matter as much so long as the journey itself is compelling, The Legend of Shorty is a film that undeniably fizzles out at the end. I was also less convinced by the odd, and occasionally morally questionable, musical interludes that appear throughout the film. Nevertheless, the paranoid world of the Sinaloa Cartel is a fascinating one to venture into and The Legend of Shorty is an intriguing doorway into it.

Beyond Clueless delves into the last two decades of American teen films, an area not usually granted serious consideration outside of specialist texts. Film critic Charlie Lyne's analysis draws on examples from an impressive range of films, with a good mix of the well known (Mean Girls, American Pie), and the obscure, many of which appear to have been wisely forgotten for a reason. This is mixed with a perfectly pitched, and often surprisingly ominous, soundtrack by Summer Camp, who performed live at our screening. Stylistically the film is a success, and there are points in the film, most notably during the opening sequence, where everything clicks together beautifully. The film is at its best when moving swiftly between multiple films, drawing attention again and again to the recurring themes of conformity and repression that pervade the genre. Less successful are the numerous sections dedicated to describing the narratives of various films, which occasionally feels like watching a series of IMDB plot summaries. Beyond Clueless is an enjoyable and extremely individual film that disappoints only in that it doesn't take its analysis further still.

I've got a lot of admiration for documentaries that attempt to link together seemingly disparate ideas in an attempt to create something new and unanticipated. So I was looking forward to seeing Non Fiction Diary, a South Korean documentary that links a series of seemingly unrelated news events from the 1990s. The film weaves together a rich tapestry of stories including the emergence of the country's first serial killers, the effects of capitalism on the nation, and the collapse of a shopping mall, which resulted in the deaths of over 500 people. The film works as a revealing snapshot of the national psyche during this period, supported by revealing interviews with many of those directly involved in the events. However, with so many ideas in the air at once its also a film that unfortunately feels a little lost.

Still The Enemy Within was a film that also reflected back on the events of a previous decade, but this time events that hold great significance for DocFest's Sheffield home town. The film is a powerfully told account of the miners strike of the 1980s, which utilises effective reconstruction sequences and a surprising amount of humour to aid its telling. The film is particularly admirable in the variety of stories it casts light upon. Not only do we hear the first-hand accounts of miners involved in the action, but the film also features a strong female presence, and explores the contributions made by gay rights groups. Central to Still The Enemy's success is that it functions as more than just an historical reflection. It also succeeds as an effective argument that the strike is something with real and contemporary significance. For the participants interviewed in the film the strike certainly isn't just history, its something fresh and still raw, and their still emotional testimonies mean this is often a deeply moving film. The film is also careful to explore the links between the strike and political actions occurring today, showing how the event shaped the political landscape we now find ourselves living in. Still The Enemy Within is at times a mournful film, yes, but its also a powerful and convincing celebration of solidarity.