Film and Television Features

Doc/Fest 2014: Day One In Review

Sheffield DocFest kicked off this year with a torrential downpour, making my decision to spend the summer day in a darkened cinema suddenly feel very sensible. Thankfully there was a wide range of films on offer for those taking shelter, with day one offering a mix of music documentaries, art films and political exposés.

Visitors marks the latest in the long running collaboration between the filmmaker Godfrey Reggio and composer Phillip Glass, which began with the seminal Koyaanisqatsi in 1982. As with previous films, Visitors explores humankind's relationship with its environment, but this time the focus is much more firmly on humankind itself, and in particular on the human face. With no explanatory narration to guide us through, we're simply shown shot after shot of people's faces as they slowly drift towards us from the jet black darkness that surrounds them. All of this is rendered in crisp black and white, which gives even the more mundane objects shown an otherworldly grandeur. The slow, deliberate pace of the film, and Glass' mesmeric score, inevitably forces you into a contemplative state. I found myself speculating about each of the faces I was shown, wondering about the lives that had contributed to the lines on their brow or the exhaustion around their eyes. Though Visitors contains some remarkable sequences, its also undeniably inconsistent, and lacks the breadth of Reggio's earlier work. With some notable exceptions, the footage here isn't quite interesting or beautiful enough to pull off the feature length 'visual poem' its attempting, and I'm sad to report that a considerable number of people in my audience left the cinema before the film's end.

Walk outs were absolutely not something that happened in my next film, which left the audience frozen into a shocked silence. In 1945 Sidney Bernstein, with the aid of Alfred Hitchcock, began attempting to make sense of the huge quantity of film starting to arrive from liberated concentration camps across Europe. Their ambition was to use this footage to produce a lyrical, emotional film intended for all of humankind, rather than a heavy handed propaganda piece. As the global political situation rapidly shifted, it was eventually decided that their 'atrocity film' was no longer politically advantageous, and the film was scrapped, perhaps becoming one of the twentieth century's great lost documentaries. Night Will Fall tells the story of this lost film, as well as revisiting the harrowing early discovery of the concentration camps. Perhaps most impressively, the film manages to track down and interview many of the faces that appear in the footage, both soldiers and survivors. The exceptionally disturbing scenes shown here have the feeling of a nightmare, and its soon clear that all of the cameramen who witnessed it first hand have carried it with them ever since. Many of the interviewees in the film didn't tell their family or friends anything about the events, and as they open up on camera here it seems as though they can still barely comprehend the enormity of what they witnessed. In many ways Night Will Fall feels more like a television documentary than a cinematic one, and it'll be well worth catching again when it inevitably appears on air.

After an hour's break to recover from the previous film, I moved onto Sheffield City Hall for the first of two opening night films. Given the festival’s close ties with its Sheffield home, its appropriate that this year the festival kicked off properly with a love letter to one of the city's finest bands, as well as the city itself. Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets follows the band as they prepare to play a final farewell show in their home town. Rather than turn into yet another uninspiring tour film, A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets wisely gives as much screen time to the city that inspired the music as it does to the band themselves. We're introduced to a large cast of well chosen fans and local eccentrics from the city, all of whom are depicted with warmth and humour. This is captured by New Zealand director Florian Habicht, whose outsider's perspective is something of a mixed bag. On the plus side we get to rediscover the city through his unfamiliar eyes, but Habicht's lack of familiarity with the city also leads to a depiction of the city that's somewhat superficial and lacking in insight. What really carries the film is the dry sense of humour that pervades it, coming not just from Jarvis Cocker but also from the natives of Sheffield, whose comments frequently upstage him. Seeing this film with a home town audience filled with participants from the film was the best possible environment in which to appreciate it, and it'll be interesting to see if the film resonates as strongly with audiences in other cities.

My second opening night film was an extremely different affair, both in terms of content and purpose. Miners Shot Down casts light on the shocking story of South African platinum miners. In 2012, a strike organised by the miners was brutally repressed by the police, who gunned down 34 of them. Despite an overwhelming body of evidence suggesting that a monumental injustice and cover up has occurred, no police or officials have yet been prosecuted for their actions. Miners Shot Down is very much an example of documentary as exposé, and the film exists primarily to uncover the flaws in the 'official' side of events that has subsequently emerged in South Africa. We're taken slowly through the gradual build up of tensions leading to the massacre, with perhaps the most ominous moment being the arrival of several vans from the morgue lying in wait before the shooting even began. Astonishingly, most of this build up, and even the shooting itself, has been filmed extensively, and its the sheer intensity of this footage that the film draws most of its strengths from. At its best, Miners Shot Down is a disturbing exploration of the relentless pursuit of profit that taps into global themes of class, corruption and the right for workers to strike. However, its also true that the film succeeds more as a well evidenced piece of video journalism than it does as an artistic or imaginative piece of filmmaking.