Film and Television Features

Sheffield DocFest 2015 – Part Two

When we first meet our protagonist in A Chinese Patriot he looks like a revolutionary figure from an old Mao-era Chinese propaganda poster, somehow made flesh and brought to life in the streets of contemporary China. 19 year old Zhao Chanting spends his afternoons screaming political slogans at the top of his voice while garbed in traditional military uniform, usually to the amusement of the members of the public around him. Instead of rock stars and teen idols on his bedroom wall, you’ll find images of Chairman Mao. By the film’s end, 5 years later, Zhao has transformed into an ‘angry young man’, politically questioning and embittered by his experiences with local politics. A Chinese Patriot is about this journey from Zhao’s teenage years to his early twenties, and as such it’s also a wonderful film about coming of age in general. We see Zhao’s initially simple understanding of the world give way to something more nuanced as he encounters new ideas at university, his first serious adult relationship, and his own increasing political disillusionment. The film succeeds heavily because of Zhao himself, whose earnest and emotionally honest nature make him a likeable protagonist. A Chinese Patriot is also very effective as a window onto contemporary China, and in particular, into what it’s like to be a young person in the country today. Director Haibin Du’s 5-year narrative begins as an intriguing examination of Chinese patriotism, but unfolds instead into a touching and revealing depiction of young adulthood.

Early into Stanley Nelson’s latest documentary one commentator notes how although much has been said about the Black Panther movement, people typically only comment on the version of the party that they were personally familiar with. As you’d expect, the full picture is something much more multi-faceted and harder to understand. The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution can be seen as something of an attempt to embrace this complexity. The film serves as an engaging and largely chronological account of the party’s history, supported by interviews not only with key members of the party but also with the police force and FBI operatives who were tasked with bringing the party down. Simplified narratives about the Black Panther party tend to interpret it as a singular concept. Here though it’s clear that the party often existed as several things simultaneously, and the film devotes time to exploring initiatives like the party’s breakfast programme for disadvantaged school children, as well as its status as an armed revolutionary force. Where the film is strongest however is in its exploration of the various personalities that made up the party leadership, and the (perhaps inevitable) conflict that came from having so many dynamic and idealistic people working side by side. Understandably for such a complex issue, you’ll encounter plenty of topics within the film that receive less screen time. Personally I’d have loved to have heard more about the international impact of the Black Panthers, as well as their relationship with other Black power movements. Such underexplored areas are inevitable in a film as far reaching as this however, and The Black Panthers pulls off an impressive balancing act – succeeding as an ambitious and skilfully woven account of a fascinating part of American history.

Perhaps the strongest film I saw on the first full day of the festival was Kirby Dick’s The Hunting Ground, a wide-ranging and intensely moving examination of sexual assault on American college campuses. According to research an astonishing 16 to 20 percent of women will suffer from sexual assault while they study at college. Despite this, in 2012 45% of colleges reported zero sexual assaults within their institutions. The film examines the contradiction of these figures in exhausting detail, digging beneath the college’s outwardly pleasant façade to uncover a world of immense corruption. We learn about fraternity houses that are so notorious they are widely known as SAE (Sexual Assault Expected), yet they are too financially important for the institutions to pursue. We also spend time in the bewildering world of college sports team, where star players can be linked to multiple accusations of rape, yet never face conviction due to their importance to the local team. The Hunting Ground methodically builds an overwhelming body of evidence, drawing equally from official studies and the first-hand accounts of sexual assault survivors. The result makes for powerful filmmaking, and I don’t think 5 minutes ever went by in my screening without hearing an audible gasp of shock from somewhere within the audience. What is especially admirable about the film though is that it still manages to feel hopeful and inspiring. As well as analysing the issue of rape culture on campus, The Hunting Ground also follows those survivors who’ve decided to fight back against the institutions who abandoned them. The Hunting Ground itself should be understood as a further part of the fight back against this issue. As exhaustive as the film may be, this isn’t a summary of the topic, but an important next step in widening the public debate that needs to be had.

Over the past few years I’ve increasingly found myself becoming a fan of director Jeanie Finlay’s work, which has included music films such as Sound It Out and The Great Hip Hop Hoax. Music documentaries can be a very mixed and sometimes predicable bag, but Finlay has a real knack for uncovering surprising and sweet stories from unusual corners of popular music, all of which she depicts with humour and tremendous warmth. All of these qualities can be found in Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, her exploration of the strange career of Jimmy Ellis. Ellis was born with a wonderful singing voice that should have given him what he needed to break into the industry. The only problem was there was already a performer with that exact same voice – Elvis Presley. Ellis tried initially to distance himself from his greatly more famous counterpart, even releasing a single in 1978 called ‘I’m Not Trying To Be Like Elvis’. When Elvis Presley died however, Ellis reinvented himself as the masked musician ‘Orion’, whose true identity was a closely guarded secret. With so many distraught Elvis fans around the world desperate to believe their idol wasn’t really dead, rumours quickly spread that Orion was secretly the King somehow reborn. Ellis finally had the fame he’d been searching for, but was now contractually obligated to hide his true identity at all times. Many music icons eventually find themselves struggling to navigate the murky ground between their public and private personas, but for Ellis it wasn’t even clear anymore how much of his fan’s adulation was for him, and how much was for the ghost of the man whose voice he shared. Orion: The Man Who Would Be King is a quirky and extremely entertaining tale, but also a surprisingly touching one.