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A Magazine for Sheffield

A Cacophony Of Documentaries / Listings

Year on year, Sheffield Doc/Fest offers a huge array of filmic choice and other audio-visual experiences that constitute ‘documentary’. This year is no exception, with a VR arcade running alongside numerous film screenings, Q&A sessions and other events. Focusing on free events, the following overview also offers a few pointers through the Doc/Fest maze.

Alternate Realities consists of two parts, both free of charge and both close to the Showroom, with the interactive exhibition at the Millennium Gallery and the Virtual Realities Arcade at Site Gallery and The Space. Themes including space exploration (see Home: A VR Spacewalk Experience and Mars 2030) and the experiences of prisoners and migrants.

6X9: A Virtual Experience Of Solitary Confinement invites us into the world of prisoners, while Undoing Time explores prison as a capitalist endeavour and showcases the reflections of inmates. See also Solitary, a film about a supermax prison. Two Billion Miles and Home: Aamir focus on (im)migration in the Alternate Realities context, and Doc/Fest features films about migrants and migration as well. Transit Zone looks at the Calais camps and the crisis around human rights, for instance, while My Aleppo shows a couple who, having fled Syria, experience via Skype some of what later happened to their homeland. Back in the VR Arcade, We Wait aims to "transport you into the heart of the refugee crisis" alongside a fleeing family at sea.

Taking us further back in history, A Polish Journey is an interactive documentary exploring migration through the lens of uncovering what happened to filmmaker Konczak’s father to lead him to Britain after leaving Nazi Germany. A different approach emerges in New Dimensions In Testimony, which features survivors of the Holocaust engaging in virtual conversation via the use of USC’s Shoah Foundation testimonies.

Fortunately, no one seems (as yet) to have created a VR experience of the Holocaust, and dialogue with a survivor is likely, I think, to be as immersive and affecting as a VR experience promising to transport participants directly to a prison cell, a refugee boat, or Mars. The very range of experiences on offer points up some of the key questions raised. How far can virtual experiences approach the reality of reality? How real is the hyperreal? Is VR in any context as politically and emotionally charged and motivating as engaging with the real?

Other issues raised across Doc/Fest programming this year include the plight and experiences of other-than-human animals and our environment in a human-dominated world. The Age Of Consequences looks at the dramatic impact of climate change on national security, and Seed examines the fight against the loss of 94% of crop diversity in the last century, while Unlocking The Cage shows the ongoing legal fight to have US judges recognise the personhood of chimps, and Born To Be Free reveals the horrors of the global trade in sea mammals. Each of these films features Q&A sessions.

Related picks from the short doc programmes include Pulse, illustrating human interference in the lives of deer in Hungary; Toucan Nation, about motives driving animal welfare action in Costa Rica; Kedi, observing Istanbul from a feline perspective; and The Living Forest, which focuses on oil companies’ destruction of lives and land in Ecuador.

Many of the films mentioned feature in the free Exchange talks and discussions in Tudor Square running throughout Doc/Fest. Along with Howard Street, Tudor Square is also a venue for free outdoor screenings, which include The Epic of Everest, films about ballet, BFI archives, a short doc programme, Black Gold (the Francis brothers’ 2006 film about the exploitation of coffee farmers), and Werner Herzog’s Encounters At The End Of The World. Fingers crossed for decent weather.

All this is just the tip of the Doc/Fest iceberg. Check out the programme for yourself at, and be aware that Sheffield Fringe ( is also running from 10 to 18 June at Bloc Projects, with a fascinating programme focusing on investigating documentary film as an art object.

There’s certainly nothing less than a cacophony of film taking place in Sheffield this June. While much of it promises to be politically, emotionally and experientially engaging and provocative, it also participates in the culture that so many documentaries challenge. My pick of the festival is, for that reason and amongst others, In Pursuit Of Silence, which explores our relationship with silence and its ever-increasing elusiveness in daily life.

Samantha Holland


Hosted by Samantha Holland

Bob Hercules & Rita Coburn Whack, 2015
Sun 12 June | 3:15pm | Vimeo Showroom 2
Tue 14 June | 8:30pm | Beijing Showroom 1
This PBS documentary shows us something of Angelou’s experiences before she found international success and acclaim as a writer, from Alabama to Cairo, and from mutism to poetry. The film has been described as stylistically conservative but wonderfully informative, as well as honest and far from idealising.

Sun 12 June | 4pm | Bloc Projects, 71 Eyre Lane| Free
While a number of excellent shorts will be screening at Café #9 and throughout Doc/Fest this month, my pick has to be Concrete Utopia, a selection chosen by Minou Norouzi (filmmaker, programmer, and doctoral candidate at Goldsmiths), which includes not only two Sheffield films – Walk With A Cart Through Upperthorpe, made collaboratively by Ian Nesbitt (2016), and The Outsiders (Liz von Graevenitz, 2014), about Sheffield’s Roma community – but, amongst others, an animation loosely based on the romantic life of Albert Einstein. Part of Sheffield Fringe.

James Spinney & Peter Middleton, 2016
Sun 12 June | 6pm | ITN Source Showroom 4
An innovative approach to documentary initiated by John Hull’s musings on audio cassette after losing his sight in 1983 and wishing to document his new world. A different experience of his audio diaries can be had at the VR Arcade in Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness.

Louise Osmond, 2016
Mon 13 June | 5:30pm | ITN Source Showroom 4
It would be wrong not to list this, given Loach’s contribution to film and his fiction films that comment heavily on oft-styled documentary topics such as Britain’s welfare state. Osmond looks back at Loach’s life as he turns 80 in what is promised to be a funny, provocative and revealing account of the filmmaker. Features an extended Q&A with Ken Loach.

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