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A Magazine for Sheffield

Doc/Fest 2018, Part 2 / Leave No Trace

Several of Doc/Fest 2018’s most impressive films, especially in their clear aim to give voice to their central protagonists, revolve around individuals facing challenges in Afghanistan, Egypt, Kenya and India.

Issues of race don’t arise directly, but from the perspective of watching them at a UK festival, subtitled in English for global distribution and aimed in large part at a western audience, such issues are clearly evoked.

All of the films I’ll mention give voice to issues around gender and violence. That some of the most powerful documentaries inevitably confront these issues head-on is no surprise.

From Afghanistan, both Laila at the Bridge (Gulistan Mirzaei & Elizabeth Mirzaei) and A Thousand Girls Like Me (Sahra Mani) focus on female protagonists. Laila Haidari, having rescued her brother from nearly 30 years of heroin use, seeks out and helps addicts from under the notorious Pul-i-Sokhta bridge in Kabul, where hundreds of souls eke out their existence in foul stench. We discover more about Laila as the film evolves, but never lose sight of her strong commitment to her work, despite the uphill struggle she faces, including the complicity in drug trafficking of the very officials she begs for money from when renewed Taliban violence scares off her restaurant customers, and so her meagre funding. In the latter film, Khatera pursues her father through the courts after growing up suffering from his sexual abuse. Both films show not just the remarkable strength of their protagonists, but a palpable sense of the often-terrifying social context in which their personal battles play out.

Boys Who Like Girls (Inka Achté) showcases the work of Indian NGO, Men Against Violence & Abuse. MAVA’s mild-mannered founder, Harish Sadani, increasingly comes across as hugely committed to his work. Watching the difficulties he faces trying to get funding for his long-standing programme to educate boys and men about gender is heartbreaking, all the more so because the film, especially via its character studies, shows MAVA’s impressive results and its huge potential.

The film, like Harish, never simplifies matters. An early scene shows boys being asked to group images of women into 'good' and 'bad', then having their conservative, deeply patriarchal thought processes deconstructed, inviting them to think more critically about their ideas and assumptions. Yet, especially in following Ved, a 16-year-old boy, the film doesn’t flinch from showing circumstances that contribute to boys’ willingness to lash out, to blame women like the Delhi bus rape victim for what happens to them.

Amal, a stunning feature debut from Mohamed Siam, follows its titular heroine from the age of 15 in 2012 to the present, featuring footage of her from riots on Tahrir Square and from her life in the years following the death of her dearly loved father and her first boyfriend, as well as the Egyptian Revolution and its aftermath. Amal starts out angry, embittered and androgynous, at odds with her mother’s politics and looking to find a new family amongst those she met during the uprising.

Siam planned to make a film about football hooligans, but when he met Amal he decided to instead explore the political and social aftermath of the 2011 revolution from her perspective as an Egyptian woman. The result is hugely rewarding and inspired filmmaking. It’s also increasingly relevant, as the situation around women’s and human rights in Egypt is, sadly, highly newsworthy. As Amnesty International has said, the country’s human rights crisis 'continues unabated'.

If in following Amal’s life over several years, Amal can be compared to Richard Linklater’s 2014 indie hit Boyhood, then Jon Kasbe’s When Lambs Become Lions must surely bring Michael Mann’s Heat to mind (Stephen Saito agrees). Unlikely as this sounds, the structure, relationships and style played out in this beautiful film mirror much of the De Niro-Pacino relationship in that movie, and to equally great affect.

While the film is ostensibly about endangered elephants, its footage of them is sparse, locating them as mysterious if narratively powerless protagonists. This might be criticised. However, the resulting film is brilliant and perhaps more able to draw people in, because wonderful films that focus exclusively on our non-human fellows, such as David Redmon & Ashley Sabin’s amazing Do Donkeys Act? are perhaps, very sadly, too avant-garde to garner a large audience.

And of course, these stories desperately need to be told, so need to be distributed to an audience. Be that audience. See these films.

Samantha Holland

Leave No Trace

Dir. Debra Granik, 2018

Based on a true story, Leave No Trace is an exploration of the paradoxes of inhabited space and attachment. There's loss, emergent longing and the opportunity for healing, played through the experiences of Will and Tom, wonderfully acted by Ben Foster and Thomasin McKenzie.

Will, a veteran with PTSD, needs to escape the constraints of civilian life. Eschewing societal norms, he finds himself raising his daughter Tom illegally in an urban park. The line, ''Is it what you want or what you need?", encapsulates his philosophy. It's living stripped to its essentials, and the economical language of the script reflects this.

The almost symbiotic relationship between the two sees moments of calm: collecting mushrooms, fertilising with egg shells, building shelter – though the main drive is always moving camp – 'leaving no trace', with the horror of possible discovery ever present. There's talk of a 'path', though as Tom says later, "I don't think we knew where we were going."

A melancholy homesickness pervades, evoked by the character of the dead mother. A single interchange between father and child about their loss holds nostalgia for a home which we know nothing of, yet still gives a sense of continuity.

Inevitable discovery brings the first trauma of separation and a divergence from the previous life. It's the beginning of Tom and Will's different experiences of the world outside their marginal existence. Will experiences further alienation, whilst Tom sees the advantages of adapting.

Foster's everyman appearance suits the overtly existential framework of this tale, posing questions of what and who we need to have fulfilment in life, and consequently what home is. McKenzie captures with beautiful tenderness the shift from childhood to adolescence, the need to examine parental values from a backdrop of unquestioning loyalty.

The ending is painful, as Tom struggles between her overwhelming attachment to her father and her increasing need for community. It's a testimony to the subtle nature of this film that I wasn't entirely sure of the outcome until the last two minutes. An iconic finale.

Mary L Carr

Film Listings

Hosted by Samantha Holland

Hayao Miyazaki, 1989
10-16 August | Various Times | Showroom Cinema | £8

Showing as part of the Showroom’s wonderful Summer of Ghibli season, this film’s story of a young witch who must regain her powers to talk to her cat and control her broom, disrupted by people who don’t approve of her, is a must-see. All screenings before 5pm are dubbed with the English language and all screenings after 5pm are in the original Japanese with English subtitles.

Jon Turteltaub, 2018
UK national release 10 August

In this American-Japanese production, Jason Statham plays Jonas Taylor, a man who, claiming to have (amazingly) escaped a 70-foot megalodon shark and earned himself a bad rep in the process, has an opportunity for redemption and vindication when it seems he may not have hallucinated the whole thing.

Robert Zemeckis, 1985/1989/1990
Sun 26 August | 1pm | Abbeydale Picture House | £6

Doors open 12 noon, and there’s a 20-minute break between the three films, so get along and travel through time with the irrepressible Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and eccentric Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) in cinema’s most iconic DeLorean.

Mick Jackson, 1984
Wed 29 August | 6:15pm | Showroom Cinema | £9

Written by Barry Hines, Threads is lauded to this day as a genuinely terrifying vision of society’s utter demise after a nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR. Focusing, documentary-style, on a Sheffield couple who try to ignore the nuclear war by concentrating on decorating their flat, Threads might remind us all to stay alert to the goings-on in our world.

Wed 15 August | 6-9pm | Millhouses Park (Totley side) | £11 adults, £8 children, £38.50 family, children under 2 free

All ages are welcome at this open air showing of the 1994 Disney classic, part of a trio of screenings which also includes Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone (Thu 16 Aug) and Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Fri 17 Aug). Street food and quality refreshments, alcoholic and non-alcoholic, available. Prosecco and popcorn deckchair packages available for those feeling flush. Link


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