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A Magazine for Sheffield




Little did anyone know that the most sought-after commodity at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest was not an aged cinema master nor a hype-fuelled debut, but in fact a curvaceous bottle of concentrated pomegranate juice. No, the documentary world has not given up the distribution of films to pursue interests related to high anti-oxidant drink sales. The drink in question was POM Wonderful, the 'official sponsor' of Morgan Spurlock's latest film POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Recognised as the man behind Super Size Me, Spurlock is every bit the showman and his film enthusiastically bounds through the world of Hollywood marketing, creating a film about product placement which itself is entirely funded by product placement. The drink tastes a bit like sour undiluted Ribena; the film - entertaining, at times missing the mark as a scathing critique of consumerism, but the director's unashamed eagerness for knowingly selling out is hilarious. After the madness that was the opening night, delegates and the public were subject to some of the most exciting documentaries around. Alma Ha'rel's Bombay Beach was among the most poetic films in competition. It interweaves the lives of rural California's inhabitants with choreographed dance sequences to create a melancholic, lyrical tale of ordinary people. The Special Jury prize went to The Interrupters, a film about ex-cons in Chicago as they attempt to intervene in gang conflicts to stop violence. One of Britain's leading experimental documentary filmmakers, John Akomfrah was at the festival screening his latest gem The Nine Muses, an idiosyncratic look at the experiences of immigrants coming to the UK in the 70s. The film blends archive footage, serene shots of the Alaskan landscape, poetry, philosophy and sound design to convey the alienation and insignificance many immigrants feel when arriving on our shores. A staggering 'drama of becoming', in which Akomfrah engages with notions of black British identity and memory. The Doc/Fest Lifetime Achievement award went to much-loved veteran cinematographer Albert Maysles, one of the founders of Direct Cinema - a 60s movement dedicated to documenting life in its purest form, filming events as they unfolded in long uninterrupted takes. His documentary debut Salesman is a classic and held by many as the definitive portrait of the American spirit. He has made films about The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Muhammad Ali and John F Kennedy while in their prime. Another masterful presence was that of Martin Scorsese, whose A Letter to Elia is a loving paean to director Elia Kazan, who practically discovered Marlon Brando and James Dean, as well as creating some of the most powerful actor-orientated films of the 50s. Scorcese's intimate portrait of a man who so sharply divided his contemporaries' opinion - crucially with his contribution as a witness before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952 - makes for a cathartic experience. Scorsese, whose films are so often associated with masculinity and the expression of violence, becomes much more emotionally candid. Talk of 'revolutions in technology' was once again on everyone's lips as the ominous presence of Twitter made itself known. At any point in the festival the socially-empty phrase "follow me on Twitter" was never far away. Adam Curtis was milling about and made his thoughts on the subject clearly known, stating in a masterclass that the phenomenon is a "self-aggrandising, smug pressure group". He was at the festival to promote his latest television triptych All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, which joyfully denounces faith in technology as a means to its moral salvation. Another cynically polemical message. Another far more promising advancement is that of the humble DSLR camera, which is revolutionising documentary filmmaking. Its unbelievable lightness, cheapness and fantastic image quality means filmmakers no longer have to compromise on quality if they want to make a film in extreme circumstances. No one could argue that this is what was demanded of Dangfung Dennis, whose employment of a DSLR in Hell and Back Again meant he could join foot soldiers deep behind enemy lines in Afghanistan. Dennis is a war photographer whose growing frustration at the morally indifferent reception his photos were receiving inspired him to start filming his experiences. The finished result is disorientating and brutally honest. With more delegates, masterclasses, sessions and films than ever before, Doc/Fest is quickly becoming an assured Sheffield institution. Now all that's left to do is try and get the gustatory bitterness of POM Wonderful out of our mouths.




This year's Doc Fest was bigger than ever, with more venues, more events and more unique and wonderful documentaries, but you would have been hard pushed to find one more compelling than Give Up Tomorrow. In 1997, the Chiong Sisters went missing in the Philippines, supposedly raped and murdered. The film tells the story of Paco Larranaga, wrongfully imprisoned for over 14 years for a crime he couldn't possibly have committed. With 42 witnesses, photographs and exam attendance records placing his whereabouts as hundreds of miles away from the scene of the crime, we watch in increased horror as a scandalous miscarriage of justice unfolded. What makes the production so captivating is how at each and every turn you keep expecting somebody to realise how absurd this all is. Instead we get a damning representation of a justice system that not only doesn't work, but is shown to be riddled with lies, corruption and false evidence. While the film has an agenda, it does not use it to create unnecessary bias. Some of its more unsavoury characters are damned by simply watching them speak on camera. One scene near the end, in which we see the mother of the two daughters speak about Paco, must rank as one of the scariest moments in cinema. The real crime here is not only the false charges levelled at Paco and his alleged "co-conspirators," but that the actual criminals will never be brought to justice for such an appalling crime. Like all great films in this medium, Give Up Tomorrow works both as an exceptional documentary and as an enthralling, heart-breaking story. Collins and his producer Marty Syjuco should be lauded for their achievements, not only for creating such a tense and terrifying piece of cinema, but in providing a weighty tribute to its horribly wronged star. I urge you to give up your tomorrow, to watch it right away. )

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