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A Magazine for Sheffield

Looking back at Doc/Fest 2012.

To be perfectly honest, documentaries are still a source of discomfort to me - a sort of lifelong ambivalence which remains practically unchanged.To an extent, I got into making them by something of an accident. Most of my output in that field has been commissioned and made by necessity. But in this process of looking reality in the face and abiding to the interests of third parties, I have acquired discipline, greater creative flexibility and technical knowledge which have all been transferred to my more personal ventures into fictional realms. It was by an even bigger sort of accident that I began writing and editing Filmreel. I'm not a critic and will never be. I like what I like and what draws me to a particular film or filmmaker has nothing to do with what any critic may choose to say about them. Fortunately, Now Then has always encouraged my contributions to the magazine to take the perspective of someone who understands the nature of film from within. So here I am, having attended Sheffield Doc/Fest as a delegate for the second time and looking back at the whole thing via a short yet varied selection of films. My appreciation of the event and screenings I chose to attend has been filtered by, and can be better grasped through the sharing of, a previous experience. A few months ago, I was invited to deliver a presentation of my documentary work and share my experience with an audience in a Q&A session at the Platforma Festival in London. Two crucial realisations came out of it. The first, which came about through the general reaction a film by another participant received, was that the audience can be complete 'suckers for a trendy issue' and therefore disregard the actual quality of the work, so long as it offers them a platform to wave (for lack of a better term) their human rights badge. The second was prompted by a question a young filmmaker asked me and which I've been left thinking about since. It was in regards to a specific domestic scene in one of my documentaries which was observational in tone, but that he perceived as 'highly constructed'. Whilst a lot of the choices one makes on the spot when filming factual content are instinctive, this 'moral conundrum' lead me to re-assess my entire work to date and the very nature of the documentary format. A burst of arrogance could've made me dismiss it altogether, by asserting that what he called 'constructed' is merely my pronounced vision and aesthetics, but I found it healthier to let the question ferment unanswered in the back of my mind. It can be said that my first two film choices at Doc/Fest 2012 came charging to my aid. Planet of Snail. Planet of Snail, directed by the South Korean Seungjun Yi, is a remarkable achievement in every sense. Deceptively simple in its aesthetical approach, this film is also simultaneously refined in its frank depiction of physical disabilities. It is without a doubt one of the most immersive documentaries I've ever seen. I felt privileged to be introduced to Young-Chan, a deaf/blind writer and his wife Soon-Ho, whose spinal deformity makes her half his height. Although their life together is constantly informed by their disabilities, the film very successfully brings their spiritual depths to the surface. It does so by punctuating its narrative with extracts from Young-Chan's writings which, in turn, alternate with superbly shot moments of tactile intimacy. Another major strength of the film comes in the shape of the flawless sound design. This is what perhaps contributes most to making it an astonishing piece of filmmaking. The stylisation is never obtrusive. The construction - made of very real moments - always complements the human condition depicted and is full of compassion for this unselfconscious couple. The brief deconstruction of the film itself - through a moment in which Soon-Ho instructs Young-Chan to throw a pine cone at the director operating the camera - is sublime in its lightness of tone. Director Seungjun Yi was unassuming and humble in the Q&A that ensued. His answers were evidence of how good a filmmaker he is. When asked whether the two subjects of his film took part in the editing process, he said that there would be no place for them at that stage; that editing is the sole responsibility of the filmmakers and that mutual trust needs to be established to that effect. And when someone noted a variety of traditional South Korean themes in the film, Yi merely replied that he does what he does, not too concerned with his cultural context. The recognisable themes just flow naturally. Sector 0. Cultural context was all Sector 0 was about and its director didn't shy away from it in the Q&A that followed. Nadim Mishlawi came across extremely well in the substantiation of his bold and cerebral film. He too is a filmmaker intent on pushing the boundaries of the format by investing a lot into an elaborate sound design, and he definitely scored points with me when he said that he really didn't like documentaries that much. A very refreshing honesty. Hence Sector 0's treatment, which comes closer to a horror film as it unfolds to the viewer a historical, architectural and psychological contextualisation of the derelict neighbourhood of Karantina in Lebanon. Every sequence is carefully crafted to provide a sense of unease. The interviews are incisive and stylishly put together, but the almost purely visual sections interspersing them are at times long and laboured. It feels like the geography of the place has been sacrificed in favour of effect, and that is something a good filmmaker should never loose sight of. Scarlet Road. With this one, I knew it was either going to be wonderful or terrible. Unfortunately, it was the latter, as Australian director Catherine Scott completely missed the opportunity to make a solid, poignant film with its strong subject matter. Also addressing physical disabilities, Scarlet Road fails in everything that Planet of Snail succeeds. Despite shining a light on a widely ignored theme - the right to sexual fulfilment of disabled people - Scott loses sight of what could've made her film great by indulging her main contributor's vanity and allowing her film to become a blatant platform for activism. Again, the Q&A was instrumental in understanding how most of it went wrong. There, we learned that Rachel Wotton, the sex worker and protagonist of the film, was invited to contribute to the editing and given the right to veto shots, remarks and general content. That said, this may have sealed and condemn Scarlet Road to mediocrity, but it was not the worst thing about it. Its aesthetics wreaked of averageness and the preliminaries of Rachel's sexual encounters with the featured disabled men were cheesy in the choice of music and way too long. If you want a sequence to show restraint and end on suggestion, you have to be more economical than this. Chopin Saved My Life/The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. The question of economy was extended to the double screening I attended the following morning. What connected these two films was the Japanese tsunami and the scars it left on the lives of so many individuals. In Chopin Saved My Life, this came in the shape of 15 year old Momoka, whose connection with the composer's notorious 'Ballade Number One' deepens after the event. The film is profound and moving, but of all the contributors' stories, Momoka's is the best captured and most accomplished in its minimalist visuals. The director, James Kent, was given the opportunity to verbalise his passion and obsession with the piece as he stood in the Q&A - side-by-side with the commissioner who made his film possible. In terms of how the broadcast version differs from the festival one, he cheekily replied that the Channel 4 version is 'faster', whilst reassuring us that the nine-minute piece is still played in its entirety at the end. For me, this is where the only problem lies. With the risk of undermining the whole point of the film, I would say that, considering the dissection and repetition that the 'Ballade' undergoes, an invitation for the viewer to get acquainted and form their own personal connection with it would've been a far more interesting approach. In complete and utter contrast to this was the use of music in The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. The sparse and discreet tunes would fade in and recede in gentle waves, the opposite of the destructive waters which claimed so much and so many. One was hardly aware of the music, in fact, as the journalistic tone alternated with sheer visual poetry. The cherry blossom's endurance and precarious existence is beautifully and very effectively presented as a metaphor for the Japanese soul. Interim. Between screenings, I soaked up the atmosphere as much as I could. The general Doc/Fest buzz feels healthier than your average networking event. There's always a genuine passion for the form in the air, but breathing it for too long certainly brings up the avid desperation of the majority of the delegates. Most of them have invested time and money to be there, to attend as many sessions and screenings as they possibly can and to pitch their projects. Everybody wants something from somebody else. It was with a degree of irony that I decided, at times, to play the game in reverse and deliver gestures of altruistic kindness. The momentary puzzlement that I would receive in return was priceless. The highlights of those moments in between were: catching up with Jude Calvert-Toulmin (best-selling author and lead actress of Mercy, my last fiction film), and spending time with filmmakers Sean McAllister (director of The Reluctant Revolutionary) and Seungjun Yi (director of Planet of Snail), both of whom certainly appreciated being treated as people and not as 'an opportunity'. By approaching them with no ulterior motive, I received warmth and a greater depth of conversation. Straight 8. Heading away from the Showroom crowd and into a warehouse turned Monoplex, I found myself in the biggest waste of my time. This peripheral screening of the so-called 'selected best' of hundreds of submissions to the Straight 8 initiative was an excruciating affair. I had hopes that in a festival where digital technology proliferates, the incorporation of films shot with a single Super 8 cartridge would provide, at the very least, moments of candid nostalgia for a lost format. But Straight 8 only works in theory. In practice, the very nature of filmmaking ends up castrated when the films are taken away, processed and mixed without any further contribution on the part of the filmmakers. What some may call liberating, I see as a fundamental disempowerment. Still, within all this, there was no excuse for such a low level of quality. The films shown were poor, with uninteresting, morose voice-overs and aesthetics below film student standard. Upon writing this article, I browsed the initiative's previous online catalogue. Straight 8 may be a flawed concept, but it has delivered decent experiments in the past. I recommend you to check out last year's Rouge Amour by Kezia Barnett. Lullaby. Celluloid and experimentation with the film language was to continue the next morning. A Dziga Vertov Retrospective struck me as a pertinent touch of genius on the part of the Doc/Fest programmers and I selected Lullaby as the last screening to attend. My expectations were high. After all, this was the mind behind the superb Man with a Movie Camera. Vertov's ability to create subjective juxtapositions with political and everyday footage elevates him way above the definition of a documentarist, but his explorations and refined understanding of the very fabric of film are practically nowhere to be found in Lullaby. The film's promising premise - as a depiction of women and motherhood in the patriarchal Soviet Union of 1937 - very soon derailed into nauseating propaganda. The subsequent invitation from Professor Sylvia Harvey - to discuss what the Austrian Film Archive made possible for us to watch - certainly shone an interesting light on its historical context and subliminal messages. Lullaby may have been Vertov's 'ticket to freedom', as she put it, but I side with filmmaker and critic Mark Cousins, who had turned his back on the screening of his own fascinating 15-hour epic The Story of Film: An Odyssey to attend this, in voicing my utter disappointment. All in all, I enjoyed this latest Doc/Fest more than any previous ones. Despite my limited availability to watch and attend more, I can only praise the programmers and volunteers for running such a smooth operation. A final note on the quality of the multiple sessions available everyday. 'WorldView Presents' and 'Why Make a Hybrid Film?' had great contributions from filmmakers intent on pushing boundaries and improving the form. We are soon to see a lot more of that, at this creative tipping point. My personal contribution will take the shape of two docudramas - one of which, The Signal (about Ménière's Disease) is set for release later in the year. Teaser trailer to come soon... )
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