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A Magazine for Sheffield

My pick of the fest.

With considerable regret, I was only able to attend a handful of screenings at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest. Nevertheless, I would like to praise its impressive balance of content, which felt more international than ever with a variety of very well laid-out categories. By default or personal inclination, my pick of the fest is: William S. Burroughs - A Man Within by Yony Leyser and the insight into Ingmar Bergman's cinematic world ...But Film is My Mistress by Stig Björkman. These are essentially two very different feature-length documentaries on two iconic figures whose groundbreaking explorations of the recesses of the human mind have been (and will continue to be) highly influential. As I stepped out into the cold, rainy night after the screening of William S. Burroughs - A Man Within, I soon realised that my sense of profound disappointment was not so much to do with any formal appreciation of the film. It was actually rooted in a statement I once read by American film director Todd Haynes, in which he said something along the lines of "as a homosexual filmmaker, I see it as my duty to always present a positive portrayal of homosexuality in my films". Surely, one could say that his very first feature, Poison (1991), contradicts that by having enough Jean Genet (and his more predatory/destructive side of homosexuality) squeezed into it, but Velvet Goldmine (1998) is a clear example of such a 'moral' stance getting in the way, turning his homage to the glam rock period into a gay love story and losing track of the ambivalence that pervaded it. The only source of redemption I can personally find is that between those two films, Haynes made one of the most remarkable works of cinematic precision - Safe (1995) with Julianne Moore - which simultaneously remains very queer at heart. Also, in my view, its factual, virtually incontestable quality and tone still puts most documentaries to shame. So the problem with Yony Leyser's film on Burroughs is precisely a certain tendency to overemphasise the homosexuality of his subject. He does so in a variety of ways, which seldom contribute to his initial intention to humanise the man. From his choice of contributors to his structuring of the historical facts, almost every step is jeopardised by this barely hidden agenda. His documentary somewhat fails as the well-rounded portrayal it aspires to be, but there are some effective moments that are touching in their honesty and intimacy. Patti Smith's confession of wanting to be Burroughs's companion for life comes to mind, along with the footage of him with Allen Ginsberg that is filled with wonderful tenderness. There isn't, unfortunately, a proper appreciation of Burroughs's output as a writer, neither of the way it was so intrinsically connected with his eventful life. The myth and historical circumstances surrounding it are given attention, but always from a mere worshipper's perspective. The author's dismissal of a lot of the ideas and movements which claimed him as a forefront figure tends to be suppressed or only mentioned in passing; after all, if that was to be given the appropriate relevance, the entire approach of the film would've had to be re-thought. I've always preferred Burroughs's personal elaboration on his sexual tendencies, when he says that since he considers women another species and therefore, not human, he would rather be with his own. This is something that has been neatly kept out of Leyser's film, since it would undermine what I fear is his only angle on the subject. What one documentary lacks in objectivity and impartiality, the other makes up with extra clarity of information and sobriety of form. Two years before his death in 2007, Ingmar Bergman donated a vast number of manuscripts and footage he had collected throughout his career to the Swedish Film Institute. Last year, Stig Björkman (film critic, filmmaker and a close friend of Bergman's) released the first film to incorporate some of that previously unseen footage. Images from The Playground (2009) was made out of Bergman's early amateur films, and now we have the privilege of watching his second incursion into that precious vault. ...But Film is My Mistress couldn't be more concise and honest. Its title refers to one of the great auteur's quotes - "Theatre is my life...but Film is my mistress" - and its contents comprise entirely of behind-the-scenes footage from eight of his unquestionable masterpieces. When asked why those eight and not any of the other (even more revered) Bergman films, Björkman was reassuringly matter-of-fact: most of them already had plenty of documentaries made about them. This refreshing nonchalance was taken even further when he told us that all the directors who contributed with commentaries (which included Martin Scorcese, Woody Allen and Lars Von Trier) were actually filmed, but that he felt their visual presence to be an intrusion and decided to retain nothing but their voices. This admirable approach shows an utter commitment to his subject and results in a far more economical film. The documentary opens with Bergman's muse, Liv Ullmann, introducing what is arguably the greatest and most important cinematic exercise ever made - Persona (1966) - and closes with the director's most poignant and final film - Saraband (2003). In between, there is incredibly insightful footage of Bergman at work on the often joyous set of six of his other films. Tying in with my earlier point, the highlight goes to a moment in which Bergman directs an actor playing a gay character in From the Life of The Marionettes (1980). Aware of his inability to understand the affectations of speech and behaviour which colour a vast crosssection of the homosexual community, the director dissected every minute aspect of the language in the monologue the actor was supposed to deliver and came up with something incomparably raw and true. Whilst always having the interests of the film in mind, the result of such laboured direction is also filled with warmth and compassion. In this sense, one last thought arises: if Bergman, myself or any other straight filmmaker was ever predetermined to only present favourable representations of heterosexuals in their films, Cinema would be a very dull medium. This reductive approach simply has no place in true explorations of human beings, who are always more elaborate than any label given or adopted. JOÃO PAULO SIMÕES IS A PORTUGUESE FILMMAKER LIVING AND WORKING INDEPENDENTLY IN SHEFFIELD. HIS WORKS INCLUDE ANTLERS OF REASON AND AN ARRAY OF MUSIC VIDEOS AND DOCUMENTARIE S. VISIT CAPTURAFILMES.BLOGSPOT.COM. )
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