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Resistance and liberation on camera at DocFest 2021

It’s a testament to Sheffield DocFest’s curators that so many of the documentaries shown this year turned the camera toward liberation, in all corners of the world, says Patrick Ball in his write-up of the festival.

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Summer of Soul (dir. Ahmir 'Questlove' Thompson, 2021)

When I went to see Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), the opening film of this year’s Sheffield DocFest, it was my first time in the cinema for 18 months. That was probably true for much of the rest of the audience too - a ‘full house’, we were informed, though we each sat, masked, within our own little exclusion zone of empty seats, with empty rows behind and ahead.

Not that I was in a cynical mood. It was good to be in the cinema again and Summer of Soul was a pointed statement of intent about the importance of communal culture. Directed by Roots frontman Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, the film covers the criminally little-known Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, using footage that was shot at the time but has never previously been released.

The documentary makes that fact unbelievable. Over the six weeks of the festival, a parade of the greatest Black musicians of all time – including Nina Simone, BB King, Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone and Mahalia Jackson – performed for thousands in Harlem’s Mount Morris Park.

Questlove splices some contextual archive footage into coverage of the festival, lightly giving a sense of the fevered heat of late 60s America, though he mostly lets the exuberance and power of the festival speak for itself. And it does speak: to those of us yearning for more collective art experiences after a year inside, but more importantly of the power and talent of Black America in 1969.

After that, returning home to watch most of DocFest on my laptop might’ve felt a bit deflating. Last year, of course, the whole festival was online. This year, triumphally, every film had an in-person screening but, with social distancing still in place and new variant uncertainty in the air, the entire programme was doubled on the DocPlayer platform, like a not-terrible version of Netflix. I immediately put everything on my watchlist.

First up was a trio of films from Philadelphia, centring around the Black collectivist MOVE organisation. MOVE is best-known for the aerial bombing of their home by the Philadelphia Police Department in 1985; the ensuing fire killed 11 MOVE members and destroyed 61 West Philadelphia homes.

But as MOVE: Confrontation in Philadelphia shows, this atrocity was the culmination of a years-long effort by racist city authorities to evict the organisation. An admirable bit of on-the-ground reporting, made in 1980 but available in the UK for the first time at DocFest, the film shows the events of the 1978 Powelton Village shootout that killed one police officer, with interviews from MOVE members, journalists and local residents.

Nine MOVE members were imprisoned for third-degree murder after the shootout. Now, 40-odd years later, those still living have been released. The beautiful, 15-minute I’m Free Now, You Are Free documents the experience of one, Debbie Africa, and that of her son, Mike Africa Junior, who was born in a jail cell and has never known his mother free. Much of the footage is shot on Super 8 film by the family themselves, giving the impression of a home video made decades late.

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The Inheritance (dir. Ephraim Asili, 2020)

Debbie and Mike Junior appear again in The Inheritance, a strange, semi-scripted account of the creation of a home run on communal principles in West Philly. Obviously referencing Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise – whose poster appears prominently in several shots – the film blends staged dramas of the difficulties of activist living with readings from Black revolutionary texts and short presentations by real Black revolutionaries, including MOVE members, all taking place within the commune. Like Summer of Soul – though in a very different way – the film envisions and enacts a form of liberated Black expression, with the camera both its occasion and its witness.

Ever since 1922’s Nanook of the North the question of what the camera captures and what it constructs has been a central one of documentary film. At this year’s DocFest, this division was illustrated most starkly in My Childhood, My Country: 20 Years in Afghanistan.

At the start of the film its protagonist, Mir, is a young boy, playing in the rubble of the recently destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan. By its end he is a twenty-something reporter in Kabul, whose coverage of its daily suicide bombings nearly gets him killed. He moves from being part of the film to shooting it himself, though not without the direct intervention of the filmmakers.

The festival’s longest film, and one of its best, was Minamata Mandala, the latest documentary by Kazuo Hara, creator of the notorious 1987 masterpiece The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On. This new film is sober, unflashy and six hours long. It’s a moving and enraging act of solidarity with its subjects, the sufferers of a severe neurological disorder caused by waste methylmercury dumping in Minamata, Japan.

Through its extended runtime the film constructs the mandala of its title, drawing together patients, doctors and lawyers into the seemingly endless struggle to gain recognition and justice. In some of the most amazing scenes of this year’s DocFest, the victims of government negligence and apathy are finally given the opportunity to confront their supposed representatives, who can only mutter half-baked apologies in response.

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The Monopoly of Violence (dir. David Dufresne, 2020)

One of the overriding themes of the festival programme was the brutality that governments can visit upon their people – or on other peoples – and what can be done to resist them. Alongside the MOVE films (and, more obliquely, Summer of Soul), another strong film on this theme was The Monopoly of Violence, which combined shocking footage of police repression of the Gilets Jaunes protests in France with the reflections of a diverse group of protestors, lawyers, sociologists, historians and even cops, whose bluster and wounded egos grow absurd as the film’s archive of brutality builds up.

Meanwhile, The Silence of the Mole, winner of the Tim Hetherington Award, told the story of the journalist Elias Barahona, who infiltrated the Guatemalan Ministry of the Interior during its US-backed “anti-communist” genocide in the late 70s.

While working as a press officer for the minister, Donaldo Álvarez Ruiz, Barahona leaked upcoming death squad targets to revolutionary organisations at massive personal risk. Thanks to deliberate government whitewashing, the film says, there is hardly any archive footage of those days. Instead, its story is told through the recollections of those revolutionaries still living, and through what brief testimony Barahona was able to give before he died.

Even 40 years late, films like The Silence of the Mole represent an often unprecedented opportunity for the victims and resisters of oppression to be, finally, no longer silent. This is true, too, of Nũhũ Yãg Mũ Yõg Hãm: This Land Is Our Land!, the deserved winner of DocFest’s International Competition, in which an indigenous community in Bahia, Brazil narrate and sing of the violence and dispossession visited upon them by white colonisers.

Giving a short tour of their ancestral places, and defiantly crossing over the new fences and wastes of the colonists, the film’s protagonists tell stories of their bond to the land, mixing legends and rituals with reports of recent racist attacks. In Nũhũ Yãg Mũ Yõg Hãm, the white colonists are only briefly encountered in person, yelling at the camera or disputing land access, but the traces of their violence lie everywhere, in the stories and in the land itself.

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All Light, Everywhere (dir. Theo Anthony, 2021)

It’s unusual, then, that in The First 54 Years: An Abbreviated Manual of Military Occupation all the speakers are the perpetrators of colonial violence. Israeli director Avi Mograbi presents this ‘manual’ as just that: a how-to guide of military repression, using the 54-year occupation of Gaza and the West Bank as a kind of case study.

His practical advice for oppressing populations is accompanied by interviews with former Israel Defense Forces soldiers, who discuss the everyday and the exceptional ways that they aided in the laceration of Palestine from 1967 until now. It’s an odd film but an effective one, seeking not just to inspire outrage or sympathy but to look, clear-eyed, at the mechanics of the world’s longest military occupation.

Another remarkably clear-eyed film is The Return: Life After ISIS (just aired on Sky Documentaries), which shows the post-war life of Shamima Begum and other Western ‘ISIS brides,’ now stripped of their citizenships and living in an internment camp run by the Syrian Kurdish militia.

Begum and her fellow prisoners have been through hell and the film follows their struggle to accept that it was a hell they chose, while their countries unequivocally, and illegally, reject them. As British politicians grandstand about her crimes, her real erstwhile enemies – the women of the Kurdish forces – are helping her to process her trauma through workshops and group therapy sessions. It’s an act of desperately moving feminist solidarity.

All these films seem implicated by All Light, Everywhere, the new documentary by Rat Film director Theo Anthony. Like Rat Film, it’s a Chris Marker-inspired bricolage of topics, but the focus has shifted now to the camera itself and its own connection to violence and control. Alongside footage of the Baltimore Police Department and of a new aerial surveillance system, Anthony tours the Arizona-based factory of Axon Enterprise, where the newest generation of body-worn police cameras are being manufactured right alongside one of Axon’s most popular products: the supposedly “less lethal” Taser electric shock weapon. In this and other ways, Anthony shows how cameras and looking have always been instruments of repression.

It’s a testament to DocFest’s curators that so many of the films shown this year instead turned the camera toward liberation, in all corners of the world. And it’s fitting, then, that it ended with Mark Cousins’ beautiful The Story of Looking. Here, the creator of two massive documentaries on cinema, The Story of Film and Women Make Film, modestly spends the day in bed reflecting on the role of looking in his life.

Cousins is about to have a cataract operation, the blurred organic lens of his left eye to be replaced by a clear plastic one. If Anthony asks us to consider all the ways that looking can entrap looked-at people, Cousins (and much of this year’s DocFest programme) gives us a sense that looking clearly can also open up the looker – if we’re willing to take the risk.

Filed under: #DocFest

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