Much of Sheffield Doc/Fest’s objectives this year focused around increasing inclusiveness – attracting new audiences and ensuring that existing ones felt better represented. An announced intent towards “unlocking talent from widest geographical, social and BAME backgrounds” was delivered well in gender representation in the film programme, as “51% of the documentary programme credited a female primary producer and 46% had a female director”. From that number, three feature films and a host of shorter works directed by women that we saw whilst there. Films that may have fallen under the radar, but we thought were worth noting upon.
Gina Hara’s Geek Girls world premiered at the festival, a first documentary feature from the Canadian-Hungarian artist and filmmaker. To produce a portrait of nerd subcultures, Hara interviewed a number of female nerds, many of whom whose interest has become their profession, producing a cross-section of what it means to identify firstly as a nerd, but secondarily how that changes when you identify as female as well. Structuring the documentary as part profile piece and part travelogue, Hara moves between meeting these women – professional gamers, space scientists, community organisers and cosplayers – and positing her own essay on what being a nerd has meant to her and the increasing complexities present in this negotiation. Meeting these women, alongside the positive experiences they describe, something else connects them. All of the women profiled speak of the rising levels of abuse, intolerance and vitriol that has been directed in their direction as their visibility has increased, a source of upset for some and for others, something more intolerable. As she says in her introduction, “a few days after learning one word, geek, I had to learn another, cyberbully.”
Arriving at a relevant time, as the cycle of coverage of the topic of the endemic misogyny within these communities has reached a climatic point, and such issues are finally being started to be taken seriously, Hara’s documentary is able to takes a step back. Switching between direct input from the figureheads in the film (shot inventively as far as ‘talking heads’ style material goes) and her own spoken asides, laid over visual material that brings to life the colour, vitality and diversity of the various communities, she is able to provide insight into a variety of cultures, arriving from the perspective of an outsider but as someone with a tacit understanding of what these experiences mean to those she meets. Stitched scenarios link together fluidly, and whilst her approach is broad and some of the insight superficial, the unifying structure of the personal essay, her writing from one girl geek to another, brings the whole piece together. As Hara travels around the world, she connects with these women, who, whilst all different, have a kinship within a broader sense of subcultural belonging. Speaking to them about their work as well as the barriers they have faced, Hara validates their experiences whilst acknowledging the unified difficulties all women face within the more hostile quarters of this world. Geek Girls, whilst not tackling any major issues or disrupting the form in any great way, is engaging and convincing, serves it’s subjects with care and attention and carries a throughline, both personal and political, that elevates it beyond simple cultural portraiture.
Also finding levity within difficult circumstances, Kate Mclarnon and Sky Neal’s commendably uplifting Even When I Fall also had it’s first screening at the festival. Made in collaboration with the circus group it depicts, Mclarnon and Neal’s documentary poses a specific format for documentary, one where the aesthetic and narrative ambitions sit line in line with the film’s secondary purpose, to promote and represent the community it is engaged with and offer agency to the protagonists, involving them actively in the telling of their own stories. Lead by two teenagers, Sheetal and Saraswoti, both former victims of child trafficking, Nepal’s first and only circus, Circus Kathmandu, hopes to rehabilitate the reputation of the circus arts, deemed less a mode of expression in the region than a vehicle for traffickers. Though essentially a fairly standard story of how art can serve a therapeutic function, Even When I Fall is gentle with its themes, character focused, patient with its story, and not at all manipulative, a world away from many similarly issued focused documentaries. Mclarnon and Neal both have backgrounds in ethnographic filmmaking, and with this film they mix a conventional documentary structure, story led and divided into developing chapters, with more distanced observational material built around a participatory filmmaking practice. The strongest scenes in the film are those that see Sheetal and Saraswoti talking not to the camera, but to each other, sitting high atop a roof and working through their experiences and feelings together, a conversation facilitated by the filmmakers though the creation of a conversational space, but not lead by them.
Travelling through Nepal to showcase their circus – one that does not have a fixed location and does not involves many props or much in the way of staging, but instead is interactive and educational and can be unpacked for those it is presented to – Sheetal and Saraswoti’s focus is as much upon entertaining with performance as educating with discussion, reclaiming their status as artists and confronting the stigma that their work has in the country. Though the success of their project sees Circus Kathmandu, despite humble and local beginnings, end up performing in Glastonbury (some of the most touching material is here, as the band of performers meet other circus performers from around the world and come to understand quite what they’re capable of, and how great the value of their work can be), the final notes are some of the most sombre in the film. After the disastrous earthquakes that struck Nepal in 2015 devastated communities, took vast amounts of lives and disrupted homes and infrastructure, the Circus find themselves struggling – for funding, inspiration, an audience and a reason to continue. It is to the credit of Even When I Fall, as a film and wider impact project, that hope remains. As the performers in the circus use their platform to educate the audience about the reality of child trafficking, a problem which the documentary reveals has worsened since the earthquakes, the filmmakers behind the film use their position in a similar way. With a host of screenings planned within Nepal and India, and further plans to work with foundations, NGOs, campaigners and philanthropists for the film, hopefully the film, both document and tool, will in some small way, help Circus Kathmandu to find the means to carry on. Though steeped in continual trauma, Even When I Fall manages to retain a focus not just on suffering, but on recovery and growth.
Another highlight, Carol Salter’s Almost Heaven, operates on a similarly low key. Filmed in roaming, observant closeup, Salter’s film follows Ying Ling, a teenage girl in China studying to be a mortician, getting up close and personal as she trains in the art of preparing bodies for the after life, yet never feeling remotely invasive towards either the living or the dead. Mixing the mordant and the mundane, the film has a pleasing duality to it, switching between the surreal (dreamy interludes where the camera roams around the clinical, brightly lit underground spaces, focusing particularly on the strange image of bodies being mechanically elevated from the carpark through the ceiling into the mortuary, hence the title), and the more grounded and ordinary (the acts of cleaning, tidying, and general day to day care of the recently deceased). Alongside learning the work of a mortician, Ying Ling finds companionship with another teenager undertaking the training, and their relationship seems to grow strong fast, as the intensity of the work and the proximity of working on it together seems to draw them together. Whether it’s because she has something more vital to latch onto, it’s here where Salters’ portraiture is most compelling, focusing in on this fledgling romance and teasing out the small pleasures they find together amongst the tougher aspects of the work. Structuring the film precisely, despite the low-key approach there is a sense of development, micro-narratives growing out of the daily processes, and a broader sense of what meanings may emerge from engaging with this sort of work.
What emerges finally is not so much a portrait of a mortician, though the process and practise of preparing bodies and the various rituals involved in presenting them to the families of the bereaved does feature, but instead of the possible broad significance of this act. An opening title places proceedings within a socio-economic context, stating that this line of work is one of the few options available to teenagers in China, and that the country’s poorest young people will travel great distances away from their families to work in the trade, but beyond this little further information is disclosed. It seems self-explanatory, why else would someone so young enter such an unusual line of work, were it not essential to their livelihood? What is revealed however in the film that follows, is not so much the misery of the practice, though at times it certainly challenges the minds and stomaches of the young trainees, but instead of the value of working in such proximity to death. Dealing day in and day out with mortality reveals, in both the young and the old, a renewed appreciation for the sanctity of life and the fragility of death.
Some of the best films were to be found in the short and medium length programmes, durations that received increased focus at this year’s festival. Corrine Botz’ smart and slippery Bedside Manner explores the processes behind developing relationships between doctors and patients, how the knack for ensuring assurance and comfort referenced by the title can be taught. Featuring situations involving medical actors playing as patients in training exercises for student doctors, Botz’ slick film plays upon performance, probing into ideas surrounding empathy and authenticity, and exposing the slim line reality and artifice, never quite revealing which of what we see is constructed, or what is real, or even whether, in certain contexts there is a difference at all. Just because you feel it, doesn’t mean it was there.
Also looking at lines between the imaginary and the real, Jessica Bishopp’s Lifespan, made through C4 Random Acts’ First Acts scheme for new filmmakers, imagines a tomorrow where increasing life expectancy has created an ever-extended ageing population. Laying interviews with scientists, philosophers and ordinary people over dreamy, eye-catching scenes of various architectural spaces, Lifespan is a micro slice of speculative fiction that feels perfectly left of centre of reality, visibly situated in the now but verbally reaching towards possible futures.
Similarly grounded in the current day but forward looking, Alice Russell’s Agents of Change uses a model of the chrysalis as a metaphor for social change, presenting the energy present in nascent political movements as the cocoon from which genuine global improvement can emerge. Layering abstract urban imagery over a monologue from organiser Joshua Virasami, Russell offers a rare message of hope amongst current documents of the contemporary political reality, a sense that actions do matter, however abstract, and that time dedicated to this arena can have impact. When the poetic, understated Virasami states “sometimes you bomb a bank or kidnap a political autocrat, and sometimes you have a peaceful demonstration, but sometimes you party,” Russell’s cinematography shows all of these things at once. A group of young activists jubilantly bludgeon an effigy of Donald Trump, speakers blare out into the streets of London, and change seems possible.
Another political short, Kelly Gallagher’s experimental animation More Dangerous Than A Thousand Rioters investigates the life of revolutionary socialist Lucy Parsons. Using an unusual, vibrant collage style, Gallagher cuts and pastes layers of visual material to create an abstract visual scrapbook that bounces alongside the narrated through-line. Read in a child’s voice, this narration mixes in quotes from Parsons, and a creative history of her life and work, a dynamic mix of the incendiary and celebratory. That title, More Dangerous Than A Thousand Rioters, a quote from the Chicago police department used to describe Parsons, is used as a clarion call for future protestors, to be as bold and brave as Parsons and cause just as many problems for those in power.
Also slightly confrontational in tone, Faye Carr-Wilson’s micro-portrait of a disabled female drag artist, Venus. “I think of my drag as kind of a big fuck you to everyone” offers the protagonist as one of the reasons why she enjoys dressing up for an audience. Provocation is not her aim, nor that of the documentary. As detailed in the confessional, concise monologue, the act is largely about empowerment, the strength and vigour of the act of appearing on stage, of taking a new form and creating a character for performance. Short and simple, Carr-Wilson’s film has a familiar format, slow-motion visuals with spoken narration, but is not without power – effectively creating portraiture of a disabled character, without reverting to sympathy or condescension.
Most impressive perhaps, Laura Checkoway’s intense and moving Edith + Eddie. Starting as a humbling, gentle portrait of a couple who have found love in their mid 90s, the film abruptly switches turn after a narrative development leads events into a more troubling space. Checkoway captures the couple comfortably, immediately offering a sense of their closeness and achieving intimacy without feeling invasive, earning their trust in order to depict the horrors to follow. Despite the soft start, the film quickly provokes indignation, and a central scene – caught almost by accident with a contact mic left recording and presented in the film as a black screen, subtitled and impactful – is hugely angering because of what occurs. As a filmmaker, you have to deal with the reality that unfolds before you, and Checkoway’s film, exec-produced by Steve James and certainly worthy of the great documentarian’s attention, runs with the story it uncovers, gripping the viewer for the duration and building something genuinely beautiful out of tragedy.
This was originally posted on the Shooting People blog.