We sent Louise on a no-expenses-paid, access-some-areas trip to Sheffield Doc/Fest. She watched A LOT of documentaries. By the end of it, every time she closed her eyes she saw a talking head earnestly recounting a key life moment set to rousing, emotionally manipulative music.
You know when Doc/Fest is on because Sheffield is full of people walking around with this bag,
cinema screens pop up all over the city,
and it rains.
Tha Knows queued up in the drizzle to collect our wristband. This would turn out to be something of a theme for the festival, which had a very British class system set up for us. While our “Doc/Lover” wristband gave us free entry to as many films as we wanted, we did have to queue up (in the drizzle) to request tickets in advance. People possessing full festival passes also had to queue, but they got to do so inside and without prior notice, and also got into all the talks and events to do lots of lovely networking. Those of us with lowly, scratchy wristbands were soon conditioned to cower and bow when we caught sight of an Orange Lanyard of Power.
Day 2, Film 1: The Happy Film
The Happy Film opens with a disclaimer: “This film will not make you happy”. This is probably correct. It will, however, make you laugh. Graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister decides to experiment upon himself to find out what will increase his happiness most: meditation, therapy or medication? Spoiler alert: it's none of the above. Sagmeister is a genial guinea pig / presenter, admirably willing to expose and explore his flaws. Unfortunately, among these is a heavily-accented, gravelly voice which renders several of his voiceovers and pieces to camera almost unintelligible. Interspersed throughout, his gorgeous designs and animations illustrate some rather trite truisms - but they're only truisms cos they're true innit? Lots to enjoy and think about, a very happy start.
Upon attempting to visit the temporary box office in order to queue in the drizzle to request the next lot of tickets, we found that it was in the process of being dismantled. Apparently the drizzle had been quite heavy overnight. The City Hall box office was handling matters instead, necessitating a damp dash through the city centre, dodging leaflets from army cadets, Brexiteers and a pentacostal church. Perfectly targeted marketing for gaggles of luvvies and hipsters. At the City Hall the queuing was at least under shelter, though the staff there appeared outraged at the idea that they should just give tickets away to people with a bit of fabric or an orange card on a pendant.
Day 2, Film 2: Reset
Our first foray into the festival’s “Get up & Dance” strand focuses on charismatic (and handsome) Benjamin Millepied, the new dance director at the Opéra de Paris. MILLEPIED! Like 1000 feet! Nominative determinism there. It was either dancing or building skyscrapers for him. Overall it follows a standard baseball movie arc, and is a bit too long. About 45 minutes in, the narrative breaks away from Millepied to “get to know” some of the dancers, but none of them are interesting enough to be worth spoiling the through-line. On its resumption the main narrative ‘discovers’ a tension between Millepied’s “c’est 2015!!” way of doing things and the stuffy old institution of the Opéra, which never really convinces. Of course the final ballet is a beautiful triumph, both on stage and on screen.
Queuing up for film 3, we saw Reggie Yates with our face and eyes. He does the voice of Rastamouse tha knows. We've also seen Rastamouse with our face and eyes. He sang a song about friendship. Reggie Yates sang no songs with simplistic pro-social messages on this occasion.
Day 2, Film 3: My Scientology Movie
Louis Theroux does his thing of choosing an ambiguous central contributor, in this case Scientology apostate Marty Rathbun, to whom he silently, politely hands enough rope. To this is added a number of reenactments, which are fascinating, but never produce that The Act of Killing-style emotional breakthrough.
Reggie was attending the screening of My Scientology Movie too but had left his ticket in the hotel. He got in though so maybe Bagga T went and fetched it for him. After the screening there was a Q&A with Louis Theroux which meant that, for a short amount of time, Tha Knows was in the same room as TWO people off the telly. Never let it be said this website doesn’t bring you top celebrity access.
Day 2, Film 4: Command and Control
The chilling story of a nuclear “near-miss”, and through it the reckless immorality of nuclear proliferation. It’s made for TV, and traditionally constructed with talking heads, reconstruction (in a museum-ified facility) and archive footage, but the blending and editing of these is particularly skilful and effective. It leaves you with the news that there are 7000 warheads still on US soil, slowly degrading…
Incidentally, Command and Control would be an excellent title for a film about Apple VS Microsoft.
Day 2, Film 5: Weiner
Director Josh Kriegman is a former staffer for ex-congressman Anthony Weiner, and so got to be an exceptionally omnipresent fly-on-the-wall during the latter’s scandal-hit run for New York mayor in 2013. Weiner himself is a great subject: charismatic (not handsome this time), witty, reflective about himself and his flaws, energised by the presence of the camera. The experience is something like watching an entire series of Veep back-to-back - except in Veep there aren’t real people being humiliated. Weiner’s wife, Huma Abedin, keeps appearing like Banquo’s ghost in the kitchen doorway. A stand-out.
It was at this point in the festival that our dreams began to be soundtracked by the banging Doc/Fest trailer which is played before every film.
Best unexpected whomps since Cult of Luna's Vicarious Redemption!
Day 3, Thing 1: The Rise and Fall of the High-rise
Possibly that should be films 1-6 instead, as this was actually a collection from the BFI archive, inspired by the Brutalist hulk of the Park Hill flats visible from the cinema door.
It kicked off with a couple of campaign videos from the 1930s, Kensington Calling and Housing Problems, aiming to raise funds to clear slums and build high-rise flats instead. They were innovative, and surprisingly polished.
New Towns for Old is another campaigning film, although weirdly produced by the Ministry of Information. Dating from 1942, and scripted by Dylan Thomas, it uses housing redevelopment in “Smokedale” (AKA Sheffield) as an encouraging example for other authorities. Despite this supposed good practice, huge factory chimneys still belch out black smoke at the end of every street.
Houses in the Town (1951) is another public information film geeking out about the urban spaces being showcased at the Festival of Britain.
Back in Sheffield for The Fortress, a famous BBC programme taking a look at the community forming in the then brand-new Park Hill estate. The be-beehive-ed young mums and the no-nonsense old mesters are all delighted with their electric hobs.
The weirdest snippet is saved for last: Not So Much a Facelift... is a 1976 public information film explaining housing policy through the medium of folk music as a pair of actors pretend to search for a family home.
Most of these snippets can be found on the BFI player - you can also search it by location and enjoy the thrill of seeing where you live, but in black and white and with everyone smoking.
Additional entertainment was laid on by a pair of fellows from the wrong side of the Pennines, arriving during Kensington Calling - which is silent - and providing their own fookin’ soundtrack as they tried to find some empty seats in the dark.
Day 3, Film 1: Life, Animated
Some time ago we read an excerpt from Ron Suskind’s book about his autistic son, Owen, and how they broke through some of his communication and social barriers using his passion for Disney movies. It was really powerful, so we were looking forward to seeing a film treatment of it and also getting an update on Owen’s post-school life. The film makes great use of (appropriately) animation to illustrate the back-story and Owen’s imagination and point of view. It uses careful filming techniques to allow him to respond naturally straight to camera, and his family are articulate and engaging. While Owen was absolutely charming, the film was - ironically or aptly - a bit too polished and sweet for our taste, and the complexities of the condition are certainly underplayed. Likely to be a “heartwarming” audience favourite however.
Day 3, Film 2: Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise
A very standard biographical documentary, with talking heads and archive footage telling of Dr Angelou’s life, loves and work in chronological order. It’s still captivating though - a life like hers could hardly fail to be. Praise the Lord for Maya Angelou, one of Her very finest creations. Emerging from this screening to learn that dozens of people had been murdered in a gay nightclub made her legacy of love, poetry and an angry, questioning species of tolerance seem more important.
KERCHING! That was the sound of breaking even on buying a wristband. All films from here on in are technically FREEEEEE!
Day 3, Film 3: MONSTER IN THE MIND: The Convenient UN-truth about Alzheimer’s
This is a personal-quest-type film by Jean Carper, a gutsy journalist from the old school, making her first feature in her 80s. She uses clips from classic horror and science fiction to provide metaphors for the dread that Alzheimer’s Disease inspires, as she researches its causes and possible cures and finds out how likely she is to suffer from it. This is pretty cute, and all very worthy, but fails to wind itself up with a satisfying call to arms. Also that title is terrible.
Day 3, Thing 2: A Night of Surveillance: The Supernerds Experience
A presentation about / very partial re-presentation of a successful theatre/live broadcast/online experience produced in Germany last year. This event was, shall we say, less successful. The bit where they hacked one audience member’s phone camera was entertainingly creepy; the showing of YouTube clips and demonstration of a couple of websites was not exactly gripping; but having a local lad stumblingly read out some whistleblowers’ statements was positively soporific. Then, to top it off, King of the Narcissists Julian Assange phoned us all and left us an ‘inspiring’ voicemail. At least everyone involved had the decency to look embarrassed.
David Attenborough was in town, but we took day 4 off to make cheese straws and hoover the rug.
Day 5, Film 1: Miso Hungry
Comedian/editor/director/fat Aussie Craig Anderson agrees to take on a reverse Supersize Me challenge, testing out the effect of a Japanese lifestyle on his moribund carcass. Bordering on uncomfortable exoticism, it also contains the shocking revelations that exercise is good for you, healthy food can be tasty, and a fat man’s trousers falling down is funny.
At this point we did our one and only bit of networking, talking to the director of a short film (that we hadn't seen) called First Cut. We persuaded him to buy a bottle of special edition Henderson’s Relish.
Day 5, Thing 1: Alternate Realities
The city centre galleries hosted temporary exhibitions on virtual reality and other interactive artworks to tie in with Doc/Fest. There are a couple of very moving “empathy experiments” which put you in the shoes of refugees and asylum-seekers. We got filmed by the British Council being tricked into believing a plastic mannequin hand was our real hand. MOAR FAME. We also had a go at driving a rover across Mars. We got it stuck on some steps. Do not send Tha Knows to Mars!
Day 5, Film 2: Kiki
Kiki ballroom - a dance style predominantly invented and performed by LGBTQ people of colour in New York - looks like voguing, minus the pauses in between, plus throwing yourself on the floor really hard. There are also optional carnivalesque costumes. The film gradually and skilfully pulls back from this exuberant display to reveal the surprisingly formal community organisation and activism that backs it up. It's interesting and inspiring and, 11 films in, refreshing to see something with an explicit social conscience.
Day 5, Film 3: Our Last Tango (Un Tango Más)
A highly enjoyable telling of the 60-year love/hate story of María Nieves Rego and Juan Carlos Copas, the most famous tango dancers in Argentina. It is illustrated / reconstructed through tangos which are thrillingly staged and beautifully shot and, instead of just talking heads, it makes interesting use of the dancers as interlocutors (at this point in the festival, Tha Knows will cry if it sees another talking head so this is much appreciated). Another favourite.
Day 5, Film 4: Serena
A pretty standard behind-the-scenes doco following Serena Williams’ attempt to win the calendar Grand Slam in 2015. It’s interesting though, and it seems almost worth becoming a top athlete for the amount of time you are allowed to spend napping and getting massaged. However, when Williams [spoilers!] chokes one match from the big finish, she goes into hiding from everyone, including the camera, so it feels very anti-climactic.
The Serena screening is half empty because all the lanyards are at the Awards Ceremony. The documentary film festival's Grand Jury prize, voted for by documentary filmmakers, goes to Cameraperson, a documentary film about documentary filmmakers.
Day 6, Film 1: Storyboard P: A Stranger in Sweden
The titular Mr P is a practitioner of a peculiar form of bodypopping which makes him look like he's floating just above the floor. He seems to be just pissing about, until you see some dance students try and fail to replicate it. The filmmakers have chosen to put serene piano over the more abrasive music he really dances to, giving the performance scenes a lovely, other-worldly quality. Unfortunately P is also a petulant man-child who drives away friends who want to help showcase his talent; and, by the end, the viewer.
Day 6, Thing 1: Bug special: David Bowie
Tha Knows went to a Bug show last year, and had a great time watching inventive and esoteric music videos, interspersed with Adam Buxton reading out YouTube comments in a silly voice. This year we booked a bit more hesitantly, slightly trepidatious that a Bowie special would be like being stuck next to a grieving nerd who insists on playing you dubstep remixes of outtakes from the Laughing Gnome sessions [ed: this sounds amazing]. Our worries were unfounded: Dr Buckles’ love for the man he calls Zavid did not prevent him from being irreverent and honest, and the soundtrack was enough to make the floor of the City Hall Ballroom flash like a funky 70s disco.
Louise Dore can be found on the internets here.
Check out the Doc/Fest website here. You can book for the 2017 festival from July 1st.
We got that photo of the bus in the rain from My Travels With a Bus Pass blog.
You can find Reggie Yates introducing a suite of new eBay features to create an even more personalised and inspiring shopping experience on the Branding section of his website here.
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