Doc/Fest 2017 Laura from Film Fringe reflects on the film programme at Doc/Fest 2017

Doc/Fest is an annual six-day festival of factual film-making and real life story telling - in fact the festival’s tag line this year was ‘What’s Your Story?

As a participant in the bursary scheme, I attended Sheffield Doc/Fest at the start of June and I’m delighted to have been asked to share my film watching experiences with Film Hub members once more.

After glancing through the online programme, I took the Doc/Fest challenge to watch as many films as possible between 9- 14 June. This meant that other passholder events like film-maker panels, pitching sessions, talks with celebs such as Ian Hislop or Lenny Henry and even drinks receptions were out. With a festival the size of Doc/Fest, even if like me, you just stick to the film programme, calculating the clashes on the Doc/Fest app can still throw you into despair over what you’re inevitably going to miss out on.

First up, I caught the Focus/India shorts which was a blast, with The Moderators being the most unsettling pick (against stiff competition from a film made within a Wall of Death). The film takes you behind the public facing social media walls of Facebook and online dating apps to meet the people whose job it is to censor an endless stream of images being posted by users. My favourite moment in the film was when the operator trainer explains to the new staff “that is a picture of Brad Pitt. This is not acceptable”.

Opening night

As I headed over to the City Hall afterwards for the opening night film Queerama (by Daisy Asquith) I felt a real buzz of excitement.

The Doc/Fest opening Gala is film watching with lashings of luxury. The oval hall is simply stunning and you know you’ll be watching in the company people who have come to Yorkshire from all around the world. The man in the seat next to me was over from New York on business, although he said he was ‘a country boy’ at heart, hailing originally from somewhere near Cincinnati. Before taking my seat, I had also been chatting to a filmmaker who had been living in South Wales where he was making a film about the Newport music scene.

Festival director Liz McIntyre welcomed us from the massive stage, which was set up with a magnificent grand piano ready for John Grant to play after the opening film. Queerama takes a headlong plunge into the BFI archive and resurfaces with an elegant and sometimes eccentric montage of gay, lesbian and queer moments, set to some of John Grant’s songs and cut with intertitles about the progress of legal reforms in the UK and how homosexuality was gradually decriminalised. This film shows very clearly that it has taken too long and caused a lot of unnecessary pain.

After the film Daisy Asquith took part in a Q&A with John Grant and then it was time for a party under the hall, with legendary electro glam DJ Jonny Slut on the decks.

A long view: looking back to 1967.

Queerama drew attention to the 50th anniversary this year of the Sexual Offences Act. Other events of 1967 had a certain resonance throughout this year’s Doc/Fest film programme too, with several film titles grouped under the sub-heading Doc/Retro. I caught up with two of these: Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London, a film I’ve been wanting to see for a while, and Silent Revolution / Black Liberation, both first released in 1967.

Tonight Let’s All Make Love in London is a formless, rambling foray into the club scene in London, or ‘The City Happening’ as the titles suggest, with contributions from Mick Jagger, Julie Christie and Michael Cain. Some unknown local women are very frank about how increasing sexual liberation has affected their own choices and there's a lovely bit with a young David Hockney moaning about the prices in London, saying that it isn’t such a ‘swinging place’ and seeming to be more interested in pictures of footballers on stamps. And then there’s an artist who paints psychedelic swirls on naked girls for a living...

Silent Revolution / Black Liberation is a very different film; radical and experimental in style and gripping throughout, this muscular documentary begins with footage of pro-Vietnam war marches, one memorable scene is of a dog wearing a 'BOMB HANOI' banner, walking obediently beside a patriotic marching band and girls twirling batons.

Soon though, we hear African American 60s civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and Eldridge Cleaver pointing out how many casualties of that war are in fact the expendable lives of young black men. James Baldwin wrote much of the narration.

The film was made in secret and with the direct participation of Malcolm X, but allegedly because of keen interest from the FBI it doesn't have any titles to identify the people who worked on it. The film has existed with these two indicative titles, having very few screenings at all after its initial festival circuit, where it won prizes in Venice, Paris and Chicago, until Elen Carysfort was tracked down by Doc/Fest's Sarah Dawson. She explained after the screening how she had worked on the film when she was just 14 and had been keeping the only copy in her own vault. Together she and Sarah had had the print examined and restored. This one is now also on my list for a future screening in Leeds!

New films

Just in case this this retro programming gave you the false sense that things must surely be better now, then Whose Streets? is a timely reminder of the urgency of the #BlackLivesMatter activist led campaign in Ferguson, Missouri. There were also bag searches and heightened security every time you passed in and out of venues this year due to the recent terrorist attacks in the UK.

The new online ticketing system, which loads tickets onto your pass worked well though, and the venues are all pretty close to the city centre, creating a living and very visual representation of the festival in the public realm, as delegates with passes and bags could be spotted everywhere. Free screens in public places showing shorts, trailers and clips are also a nice idea.

If you can’t get advance tickets for a screening at a film festival, then standby queueing is often your only chance to try and squeeze into a packed out event. I did my fair share of this throughout the time I was there and was only defeated in the standby queue once. The word about 69 Minutes of 89 days (this year’s Youth Jury award winning film) had clearly got around before its final screening and it had completely sold out, but I expect this also will ensure that there will be further chances to see it later in the year.

Other films I would like to see when they get picked up for distribution include Leonora Carrington - The Lost Surrealist, a doc from 2016 on an elusive British-Mexican artist, and City of Ghosts, which was the winner of this year’s Grand Jury Award, a USA-made doc about a Syrian rebel / citizen journalist group RBSS (Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently). 


I also heard good things about Bruk Out! which is about the women of Jamaican dancehall, and A River Below, winner of the Doc/Fest environmental award, which follows a campaign to save Brazil’s endangered pink river dolphin.

There's an interview with the film's director Mark Grieco here.

These dolphins are like unicorns, like a mystical thing you can’t even believe exists. There’s a pink dolphin in the amazon how much more bizarre can that world be..?

Talking of things as rare as unicorns, I completely loved the presentation by Girl Gang Sheffield of Geek Girls, a refreshing new film by young female filmmaker Gina Hara, in which she investigates a secretive community of girl gamers, cosplayers, lolitas and fanzine creators. These women are understandably cautious about being exposed, this is sadly due to the ridiculous levels of online abuse, rejection and misogyny that women experience when they make their online lives visible. The film deals with the problem in a very sensitive way, however, resisting the temptation to dwell only on this aspect and its female stars emerge victorious.

On the Sunday afternoon, after having to check out of my Air B&B with my bags, I decided to settle in at Curzon for a four hour Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip. This is now available to watch online and thankfully they have broken it up into chapters.

There were lots of other great new films at Doc/Fest, including Icarus, Risk and Whitney "Can I Be Me" which will all be coming to screens soon, and the festival closed with the upsetting new one hour documentary Jo Cox: Death of an MP which can be seen on the BBC iplayer now.

I also watched as many of the shorts packages as I could too, and soon I'll be catching up with the whole shorts programme online and will be putting together a selection of the best of this year's short docs from this and other film festivals around the world for a screening at the Leeds International Film Festival in November.

No two Doc/Fest experiences can ever be alike.

As well as the massive film programme that takes place in regular cinema screens around Sheffield, there are so many special live events, virtual reality installations and previews of media made for online and satellite broadcast platforms that it is impossible to sum it all up. I am still processing all that I saw this year, and I hope to go back again next year. I also think the black and orange zipped tote bag is the best free Doc / Fest bag to date.

Thanks to Film Hub North, who supported me to attend Sheffield Doc/Fest.