Doc to Doc: Doc/Fest 2015 Festival Round-up

Joining the docs at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest, from a haunting movie about mass murder in 60s Indonesia to girl gearheads from Palestine

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 18 Jun 2015

Documentaries come in many shapes and sizes, their genres as plentiful and varied as those of their fiction film cousins. And Doc/Fest, the UK’s premiere celebration of nonfiction cinema, offers an opportunity to take the pulse of the current state of documentary filmmaking in all its myriad forms. From what we caught at this year’s festival, the diagnosis is mixed.

First, the great. Opening gala The Look of Silence, which is currently on general release and haunting UK audiences, sees Texas-born filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer returning to Indonesia to unpick the festering wound that is the country’s mass anti-communist killing spree of the 1960s, that saw over half a million (some estimates put the death toll as high as two million) innocent people murdered. In The Act of Killing, which won Doc/Fest’s audience award in 2013, Oppenheimer stared directly into the heart of the nation’s darkness, inviting members of the 60s killing squads to recall and reenact their exploits, which they duly did with boastful glee, and without shame or fear of retribution. “It was as though I was in Nazi Germany 40 years after the holocaust with the Nazis still in power,” said Oppenheimer of his experience filming the (now geriatric) killers.

With this follow-up, The Look of Silence, he gives the families of those murdered a voice. His conduit is Adi Rukun, a fresh-faced 44-year-old, whose older brother was brutally hacked down during the rampage. He’s a calm but relentless interrogator. With unwavering composure, he cross-examines his brother’s murderers, and ekes out the guilt that’s hidden behind decades of bragging and denial. Adi’s access to the killers comes through his day job: he’s his rural town’s optometrist. As he meticulously tests their eyesight with his kit of lenses (“Now look into the distance. Is it sharper?”), so too does he bring their past atrocities into focus.

The earlier film was jaw-dropping in its audacity (Oppenheimer accurately describes it as a “flamboyant fever dream of a film about escapism and guilt”). This new work’s power comes from its moments of calm: Adi alone watching footage from The Act of Killing, or steeling himself before asking one of the blasé killers another question. You don’t have to act furiously to show your anger, and dignified silence can be just as powerful and harrowing as a scream.

Not all films at Doc/Fest are as nuanced. Take Jessica Edwards’s Mavis, a celebration of Mavis Staples, the mightiest pair of lungs in family R&B group The Staple Singers. Even at 75 years old, she is a force of nature. She walks uneasily with a cane, but onstage she’s a dynamo. In the film she tells us with pride that when people first heard the Staples’ songs on the radio they would think the nine-year-old Mavis’ parts must have been sung “by a man, or a big fat woman”. And that voice has got more bassy and brilliant with age.

Unfortunately, though, Edwards doesn’t trust us to recognise the talent of her subject with our own eyes and ears. She ropes in talking head after talking head to ramp up the legend. “They were as important as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones,” says one contributor of The Staple Singers. “Aretha Franklin had nothing on Mavis,” says another. Let’s tone down the hyperbole, guys. Mavis herself isn’t one for blowing her life story out of proportion. When asked about her fling with a pre-superstar Bob Dylan she says coyly, “We may have smooched.” If only her director was similarly restrained.

At least Mavis’s life is worthy of a 90 minute doc. Of other subjects at Doc/Fest, however, we’re not so sure. Deep Web looks promising on paper. It centers on the trial and incarceration of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged creator of the Silk Road, a black market website operated in the non-indexed depths of the internet, known as the eponymous deep web. Instead of getting to the heart of Ulbricht’s incarceration, director Alex Winter (best known for playing Bill S. Preston, Esq in the Bill & Ted movies) gets bogged down in the minutiae and nomenclature of the cyberpunk libertarians who populate the deep web.

The information dump we receive is unremittingly boring, primarily due to its monotone delivery via voiceover from Winter’s Wyld Stallyns bud Keanu Reeves. Winter’s chief problem is that he hasn’t figured a way of presenting his film in a cinematic fashion. Never-ending montages of blog post headlines and talking heads just don’t cut it. It might as well be on the radio.

The directors of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and The Best of Enemies are luckier in that they have a rich well of archive material to call upon. The former is a detailed and straightforward history of the Black Panther movement, from its early activism (armed patrols to protect against police brutality, a free breakfast programme for underprivileged kids) to the ego trips and criminality that fractured the party.

The film is at its best when it conjures the feelings of excitement young black men and women felt at seeing a bunch of badass black kids stand up to the oppression of their culture. “They just looked so cool,” says one of the parties early members. They certainly did.

The Black Panthers were all about action; the subjects of The Best of Enemies – Gore Vidal and William Buckley – are the great talkers of the same period. Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon's ace doc is structured like a boxing movie, and pitches these two intellectual heavyweights agains each other. In the Left’s corner is the wily Vidal, while the puce-faced Buckley is the Right’s more volatile champion. Both come out swinging in ten TV debates in 1968 that help lay the seeds for the didactic nature of today’s political punditry.

The discussion between the two is delightfully urbane and catty: "he's always to the right and always in the wrong," is a typical Vidal zinger. By debate nine, however, things get dirty. Vidal lands the first low-blow, calling war hero Buckley a “crypto-Nazi”. His grinning opponent turns apoplectic: “Now listen, you queer,” Buckley barks. “Stop calling me a Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face, and you’ll stay plastered.” No, we don’t know what he means by the last part either, but it made great television. (“The network shat,” says one onscreen interviewee.) In Neville and Gordon’s hands, it makes for a great movie too.

There’s an even fiercer rivalry at the heart of Speed Sisters, Doc/Fest’s other standout movie. Amber Fares’s film follows five Palestinian women as they vie to be crowned the fastest broad on the West Bank. By either luck or design, each girl has a very distinct style and attitude, as if they’ve been cooked up by Simon Cowell to be the region's answer to the Spice Girls. The main battle is between the two fastest racers: bombshell Betty, who’s rich and has become the face of women’s racing in Palestine thanks to her shameless self promotion, and spiky tomboy Marah, who lives in a refugee getto and whose father has to choose between buying the apple of his eye a new racing car or their family a new home (he goes for the car).

What makes Speed Sisters such a joy is that it’s that rare beast, a documentary set in the Middle East that’s both political and playful. The film's social commentary unspools quietly in the background while the girls focus on the drama on the track. The tear gas in the streets, the detention centers, the border crossings and the lack of any space for them to drive have become daily concerns, so commonplace that they’ve become humdrum. The situation in Palestine still has the power to shock them, however.

When the girls venture on to a strip of waste ground too close to the Israeli boarder, an Israeli soldier shoots Betty in the back with rubber bullets without any warning. It’s the one moment in the film that the practically perfect in every way Betty looses her composure. “Did you think because you’re blonde and pretty they wouldn't shoot at you?” asks Maysoon, the most switched-on of the quintet. The film may be light but it’s never lightweight.

Sheffield Doc/Fest ran 5-10 Jun