Joining the Docs: Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014

We report from the 21st Doc/Fest, where a film about a legendary Britpop band rubs shoulders with a rambunctious tale of two Aussie skate-boarding prodigies

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 16 Jun 2014

If you happened to be in Sheffield between 7 and 12 June, one thing is certain: you were aware that Doc/Fest, the UK’s largest celebration of documentary filmmaking, was in full swing. The city was an explosion of canary yellow and neon pink: the festival's retina-searing advertising festooned lamp posts, shop windows and cafe counters across the city centre; its delegates were easily picked out as they scurried from screening to screening clutching their Doc/Fest-branded satchels; a yellow American-style school bus stood sentinel outside Sheffield train station, ‘Welcome to Doc/Fest’ emblazoned across its side. The other major UK film festivals could do a lot worse than look to Doc/Fest as an example of how to make a festival feel central to its home city. 

The 21st edition kicked off with Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets, in which Florian Habicht documents the eponymous Sheffield band’s homecoming gig. In many ways it’s a perfect opener, given that it’s as much a love letter to the Steel City as it is to Jarvis Cocker and co, but the film itself is far from perfect. Rather than being a conventional concert movie, Habicht’s whimsical approach is to soak up the atmosphere in the days and hours leading up to the gig, giving as much time to Pulp fans he bumps into as he does to the band themselves. The problem is Habicht’s selection process: he seems more interested in finding kooky talking heads rather than interesting ones. Worse still, you get the feeling he’s laughing at these oddballs rather than with them. You can almost hear him sniggering in the background as he holds a shot of his bemused subject a few seconds too long after another quixotic statement. In the same way that Cocker’s eccentricity is ballasted by his more down-to-earth bandmates (the fiery Candida Doyle, the wry Mark Webber), Habicht’s film would have benefited from including fewer eccentrics and more – oh, what’s the phrase? – common people. 

The best films at Doc/Fest came from filmmakers who truly loved their subject. Take, for example, Life Itself. Directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters), it’s both an unflinching document of the last days of film critic Roger Ebert’s life, and a densely packed celebration of his career. The former is told through interviews with Ebert while in hospital. Unable to speak, his face ravaged by cancer, Ebert jokes around with James using a speaking computer. His good humour is exaggerated by a limp lower lip (his jaw bone was removed during a previous operation) that creates a wide smile which remains constant even when he’s in obvious pain – the cognitive dissonance is bracing. James intercepts these often hard-to-watch scenes with a fast-paced collage of archive clips (the pick of which show the sparring love-hate relationship between Ebert and his At the Movies co-host Gene Siskel), revealing stories from Ebert’s foul-mouthed Chicago newspaper buddies and the filmmakers he supported (including Errol Morris and Werner Herzog), and excerpts of Ebert's criticism, read by the man himself before he lost his voice. Refreshingly, this is no hagiography. The tapestry of a life James builds finds space for dissenting voices (critic Jonathan Rosenbaum pops up to lambast At the Movies’ shallow, consumer guide-style reviews) and we hear plenty of stories of Ebert’s pomposity (he loved bringing up his Pulitzer Prize to win arguments). The result is rich, moving and often hilarious.

Martin Scorsese is one of the talking heads who pops up in Life Itself, and he’s behind the camera in the festival’s other standout doc: The 50 Year Argument, his paean to the New York Review of Books. As we observe the venerable publication’s editor of five decades, Robert Silvers, quietly and meticulously poring over copy, we realise this fiercely intelligent octogenarian is in no rush to join the frenzy of internet-age journalism. The film is co-directed by David Tedeschi, Scorsese’s editor on his acclaimed bio-docs of George Harrison and Bob Dylan, and their gentle, measured pace mirrors the form of the institution they are espousing. Look out for a classic clash of egos between two of NYRB’s regular essayists – an elegant, acerbic Gore Vidal in one corner, and a wild-haired, apoplectic Norman Mailer in the other.

Another gem that benefits from a deep – but often sceptical – admiration of its subject is Charlie Lyne’s Beyond Clueless. Best known for his irreverent movie blog, Ultra Culture, Lyne’s film takes the form of textual analysis of the wide-ranging high-school movies that flooded the market on the coat-tails of Amy Heckerling's eponymous touchstone – but don’t let that put you off. Through witty editing, a hypnotic narration (by smoky-voiced cult teen star Fairuza Balk) and a hair-raising score (provided by Summer Camp), Lyne makes a compelling case that these candy-coloured teenage confections have dark, poisonous cores. These are films concerned with sexual repression and social conformity: some are insidious blueprints for how to become wholesome, all-American citizens; others rally against such conservatism. The films chosen for deeper analysis are pleasantly left-field, with forgotten oddities such as Ginger Snaps, Bubble Boy and Euro Trip rubbing shoulders with genre classics such as The Craft and Mean Girls – and I defy anyone not to seek out Idle Hand, a seemingly insane horror/comedy/masturbation analogy, after seeing it dissected here.

Other documentaries were interested in steelier subjects. Miners Shot Down investigates the deaths of 34 striking workers at a platinum mine in South Africa; Vessel follows the efforts of Women on Waves, an organisation that brings a floating abortion clinic to women in nations where a woman’s right to choose what’s best for her body is still outlawed; and A Dangerous Game, the follow-up to You’ve Been Trumped, sees Anthony Baxter return with a bigger budget (in the form of unnecessary graphics and helicopter shots) to Aberdeenshire, where Donald Trump’s nature-ravaging golf resort has been partially completed, and looks at other areas of the world where the rich fly to areas of natural beauty to build links and fairways at the expense of what’s good for the local environment and people. Each film is a fine example of activism filmmaking: the blunt power of their messages is undeniable. But all three are crying out for a more sophisticated form to lift them above mere agitprop.

These brute force docs are far more preferable, however, than a feather-light non-movie like 112 Weddings, in which filmmaker Doug Block visits some of the couples whose weddings he has immortalised over the past 20 years while moonlighting as a wedding videographer. For 92 minutes we hear the same inane observation: a marriage is hard work. Even at nine minutes the material would have seemed thin.

A far more compelling look at affairs of the heart was Alfred and Jakobine. It’s a deeply moving romantic tale of an introverted loner, Alfred, attempting to win back the love of his life, Jakobine, a freewheeling artist, decades after walking out on her and their young son. While Alfred doesn’t make for the most open protagonist, the vital, potty-mouthed Jakobine more than compensates. But directors Jonathan Howells and Tom Roberts' chief asset is the treasure trove of 16mm film and photographs the couple amassed during a round-the-world honeymoon they took in a battered old hackney cab, which are thrillingly edited together to evocatively recreate their whirlwind adventure.

Another doc that made great use of archive footage was All This Mayhem. The film, directed by Eddie Martin, is as rambunctious as its subjects, Ben and Tas Pappas, two skateboarding brothers who went from the skate parks of their Melbourne suburb to the competitive vert skating circuit with the likes of Tony Hawks, whom they rivalled for a time as the sport's top dogs. It’s a familiar rags-to-riches-to-drug-addiction-back-to-rags story, but it’s told with such verve, and the Pappas boys are such sparky screen presences, that you can’t help but be swept up in their exhilarating, and ultimately tragic, journeys. Tas made a live wire cameo in Sheffield after the film for a Q&A. One hopes he stuck around long enough for the Doc/Fest annual roller disco – not to show off his skills on wheels, but to recreate the hilarious scene in the film where he berates two rollerblading squares who dared to use his skate ramp.

Sheffield Doc/Fest ran 7-12 Jun

Pulp: A Film About Life, Death And Supermarkets and 112 Weddings are in cinemas now