Reel Life: Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013

We look back at the runners and riders at the 20th Sheffield Doc/Fest

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 01 Jul 2013
  • Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013

Picture Sheffield. What images flood your cerebral cortex? Smelting pots of molten steel? Flat caps? Pigeon fanciers? These stereotypes, and others, make up the bulk of The Big Melt, a wittily edited archive hodgepodge celebrating Steel City, which acted as the opening film at the 20th Doc/Fest. What made this film by Martin Wallace worthy of being the festival opener wasn’t its images, although they’re often powerful and surreal. It was its quixotic and at times frenzied score, performed live and led by Jarvis Cocker, a Sheffield institution more enduring that any of the clichés that provided the backdrop.

Cocker was joined in the round of the Crucible Theatre by a formidable roll call of Sheffield music talent: Richard Hawley growled on guitar, members of Pulp, The Human League and The Verve followed Cocker’s eccentric conducting style (a karate kick appeared to be one of his cues) and the Sheffield Brass Band and Sheffield Youth Choir joined the ensemble for certain sections to add an epic quality to the soundscape, which whip-lashed from psychedelica to rave via traditional folk and big band. Always at the centre of it all was Cocker’s rakish figure as he spindled around his fellow artists while wailing into a voicebox. No wonder Wallace’s film felt humdrum.

At the end of the blistering performance Cocker said he wanted to recreate the steel-making process, to get us worked up, and for us to melt together into a tough, hard whole. It was a touching call for togetherness and social collectivism in a city that has suffered more than most from the UK abandoning the type of heavy industry captured in The Big Melt. While walking out of the Crucible Theatre, a delegate in a southern accent exclaimed to his companion: “That was just wonderful! They simply must take it to London.” I guess Cocker’s message was wasted on some.

Another rallying call was happening barely an hour later with Doc/Fest’s second opening night gala, the UK première of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s film tells the story of the Pussy Riot Three, the trio of women from the guerrilla punk-art collective who were jailed after five members stormed the altar of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in 2012 and performed one of their atonal ditties (sample lyrics: ‘Shit! Shit! It's god shit!’). Moving at a whip, A Punk Prayer is a slick overview of the band’s genesis (they formed the night Putin was re-elected), their kangaroo court trial, and the groundswell of support that has built up behind them. The film's strength is its access to the three young women – Nadia, Masha, and Katia – as they shoot the breeze in the dock. Despite the grave injustice of the sentencing (their 30 second 'fuck you' to Putin and God got them two years hard labour), the punk spirit of these three brave, funny and defiant women remains undiminished.

Such is the quality of films in Doc/Fest’s programme that perfectly fine documentaries that would sit nicely in other festivals rankle because of their lack of ambition. One such film was the pleasant, but ultimately limp, Moo Man. Shot fly-on-the-wall style, it follows dairy farmer Stephen Hook as he lovingly dotes over his herd, all of whom he can identify by name. It’s all coos and moos for 90 minutes until his favourite heifer, Ida, takes poorly. If you were to catch it on telly between an episode of Countryfile and River Cottage, you’d be more than happy, though.

There was another film in the programme concerned with the relationship between man and massive black and white mammals, and it did get the pulse racing. Blackfish, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, opens in 2010 and a horrific call to the authorities: a SeaWorld trainer has been killed and partly eaten by a killer whale named Tilikum, the star turn at the company’s Orlando attraction. We then flash back to 1983 and Tilikum’s capture as a calf off the coast of Iceland. The film is never less than gripping; whenever we see a trainer interact with Tilikum it induces the kind of mass intake of breath in the audience that you might get watching a horror movie. There is a problem with the film, though; it indulges in a tad too much pop-whale-psychology. Several former SeaWorld trainers suggest decades of captivity and bullying from the females in his paddock had turned Tilikum into some sort of orca Norman Bates. It’s at these moments you wish for a Werner Herzog-like figure to appear on the soundtrack to burst the anthropomorphic bubble by reminding us that nature is “chaos, hostility and murder.”

The finest new work at the festival was Lucy Walker’s deeply moving Crash Reel. This film has it all: sports rivalry, You’ve Been Framed-style carnage, heart-in-mouth sports footage, family drama, and, in Kevin Pearce, an inspiration. In 2010 Pearce was one of the finest snowboarders on the planet. And then, with the winter Olympics just a few weeks away, it ended. While practising a new trick, Pearce wiped out and ended up in a coma for six days. When he woke his vision was doubled, his speech slurred and his balance, poise, grace, athleticism – all the qualities that made him a great sportsman – were gone. What hadn't diminished, however, was his passion for the sport. The first half of the movie details Pearce’s charmed life up until his accident, the good times with his friends on the snowboarding circuit and the thrill of the sport captured through fish-eye lenses. The second half follows his recovery and shows Pearce’s determination to get back on the slopes – and, poignantly, the terror of the people closest to him that he might not be so lucky in his next spill. If this was a Hollywood movie Pearce would have overcome his adversity and lifted the gold. Real life, as it proves in Walker’s film, is far messier, far more humbling and far more heroic.

Doc/Fest isn’t all world and UK premières. Each year it makes space in its programme to celebrate the work of a pioneering documentarian. The mid-career, non-fiction detour made by Shohei Imamura, one of Japan’s (and the world’s) greatest filmmakers, proved to be this year’s Doc/Fest highlight. In the 60s Imamura gave us a handful of masterpieces (Pigs and Battleships, The Profound Desire of the Gods, The Pornographers) and in the 80s and 90s he gained international recognition and joined the exclusive double Palme d’Or club (winning for The Ballad of Narayama (1983) and The Eel (1997)). But in between he abandoned fiction films to make a clutch of deeply humane documentaries concerned with Japan’s post-World War II identity. Imamura’s approach is deceptively simple – he uses handheld cameras, non-synced sound and interviews, conducted by himself, that are so casual they feel like overheard conversations – but the resulting films are brilliantly nuanced. As with his feature films, Imamura is interested in the people on the margins of society – sex slaves (Karayuki-san, The Making of a Prostitute), war criminals and disenfranchised veterans (A Man Vanishes, the Search of the Unreturned Soldier series) – and he treats their stories with immense care and grace. Any young documentarians floating around Doc/Fest looking for inspiration would have done well to pay heed of Imamura’s example.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer is released 5 Jul

Moo Man is released 12 Jul

Blackfish is released 26 Jul