Monday, 13 June 2011

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2011: The Final Day

Having missed the previous day due to a family event, this Wandercat struggled back through choc-a-block traffic (thanks, Grand Prix at Silverstone...hope the racing went well!) to enjoy the last day of this year’s Doc/Fest. While the heavens finally opened and it rained pretty much non-stop, our doc-loving spirits couldn’t be dampened.

Our day began in The Hubs, the erstwhile National Centre for Popular Music (the folly that was), currently the student union for Sheffield Hallam, with a masterclass by Nick Broomfield, the third big name of the festival after Morgan Spurlock and Albert Maysles. Actually more of an in-depth Q&A session punctuated with film clips, it made for a highly informative hour and a half. The famed director spoke of his love for ludicrous people and annoying Eugene Terre’Blanche, along with many other highlights from his spectacular career, all the while expressing his passion for filmmaking. The highlight was watching him giggle as they played the clip from his Heidi Fleiss film where he ends up in a slanging match with an American TV reporter – his brilliant put downs alone would have merited the huge round of applause he received at the end of the session! And was that festival phantom Louis Theroux we saw hiding in a hoodie? We’ll never know...

Nick Broomfield in conversation

For our first film of the day we went for the rather worthy sounding The Guantanamo Trap, which turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the festival. Far from being yet another dry, depressing indictment of America’s torture garden, it turned out to be a blackly funny movie which looked at both sides of the story. While it completely faced the grim truth of both the place and the war on terror (highlighted with some choice and at times stomach-churning footage), it also drew guffaws from the audience. It was difficult to explain quite why we found it so funny, as it was undoubtedly a discomforting film. Immediately after it finished we asked the director Thomas Wallner about this. “Well, I’m partly German and as you know we have a great sense of humour...” he deadpanned, setting us off laughing again, “This film was shown in Switzerland and Germany, nobody laughed - they thought it was a serious film – so I was really happy to get laughter here. I think you Brits have a much better sense of humour! It’s hard because you want to inject some levity into it...Images are more powerful than words, and once you have the image in your head it doesn’t really matter what you say”. He went on to say that he didn’t want to make just another Guantanamo film, and he certainly hasn’t! We recommend this film highly – and predict future parties where people dress up as the professionalism-obsessed Diane Beaver, a woman who sends herself up with no assistance from anyone else.    

Thomas Wallner

Next up we turned to Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times. Described in the festival catalogue as having something of a West Wing vibe, with professionals at the top of their game struggling to keep control of an important establishment, the film was certainly jam-packed with snappy dialogue and stressed out people in suits. However, while The West Wing’s biggest strength was its ensemble cast, here we have a clear main character in David Carr. A former coke addict turned top writer, he is bitchy, croaking, eloquent and brilliant, and the moments when he discusses his ‘textured life’ are among the film’s greatest.  Page One was particularly appropriate for this festival as it was not only documentary but also looked at the question of what digital media will do to traditional newspapers – much of the running time is concerned more with the issue of paper versus pixel than with the workings of the newspaper itself. You don’t notice, though - it’s all too engrossing.

We wanted to end on a nicely idiosyncratic note, so went for Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. Now before seeing this, we only knew them from their amazing 1991 hit single ‘Can I Kick It?’, and our ignorance seemed slightly justified when this tune was played over the opening credits. It quickly became apparent, however, that there is much more to ATCQ than that, and this well-made and surprisingly intimate doc shows them both at their best and worst. The ups and downs of the band’s fortunes make for compelling viewing, and the members make for delightful subjects. We left the cinema feeling genuinely enlightened about how the band formed and grew (and fell apart), and with a mental list of CDs to buy!

So, that’s it for this year’s Doc/Fest! We’ve seen laughter and tears and a 24 mile-long nylon fence; we’ve heard words of wisdom both from old masters and up-and-coming talent. We are certainly going to be back next year – if this year saw the festival reaching giddy new heights, we reckon next year’s is going to be stratospheric!


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