Thursday, 14 June 2012

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012: Day 1

Having grooved to DocFest’s unique vibe when we experienced it for the first time last year, the Wandercats were just scratching to get back to Sheffield to enjoy the magic all over again. It has only been on for a day, but already DocFest 2012 – tagline ‘The Truth is – In Here’ – seems set to be every bit as exciting, innovative and downright cool as its predecessor.

There were docs from the early morning, but we have never been morning cats, and so preferred to wait for the two big events of the day. The first, From the Sea to the Land Beyond, was something of a pre-official opening treat, and served to highlight the sort of media cross-pollination which DocFest seeks to foster. The film, directed by Penny Woolcock, brings together archive footage of the British coastline from the past 100 years, accompanied by a soundtrack from the group British Sea Power. The band was on hand to provide a live accompaniment for this special session, which took place in Sheffield Crucible theatre and was live-streamed.

The project involved the cooperation of The Space, “a new way to access and experience all of the arts – for free”, the BFI, the BBC and the DocFest team themselves (festival director Heather Croall was co-producer). It was remarkable to see the last 100 years of British history play out in such a fashion – the images were often startlingly beautiful, sometimes haunting, other times hilarious – I can’t imagine that Blackpool council will be too happy with the way their town is portrayed in the more recent footage! The music was similarly captivating. We had only heard one song by British Sea Power (their single ‘It Ended on an Oily Stage’ was featured on The Bands 05 II compilation) but their anthemic, touching score for this film showed that they have some serious talent.

Keeping on a musical theme, the proper official opening night film was Searching for Sugar Man. Before the film we had opening night speeches from festival chair, Alex Graham, and Heather Croall. The latter was thrilled to have Sugar Man as the opening film, and after seeing it we could understand why. Incredible in the truest sense of the word, the film tells the story of some South African journalists who decided to try and find out about one of their favourite singers, Rodriguez, who made two albums and then disappeared, apparently burning himself to death on stage after a failed concert. Or else shooting himself in the head. Or perhaps taking a drug overdose… Basically there were more rumours of his death than there are for Kel Mitchell from Kenan & Kel! Nowadays, with Wikipedia available to answer our every question, it is hard to imagine a time when musicians could be genuinely mythical beings, but Rodriguez (spoiler alert – he’s still alive!) has managed to maintain an air of mystery simply by retaining his normality. For years unaware that he had such popularity on the other side of the world – one of the Afrikaners describes him as “much bigger than the Rolling Stones” and it is noted that “Bob Dylan was mild compared to this guy”, but his records bombed in the States and he was dropped from his label – he remains seemingly unchanged by fame.

Rodriguez playing at after party

Rodriguez himself was present, along with the director Malik Bendjelloul, and thrilled the audience with his self-effacing manner and heartfelt appreciation for applause he received. The screening was followed by a party at which he sang a few songs and chatted to the slightly awestruck delegates. We predict that a lot of people will be doing a lot of music shopping in the coming weeks – us included! In the Q&A after the film, Bendjelloul was described as the luckiest documentary director in the world - tonight he must feel pretty close to it.

Malik Bendjelloul
Rodriguez sheltering from
Sheffield's finest weather

All in all this was a pretty marvellous start to what looks set to be another rollicking celebration of all that it brilliant about documentary. Be sure to tune in tomorrow for more of our adventures!

Images: MP/Fohnhouse


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