Sunday, 17 June 2012

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012: Day 4

After finishing last night with Chinese political activism, this morning the Wandercats woke up to the crisp chill of Iceland with Grandma Lo-Fi: The Basement Tapes of Sigríður Níelsdóttir. This hour-long film is a wonderfully left-field account of the late-in-life achievements of the titular Icelandic grandma, who is renowned in her home country for making her own music using sounds she creates and records herself. Michel Gondry is a clear influence on the stop-motion animation peppered throughout, but it’s also driven by Níelsdóttir’s own eye-catching collages. With the filmmakers happy to document rather than interrogate their subject, it’s perhaps a little slighter than some of the other docs we’ve seen, but Sigríður Níelsdóttir is an utterly charming and warm subject. The film was preceded by a three-minute short devoted to the Roland TR808, an overlooked drum machine. Short, loud and fun, it got a lot across in a short space of time.

Producer Louise Højgaard

From Basement Tapes to nostalgia for days gone by, next up was Photographic Memory from renowned filmmaker Ross McElwee (Sherman’s March). Driven to examine his own youth by the difficult adolescence of his son, McElwee ponders whether the age of mass communication has made the transition from teen to adult more difficult, or whether he was any less lost as a young American in Brittany, working for a photographer and enjoying a love affair with a local girl. He returns to France to track down his former employer and the mysterious girl of his past, despite not knowing their surnames or whether they’re alive or dead. It’s at its best during McElwee’s contemplation of his role as parent, but, despite his reputation as one of the pioneers of director-as-subject documentary filmmaking, the segments in France feel a little self-indulgent and meandering with no real purpose.

Better was We Went to War, director Michael Grigsby’s follow-up to I Was a Soldier, the film he made forty years ago about three Texan Vietnam vets. He returns to Texas to talk to the two surviving subjects, and the family of the third, in a beautifully crafted film which, unbelievably, was shot in just 11 days. At first the languid pace and focus on visual poetry threw us, as we had expected something more straightforward. In the following Q&A session, however, Grigsby justified his decision to film in this way, seeking to highlight the emotional isolation felt by the survivors. The downbeat truth of the film is best summed up by one of the vets: “war is hell, life’s a bitch, here we are – nobody said it was going to be easy”.

Producer Rebekah Tolley and director Michael Grigsby

Over at the Sheffield Crucible, Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw was in conversation with filmmaker Carol Morley. Morley and Bradshaw spoke at length on a variety of subjects, mostly based around her film Dreams of a Life. Morley spoke about what drew her to the project and how the story of Joyce Vincent’s disappearance is still fascinating and ultimately unsolvable. She talked about how the idea of a purely factual documentary didn’t appeal and how she felt answers can be rewarding but ultimately constricting. When asked about feeling responsible not only to her subject but to the interviewees, she answered that her previous documentary, The Alcohol Years, had helped her to understand the issue because it was about her, and the subjects were her friends who were all still angry with her. The director’s passion and nerve really came across in this honest and often hilarious conversation.

Back in the cinema, Jean-Philippe Tremblay’s Shadows of Liberty was a well made, if overly familiar, indictment of media monopoly of the news services. The presentation of the film was appealing, with fun animations and a score which lend a sense of impending doom to the proceedings. More interesting, though, were the events in the cinema after the lights went up: first we were asked to don red V For Vendetta masks for a photo in support of WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, interviewed in the documentary and currently facing extradition.

Then there was the extended Q&A, which led to some truly insightful discourse. Our favourite moment was an audience member challenging the film’s editor on his assertion that media agenda is purely profit based. It was refreshing to see filmmakers put on the spot in this way - what is a documentary festival for if not inspiring people to question, debate and understand?

Director Jean-Philippe Tremblay, composer Tandis Jenhudson and editor Gregers Sall

Next, despite not being familiar with the film’s subject, we were quickly enamoured with the moving and emotional (but never mawkish) Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet. A labour of love for its director, Jesse Vile, it shows the life of rock guitar icon Jason Becker. Having signed a studio contract before graduating high school, Becker quickly gained a reputation for incredible talent and technique before landing the gig as the new guitarist for David Lee Roth. However before the first album was finished, Jason was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. An eternal optimist, he was determined to keep living and not let this debilitating illness stop him from making music. Vile shows us Jason’s incredible warmth and good humour and the amazing commitment by his family and friends to give him the best possible care. What really shines through in the first half of the film is how much Jason appreciated and enjoyed being able to play music so well on such a big stage, and his good-heartedness and that of his family makes it incredibly moving. It’s also a very well-made film, with excellent use of music and still photography.

Editor Gideon Gold and director Jesse Vile

The final film of the night was The Albino Witchcraft Murders, a surprise screening which had only been finished hours before. From first time director Harry Freeland, it shows how albinos in Tanzania are being brutally maimed and murdered because witch doctors have claimed their skin will bring great fortune. It’s touching and at the same time alarming, showing both the plight the strength of Tanzanian albinos. The film’s main protagonist, activist Josephat, tours the villages where these murders have taken place, working desperately to make the villagers see him as a human being. We also meet Vedastus, a young boy who, after being driven out of his school, is denied entry into a special school for albinos due to overcrowding. We were shown a reduced 60 minute version created for broadcast on BBC Storyville, which does leave some questions unanswered. Nevertheless, it’s an undeniably powerful and affecting piece of work.

Storyville Executive Producer Kate Townsend and director Harry Freeland

Day 4 of DocFest ran the gamut from uncomfortable social truths to irrepressibly creative Icelandic grandmas, from personal triumph to national shame. The breadth of films on offer is truly remarkable, and we are very sad that tomorrow is the last day. We can’t wait to see what happens…

JH & MP 

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