Friday, 4 July 2014

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 Round-Up Part II

While Fohn was enjoying her, what had become, habitual lie-in, early bird Martin headed off to catch Les Plages d’Agnès (The Beaches of Agnes), the final film shown in the Agnès Varda retrospective. Delightful and moving as ever, we were only disappointed that Varda herself was not in attendance.
Tuesday’s morning proved to be a very French one as we moved from Les Plages d’Agnès to La Cour de Babel (School of Babel), Julie Bertuccelli’s year in the life of a class for young immigrants in Paris. While the setup (a year in the life of a small class with a dynamic teacher) invites comparisons with Nicolas Philibert’s Etre et Avoir, Bertuccelli manages to tap into a universality that makes even the most ordinary of moments potentially heartbreaking or breathtaking. A triumph!

On a high, we then settled in for An Honest Liar - a look at the life of magician-turned-debunker “The Amazing Randi”, who wowed audiences for decades with Houdini-style tricks, before making it his life’s mission to expose psychics, illusionist, magicians and any other tricksters using their powers for evil - or monetary gain. There’s enough here to engage you for 90 minutes, but in comparison to all the films we had seen at Doc/Fest up to that point, An Honest Liar came up a little short. We respect the fact that Randi is an “honest liar”, but a little more captivating “honest lying” and a little less Uri Geller and his well-documented spoon-bending ways would have been nice.
We ended the evening at Dogwoof’s “Guilty Pleasures” night - one of the many events staged by the festival organisers. We were out and about at a few of them, but this was, undoubtedly, the best of the bunch.
On our final day of the festival we caught up with Julie Bertuccelli to discuss School of Babel (our interview will appear here in the near future!), and we, obviously, watched a couple of films.

First up it was the BBC-produced The Girl Who Talked to Dolphins – an interesting doc which recalled 2011’s Project Nim. Unfortunately somewhat limited in scope - difficult to avoid in an hour-long made-for-TV doc - it is nevertheless a well put-together film looking at an extraordinary story. Extra points for Jeff Bridges’s contribution, and for the infectious enthusiasm of the commissioning editor.
Finally, it was all about The Dog. The story behind and beyond Dog Day Afternoon, this doc is barmy, baffling and often hilarious. Moments of acute pathos pepper this rich concoction, so unbelievable that it must be (mostly) true. Recounted by the man himself, the sort of force-of-nature character who keeps your eyes glued to the screen, even when you know that everything he says needs to be taken with a wheelbarrow of salt. The director and producer offered some wonderful anecdotes from their ten-year journey to bring this to the screen, and expressed their joy at finding such a subject, at being able to tell these stories. A fitting end to the festival, rounding off another excellent year of docs. We might have missed Scorsese, and the range of screenings organised out in Derbyshire, but we had an amazing time all the same!

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 Round-Up Part I

Another year, another Sheffield Doc/Fest, and we cats were back in town to chow down, party and, most importantly, watch a few good docs.

After a Pulp opening the night before, we opted for a lie-in the following day before rearing our ugly morning heads for our first doc of the festival, Going to the Dogs.

Directed by Penny Woolcock - with a little help from some familiar friends - Going to the Dogs explores the blood sport of dog fighting as well as a man’s relationship with his dog. Featuring ring leaders, historians, pheasant hunters and the filmmakers themselves, Dogs is a highly engaging, informative and often funny deconstruction of a world that we knew little about. It may not be everyone’s cup of the tea, but it made us sit up and think before passing judgement.

Life Itself came next (no rest for the felines) - Steve (Hoop Dreams) James's insightful, open and pleasingly non-hagiographic doc about the life and death of renowned film critic Roger Ebert. James's personal connection with Ebert (who was an early supporter of his work) makes for an engaging film, and the warts-and-all aspect builds a satisfyingly real picture of him. Two thumbs up! Fohn sat down for an interview with the director after the screening to discuss the making of the documentary.

Following 2012 festival-closer Bones Brigade, this year’s skating doc All This Mayhem painted an altogether darker picture of the sport. In this tale of Tas and Ben Pappas - self-confessed 'bogan' brothers from Melbourne who rose to become world champions - the glorious rise is depicted as being indivisible from the agonising fall. Tas and the director were present at the festival, and Martin spoke to them about bringing this dark, personal story to the screen.

We finished day one on a secret note, more on which anon. Suffice to say, we have a whole new iTunes shopping list!

Monday started with the aerial spectacle Born to Fly. Following Elizabeth Streb’s dance troupe from its work “lab” in New York to its Olympic show in London, Born to Fly made Fohn, for about 82 minutes, want to step away from the ol’ Fohnhouse and become one of Streb’s “action heroes”!

While Fohn was off enjoying the “pop action” in the above documentary, and catching the charming festival opener Happiness - about a little boy who’s sent to the local monastery - Martin was off interviewing Charlie Lyne, about his debut feature Beyond Clueless, after which, he headed back into the dark for Derby Crazy Love: a short but engaging introduction to the oestrogen-charged sport of roller derby. While not a work of great depth, directors Maya Gallus and Justine Pimlott offer up a thoughtful and enjoyable glimpse at a sport fast becoming part of the mainstream. Given some of the subjects' responses, it appears that this might well represent a fossilised glimpse at the unspoilt, sponsorship-free glory days of the sport.

Fohn's final solo outing of the days was to catch Dogwoof’s 112 Weddings, in which director Doug Black revisits couples from the 112 weddings he has shot over the years (because filmmaking doesn’t make us all millionaires!). Funny, poignant and a great idea, 112 Weddings was Fohn’s favourite film of the day. She thinks. It had generally been a great day for documentaries. 

Our last film of the day was The 50 Year Argument - an interesting retrospective on the last fifty years of the New York Review of Books, filled with informative interviews. A celebratory sift through a star-studded archive, but nothing groundbreaking. It could have done with the inclusion of an element of print versus online, such as enlivened Page One back in the day. At Saturday's premiere screening, Scorsese himself popped up via Skype, but we cats were either on a bus journeying up to doc mecca, or catching up on sleep. You snooze, you lose!

Stay tuned for part two.