October 16, 2019

Day 3 at the #sheffdocfest film festival: Interaction, Thalidomide and a good soaking

The Sheffield Doc/Fest is based on screenings and premieres of new documentaries, but that is not all that is going on. There are also seminars and talks on a variety of subjects. Well, I say variety – it is a film festival so there are no discussions of England's chances in the World Cup or lectures on Rembrandt. But there are many film based seminars, covering issues such as production, pitching, how to run an indie film company, how to go viral and much more. Rather than head to the Showroom cinema for a morning screening I went instead to the grander Sheffield City Hall for a 9.30am seminar entitled Shoot Yourself.

Unpleasant connotations aside it was an interesting discussion with four documentarians, focusing on going it alone and making films with a one man crew. ie – just you. Doug Block, director of 112 Weddings chaired, with Antoine de Maximy, Patricia Francisconi and Lou Petho giving their views of working on their own compared with with a small crew. Antoine always works alone and he demonstrated the homemade rig he has developed. This allows him to have both hands free whilst shooting with three cameras. One is on his shoulder, one on a boom out-in-front and the third around his neck, allowing him to grab it and shoot if necessary. He gave actual equipment advice – the cameras he uses are modified Sony HRR GW55s, and he also rates the Sony PJ780.

Patricia mentioned the lack of conflict when working on your own, but also pointed out the downside of not having a colleague with whom to exchange ideas. Lou works with and without a crew. DSLR cameras are great, he said, but having to record sound separately is a pain in the neck. Tips from top filmmakers in the field were practical and helpful for the many single-man crews in the audience.

Interactive documentaries are featured in the Crossover Interactive Exhibition at the Millennium Gallery. This type of documentary is still in its infancy. The first two I tried to watch mal-functioned in different ways. They are basically websites masquerading as films that let you skip between sections. Some work better than others. A Short History of the High Rise by Katerina Cizek uses the new medium well. Exploring the surprisingly long history of vertical living, the film runs as normal, but at any stage you can click and find out more details about a subject. The film then pauses and more information or images appear. You can also skip ahead or repeat a section.

Less appealing is Burn Out by Samuel Bollendorff and Olivia Colo. The subject is self-immolation – apparently since 2011 one person in France has self-immolated every two weeks. An unusual topic, but this project is let down by the medium. Where and when to click or drag is unclear and the effects of so doing are not obvious.

If you are at film festival and haven't seen a film all morning you start to get withdrawal symptoms. Out of sync with the screening schedule I headed to the Videotheque to watch a short or two before the 13:00 screening commenced.

Marina Abramovic's Dangerous Games is one of the shortest shorts in the festival. Its thumbnail is of 7 kids lying in a (very wide) bed, all pretending to be asleep whilst holding what look like but aren't machine guns on top of the covers. Guns sit amongst kids' drawings. For three minutes they fight with toy guns and play dead as red lasers move across them. Why? In over 20 countries children are direct participants in war. That bald fact is starker than the video, which makes the unintentional point that when children aren't child soldiers they still play with weapons. Real child-soldiers though are denied any childhood. The film is unengaging but does draw attention to an important subject.

Inside the Mind of Colin Furze shows some of the homemade inventions of one of Britain's inventors. A wall of death. A jet bike. Furze is the holder of a string of world records, including biggest bonfire, fastest pram, and longest motorbike. Oh, and fastest toilet. He gets meaning from world records. He makes the point that now he is relatively famous he gets offered help and equipment. What would be achievable, he muses, if everyone got that sort of help in the first place?

Director David Beazley has got the first rule of documentary making right – choose an interesting subject. Furze represents British eccentricity at its most building something potty in a shed. That's how we won the war, though let's hope we never have to discover whether what goes on in British sheds is still a match for evil governments.

Last Hijack is an interesting concept. Directed by Femke Wolting and Tommy Pallotta it uses segments of animation in amongst live footage to look at the issue of Somali pirates from the point of view of the pirates. The nature of the pirating business suggests most pirates won't be keen to appear on film and Wolting has said that it took a year and half to manage to find the subject. Any real pirate willing to be followed by a camera crew will be low on sense and keen on publicity. Mohammad fits both these descriptions. He claims to have led piracy operations that have netted well over $1 million. He boasts of spending $28,000 on a car, and wasting huge amounts of money on the drug khat. The film gives him a platform to project his view of himself as a hero. The animated sections were no doubt time consuming to create, but do not add enough to be worthwhile additions. We understand The crops failed and we moved to the city without having to see it happen.

After yesterday's One Rogue Reporter and the general disdain for journalism Attacking the Devil brings the positive story of Harold Evans and the campaign for victims of thalidomide. Jacqui and David Morris (siblings not husband and wife as David made clear) have made a film that is neither straight coverage of the thalidomide campaign nor a biography of Evans.

Evans was editor of the Sunday Times for fourteen years and remains a newspaper man held in high regard. Thalidomide is the drug given to pregnant women at the end of the fifties that gave rise to deformities in their children. The film starts with Evans' career beginnings and ends with his current position in New York. But it is more an attempt to place on record the story of the battle for compensation over thalidomide, whether that involves Evans or other campaigners.

There are moments that feel misplaced. Archive footage of somebody being hanged suddenly appears on screen to illustrate a voice over passage about war camps. One of the final interviewees talks of putting her arms round Evans in celebration – a strange choice of words to finish the film given the particular situation of the victims.

Interviewees comment on Evans' compassion and tenacity. Attacking the Devil looks back to a period when newspapers such as the Sunday Times were seen positively. They were able to afford large teams of investigative journalists and could affect events in Parliament and elsewhere. Laws were changed owing to Evans' campaign. A worthy document of appalling events and a man who made a real difference, though overlong in the cut shown in Sheffield and not certain of its focus.

18:00 and wild applause greets the director Amir Amiranii at the screening of his We Are Many. Clearly it was a good idea to make a film about 15.02.03, the date of Britain's biggest ever protest march. Over 1.5 million people took part in the Stop the War protest in London, with many millions more marching around the world. Not literally marching around the world, I mean marching in cities located around the world. One of the executive producers of the film was also present at the screening. Omid Djalili took the opportunity to plug his England World Cup single and demand applause when his name appeared on screen.

Taking eight years to make, what started as a film about that one day in February has become much bigger. The finished documentary covers the build up to war and its aftermath in detail. It also continues on, showing the links to the Arab Spring. Although the Stop the War protest failed, the film ends on a positive note. The recent decision by Parliament not to attack Syria is presented as a direct result of the disillusionment with the Iraq war. After the lies that took the US and UK into that war We Are Many sees Parliament's anti-war decision as a return to democracy.

Before then the Iraq war arguments are rehearsed and repeated. The dodgy dossier, the WMD, the 45 minutes to doom. Blair was asked for an interview, but he is too busy – doing his new job as Middle East envoy. An unlikely segment tells of Richard Branson's efforts to take Mandela to Iraq to speak to Saddam, and Amiranii has managed to get the first interviews with weapons inspector Hans Blix. He's also found footage of Donald Rumsfeld's current life. When Rumsfeld ventures outside he risks having women shout Here comes the war criminal. Less emotive commentators claim war crimes were committed. Chomsky mentions the attack on Fallujah as a particular example.

This film shows the anger in Britain, the USA and other countries over the lack of difference huge marches made to their governments' actions. With celebrity talking heads in amongst the footage it will be a popular record of the Stop the War movement.

Lots of Youtube clips and films have come out of the recent Arab rebellions. Degraded visuals are expected owing to the nature of the equipment and the circumstances. But for the visual quality not to matter the subject has to be interesting. Talal Derki's Return to Homs won the documentary award at Sundance, but it appears like the outtakes of another film. Filmed with fast pans and zooms it lacks structure and feels like someone has merely let a video camera run. The focus is ex-Syria youth footballer and revolutionary chanter Abdul Basset, but we learn little about him and less about anyone else. We see bodies and blood and young men cleaning guns and bashing holes in walls. They go to dark rooms to tell us what happened there and point out things we can't make out in the gloom. Women are not shown having any part to play except a mention of a mother washing dishes.

The attempted return to Homs doesn't begin until well over an hour into the film, when the aimlessness abates for a while. There is the usual violence, weapons and ruined cityscapes of these films, but little attempt is made to explain anything that happens – maybe because most of what happens is just young men talking amongst themselves. This is no more interesting because it is in Syria than it would be in Camberwell. The walk-outs started early.

The day ended with another party. This time it was a roller disco. Filmmakers sipped beer then hurtled anticlockwise around an arena. Expert locals weaved between the hesitant visitors. I had asked what I thought was a sensible question before venturing into the melée. How do you stop? It looks easy – just drag one skate sideways behind the other. There was an easier way though. Just keep going until you collide gently with a fence.

And so to bed. After a thorough soaking. The pavements in Sheffield seem designed to become rivers at the first sign of rain. As there was suddenly a lot of rain it was like walking through a stream – like an escaped prisoner trying to put the dogs off his scent. It worked, but it will be a while before I can think of Sheffield without shivering.