January 23, 2020

Day 4 at Sheffield DocFest: Germaine Greer, Project Syria and Twitter Tips #sheffdocfest

Day 4 at the 2014 Sheffield Doc/Fest film festival started with Brilliant Creatures: The Rebels of Oz in the large theatrical auditorium of the Crucible. The first in a two part Australian-British coproduction, it looks at the impact on London cultural life of four famous Australians: Robert Hughes, Clive James, Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. That Greer was in the audience suggested it was going to be a positive view, and so it proved.

Australia admirer Howard Jacobson has made an aren't they great film about his Australian friends. Afterwards Germaine Greer said he had been too generous and that it was an 'Australian thing to be opinionated and uninformed'. They were definitely opinionated, and bored with an Australia that wasn't reflected in the books and poetry they read.

As people are today, they were attracted to London, which had the literary and artistic fervour that they didn't find in their homeland. Much of the film is constructed of interviewees reminiscing about the Four's arrival in England and footage of Jacobson in Australia, unnecessarily walking around where they used to live. It seems they all got off the boat from Australia and fell in with a set that included Eric Idle, Simon Schama and other now-famous people, handy for making a documentary decades later. There is archive footage of the four heroes and interviews with the three still that are still alive – Hughes died in 2012. The film tries to paint Australia as the source of their iconoclasm and wit, as though there have never been iconoclasts and wits native to England. Four people came from Australia and were successful but the Australian rather than personal element of their success is over played.

Telling stories with Twitter and how to find important information amongst millons of tweets was the subject of Dan Biddle's lecture at the City Hall. Using the example of the Glasgow helicopter crash he showed how important Twitter has become for finding and disseminating stories.

One minute after that crash American social media journalist Micah Grimes had heard about the incident on Twitter and asked permission to use the first photo from the scene. So the story was broken on American network ABC. Biddle showed how Grimes had found the information using Tweetdeck and filters and recommended using a similar system. It works as follows.

People normally tweet obscenities when a disaster happens. So you could search twitter for swearing. The trouble is people use obscenities when there is no disaster, or when they have spilt ice cream on their new suit. This is where filters come in. Filtering out certain words helps, but the masterstroke is to filter out tweets that haven't been retweeted more than 15 times. This allows Tweetdeck to give an updating list that can draw attention to important things happening right now.

A lot of effort has gone into Project Syria, an interactive project located alone in a building near the Festival centre. A piece of immersive journalism by Nonny de la Pena, it tries to put you in the position of a Syrian experiencing a bomb attack. This is a one person at a time piece that lasts for three or four minutes. You are inserted into a virtual world – a Syrian city crossroads – via a large headpiece. An assistant screws this onto your head like a medieval torture device. It has a screen directly infront of your eyes and a Christmas tree of red lights sticking up above your head.

As you move around the twelve metre square space 22 cameras monitor your position and make sure the right images are displayed on the screen. This works well technically. There are no glitches and as you twist and turn the images of the buildings you see move just as they would if they were real. But the graphics are poor, the other characters walk artificially, and if you approach them they walk straight through you. It feels like a bad computer game.

The audio is taken from a real Syrian attack, but the standard of the graphics works against the immersive feel. There is no chance you will feel you are really there. The bomb attack is a shock, but no more than than an unexpected twist in a movie – or any sudden, loud explosion in your ears. The technology actually takes away from the message about Syrian children and the destruction of their country – after the experience this is obscured by talk of cameras and graphics. However, technologically even to get to this stage is very impressive. When the system used is as ubiquitous as TV the message will be more clearly seen, just as currently we no longer often think this technology is clever whilst watching a film. Project Syria is experimental and shows what will be possible at future DocFests.

The library theatre was the location for the screening of Regarding Susan Sontag. I found a comfy seat, but then remembered my phone battery was about to expire. This is a daily problem when you use your phone for writing, photos and maps rather than phone calls. I spotted an old brown socket at the side of the front row. It was the sort of electrical socket that might not work or might blow up my phone.

I went over and plugged the phone in. It would be a shame if it exploded and the screening had to be evacuated. Instead it started charging. I now had to watch the screen from an acute angle from the side, but I was in the front row.

I lent back and heard director Nancy Kates introduced her film with the words 'Are there are any queers in the audience apart from those on the front row?' Shades of Sal in yesterday's Dog day Afternoon.

Fourteen years after her death from cancer Susan Sontag is the subject of this new documentary. She was a prolific writer and there is much material for the filmmakers to work with, to show and use as voice overs. The film starts with footage of Sontag saying how much she enjoys being alive. She was curious about everything, and there's so much in the world to be curious about that death was always going to come too early for her.

She survived two other cancers in her life, had one son, one husband and several lesbian partners. Studying at Berkeley was her first discovery that there were other people who read the books she read, and that Proust was pronounced Proust. (That doesn't really work when written down). The film is built on archive footage, and interviews with friends and lovers who are still alive.

Sontag was a popular writer and developed a persona that was slightly affected, slightly camp and very successful. Except when it came to her novels. Gore Vidal was uncomplimentary about her fiction and although it won one prize, it never got the praise she craved. For her narrative fiction was most important and she claims she wouldn't mind if her early essays disappeared.

The film quotes some of the mentions of Sontag in popular culture, in eg. Gremlins 2, as her name became a shortcut to intellectualism. Sontag devotées will enjoy 98 minutes in Sontag's life. The lady next to me nodded off.

Charlie Lyne has managed to put together a full-length film with no original footage. Instead he has clipped hundreds of sections from other films and added a voice over. It should come with a spoiler warning for the tens of films it features, although they are all American teen high school movies, so you may either already know, or not care. Beyond Clueless gives the impression of starting life as a written thesis on the adolescent in American cinema, 1995-2005.

What made the screening interesting at Doc/fest was the live score. This is usually associated with silent films – and a piano, not a band. Indie strummers Summer Camp have created a score for the film and they stood with their equipment in front of the big screen wearing two tone baseball jackets. They played along gamely, singer Elizabeth Sankey sitting in the front row of the audience between songs. People who like teen films won't like the voice over, people who might find the analysis interesting will find the constant blood, horror, sex and youthful leariness too much. For this particular screening the sound of the film had had to be turned up to be heard over the live instruments. When Summer Camp weren't playing it was too loud. The band had to play like technicians, quietly waiting for their next bit – this was not a gig. Beyond Clueless is strange choice of subject for an interesting method. If you've got to write an essay on teen cinema get a ticket ASAP.

Final film of the day was a doc by Steve James about American film critic Roger Ebert. Life Itself sounds like perfect fare for a film festival yet of limited interest to British audiences. The film was originally to be a simple filmed version of Ebert's autobiography and if it had remained as that it might well have been of interest only to cineastes.

However when filming began Ebert had to be admitted to hospital. This was a man who already had cancer and couldn't eat or drink and spoke with a speech synthesiser. Now he was even iller. The film had to change direction and has gained more general interest.

Many sequences make difficult viewing as a dying man struggles with life. Eventually film criticism is left behind as James shows the effects on family and patient of terminal illness.

Before then we learn about Ebert's life, in the standard manner of photographs and reminiscences. Occasionally emails appear on the screen, showing Ebert's replies to some of James' written questions.

Although Ebert wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times much of his fame comes from the syndicated film show that he starred in with Gene Siskel. Their bickering programme-making and coin-toss decisions give the film much of its humour. In the end film criticism becomes only a back drop and human relationships become the subject of Life Itself.

And so ended day 4. There was another party starting up, this one with a Nordic theme. But by now I was getting tired. Sometimes it's better to retire gracefully. I went home to bed. Or rather to type.