Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016 – Round Up: Part 1

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With over 160 films screening over six days in venues across the city, from reminiscing with groundbreaking documentaries from the past to international premieres of today, the Doc/Fest is always guaranteed to have a wealth of entertaining, insightful and bold voices to be heard. Here are just some of the films we have enjoyed at the festival so far.

Where To Invade Next

Doc/Fest has a history of opening the festival with a bang; 2011’s Searching For Sugarman, 2013’s The Summit and 2015 with Joshua Oppenheimer’s stunning The Look of Silence. This year’s chosen film comes from a director who is no stranger to courting noise and controversy: Michael Moore. In his latest outing Moore has taken it upon himself to look to a better solution to solving America’s problems than the war and violence of the past that has served with various degrees of success.

Moore travels to countries, the majority of which are European, to encounter first-hand ideas and ideals that he believes would change America and American lives for the better, plants his Moore-sized American flag at his feet and ‘invades’ to take home the knowledge of how to improve the quality of lives in his homeland.

From the outset, Moore is clear he is picking the ‘flowers’ of these countries and not the ‘weeds’ – acknowledging there are plenty of issues that surround many of these countries and Europe as a whole. He has spoken widely on such issues in interviews and during the festivals Q&As but it is not something included and reflected on in the film and it’s message of positivity and hope.

Putting aside the political issues that some may consider missing, the film is an optimistic field trip adventure in which Moore is in his element, meeting those from whom he can learn and better America and delighting in their often incredulous reaction to America’s lack of paid vacation, free education, women’s rights, sex education and their insistence on locking up their population for minor drug offences. He meets with Presidents, Ministers and Policemen, Business owners and those who enjoy the benefits of 8 weeks paid vacation, a prison system that treats it’s inmates as humans and debt-free college education. It’s an eye-opener into another way of doing things, but Moore is fully aware of the difficulties of having America accept such revelatory systems. A light-hearted prod at American politics with a serious warning on a country’s future alongside it.

Cameraperson

Shifting the focus from being behind the camera to being front and centre is not something cinematographer Kirsten Johnson ever planned for, building a career working on a parade of groundbreaking documentaries including Darfur Now, The Invisible War and Citizenfour.

Comprised of outtakes of her previous work, Johnson has compiled her memoir from specifically chosen clips from the thousands of hours of work she has shot over the years. She raises questions on ethics, motivation and boundaries, but never gives enough of herself to give the audience any clues as to why she has picked these clips and what they reveal about her as a person. The most humanising clips are those of her late mother, who Kirsten captures in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease through to the late stages of her life. These do reveal something of the women behind the camera, her influences and life experiences, but they are scarce in number and outweighed in emphasis by other work.

Recommended:  Hustlers Review

Kirsten Johnson is undoubtedly an extremely passionate and talented filmmaker; this catalogue of her work is a tribute to her dedication and intrepid attitude to her story and cause. It’s played well with audiences here at the festival, but it’s hard to imagine a local cinema filling seats for this due to the niche appeal of the subject matter.

Author: The JT LeRoy Story

In 2000, the publication of Sarah, a raw exploration of prostitution, gender, sexual violence and poverty was lauded by critics as a debut novel worth talking about. With the press eager to get their hands on the author and a film adaptation planned, no one could have foreseen the reveal that supposed author JT LeRoy was in fact an alternative persona invented by writer/musician Laura Albert.

An absolutely fascinating story, and one that has almost too many strands of fantasy to allow yourself to believe in its reality, deserved perhaps a more inventive storytelling method than a piece-to-camera interview with Albert, press videos from the time and recorded phone calls from those involved. Admittedly it is a downright delight to hear Courtney Love snort “a small line of coke” whilst on the phone to JT, but a simple linear telling of this incredible act of duplicity is to lessen it’s impact, rather than highlight it. Albert’s motives and behaviour, whilst gently probed, are never fully explained, and the mystery inside the mind of this magnificent fantasist is largely still intact as the credits roll.

Check back in the coming days for more of our Doc/Fest highlights, including a young man’s reconnection to the world through Disney movies in Life Animated and a portrait of the unstoppable force in sport that is Serena Williams.

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