Saturday, June 08, 2013

Doc/Fest 2013 Coverage: Intro

This week is a most thrilling and exciting one in my little corner of the Internet. Not because of the impending release of Zak Snyder's Man of Steel, a film which I have very mixed and tentative feelings about. No, the reason I'm excited represents the exact opposite Snyder's opus, because right in the middle of a summer season awash with big, booming spectacle and fantasy, I'm going to spend five glorious days watching films dedicated to the real world, or something very much like it.

Yes, it's time for Sheffield's Doc/Fest, one of the biggest and brightest documentary festivals in the world, and I am delighted to say that I am going to be covering it, both on my lonesome and in partnership with my comrade-in-pod Joe Gastineau of The Wooden Kimono and Shot/Reverse Shot. Expect plenty of words, both written and spoken, to spill out onto this space over the next couple of days.

This is an especially exciting year for Doc/Fest, both in terms of the festival itself but also for me personally. This year is the 20th anniversary of the festival and as such the organisers have left no stone unturned or stop unpulled to ensure that this will be a true bonanza (in so much as a festival dedicated to documenting harsh, cruel reality can be described as a bonanza) and have lined up a great selection of fantastic films and events, some of which I'll discuss in more detail below.

I've attended the festival four times in the past, though this is my first time as a proper delegate covering the festival, as opposed to a chancer running around seeing whatever I can, and it's always huge fun, thanks largely to the work of all the organisers who choose great films and put on great events, as well as the volunteers and venue staff who work incredibly hard to make the whole shebang go off without too many problems. (And I should know since I was one of those poor, dedicated and over-caffeinated souls on more than one occasion.) With all the pomp and circumstance surrounding this year's festival, I'm sure that level of excitement will be magnified tenfold. Below you will find a list of the films and events which I'm most keenly excited about seeing.

On a personal note, I'm really looking forward to attending a film festival as a member of the press for the first time, but I'm mainly just thrilled to be returning to Sheffield, my home of some eight years which I left with a heavy heart when I emigrated to the US last September. It's a beautiful, vibrant city full of the very best people in the world, and I'm beside myself with anticipation about walking its streets (and climbing its hills) again, and seeing some dear, much missed friends.

Festival Preview


Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer
Disclaimer: All times and locations are correct at time of writing.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

Shown as one of the opening night films, this documentary about the work and arrest of members of the art-punk collective Pussy Riot promises to be an illuminating examination of the repressive forces at work in Russia, and will hopefully touch upon the outpourings of outrage that their incarceration has prompted from all over the world.

Screening on Wednesday 12 June, 20:30 and Saturday 15 June, 18:15 at the Showroom Cinema

The Best of BUG: The Evolution of Music Video

I love Adam Buxton, of Adam and Joe fame, and am deeply suspicious of anyone who doesn't. He's glee (of the non-singing, well, mostly non-singing, variety) personified, and his infectious love of all things audio and visual has been best replicated by his BUG shows; an intoxicating mixture of comedy, weird Internet videos and music which he has been performing at the BFI for several years now (and which recently made the leap to television with his Sky1 show of the same name). Presided over by the man/beard himself, it could prove to be the most purely entertaining part of the whole festival.

Screening on Thursday 13 June, 16:45 at The Crucible Theatre

A Man Vanishes

In addition to showing the best of new and contemporary documentaries, Doc/Fest also does a great job of bringing older films to the festival and introducing them to a whole new audience. This film by Japanese master Shôhei Imamura, one of several of his films screening at the festival, stands out as a particularly intriguing example: Imamura and his crew set out to investigate the disappearance of a young business man, in the process creating a film which plays with reality and fiction, truth and illusion and the very nature of documentaries.

Screening on Thursday 13 June, 09:45 at the Showroom Cinema

The Act of Killing

This film about the Sumatran genocide - a subject about which I know relatively little because, sadly, there are just too many genocides to keep track of - sounds like some harrowing, emotionally devastating stuff. This is not merely on account of the subject matter, which would be upsetting for anyone, but also because the film features interviews with some of the actual executioners involved, who talk candidly and at length about their actions. This should make for sobering and gripping stuff.

Screening on Thursday 13 June, 12:30 and Friday 14 June, 20:30 at the Showroom Cinema

Dirty Wars

The U.S. government's policy of waging distant, secret wars against the populaces of foreign countries has been coming in for a lot of scrutiny in recent months, much of it focused on the questionable legality of its drone program. Dirty Wars looks at a less publicised, though no less troubling, aspect of U.S. policy: the actions of the Joint Special Operations Command. Investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill and documentarian Richard Rowley detail one particular action undertaken by this organisation as they follow a raid on an Afghan family. Advance word on the film is that it is some incendiary work.

Screening on Thursday 13 June, 15:15 and Friday June 14, 18:30 at the Showroom Cinema

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse and Apocalypse Now

"My film is not about Vietnam, it is Vietnam" Francis Ford Coppola famously said of his hallucinatory war epic, Apocalypse Now, and in that context, George Hickenlooper and Fax Bahr's documentary about the production of the film is closer to a work of war reportage than it is a traditional making of. Detailing the excesses, disasters and madness that went in to creating Coppola's masterpiece in minute, compelling detail, it's both one of the best films about film-making ever made and a spellbinding examination of obsession. It's pretty much essential viewing on its own, but the opportunity to watch it along with the final product is simply too good to pass on.

Hearts of Darkness is screening on Thursday 13 June, 18:15 and Apocalypse Now is screening on the same day at 20:45. Both screenings will be at the Showroom Cinema

Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe and Burden of Dreams

On a similar note to the aforementioned double-bill, and in tribute to the late Les Blank, this pair of documentaries from that great film-maker chronicle specific points in the life of another legendary director, Werner Herzog. In the short Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, Herzog makes good on a bet with the equally brilliant documentarian Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War) that if the latter ever completed his first film, he would eat his shoe in public. True to form, Herzog prepared his leathery delight and ate it on stage in front of an audience, both to fulfil his obligation and to demonstrate his belief that people who aspire to be artists should have the guts to actually chase what they set out to achieve.  

Burden of Dreams, meanwhile, is a feature-length account of the harrowing and troubled production of Herzog's 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, in which the lead character - a rubber baron who tries to bring opera to the rainforest by dragging a boat over a hill - and his director seem to become one as Herzog's quixotic attempt to make the film is as beset by danger and feverish desire as Fitzcarraldo's quest. It's a mesmerising insight into the mind of a genius, as well as a brilliantly constructed farce.

Screening on Thursday 13 June, 22:00 at the Showroom Cinema

Michael Palin in Conversation with Miranda Sawyer

The Internet is a place characterised by sharp, arbitrary divisions and needless contrarianism, but one thing we can all agree on is that Michael Palin is the best person. Not only was he a key member of one of the most influential and hilarious comedy teams in history, not only is he a fine writer and actor in his own right, and not only is he one of the nicest men ever, but he's also been everywhere man, he's been everywhere. This is a rare opportunity to hear the great man talk about his extensive work making documentaries that have taken him to the very ends of the Earth and back again, which will no doubt be delivered in charming and self-deprecating style.

Takes place on Thursday 13 June, 19:00 at The Crucible Theatre

The Gatekeepers

This Oscar-nominated documentary was one of the most intriguing and acclaimed films of last year, and with good reason. Consisting of interviews with six former heads of the Shin Bet, Israel's General Security Service, it's an eye-opening and provocative examination of the violence that was perpetrated by the men involved and the guilt and doubt that has plagued them since leaving office. Both aspects are discussed candidly by the participants, and the film offers a unique insight into the way in which one of the most sustained and controversial campaigns of repression of the last several decades has been conducted.

Screening on Friday 14 June, 15:30 and Sunday 16 June, 10:15 at the Showroom Cinema

The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist + Q&A

Even forty years after it first vomited terror over audiences worldwide, William Friedkin's The Exorcist continues to hold a unique place in the history of horror cinema. When it was released in 1973, nothing had created the level of hysteria that surrounded it, and nothing has ever quite managed to match it since. Not only was it one of the most acclaimed horror films ever made, becoming the first to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, it was also a huge popular success, grossing the equivalent of over $700 million dollars in 1973 money, making it not just the most successful horror film - and by a huge margin - but one of the most successful ever. But why was it such a phenomenon? Back in 1998, Mark Kermode made The Fear of God to examine just what it was about this film that struck such a chord with '70s audiences, and he will be presenting the film along with a Q&A. Kermode's one of the foremost experts on the film, and the chance to hear from the great man himself should not be missed.

Screening on Friday 14 June, 18:00 at The Library Theatre
The Exorcist is also screening on Friday at 20:30 at The ODEON


As is the case at any festival, there is a tendency among attendees to try to pick out which of the films on display will go on to become critical or commercial successes once they are released out into the wider world. Films like Senna and Searching for Sugar Man played at Doc/Fest either before anyone had heard about them, or right as they were about to become cause celebres, and Blackfish looks like the frontrunner for the film most likely to follow in their steps and become a popular success. The film details the workings of SeaWorld, and how years of abusing the animals has directly led to the deaths of people working at the park. For anyone who has ever been worried about the animals who are forced to perform, this is sure to confirm your worst fears, but for anyone who has been delighted by their antics it will be pretty eye-opening.

Screening on Friday 14 June, 18:00 and Saturday 15 June, 19:00 at the Showroom Cinema

Which Way is the Front line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington + Q&A

Anyone who has seen Restrepo, the Oscar-nominated film directed by Sebastian Junger and the late Tim Hetherington will be able to attest that Hetherington was not a man who shied away from danger. Indeed, as the title of Junger's documentary about his collaborator and friend suggests, he actively ran towards it, and in his work as a photojournalist he captured the immediacy, fear and terror of war like few others. Ultimately his dedication to showing the true face of war led to his death in 2011 as he was covering the conflict in Libya, and anyone curious about the dedication and integrity of this great man should endeavour to check it out.

Screening on Saturday 15 June, 18:15 at The Library Theatre and Sunday 16 June, 15:15 at The ODEON

My Best Fiend and Aguirre, the Wrath of God

While being a fascinating subject for documentaries in his own right, as we have seen from the Les Blank films cited above, Werner Herzog is one of the world's best and most intriguing documentary filmmakers. His documentaries often cover similar subjects to his dramatic works - and in one instance he essentially remade his documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly as Rescue Dawn - so it's perhaps not surprising that one of his best is one in which he is both author and subject. My Best Fiend charts Herzog's artistically fruitful yet notoriously volatile friendship with the actor Klaus Kinski, with whom he would make five films that would see both actor and director do some of their very best work. At the same time, they would spend most of their time at odds with each other, to the extent that they came very close to killing each other on multiple occasions. It's a film every bit as strange and beguiling as the relationship that inspired it, and anyone interested in the weird alchemy at the heart of any collaboration should see it. And if you want to see what was so special about the Herzog-Kinski partnership, you owe it to yourself to watch their first and best film together, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which is screening right after My Best Fiend.

My Best Fiend screens on Sunday June 16, 18:15 and Aguirre, the Wrath of God screens at 20:45, both at the Showroom Cinema

That's it for my preview. Now, this is by no means a comprehensive list, just a selection of the films and events that I am personally looking forward to seeing, or which I think people should try to see if possible. One of the pleasures of Doc/Fest is stumbling across something great you haven't heard about before, so hopefully I'll be able to highlight some of those discoveries in my actual coverage.

You can find full coverage of the festival using the following links:

Day One
Day Two
Day Three
Day Four
Day Five