Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Doc/Fest 2013 Coverage: Day One

Welcome to A Mighty Fine Blog's coverage of this year's Doc/Fest, coming to you live from in and around and up and down Sheffield's fabled streets and hills. I'll be updating the blog constantly over the next few days with brief capsule reviews of everything I see, assorted musings on the festival itself, and, depending on how sleep-deprived I become as the week goes on, surrealistic vignettes about pasties. I'll also probably do a final post on Monday with my final thoughts on the highs, the lows and the rich, creamy middles.

As an experiment in both the immediacy of New Media and as a way of maintaining a balance between writing and late-night cavorting, this first day's coverage will take the form of a live-blog which I will update throughout the day. If this proves to be a catastrophic failure, I'll switch to writing end-of-day wrap-ups. For now, though, this post will be updated every few hours with my comings, goings and viewings.

The first day at Doc/Fest tends to be fairly quiet as delegates arrive, gather their credentials, and prepare for the opening night events, which this year include a gala screening of Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a special screening of The Summit which is being conducted inside a cave, and a presentation of The Big Melt, a film about the history of Sheffield steel. I've plumped to see the last of these since I love steel - and who doesn't!? - but also because it is being live-scored by Jarvis Cocker and a veritable horde of Sheffield musical luminaries. It should be pretty spectacular.

9.79* (Dir: Daniel Gordon)

First film of the festival for me was a pretty great one. This account of the build-up to the Men's 100m at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, known as the "dirtiest" race in Olympic history, was created as part of ESPN's 30 For 30 series and it was a typically engrossing entry. Detailing the careers of the key figures like Carl Lewis, Linford Christie and Ben Johnson, it depicts the personal journeys many of the men went on and why some, like Johnson, turned to steroids as a means of enhancing their performance. It also offers a brief insight into the institutionalised culture of fear and denial that allowed drug abuse to occur on a huge scale. Gripping and methodical filmmaking.

The Moo Man (dir. Andy Heathcoate and Helke Bacheller)

Gentle, pastoral film following the life of Stephen Hook, a quiet, unassuming man who runs a family milk farm. Not very big on incident, it recalls the observational aspect of Fred Wiseman's work but without any sense of narrative drive, which makes it feel slow and overly long. It's by no means a bad film - it's charming and does a good job putting across a melancholy tone and showing the difficulties of running a small farm in a dying industry - but it is very slight. Plenty of hot udder action to enjoy, though.

The Big Melt (dir. Martin Wallace)

Commissioned by the BBC to commemorate 100 years of steel, the Storyville film The Big Melt would be pretty remarkable for the great selection of archive footage of steelwork assembled and edited together by Martin Wallace.

What set this special screening apart was the score, which was conducted by Jarvis Cocker and performed by a group of musicians which included Richard Hawley, members of Pulp, a brass band and a children's choir. Musically, it ran the gamut from atonal noise rock to pop to dance, always centred around Cocker, who was magnetic as always and proved to be a great performer even when you can only see the back of his head.

It was a pretty delightful film - made even more so by the inclusion of an odd cartoon about what the world would be like without steel, which was oddly reminiscent of the Zinc film from The Simpsons. A stellar opening event.

Valentine Road (dir. Marta Cunningham)

Prior to the screening, Marta Cunningham gave a very brief introduction saying that she did not want to say much about the film since it would be best experienced with as clean a slate as possible. Having seen the film, I think that is absolutely the best way to approach it, so I'll not go into any detail about the story. I will say, though, that it is an incredibly moving examination of a terrible crime which maintains an even-handed empathy towards every participant. I found this approach to be incredibly admirable, just in terms of the editorial restraint on display, but it also made the film much more fascinating than it would have been if it had been a simple piece of agit-prop, which it could easily have been. It was also incredibly frustrating, in the best possible way, because some of the opinions expressed by the participants are so jaw-dropping that they beggar belief. I was on the verge of tears throughout, except for the moments when I had my head in my hands. Really inspiring, it's a vital film about gender, sexuality and indentity than brims with passion and a yearning for understanding.

That's day one of Doc/Fest down. Live-blogging has been fairly successful, but it was also a quiet day, so I think I'll post end of day recaps for the remainder of the festival.