Though the Sheffield Doc/Fest has announced that it will be moving its dates to June next year due to the crowded slate of European doc fests in the fall, the fest’s last November installment still had a lot going for it. Just wrapping up yesterday, the fest boasted a series of world premieres and a healthy dose of mentoring and pitching. The festival, which has rapidly grown from being primarily an industry networking event with a film festival has grown into an incredibly important event for projects-in-development to get funding and resources, a localized point for industry networking and mentoring, and a chance for industry professionals and the Yorkshire public to see some of the most provocative documentary films the world has to offer.
Industry professionals were clearly impressed with the number and quality of the meetings they had. Lots of exciting projects were brought to the attention of funders and potential production partners. Filmmakers got the chance to gain expert advice from filmmakers Anand Patwardhan (“War and Peace”) and Kim Longinotto (“Pink Saris,” “Rough Aunties”) and her sometimes editor Oliver Huddleston. Moreover, everyone had access to some of the best docs this year has to offer. Speaking of the changes instilled in the few years that he and Heather Croall took the reins of the festival, Programmer Hussain Currimbhoy noted that while the fest has gained a reputation for being both a film festival and an industry networking event, the proof is in the numbers. He noted that the festival has a slim program of about 70 carefully selected films, representative of the best of the best, and that in recent years, the number of industry delegates attending the festival has increased nearly fourfold, to just under two thousand.
Antony Butts’s “After the Apocalypse” is an incredibly disorienting, picturesque issue film that refuses to provide any answers or solutions but stays fascinating nonetheless. A part of Kazakhstan close to the Polygon, where the Soviet Union did many of its nuclear bomb tests, has a rate of birth defects twice that of the rest of the world. Butts’s camera heads into the lives of one doctor, who encourages abortion so that the incapable state does not have to take care of the abandoned masses of children, and one woman, who has been ostracized for her facial deformities and gets pregnant. Sparks fly in the scenes where the two must deal with one other, but seeing both in their everyday lives provides an actually fair and balanced view of both of their lives, which leaves the viewer with no right answers for the many questions brought up by the film.
A true crowd pleaser, Jerry Rothwell’s “Donor Unknown” is the story of a man who donated sperm while dancing in revues and posing for Playgirl. Several of his biological children have found each other, through an online sibling registry for people created by the sperm of donors and a New York Times article that used two of the siblings to report on the service. The father, now a hippy who lives in a RV on Venice Beach, meets the children, who are certainly surprised by the life path of the man whose genes gave them all a tall forehead and bushy eyebrows.
Other world premieres that got major buzz included “Marathon Boy,” the story of an Indian slum mentor that finds he has a running prodigy on his hands, and “The Battle for Barking,” which follows both campaigns in a tough election for a contested local seat in the UK government, which both got raves from the audience that, unfortunately, did not include this writer. Jonathan Schell and Eric Liebman’s portrait of a tantric healer, “Sex Magic, Manifesting Maya,” proved quite provocative and, in its first screening, controversial. Schell, who was present for the Q&A’s had a bit of trouble knowing how to talk about his subject’s sincerity, and it seems Schell’s ambiguity rubbed off the first screening’s audience, which caused a quite raucous question and answer session.
Some films that have been around the fest circuit got another bump from Sheffield: “Sons of Perdition,” which follows the exiled young men and women of the Fundamental Latter Day Saints, Warren Jeffs’s religious splinter group, screened at the festival and promises to have a healthy life on the long tail of small screen distribution in the states. Jose Padilha’s “Secrets of the Tribe,” a Sundance alum, also got wide raves for an incredibly well-told talking heads recounting of several decades of anthropological research on the Yanomami indigenous people in Brazil and Venezuela. The film covers the vast infighting within the field of anthropology over standards and ethics involved with the many high profile studies of the remote tribe. Audiences continued to love this year’s favorites like “Marwencol” and “The Oath.”
The festival also screened some really stellar short films, like Andy Taylor Smith’s “This Chair Is Not Me” (a winner at Sheffield and Silverdocs), which is an absolutely stunning portrayal of a dancer with cerebral palsy told in recreations with an actor, a voice over spoken by the subject’s automated voice machine, gorgeous cinematographic experiments with objects in a home, and footage of the subject performing some of his dancing. Tim Travers Hawkins’s “Surpriseville,” which had its world premiere at the fest, interviews the inhabitants of a gated community in Surprise, Arizona. With deliciously awkward interview framing and well-shot B-roll, the film shows the community members offering up quite sad indictments of the suburban life (“I only know my neighbors are having a barbeque because I can smell it.”) to frightening metaphors (the fences and security, like those that protect U.S. borders, keep the riffraff out). Emily Branham’s lo-fi doc “Legend: A Film about Greg Garing” was also a quite powerful story of music-making and aging.
The organizers here in Sheffield now have their work cut out for them — how to get enough rest before they have to do this all over again in only in seven months? Something says they’ll be able to do it.
Check out a full list of winners from this year’s fest here.