“It’s been years since I’ve last been on these. I thought it was something you don’t forget how to do, but you do,” the political documentarian Anand Patwardhan bantered as he returned his roller skates to the counter. Sheffield Doc/Fest may be the only one of the fifty film festival’s profiled in indieWIRE‘s festival calendar that celebrates the art of documentary filmmaking with a roller disco.
Set in the heart of the city, Sheffield Doc/Fest is a festival that spotlights the best in international and British documentary, but it is also a prime meeting spot where filmmakers can meet with the industry’s top funders, distributors, and leaders in TV acquisitions. On the festival side of things, doc circuit favorites like “Waste Land” and “Marwencol” are playing along films that have lied below the radar at other fests or are world premiering here like Patricio Guzman’s strong essay film about the links between watching the stars and searching for lost political prisoners in a Chilean desert, “Nostalgia for the Light.”
The festival kicked off with a doc darling of 2010, “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” Rivers was in attendance with the film’s directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. Fielding questions from the English audience about bringing her crass humor to the other side of the Atlantic, Rivers remembered something her husband had said, “Once English people like you, they like you forever.” After the filmmakers and Rivers rehashed the criticisms that some people have laid against them for taking on a topic that wasn’t “serious,” one audience member asked how a performer that was that serious about her craft and helping other people could live in a home with ornate Louis XIV decor, punctuating his comment with “I just don’t get it.” Rivers reminded the audience that we’re all complex, that there are plenty of sides to anyone person. Reinforcing her earlier point that “audiences aren’t stupid,” Rivers was also keen to point out that she was intent on not making a “Biography”-style puff piece and not giving the filmmakers any limitations, only helpful suggestions like “include more dogs… people like dogs.”
Rivers’s points about her own film highlight the versatility and power of documentary film in showing the many sides of its subjects: issues, people, or events. Speaking about her film on homelessness in London, “On the Streets,” Penny Woolcock noted that she was surprised by the course of her film. “I set out to make a film about the weather,” she said in the film’s Q&A, “but I realized that I was the only one on the streets complaining about the weather. They get used to it.” Instead, Woolcock came to the conclusion that most of these people were not out on the streets because they couldn’t find a room through government organizations or other means. She realized that the majority of the city’s homeless had a history of abuse, physical or sexual.
Since finishing the film, Woolcock has been intent on showing it to government officials in her effort to get the UK government to see homelessness as a mental health issue and not a housing issue, and to change the bureaucratic infrastructure accordingly. Prior to the film’s Sheffield screening, Woolcock screened the film in London with many of the homeless subjects in the audience. After she fielded a question about policy from someone in the audience, homeless members of the audience asked to answer that question themselves. For Woolcock, this symbolized the motivation of the film: To give her subjects the voice of which they have so often been stripped.
In fielding questions for his doc “Life with Murder,” John Kastner noted his own process for bringing the story of a family struck the tragedy of the murder of their daughter. He came to the subject of the film, Mason Jenkins, who was found guilty of the murder of his sister, after making a film on one of his cellmates. The former film’s subject, whose parents never visited told Kastner, “but there’s this other guy whose parents come to the prison all the time.” From there, Kastner followed Jenkins’s family closely, becoming quite sympathetic to the unique position of the Jenkins family, who stand in support of their only son. The film sticks with the family as new developments come from Mason about the night his sister was murdered, and that Kastner’s camera is there to capture his new testimonies and the evolution of the family in response to them is a true testament to the emotional power of the documentary form. As the fest rolls on, more stories will be told and in the center of town, deals will be made solidifying a future for stories that will come to the screen at upcoming editions of the fest.