While Sheffield Doc/Fest is known for its MeetMarket and great European (especially British) and American industry presence, the festival has also developed an exciting digital media program (which has made its way into the festival's tagline) and a capable main slate of films. Five films, four of them world premieres, one of them a new gallery installation currently on display in Sheffield, made quite the impression on this writer; here's the list of the five Sheffield discoveries:
"The Man Whose Mind Exploded," Toby Amies
Though Drako Zarhazar, the aging subject of Toby Amies' tender film, has lost his memory after two road accident-induced comas, his wit is sharp and his interest in young men with big cocks is still robust. "That's my favorite picture!" he often exclaims, pointing to a man naked from the waist down, dressed in a tux from the waist up. In one of the film's most tender moments, Zarhazar plays with his nipples while simultaneously explaining to the filmmaker his nipple-related fantasy and why it's okay that there's a strange man insisting on making a film about a man who can barely give consent. Though the film doesn't tell us much about Zarhazar's early life, it is brilliant in pulling out who he is just by living with him in the now. This one sneaks up on you; its crudeness and ostentatiousness obscure the fact that it's incredibly insightful and sweet.
"Scientologists at War," Joseph Martin
It has long been troubling for filmmakers to make films that lift the curtain on the Church of Scientology. "Scientologists at War" gives an excellent history of the church, after L. Ron Hubbard. One of these men, Marty Rathbun, led the church under David Miscavige, but he has lately come under great scrutiny for defecting from the church and practicing an independent strain of Scientology. The film tracks Rathbun's life as a set of people, calling themselves Squirrel Busters, stand outside Rathbun's house, documenting the life of the man they see as a traitor. The film is a bizarre but fascinating take of one man's faith in a religion that he takes great pains to criticize and hold onto.
"A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power, and Jayson Blair at the New York Times," Samantha Grant
Up-and-coming New York Times writer Jayson Blair became famous for becoming an ex-New York Times writer when he was found plagiarizing stories for The Paper of Record. Blair is able to tell his own story in the film, and he does so, joined by a chorus of others who had intelligence of what was going on in the newsroom at the time, explaining the increasing push to publish more and get the scoop faster as the effects of the Internet began to be felt strongly. Under pressure to compete with the world of online journalism, Blair began taking facts and words from other reporters instead of doing the reporting himself. The film is a never-before-seen narration of a story that may have been forgotten but says much about the way institutions work and the ways that they exist in a digital world.
"Mobile Homestead," Mike Kelley
To memorialize the death of jobs in his town of Westland, Michigan, the now-deceased eclectic artist Mike Kelley took a mobile home around the areas surrounding the place he grew up. The lengthy film, which was playing on loop at Site Gallery in Sheffield, shows the ways Kelley's space was used as a community space for the disaffected people who have been abandoned by their large former employers, Ford, Chrysler and General Motors. Throughout the film, it is a versatile space which goes through many uses and is tracked beautifully as it travels from stop to stop. Now, the home now sits still as a multipurpose community space.
"Project Wild Thing," David Bond
David Bond, the father of two young children, is sick of the ways his children are devoted to their various screens and uninterested in going out into the great outdoors. To work against this, he takes on the job of Marketing Director of nature. The film is a documentation of his public service campaign, Project Wild Thing, which harnesses the creative smarts of various ad and design professionals and relies on the donations of free media time to promote one thing: going outside. The film doesn't take itself too seriously and the message is (perhaps sometimes too) simple, but there are often great things packaged in simple messages. But great joy is brought to people, often very young, reminded that they are surrounded by nature -- trees to climb, bugs too play with and sticks to collect. And great fun is had in watching Bond try his damnedest to make this a campaign that sticks.