On the second day of Sheffield/Doc Fest, the UK’s biggest international documentary film festival, two world premieres – the prison-set, “At Night I Fly,” and pro-environmental activism rally cry, “Just Do It," got the event off to a promising and provocative start.
"At Night I Fly"
Director Michel Wenzer’s “At Night I Fly” opens on a tantalizing note. Upon entering California’s New Folsom Prison, a level-four maximum-security facility, Wenzer and his crew are told there’s a ‘no exchange policy.’ Which means? “No one can be released in exchange for you if you were to be taken hostage,” the warden says.
It's startling, but that scene is as sensational as this film gets. Other than some brief glimpses of violent inmates' outbursts via acquired security footage, Wenzer’s documentary is notable for its solemn approach – this is miles away from “Oz.” His focus is on the prison’s long-running Arts in Correction program, which allows inmates to gather and express their frustrations through poetry, rap, writing and theater. “The arts are a lifeline to their sanity,” explains one of the teachers.
The program was eliminated on January 31st, 2010 (after the shooting of the film), due to the California budget crisis.
“I hope it can be reestablished,” Wenzer said at the Q&A following the premiere. “I hope this film can be a part of that process.”
Wenzer was inspired to do the project after meeting Spoon Jackson, an inmate who began serving a life sentence without possibility of parole in 1978. In 1986, Jackson took part in a production of “Waiting for Godot” at the San Quentin State Prison under the direction of Jan Jšnsson and garnering Wenzer’s attention and respect. That’s when he came across Jackson’s poetry.
“That this poetry could come across from that prison so far away and reach me in Stockholm was quite amazing,” he said. “The idea that art can be that important… Art as a surviving technique - that was the subtext for making the film.”
“Just Do It”
“When I first started asking activists if I could film this kind of material, they wouldn’t even consider it,” director Emily James told a packed house after the world premiere of her ironically titled pro-activist documentary. “There’s a healthy distrust of the media because many of them have been stitched up by somebody taking an easy line and reporting on what they’re doing.”
James pulled it off, embedding herself with a group of UK environmental activists for well over a year. The entertaining and surprisingly upbeat film tracks them as they pull off a series of stunts that included locking themselves to the Royal Bank of Scotland, scaling the chimney of Didcot Power Station and standing up to brutal police at the Copenhagen Summit.
To gain her subjects' trust, James worked with a firm that represents activists. They taught her how to complete the project without major ramifications.
“All the material was kept in a safe house, with an address not connected to me or any of them,” James said. “I didn’t keep any written logs with me. So the first couple of months of post-production were really fun," she laughed.
"The other crucial thing," she said, "is that I made it very clear to the activists that I would let them see a rough cut of the film before they signed any release forms. “
James first drew acclaim in 1999 for “Wag the Dogma,” which sold to Channel 4 and E4. Broadcasters funded the majority of her subsequent projects.
“Just Do It” marks James’ first grassroots project, largely made possible by 447 crowdfunders and private donations.
“There was interest [from broadcasters] if I was going to be cynical about the subject matter,” she said. “But these people are heroes. Yes, it’s a sympathetic portrait. But everything I make is propaganda, so fuck it.”
The Sheffield Doc/Fest runs through June 12.