Thursday 9 June 2011

Sheffield Doc/Fest Day One

As I'm sure you're aware, the Sheffield Documentary Festival (Doc/Fest) is now underway. Here's my thoughts of what the first day had to offer, including the premiere of Morgan Spurlock's newest documentary POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

Given that I've lived in Sheffield for years, it's a bit stupid that I've never been to the Doc/Fest before, not even as a punter. With my new status as a high flying blogger I thought I'd apply for press accreditation this year, and thankfully got accepted without the need for any sort of proof that I knew what I was talking about. Once I'd picked up my press pass and a rather nice free zip-up bag from the Sky HD registration booth (why it was sponsored by Sky HD I don't know), I headed out to see what films were on offer. 
First up I headed to the Showroom Cinema (the home of the Doc/Fest) to see the first films of the day, Vertical City and Ecumenopolis, and suddenly realised the best thing about having a press pass; you get to stand on the other side of the velvet rope. I half expected to see people camped out, protesting this terrible form of social aparthied, but as both the queues were empty anyway, the protests were kept to a minimum.
Vertical City was an interesting but short documentary, a snapshot of life inside the high rise buildings in Mumbai and the squalor the buildings have decended into. The best summation I could come up with was SlumDoc Millionaire, but the Millionaire part makes no sense. Ecumenopolis was a much more flashy affair, spending more money on its Panic Room style opening titles than what would have been spent on the entirety of Vertical City. A very in depth look at the social and economic impact the constant growth of Istanbul has had, it was bright, colourful and educational - but perhaps a tad too long. Perhaps the most frustrating thing to find out at this screening was that, even at film festivals, you still get the most annoying people going to see the films. All throughout both films some knobhead insisted on clicking his pen in time with any music there was, oblivious to the fact that the rest of the audience was shooting daggers at him with their eyes. I didn't get a photo of him, but if I see him at another screening I'm going to snap his pen in half.
Next up I was treated to an early screening of Morgan Spurlock's new film, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, just before the 'official' premiere a few hours later. Ordered to go to the posh looking Leopold Hotel, we were ushered into a lift that could barely hold six people, only to get off one floor down. It was hardly a secret bunker.
I'd assumed the Hotel also had its own mini theatre, but it turns out we were to watch the film on a flat screen TV in the corner of the room, made complete with the world's cheapest DVD player. The film started, everyone laughed and had fun, and then at 01:14:01 precisely (I can tell you that thanks to the time code stamped on the DVD), the film decided to skip back by three minutes to the previous chapter. Some poor volunteer lad scrambled to figure out what went wrong, but when we hit 01:14:01 again, the same thing happened. Luckily, they'd brought a spare DVD of the film. Unfortunately what they didn't bring was a remote for the crappy Argos bought DVD player.
After unsuccessfully trying to skip ahead by 14 minutes, we instead had to watch the entire first part again, meaning that by some bizarre sequence of events there's a three minute segment of POM Wonderful... that I've seen THREE times. Thankfully this disc seemed to work a lot better, and there wasn't any more hitches for the rest of the film. There'll be a full review up of the film at some point, but I'll say that it was a lot of fun if not perhaps the most hard hitting of subject matters. Anyways, after the screening Morgan Spurlock was on hand to answer any questions we might have, but given that this was my first press conference, I chose to shut up and let the others do the talking. I had a good question about McDonald's to ask, but it appears everyone had the same question in mind.
Afterwards Mr Spurlock posed for a few photos, holding onto these pretty awesome Morgan Spurlock cupcakes that were made for him. He decided to pass them on to some press folks rather than eat them himself - I believe he's watching his diet these days. On the way out I though I might as well see what this POM Wonderful drink actually tastes like, so I swiped one from the table.
It tastes like pomegranates.

After a quick break for tea, the last thing I saw was the Albert Maysles documentary Running Fence, charting artist Christo's attempt to erect an 18ft high, 24 1/2 mile long white fence through the California countryside. Not knowing too much about Albert Maysles work, I thought this would be a good introduction ahead of the Grey Gardens screening on Devonshire Green this Saturday. Not only was Running Fence a very interesting documentary, Mr Maysles was also there to give us a brief introduction and to answer any questions we had after the film. I'll be honest, I wasn't planning on sticking around for the Q & A, but after hearing his introduction, I could tell I was in the presence of a true master filmmaker.
That's the best photo I could get, sorry. At 84, he was clearly a bit tired after flying in from New York that afternoon, but we were hanging off his every word. He offered some genuinely interesting insights into his approach to filmmaking, as well as plugging his website and upcoming projects. He was such a pleasure to listen to, we didn't even mind when he used the same anecdote twice to make different points. I'll definitely be seeing Grey Gardens on Saturday, but I think I may have to adjust my schedule to see the other films he has on show at the festival. He was literally Amaysles.

So there you have it, my first day at my first film festival. I enjoyed it thoroughly and saw some great stuff. Here's hoping that day two has just as much to offer.


  1. Not sure what to make of Spurlock nowadays. He's become one of those documentary makers who seems to want to be bigger than the subjects he covers to cover (see also: Michael Moore. Literally). Don't think I've ever seen an Albert Maysles' doc but I'm intrigued.

  2. I'd never seen an Albert Maysles doc before but I felt kind of honoured to be listening to him talk about his work.

    Morgan Spurlock definitely does the same form of documentary as Michael Moore, focusing more on the edu-tainment aspects. That's not to say I don't enjoy his work, as Greatest Movie/POM Wonderful was pretty funny.