Wednesday 20 June 2012

Sheffield DocFest 2012 - Saturday

In desperate need of some good documentaries after the massive let down of the night before, so began my second day at Sheffield DocFest, or as I decided to call it... SIX FILM SATURDAY.

First on the agenda was High Tech, Low Life, a film that was the subject of some controversy when a group of Chinese speakers boycotted the festival when the organisers refused to remove it (along with a couple of other films) from its schedule. Quite aptly, the film is all about censorship and refusal to comply with what the Chinese government want citizens to see, telling the story of two bloggers who have gained a massive following for reporting on the truth via their websites and blogs. With the strange duality of such a technological fight set against the rural areas of China, it was a bit heavy going for that time of the morning but managed to arrive at a valid conclusion; freedom of speech should be a right for all.

Next up was Photographic Memory, a film by Ross McElwee about his frustration with his son's lack of direction in life and his attempts to relate to him by thinking back to what he was doing when he was his age. A highly personal film that journeys to France to retrace McElwee's steps there as a young photographer's assistant in love with a girl called Maude, I couldn't help but feel that McElwee Jr was getting a rough ride out of it all. Just in his early 20's now, Adrian is a web designing, t-shirt making, extreme skiing documentarian; someone I would consider to be a bit of an over-achiever, yet his Dad gets at him for having a lack of focus. I put the younger McElwee's lack of visible enthusiasm down to him not wanting to be the subject of a documentary rather than lethargy, as it's clear from some of the older footage that this kid has had a camera pointed at him for most of his life. Told via McElwee's narration (who was in attendance for the whole festival), his memory has faded quicker than his photographs have, making his recounts of time in France over romanticised and a bit unreliable at times.

Back to the hard-hitting stuff, the third film of the day was Shadows of Liberty where upon arriving at my seat, I found the above mask waiting for me. After a brief introduction from the director, we were promised an explanation as to their purpose after the film, although this did leave me with the lingering thought that he might be planning on blowing up the building with me inside it. The film studied the rise of the big 5 conglomerates (Disney, Viacom, etc) who own and operate most of the media outlets in America. I thought it was an informative, well put together documentary, but was treading over old ground a fair bit. As for the masks, the director asked us to put them on so that they could take a photo and send it to Julian Assange in an act of solidarity.

Feeling a bit under pressure to join in with the crowd and due to the fact I was sat on the front row, I put on the mask for the group photo, something I felt uncomfortable with because a) I don't think I know enough about Mr Assange's situation to be making alliances with him and b) I was never that big a fan of V for Vendetta.

Back across town at the Odeon, film number four was Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet, telling the life story of the one time Van Halen guitarist diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease just as his life and career was beginning. Told in the introduction that this was rock and roll so the audience could feel free to make as much noise as possible, I wanted to stand up and point out that this was a cinema so, no, they couldn't.

DocFest always seems to succeed in showing fascinating music documentaries, and this is most certainly one of them. As I'm not really a fan of heavy metal music I'd not heard of Jason Becker before, but wow, he was an incredibly skilled guitarist. Using archive footage and animated photographs, the crowd-funded Not Dead Yet tells a story full of tragedy and sadness over what might have been, yet retains a lightness thanks to the extraordinary and inspiring steps his family have taken to care for him. This film was among the best of the fest.

Next up was my most highly anticipated film of the festival, Indie Game: The Movie at the newly re-named PBS Library Theatre. Frustratingly, no-one had told me that the Library Theatre had had technical problems and had all of its screenings moved to other venues, so thanks to a helpful tweet from @tomsmovies I discovered that the film I'd been waiting to see all weekend that was starting in five minutes was now screening at Sheffield Town Hall instead. So where did I go?


Okay, so they're basically across the road from each other so I didn't have to struggle too much to correct my mistake, but it did slow me down a bit, meaning I had to run up the stairs of Sheffield's Town Hall to make sure I didn't miss any of Indie Game: The Movie. Taking my seat just as the film was starting, due to it being a pop up screen with a poor seating arrangement I was forced to carefully sit on two chairs at once, so as to not have to look at the back of someone's head for the entire screening.

I think Indie Game was worth the effort, as it was a well directed, well designed and well edited look at the super-obsessive game designers behind Braid, Super Meat Boy and Fez. Spending years developing these potentially lucrative games, the film looks at the sacrifices and tough decisions they've had to make in order to be true to their artistic vision. It's been released via digital download on iTunes already, so expect a full review up at some point. After the previous night's disappointing secret screening, I was sure they'd made sure there was a good film lined up for Saturday night's closer. Despite it clashing with Indie Game: The Movie by a few minutes, I'd figured that seeing as not a single screening had started on time yet, I could probably make it over to the Showroom on time for the screening with little more than a brisk walk.

I was wrong of course. As I probably could have anticipated this secret screening started bang on time, and as it was a 'secret' I had no idea what I would be walking in to. What I did walk into was The Albino Witchcraft Murders, a doc about the plight of albino children born in Africa who are forced to relocate to secluded schools to avoid being murdered. Apparently I'd missed the most depressing bit, with the first five minutes being the ones that showed all the severed albino limbs that were being sold on the black market. Shot over the course of five years, this was a thoroughly depressing snapshot of Africa that, via the director's Q and A afterwards, told us just as much about the plight of documentarians as it did the poor, misunderstood albino children of Africa.

Although happy to see his film have a home and wide exposure as part of the BBC's Storyville programme, the director was clearly frustrated at some of the changes he had to make to fit into the Storyville mould, adding a voiceover and editing the film down by 20 minutes, thereby leaving some of the story threads unanswered in its newer, shorter version. Possibly not the most uplifting way to end the night (but a triumphant end to six film Saturday), but Sunday would be another day and with it, an early morning start to see who was deemed worthy of all of the awards people had been voting for throughout the festival, not forgetting the possibility of punk poet John Cooper Clarke being in attendance for the documentary about his life.

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