Tuesday 19 June 2012

Sheffield DocFest 2012 - Friday

Well, if a beer mat says it, it must be true. Kicking off at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield last Wednesday with a screening of the Sixto Rodriguez documentary Searching for Sugar Man, due to work commitments I wasn't able to make it to the festival until Friday. It looks like I had some catching up to do.

First things first, once I'd arrived at the festival on Friday I headed to the press desk to pick up my pass which would get me into the screens for free, and almost more importantly, to find out what free stuff they'd included in the DocFest branded bag I'd be carrying my stuff around in for the next few days. Apart from the ridiculous number of postcards being used to promote the films at the fest (I'm considering making an environmental meta-documentary about what a waste of cardboard it is), I'm pretty pleased with the 6 hour PBS documentary on the prohibition era they'd included, but god knows when I'll find time to watch it.

My first screening of the festival was Off Label, a film that claimed to look at the lives of people who take part in clinical studies, essentially selling their bodies to the pharmaceutical industry for a quick buck. It had a good central idea and showed off some of the horrendous side effects some of these people have suffered as a result of taking part in the studies (like the man with permanently scarred and repulsive fingernails), but it opened up its remit far too wide and ended up telling a rather muddled story. Had it stuck closer to the lives of the people living this odd life, it would have been more successful.

The second screening took me over to Sheffield's Odeon cinema (where I used to work as an usher, fact fans) where a pair of short documentaries made for Channel 4 TV were being shown. The first, Stalked, saw Nuts Magazine's Pete Cashmore gain a stalker following a one night stand. Told with dramatic recreations from Cashmore's point of view, it's a fun little doc told in the vein of Danny Wallace or a more jovial Charlie Brooker, but is completely one-sided when Cashmore's own morally dubious actions could really have been brought more into question. However, at 24 minutes long it still manages to cover a lot of ground, and has an unexpected shift from the comedic to the cautionary.

Following Stalked was Superheroes of Suburbia, another short doc that looked at the rise of local costumed vigilantes in some seemingly peaceful areas of the country. Already screened on Channel 4 it got a good reaction from the audience, but I felt it was laughing at its subjects rather than with them, staging scenes and scenarios to destroy every shred of dignity they may have had. It didn't bother me so much with the older subjects, but in the case of 17 year old Kieran (AKA Noir), this documentary tries little to help him overcome his social awkwardness and is happy to just record his struggle with his own identity.

When everyone else buggered off to watch the live sport documentary that was being screened in local drinking establishments (the, erm, England game), I decided that a documentary about the AIDS epidemic was more my style. Using some fantastically revealing archive footage, How To Survive a Plague charts the progress of Act Up, a group of east side AIDS awareness campaigners fighting to get access to drugs that may be able to halt whole sections of their community being wiped out. Well made, moving and with a powerful message, you may think you know the story and its ending, but it's a film full of tension; smartly refusing to reveal which of the key figures managed to survive until present day right up until the last moment.

After last year's semi-successful outdoor screenings, a smaller, more manageable screen was set up on the nearby Howard Street with a full days schedule of classic documentaries and more recent curios like Cave of Forgotten Dreams. My schedule was too full to sit down and enjoy a whole film there, but apart from the rain sporadically pelting down on the grassy knoll (It's normal to get muddy at a festival, but not a film festival), it was a treat to hear Werner Herzog's voice echoing out across that small part of Sheffield. Keen to cram in as much visual stimulus as possible, I legged it from my previous screening down past the Howard Street screen back to the Showroom Cinema, just in time for the mysterious 'secret screening'. Having absolutely no idea of what to expect, I remembered that last year's screening was the Ridley Scott produced, Kevin McDonald/crowd directed Life in a Day. What wonders would they have for us this year?

Luckily, despite arriving at the Showroom 20 minutes after the scheduled start time they hadn't started the screening yet, something that I put down to the screen being half empty, probably thanks to the England match. After a witty and engaging introduction from a man called Lee Kern, the realisation of what were about to see slowly began to sink in. We were to be treated to 2 episodes from Lee's upcoming 6 part E4 series Lee Kern's Celebrity Bedlam, and... I was polite enough to stay for the first episode, although I'd decided within the first 20 seconds that this wasn't for me.

Taking easy pot-shots at poorly educated, hungry for fame z-list celebrities may be entertaining for some (there was a suspiciously localised section of the audience who found the show hilarious), but I didn't find it particularly funny, insightful or worthy of being screened at a documentary festival. I'm sorry, but editing David Van Day's real reaction to being presented with a 'clone' of himself or getting Howard from the Halifax ads to talk about bat testicles is not documentary film-making. Highly derivative of Trigger Happy TV and other hidden camera shows, the only difference is that now there's no need to hide the cameras, as they're the signal to tell these 'celebrities' that they need to perform. I'm willing to concede that comedy tastes vary from person to person, but the thing that bothered me the most was it being passed off as some sort of documentary, which it clearly wasn't. The goal was to look at how far these poor deluded people would go to have another few moments of 'fame', but their reactions and actions were clearly influenced by being on camera.

There was a slightly awkward moment when I had to walk past the nervous looking Lee at the back of the room, but at least I didn't just get up and walk out mid show like a lot of people did. After that complete waste of time and effort, I was now looking forward to Saturday's packed schedule more than ever. I needed some honest to god factual entertainment to scrub the memory of Celebrity Bedlam from my mind, and my planned six film Saturday would surely provide just that.

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