Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 Review

Here we are again. It's June, it's sunny, so that can mean only one thing... it's time to return to Sheffield and sit inside a bunch of dark cinema screens for the annual Documentary Festival, better known as Doc/Fest.

This was the fourth year in a row that I've been lucky enough to attend Doc/Fest and although my time there was sadly limited due to work commitments, I made sure to cram in as many documentaries as I could.

First up was All This Mayhem, a skateboarding doc about the Pappas brothers and their journey from their native Australia to America, finding fame and fortune on the pro-skateboarder circuit. In a sport that supposedly contains a number of quote/unquote bad boys, Tas and Ben Pappas were the real deal. Young men who took full advantage of their position as celebrity sportsmen, their eventual excesses lead to their downfall in a stark warning that no-one is invincible. A mixture of shaky-cam archive montages and talking heads, it's a gripping documentary that keeps you guessing as to the fate of both the brothers for most of the film.

Prior to watching Nowhere Is Home I wouldn't have quite known how to answer the question of whether or not I was a Dexy's Midnight Runners fan. Needless to say, this musical documentary has me converted to the church of Kevin Rowland. Midnight Runners no more, the abbreviated but at full strength Dexy's staged a show at London's Duke of York's theatre and had their final nights captured in this thoroughly entertaining and surprising doc. The show itself is a hybrid of musical theatre and performance with Rowland showcasing his best ladies man charm at the front of the stage. It's an artistic endeavour that could have been catastrophic to the reputation of its often ridiculed frontman if it wasn't quite so brilliant. The interviews featured with the key members of the band reveal some insight into how they put the show together but they are somewhat unnecessary when the performance footage is so good. I hope this doc gets to be seen by more than just established Dexy's fans as one thing's for sure, Kevin Rowland is a consummate showman and quite possibly an artistic genius. He's also a bit of a letch.

Rowland was supposed to be present at the screening but decided to bow out at the 11th hour due to his worries that travelling on the train would adversely affect his vocal chords, which is a frankly brilliant excuse and perhaps better than the man being there himself anyway.

Love Is All: 100 Years of Love and Courtship is a documentary comprised of seemingly endless archive footage, soundtracked by Sheffield's own Richard Hawley. The archive materials are used to create some sort of meditation on love through its repetition and differing forms, and similarly to The Big Melt that was screened at the Crucible last year (also with musical input fron Richard Hawley as well as Pulp), it's a curious beast that comes across as part art installation and part pure cinema. Obviously well crafted, it doesn't carry quite the same educational clout as The Big Melt but still offers something different to the usual documentary fare.

Along those same lines we now arrive at Beyond Clueless, a frankly brilliant documentary by Charlie Lyne, the wunderkind of online movie journalism. The one time Ultra Culture blogger is a figure that has had a fairly constant presence on the (ugh) blogosphere since I started to dip my toe in a few years ago, and although I haven't always agreed with his reviews, I've respected his viewpoint. Here, he takes a look at the teen movie genre; specifically those films released in the wake of 1995's Clueless. Using clips from too many teen movies to mention, with a drawling Valley Girl-esque narration from The Craft's Fairuza Balk and a score by Summer Camp,  it more closely resembles a visual essay than any other genre study I've seen before. No talking heads, no "where are they now?", this is film appreciation and admiration as it should be.

There's a certain delight in seeing a montage of bright yellow school buses and the recognisable tropes and cliches of teen movies spliced together in such a rythmic and comforting way. Yes, the teen movie subject matter is one that is close to my heart, but rarely does a film made of entirely archive footage look and sound so unique, offering a critical view that you can choose to subscribe to or take with a pinch of salt (personally, I think he's reaching a bit with the homoerotic subtext of EuroTrip). This is without a doubt my favourite film of the the festival and heralds the arrival of Lyne as a filmmaker with a clear and unique voice. I can't wait to see what he does next.

I wish I could be quite as kind to the makers of Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, a frustratingly vague and ridiculous documentary by Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle. Mountain Top Removal is decimating hundreds of the Appalachian mountains and their surrounding communities and is certainly something that should be stopped. But why could we not have a documentary that took a serious look at this devastation? The focus of this documentary spirals out of control onto the filmmakers themselves and the Ecosexual movement of which Stephens and Sprinke are leading members, and although there's a certain admirable hippie charm about declaring you are going to get married to the Earth and make love to Mother Nature, I couldn't take this documentary seriously after witnessing Stephens and Sprinkle mounting rocks in a stream and covering themselves in moss.

Doc/Fest has a history of screening new and informative environmental documentaries but this left me feeling cold. I wanted to know more about the environmental impact and human damage Mountain Top Removal was causing, but I left the film unsure as to what the message was meant to be. Stephens and Sprinkle were present at the screening and seemed to admit that the Ecosexual movement was all a bit of fun, and while I'm all for new ways of getting an important message across, I don't think this worked. At all.

Back to the good stuff, and I was suitably intrigued by The Dog, the true life story John Wojtowicz, the man portrayed by Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon. For those who don't know the story, Wojtowicz decided to rob a bank to pay for his lover's gender reassignment surgery leading to a hostage situation and stand-off between his men and the awaiting cops. The real Wojtowicz is even stranger than fiction, a charming and friendly man driven by all of his sexual desires and completely at ease talking about his experiences in this open and enlightening documentary. Filmed over numerous years as Wojtowicz battled with cancer, he comes across a man driven by his impulses but also one with few regrets, lapping up the local celebrity status his big screen counterpart has afforded him. Through his relationship with his ever loving mother The Dog reveals the man behind this bizarre and moving story.

Mr Somebody is a study of the wholly unique Jake Mangle-Wurzel, and his oddity filled home in Huddersfield that puts the shack in ramshackle. Repurposing old items into sculptures and no-longer-working home improvements, Jake is a charming but bizarre central figure whose once magnificent castle of creativity has fallen into a sorry state over the decades he has been there. Now in his twilight years, there's a real connection between Jake and the director Michelle Heighway, her fondness for this very British oddball clear to see.

Filipino B-Movies are not a genre that I am overly familiar with, but it's hard not to recognise the diminutive star of The Search for Weng Weng. Weng Weng was a 2ft 9in actor with a bowl cut who starred in a series of action movies in the early '80s that are best described as spoofs of the action/spy genre, before disappearing from cinema screens completely. Here, Australian director Andrew Leavold travels to the Philippines in search of the truth of what happened to this cult cinema icon, finding out troubling stories of Weng Weng's mistreatment by the film's producers and his real life escape from and eventual return to poverty. In many ways it's a classic Hollywood fable, just set several thousand miles away and starring a not-so-typical lead actor.

Documentarian Doug Block has hit upon an ingenious set up for 112 Weddings. With a sideline in creating wedding videos for the last 20 years, Block attempts to contact as many of the couples (and former couples) as he can to find out how life has changed for them since their big day. It's a real snapshot of human life that strips away some of the fairytale sugariness of wedding videos to reveal some moving, some touching and some sad stories.

Lastly, I saw Roger Graef's 1976 film Pleasure at Her Majesty's, a filmed account of a benefit comedy show that was put on at Her Majesty's Theatre in the mid-70s. Looking at it now it's clear that the show was enormously inspirational for the likes of Comic Relief and the Secret Policeman's Ball (also directed by Graef), but it's also a joy to see the behind the scenes workings of a number of genuine comedy geniuses. Peter Cook, most of the Python's and Alan Bennett have commanding roles in the creation of the show, with The Goodies and Dame Edna completing the line-up.

All in all, this year's Doc/Fest was a great one, with the good films outnumbering the bad ones by a clear mile. I wasn't able to see all of the films I was hoping to see (Roger Ebert doc Life Itself, Aaron Swartz biography The Internet's Own Boy and the Adam Buxton Bug show were all near the top of my wish list) but I can safely say that I left the festival better informed, better educated and looking forward to next year.

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