Wednesday 1 July 2015


In what has become an annual tradition, I once again returned to Sheffield for its documentary festival, better known as Doc/Fest.

This year's line-up included a tribute to the great documentarian Albert Maysles (who was in attendance during my first visit a few years ago and who sadly passed away earlier this year) with a screening of his most recent film Iris, and opened with the high profile opening film, Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence. Having attended Doc/Fest for a few years running now, I can attest to how increasingly hard it is to pack in everything you might want to see in such a short amount of time. But, that's what I tried to do, and here's a selection of some of my highlights from the fest.

One thing that Doc/Fest has always excelled at is showcasing music documentaries within it's strands, and this year was no exception, with docs covering the careers of Rodrigo y Gabriela and Kurt Cobain chief among the programme. For Those About to Rock was a "behind the music" style biography of the Mexican duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, charting their journey from their background in metal to busking the streets of Dublin to being involved in the soundtrack to a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Fans of Breaking Bad will also recognise their unmistakable sound from that series' soundtrack. It's a sometimes clunky doc with an intrusive narration from the director, but the music wins out, revealing a compelling musical duo with immense skill. I'm not sure their story is interesting enough to warrant a 90 minute film, but the director is savvy enough to know the performance footage is the best stuff he's got.

Escorts looks at the working lives of Cookie and Emily, two flat mates in London who are in the sex industry. Using websites and apps to find work, they are quite judgemental of prostitues and are keen to make a clear distinction between them and what they do. The crew is clearly trying to dig into their past to find the drugs, heartbreaks, etc that has driven them to this career. It's less an expose of the industry than a look at the lives of these two women, with a recurring shot of a closed bedroom door as moans come from the other side about as risque as it gets. The clients in the film are given anonymity and are viewed by the women as lonely men and easy money.

Among the short docs on offer was Dear Araucaria, a heartbreaking portrait of John Galbraith Graham. The Guardian's crossword setter for 55 years, it reveals through a rapid succession of old photographs and voiceover how he tried to offer his puzzle-crackers a glimpse into his life, like an unconventional penpal who only spoke in code. Directed by Matt Houghton, it's a genuinely moving look at the power of these puzzles and the man behind them. Without a doubt one of the best of the fest. Blood Brothers shows the buzz and the preparation of bullfighters before a show. There's a palpable tension as the men enter the turf that the bull is staking claim to, and the soundtrack with its dirty guitar riffs reflects that. Atmospheric and edited with a quick pace, it's not unlike a Guinness advert. It may not offer any real insight into this outlandish display of bravado, but as a visual document it's powerful and compelling stuff. Also worth watching was Catching the White Whale, looking at the art of screen-printing by following a man in his studio as he talks about (via voiceover) his craft and his artwork. It requires a regimented attitude and dedication, and this doc has power in fleshing out the statement that forms its title.

Previewing at the fest was the Channel 4 docu-series The Tribe, looking at the lives of an African tribe and their many similarities to us in this modern age. Played for laughs, the comedy was derived from pointing out the many cultural differences the western world has with these people, and the audience appeared all too keen to laugh at the many characters, from the grumpy old grandad and the fact that they had mobile phones. It's a fun ob doc but skirts dangerously close to casual racism, like a more highbrow Mind Your Language.

Sheffield isn't known for many things, but having spent many years living there I can attest to their love of Henderson's Relish, the watery brown liquid they pour on everything. Relish uses talking heads from Sheffield locals like David Blunkett, Pete McKee and Richard Hawley to reveal the story of this little family business with a marketing budget of £0 but a fair claim to the title of "Pride of Yorkshire". If I'm honest I was never a fan of Henderson's Relish (it's like watered down Worcestershire sauce), but this short doc is pretty funny (even if the director wasn't from Sheffield), particularly if you have a familiarity of Sheffielders and their obsessions, and it generated one of the best audience reactions I saw at the fest.

The Prosecutors is another upcoming series that follows the crown prosecution service and their cases. This first episode tracks the lengthy process of finding justice in a couple of cases; one involving a group of organised criminals who target and steal cash machines, and another telling the heartbreaking story of a tragic car crash that cost the life of a young boy. An exceptionally well made and gripping piece of television, the filmmakers have chosen their A and B stories wisely, emphasising the contrasting and varied cases that are put in front of them. The case of wrongful death packs a real emotional punch, and the mother of the young boy is incredibly candid and open in her interviews, clearly trusting the filmmakers with their intentions for the series. What made this all the more resonant was the presence of the filmmakers and their primary subject at the screening, giving a well received Q & A afterwards. She had clearly found some semblance of justice through the filming process, and was eager to support the filmmakers what the role they played.

Among the best of the features on offer was Tyke, Elephant Outlaw, the life story of an elephant raised in captivity that decided to break free from the circus and make a run for it in metropolitan Hawaii, leading to tragic consequences. Featuring some harrowing footage of animal mistreatment and rightly critical of the circus industry's barbaric methods of animal rearing (pitting the campaigners against the ridiculously evil sounding Hawthorne Corporation), this is this year's Blackfish, and should hopefully be able to raise enough awareness to create actual change.

The absolute best thing Doc/Fest offered was Jeanie Finlay's new documentary Orion: The Man Who Would be King. Following the career of Elvis sound-alike Jimmy Ellis, this story is almost stranger than fiction, showing the bizarre fandom he gained whilst hiding his true identity from his adoring fans. After last year's Hip Hop Hoax, Finlay has displayed a knack for discovering bizarre musical figures just aching for a biography. With his amazing clothing and showmanship, Jimmy Ellis is a visual treat as well as audible, and his is arguably a more compelling story about fame than Elvis's. Clad in a bejewelled mask that became something of a recurring sight around Sheffield during the fest; this is the birth of a documentary star, and Orion is his name.

And there you have it. Another year done and another batch of enlightening documentaries on offer at Doc/Fest. I would wholly recommend seeking out the short documentaries when they inevitably make it on their way to television (Channel 4 have been a strong supporter of this for years), and if there's any luck some of the stand outs will be able to gain a theatrical run. Personally, I think the likes of Orion are aching to find that cult crossover audience documentaries are able to find these days, and I'll be one buying a ticket. Kudos to Sheffield Doc/Fest for organising another incredible selection, and I'll hopefully be returning again next year.

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