Friday 21 June 2019


The opening night premiere at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest was Asif Kapadia's follow up to Senna and Amy, his previous biographical works that looked behind the fame of two stars of sport and music. This time Kapadia aims to dig under the infamy of one of football's most controversial and much discussed figures that is the "Hand of God' himself, Diego Maradona.

The film starts with the arrival of Diego Maradona in the "poorest city in Italy", Naples, in July 1984, following a car as it zips through the streets like they're fleeing a bank robbery. Instead, they're transporting Maradona to a press conference to announce his signing with the club, a move that at the time made no sense for his career but has since cemented his place in sporting legend, taking the team from near relegation to champions in a few short years. Kapadia's approach to reveal what made Maradona into the man he is today is to uncover the duality of his character; on one side the charming family man, Diego, and the other, the drug addicted, womanising persona of Maradona.

It's true that from the footage assembled, Maradona could be a different person depending what day you caught him on, particularly in the later years of his club career when his drug addictions really started to take their toll. And Kapadia and his team have managed to uncover and restore hours of personal home videos (procured from Maradona's ex-wife who he is currently suing and is currently suing him), that reveal how devoted he was to his family as the boy-done-good from the slums, looking after those closest around him. Even if you don't follow football, you'll have heard the name Maradona mentioned, and probably not in a complimentary way. It was he who scored for Argentina in the quarter final of the 1986 World Cup against England, just a few years after the Falkland Islands conflict, using the "symbolic revenge" of his hand, and a goal that is still being discussed like it was last weekend. His prowess on the pitch and ability to unite an underdog city makes for a powerful and compelling story, as Maradona ascends to a higher plain of celebrity to his fans, until his beloved Argentinian national squad is made to play Italy in Naples during the 1990 World Cup and the fans that worshipped him revolted.

What surprised me most about Kapadia's film was that, for a film with so much football (a sport I have no interest in) in it, I was engaged throughout all of the matches. This is due to some incredibly enthralling footage of Maradona showing off his skill on the pitch, as every player he comes up against pales in comparison to his footwork. Even though the two hour plus running time might seem like an overly long amount of time to spend with such a controversial character (a tight 90 minutes perhaps?), the extra time is well deserved and passes by quickly. There's also plenty of off pitch drama, as Maradona is forced to stay playing for Naples against his wishes, and personal problems with his refusal to acknowledge the child he fathered with a woman who was not his wife. It's testament to Kapadia's craftsmanship that what would be potential issues (an unlikeable central figure and a film that is 95% non-English language, for example) don't register during viewing.

Kapadia's film may have a less endearing hero than Ayrton Senna and Amy Winehouse at its centre, but he's still able to provoke sympathy for this once great sportsman. Whether you feel that is rightly or wrongly may depend on your view of Maradona as you go into this film, but it's undeniable that Kapadia has managed to reveal a staggering amount about him as a cultural phenomenon who went off the rails. Part gangster drama, part sports film, all tragedy; this film does not try to challenge what you think about the man, but you're going to have a better informed opinion at the end.



My second stint at this year's Doc/Fest had a very different flavour to previous outings, as the films I had lined up had a much more arty, experimental vibe to them. To an outsider Doc/Fest may appear to be about your common or garden documentaries (if there is such a thing), but the festival has actively expanded into so much more, including the many VR virtual reality experiences on offer and the Alternate Realities strand. This year, they also had some weird installation where you could create your own perfume, if that appeals. For me though, the documentary features have always been the main draw, but this year I did try to step outside my comfort zone for a change.

First on the day's agenda was a trip down a back street to the hidden cinema gem that is the Curzon, to see This Film is About Me, a film that has as much in common as captured performance art as it does film. Starring Renata, it features long periods of silence, some sort of ASMR appeal and a dreamy, David Lynchian industrial tilt to its soundscape. As Renata looks directly into camera as she soliloquises, it's a unique experience that will baffle those without an open mind.

After a little ticketing snafu that meant my space in The Magic Life of V was given away, I opted to stay in the Light Cinema to see Sunrise with Sea Monsters, a 71 minute study into data storage, starring a little hard drive with a blinking light in a whole host of dramatically juxtaposing locations like the Westfield shopping centre, blocks of flats and Tate Britain. Positioning the upright standing 1tb LACIE hard drive in centre frame like it's the monolith from 2001, voices float around discussing the various storage methods people use and what researchers have done to make sure important information is being stored for future generations.

If this doesn't sound like your sort of thing, I think it's only fair to say the same went for large portion of the audience who walked out at various points. Now, I wouldn't necessarily see this as a slight against the film, but it does highlight where its biggest draw is. Asking people to sit and ponder data storage, even for 71 minutes, is a big ask, particularly when the film makes its point clear almost instantly and the continues to re-state that point from different science bods. Where this film should be ideally be playing is in a dark room in an art gallery where people can amble along, sit and drink it in for a few minutes and then get up and leave. Sunrise with Sea Monsters is unapologetically arty in its delivery, but in bitesize portions has some interesting things to say about data storage. No, really.

The third film of the day meant a return to the Showroom, and the screen where I spent many a Monday morning falling asleep during film lectures during my Uni days. Keen to not repeat that habit  on this day, the film was Rushing Green with Horses, a biographical snapshot of the life of the director, Ute Aurand, shot on a bolex camera across a number of years, and presented to us on a precariously erected 16mm projector at the back of the auditorium. Now, I love old formats and tangible film, but as this film was a gentle, delicate life story with long periods of silence and the comforting whir of the projector behind me, I'd be lying if I said I didn't fall asleep at one point. I'd chalk that up to the much welcomed coma it politely cradles you into, with Ute's family, friends and soft Germanic accents apparently living a completely idyllic lifestyle of picking fruit, listening to pop music and just being altogether lovely. The film was split into two 45 minutes reels that necessitated a reel change in the middle, so thankfully I know I didn't miss much as I was awoken by the first reel coming to an end and the process of the director loading the second reel onto the projector. Now, that's a first.

The last film of the day took a step away from the arty side of documentary and into the world of magic with The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, a documentary unsurprisingly about the magician The Amazing Johnathan. If the name doesn't immediately ring any bells, if you saw any of Penn and Teller's TV work in the 90s, you'll most probably recognise him from his occasional appearances there. A shock magician with a long running Vegas show before his diagnosis of a heart condition which doctors said would give him one year to live, this documentary follows his battle with his illness and desire to get back on stage. Well, sort of.

What's extremely difficult to do is talk about this documentary without revealing its many secrets, and there's a lot. I think it's fair to reveal that the filming of Johnathan takes a turn when director Ben Berman discovers that he's not the only person filming Johnathan for a documentary. From there Berman challenges how much he should believe from his subject (including his entire diagnosis), how close he should get to him and what steps should he take to ensure he has an end product that's better than his opponent's. This is less about The Amazing Johnathan as it is about the process of documentary filmmaking, as Burman becomes more focused on his journey through the process, in his quest for the truth about the entire endeavour looking at Johnathan as some sort of Colonel Kurtz figure. In a Charlie Kaufman-esque move, Berman becomes a main character in the film he was meant to stay behind the camera for, revealing his own story in order to find common ground with Johnathan, the eccentric Las Vegas magician with issues with drugs, fame, and quite possibly telling the truth.

I went into The Amazing Johnathan Documentary knowing little more than the blurb and a passing recognition of him as an obscure cult figure from the 90s, and that's probably as much as you should know about this film going in. I can't say I know too much more about the man now, but I do have a newfound appreciation of director Ben Berman and the lengths a director might go to ensure they have a film someone might want to see. Well, he's managed it with this film. Engaging, constantly surprising and often hilarious, I don't know what sort of release this will have in the UK (it premieres on Hulu in the US), but it's well worth seeking out.

And with that my Doc/Fest journey was over for another year. There is an awards element to the screenings, with Luke Lorentzen's Midnight Family winning the Grand Jury Award, Nikolaus Geyrhalter's Earth winning the International Award, Miko Revereza's No Data winning the Art Award and Archana Atul Phadke's About Love winning the New Talent Award. I'd love to say that they're all great, but as per usual I saw none of the award winners. Perhaps the fact I still enjoyed the majority of what I saw is a testament to the quality of films on offer, or perhaps just a sign that I'm a sucker for the weirder films. Ah well, there's always next year.

Sunday 16 June 2019


Continuing one of my favourite annual traditions, last week I managed to spend a couple of days in Sheffield for what is always one of the film festival highlights of the year, the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, or Doc/Fest to you and me.

Taking place at numerous venues across the city with a who's who of filmmaking talent making their way up North (this year including Werner Herzog being perhaps the biggest name to grace the festival with his presence), what continues to be most impressive is not just the varying kinds of documentary on show, but how the city becomes dominated by the festival for a few days. Walking up and down Sheffield's many hills and past the outdoor cinema and its deckchairs, it's hard to not notice the orange Doc/Fest logo everywhere you go, along with an apparent army of Orange t-shirted volunteers keeping everything running smoothly. Never mind how good or bad the films might be, this is how film festivals should be run.

Onto the films proper, there were a number of big premieres and high profile screenings spread across the weekend, and I was lucky enough to attend some of them. Big hitters I missed were Summer Camp's Elizabeth Sankey's Romantic Comedy, a sort of follow up to/expansion of Charlie Lyne's incredible teen movie essay film Beyond Clueless (to which Sankey and bandmate/husband Jeremy Warmsley provided the score), and a BAFTA masterclass from director Asif Kapadia, at the festival with his latest film, Diego Maradona.  Luckily, I was still able to see Kapadia's film at the premiere, and Doc/Fest delegates get access to the excellent Doc/Player, so i'll be able to catch up on Sankey's film later.

Part of the fun of Doc/Fest is looking at the schedule of films and planning your day and route around the city. I started the first day with a screening of XY Chelsea at what is unofficially the undisputed home of Doc/Fest, the Showroom Cinema (helpfully mere metres away from the train station when you arrive in the city). I always try and not read up too much on each film beyond the basic subject matter, so knew this concerned the controversial figure of US government whistle-blower Chelsea Manning, and not much else. In what may have been a bit of crafty promotion/propaganda, when queueing for the film I was enthusiastically handed a flyer, denouncing the work of the director, Tim Travers Hawkins, and the film as a whole, such is the apparently unfair portrayal of Julian Assange in the film.  Well, I've seen the film now, and Assange is mentioned for all of about two minutes, purely due to his involvement in Manning's leaks. It's an interesting look at Manning's life, post release from prison, and charts her growing public persona, crucially deciding to not document her transition process and focus on her position as a very modern activist in modern Trump era America.

The second feature I caught was the provocatively titled, What You Gonna Do When the World's on Fire?, following the lives of a black community a year after the death of Alton Stirling at the hands of local police. The local chapter of the Black Panthers are lead by vocal and outspoken beliefs that there's little that's changed in America since the time of slavery, and that the police are keeping them subdued to the advancement of the white race; Ronaldo and Titus, two young boys innocently finding things to do in surroundings not designed to nurture young minds so go playing by the train tracks; and Judy, singer at the local Oopoopadoo Bar, sharing her horrific stories of rape and crack addiction in the hope of helping others. Shot in black and white by Italian director Roberto Minervi, it's beautiful to look at, powerful in its statement, but at 2 hours and 3 minutes running time, also a bit overlong.

My last film of the first day, the opening night premiere at Sheffield City Hall, was for Asif Kapadia's Diego Maradona. Kapadia, a director who has made narrative and documentary features throughout his career, is perhaps best known (definitely at Doc/Fest) for his two previous biographical documentaries, Senna and Amy, the latter winning him an Oscar. It's fair to say then that Diego Maradona arrived with a world of expectation, with this portrait of such a controversial figure coming from the man who documented Ayrton Senna's career and tragic demise in motorsport and crafted an incredibly moving look at the misunderstood and mistreated Amy Winehouse. What differs here is that Maradona is still alive, and there had been reports and worries during the production of what his involvement would mean to Kapadia's access to footage and ability to tell the truth. Thankfully, Kapadia is a master at this sort of thing now, and Diego Maradona (the film) is a fascinating, raw, sympathetic and often damning portrait of Diego Maradona (the man). Adopting the idea that there are two main characters in the film (the affectionate family man Diego, and the troubled footballer worshipped like a god, Maradona), what's most surprising to me as someone who's allergic to sport was how much I was swept up by the football on show. And there's a lot of football in this film.

Maradona's fame and status as one of the greatest footballers of all time managed to reach even a layman like me, but it's fair to say that beyond gossip of his womanising ways, ties to gangsters and infamous "Hand of God" goal against England in the 1986 World Cup, I knew next to nothing about him. This film begins at a pace, with what appears to be a car chase through the streets of Naples, hurrying to announce Maradona's arrival in the city and at the football club as its saviour. From there it follows his career ups and downs, including two World Cups with Argentina and leading Napoli to league winning titles before his personal demons lead to it all crashing down in front of him.

The footage, both on the pitch and off, that Kapadia has managed to assemble is mightily impressive. It's told linearly, with off screen voices from major players in Maradona's life (his ex-wife, his personal trainer, his mistress) providing colourful commentary to his many achievements, whilst also debating why such a talented sportsman was able to be so easily corrupted. Much like Amy, this film tackles the price of fame, and although Maradona may not have experienced a tragic demise in the same way Winehouse did, it's still troubling to see home videos of the man as he loses his grip on who he was and succumb to his addictions.

Watching football matches played 30 odd years ago is surprisingly tense stuff, with new angles and super sharp film (stored in an archive and going to rot until Kapadia stepped in to save it) showing just how talented a player Maradona was on the pitch. It's electrifying to watch, even if (or perhaps, particularly if) you are not a fan of the sport. You may think going in that at 2 hours and 10 minutes Kapadia should have aimed for a leaner running time (a tight 90 minutes, perhaps?), but the extra time is warranted to truly dig down into Diego and Maradona. His voice is not absent from the film, and without wanting to reveal any spoilers, the most recent scenes of him that reveal the damage his addictions and lifestyle have had on him are sad to see. What's undeniable after seeing Kapadia's film is that Maradona's was a sporting talent like no other, and no matter of your feelings towards the man before the film, afterwards it would be hard to not agree that should be celebrated.

Being the opening night premiere, Kapadia was on hand after the film to talk through his approach to his work and this film, and boy, he's one hell of a raconteur. He revealed that, quite surprisingly, one of the best sources of footage he found was Maradona's ex-wife, currently suing and being sued by Diego, but the guardian of countless hours of home video and early sporting achievements. Thankfully willing to provide access to Kapadia and his team, if only to stop the reels of nitrate film from being lost to time, it's from the footage that Kapadia managed to craft the story he tells here.

And with that my first day at Doc/Fest was done. Expect part two and more in depth reviews of films to follow soon.