Sunday, 16 June 2019

SHEFFIELD DOC/FEST 2019 - Part One


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.

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