Friday, 21 June 2019

SHEFFIELD DOC/FEST 2019 - Part Two

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.



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