Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012

The most depressing thing about Sheffield Doc/Fest is the fact that you can’t watch everything. Deciding a schedule feels like choosing which puppy not to drown; an almost impossible task given the high quality of the 120 feature documentaries on show over the five days.

Many of which are UK or World premieres, so it can be quite exciting trying to decide what to see.

The first thing you notice about Doc/Fest is the sheer volume and friendliness of all the festival volunteers; it’s like a small army of helpful people. This sets the tone for the whole event. Throughout the festival, whether it is at screenings, parties (a necessary burden I had to suffer for the sake of journalism!) or just around the site, there is a great atmosphere amongst the delegates and staff.

Whilst it’s an industry event, Sheffield Doc/Fest also welcomes the general public with open arms. The 19th incarnation of the event is centred around the Showroom Cinema, but spans many locations including the Library Theatre, Queens Social Club, Crucible Theatre, Odeon and HUBS. This year there’s an outside screen at the bottom of Howard Street, which had a strong and diverse program of free films over four days. The weather put a bit of a dampener on it, but Sunday illustrated what a great idea it was. The array of films on show included Lost & Sound, Man with a Movie Camera, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, Miners’ Hymns, China Heavyweight and The Last Waltz.

I caught 26 films (plus shorts) over the course of the five days, and the standard was incredibly high. I hated one film, Shadows of Empire, which I ended up leaving before the Q&A because of how angry it made me; I could have spent hours ripping that one apart. A couple were ok, but the rest ranged from good to brilliant. I’ll go into more detail regarding some of them soon, but here’s a selection of some of the best ones:

Marina Abramović The Artist is Present

The Audience Award sheets had a scale which went, at the top end, from ‘Very Good’ to ‘Masterpiece’; there were many quibbles about the inclusion of the latter on the slips. However, this film alone serves as a justification for its inclusion. The film follows Marina Abramović, the ‘grandmother’ of Performance Arts, as she prepares for her biggest ever show at MoMA in New York; tracing her career up to this point and covering the exhibition. The centre-point of which is ‘The Artists is Present’, an installation where Marina sits still during the opening hours of the museum, giving the public a chance to sit opposite her for as long as they want, whilst she looks at them. I was sceptical about performance art before this film, but not only has that view changed, I’ve also re-defined how I view art. The director, Matthew Akers, managers to produce not only the most moving and powerful film I’ve seen this year, but merges film and art together to create an entirely new viewing experience.

Chasing Ice

James Balog is an award-winning National Geographic photographer, who, during frequent trips to the Antarctic, begins to notice that the glaciers are receding at an alarming rate. This revelation leads him on an obsessional journey to document how climate change is affecting these icy behemoths. At great personal cost and physical risk, James sets up the Extreme Ice Survey to examine this phenomenon. The results are astonishing and deeply troubling; creating what is probably the best documentary I’ve seen on the subject of climate change. At the same time it is visually stunning.

Searching for Sugar Man

In the late 1960s, a mysterious musician called Rodriguez released two albums which sunk without trace in America. In South Africa, however, he had a huge impact on a whole generation, before disappearing without trace. Searching for Sugar Man follows two men’s search for the truth; leading to unexpected consequences for all involved. . It was a privilege to see him perform live at Queens Social Club after the screening.

Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet

As guitar players go in the late ‘80s, Jason Becker was all set to be greatest of his generation. A prodigious rise saw him picked to replace Steve Vai in The David Lee Roth Band, but then disaster struck; he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and only given a few years to live. Despite this, he managed to complete the recording of an album before the disease fully took hold. In 1996 he lost the power of speech but continues to make music to this day; communicating with his eyes in a system developed by his father. Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet is a wonderful film about a man who, despite all obstacles put in his path, manages to keep doing the thing he loves and enjoying life.

From the Sea to the Land Beyond

Award-winning film-maker Penny Woolcock teamed up with British Sea Power for a rather special screening of this portrait of Britain’s unique coastline, and its role in our lives. The combination of a masterful live soundtrack and the skilful editing of over 100 years of BFI archive footage provide a perfect opening to the festival. You can watch a stream of the event here:

Also highly recommended:

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry
Punk Syndrome
Call me Kucku
Vivan Las Antipodes
Ping Pong
Bones Brigade: An Autobiography

And the winners are:

Audience Award – 5 Broken Cameras
Special Jury Prize – Marina Abromović: The Artist is Present
Inspiration Award – Penny Woolcock
Youth Jury Award – Photographic Memory
Innovation Award – Bear 71
Student Doc Award – The Betrayal
EDA Best Female Director – Up the Stairs

Doc/Fest is one of the highlights of the Sheffield calendar which continues to go from strength to strength. Roll on next year and keep an eye out for some of the above coming to a cinema near you over the next few months.

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