Sheffield Doc/Fest 2013

To celebrate their twentieth year Sheffield Doc/Fest promised something a bit special, and they didn’t disappoint. Taking place over five days, it’s one of the biggest documentary film festivals in the world, and this year was even better than ever. As a whirlwind of screenings, industry sessions, special events and parties ensued you could be forgiven for losing track of time and place.

Opening Night

The opening night entertainment starts with a bang as The Big Melt premières at the Crucible. Using BFI archive footage Martin Wallace and Jarvis Cocker collaborated to tell the story of steel and the everyday lives of the workers by smelting together visual images with a live soundtrack. As Musical Director, Jarvis really lives and breaths the role as conductor, up and down like a cat on a hot tin roof. He’s amassed an impressive array of talent to help him including members of Pulp, Richard Hawley, Serafina Steer, a youth orchestra and brass band. It works wonderfully: From a Human League cover, the inspired entrance of the brass band and upping the ante at the end. The film itself is interesting if a little stretched. Normally a live soundtrack merely supports a film, but The Big Melt is not afraid to let the music take centre stage, and is much better for it.

For those of us not braving the cold in a cave, the highly anticipated opening film is Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer. Opening as the trial of controversial band members is taking place, the film looks into the history of the members and the group. Whilst the footage is really good, the film as as a whole doesn’t quite live up to expectations. However, a Skype Q&A with one of the band members Ekaterina Samutsevich is a very welcome surprise. Whether you agree with their actions are not, they certainly managed to instigate an international debate.

Some other film highlights include:

The Man Whose Mind Exploded

Probably the surprise hit of the festival, Toby Amies’ film is an affectionate portrait of Drako oho Zarhazar, a man who stores his memories in his own small flat. This eccentric character suffers from amnesia due to motoring accidents and fills his home with pictures and notes as a reminder of his past. We learn about his life and his quite extraordinary life. Handled beautifully and with much love and compassion, the documentary takes place mostly within the confined space of his apartment. It’s a poignant portrait of an extraordinary man and arguably the most unique and moving film this year.

Dirty Wars

Jeremy Scahill is an award winning writer who came to prominence when the Blackwater scandal became public and is often cited as an expert on extrajudicial killings. In Rick Rowley’s film Dirty Wars an incident in Afghanistan leads him to investigate the growing number of covert operation undertaken by the American forces around the world. Whist the assassination of Osama Bin Laden has resulted in awareness of these secretive organisations coming to light, Dirty Wars is a beautifully made documentary which is at times both unsettling and informative. Scahill is an impressive figure, and by following his investigation we get a personal insight into the consequences of playing God.

The Act of Killing

We are ‘treated to’ the 160 minute director’s cut of Jeremy Oppenheimer’s new film The Act of Killing. Focussing on former Indonesian death squad leaders, he takes a completely unique approach to film making. Instead of just telling their stories he persuades the murderers themselves to act out the killings themselves in whatever way they wanted. They decided to make a film. The results are grotesque, disturbing, thought provoking and often very funny. The Act of Killing is an astounding and incredibly powerful look at history which encourages you to question whether good and evil exists.

Plot for Peace

Behind every big story there are always many smaller ones that seldom come to light. French businessman Jean Yves Ollivier decided in the ’80s to dedicate his considerable resources and ingenuity to help South Africa transition peacefully out of apartheid. Plot for Peace is a fascinating tale about a rather unique man’s efforts behind the scenes to arrange talks between the apartheid regime and other countries. In the Q&A he comes across as a huge character, and whether you may question some of his motives, the film is a brilliant historical journey.

Particle Fever

The story of the Large Hadron Collider may be one that is fairly well known, but Mark Levinson’s film is a fascinating insight into the lives of the scientists working at CERN as they struggle to find the elusive Higgs boson particle. Most of the footage comes courtesy of one of the scientists themselves David Kaplan, so we get a rare glimpse of  what goes on behind the scenes. Edited by Walter Murch, Particle Fever is a great mix of science and storytelling; allowing the personalities to shine through. The Q&A featured Levinson, Murch and three of the key protagonists in the film, allowing the audience to meet people who are part of making history.

There are so many films to see and things to do that it is impossible to see everything you want to. Honourable mentions go to The Network and Project Wild Thing. As with any film festival there has to be winners, and this year the films making the grade were:

Special Jury Award: The Act of Killing
Sheffield Youth Jury AwardGod Loves Uganda
Sheffield Innovation Award: Alma, a Tale of Violence
Sheffield Green Award: Pandora’s Promise
The Tim Hetherington Award presented by Sheffield Doc/Fest and Dogwoof: The Square (Al Midan)
2013 Audience Award for Best Feature: The Act Of Killing
2013 Audience Award for Best Short Documentary: Slomo & Solipsist Part 1