Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012
Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012 partied like it was 1999. In fact, it is the first festival I have ever attended that celebrated its opening with two exclusive events at two different venues, screening two very different kinds of films, albeit both of them involving some excellent musicians at work. The first film on show, Penny Woolcock’s cinematic coastal journey From The Sea To The Land Beyond, collated over 100 years of BFI archive footage and was accompanied by a live soundtrack performed by British Sea Power, which alone would have made for a grand opening. But Malik Bendjelloul’s Sundance hit Searching for Sugar Man turned out to be the real coup when the star of the film, the long-lost Detroit folk singer Rodriguez, took to the stage to deliver a wildly entertaining set at the festival’s unifying opening night party. The unique double header was the perfect kick-off to this year’s 19th edition of Doc/Fest, which is not only about watching documentaries but about the process of making them – digitally or on film – and the skills and finances needed to get their sometimes adventurous, sometimes horrifying, often outrageous, frequently hilariously, yet largely informative stories and subjects vibrantly portrayed and seen.
Combining most of these characteristics was Brian Knappenberger’s We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, which explores the core beliefs and history of the underground hacking collective known as Anonymous. Mixing rare interview footage of current members of the group with comments from experts, writers and academics, Knappenberger’s film gives a thorough chronological account of how Anonymous has evolved, from its early days as a forum to share jokes to the birth of a powerful democratic online activism that is taking down Scientology websites, declaring cyber-war on PayPal and rebelling against the opponents of WikiLeaks and anyone else who enforces net censorship. Over the course of its tightly edited and illuminating 93 minutes, We Are Legion reveals a volley of intriguing information about Anonymous and the various sites that preceded and empowered the initiative. It may not change some people’s perception of hacking as being a criminal and unethical underground activity but, with a great sense of counterpoise, it shines light on both sides of the spectrum while being consistently entertaining along the way.
Activism, one way or another, seemed to be everywhere in Sheffield. In Fredrik Gertten’s spectacular Big Boys Gone Bananas!*, the follow-up to his 2009 documentary Bananas!*, in which he disclosed Dole’s devastating use of pesticides in Nicaragua, the filmmaker recounts his outrageous experience in dealing with the corporate food giant as they set out on an aggressive media campaign to prevent the film’s release and discredit Gertten’s reputation as a filmmaker – yet thankfully in vain. Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry was an engrossing portrait of one of the world’s greatest contemporary artists and currently China’s official enemy number one, being as well known for his art as for his impassionate political engagement. One of the many curious facts to emerge from Klayman’s close encounter with the serene and softly spoken artist is that Ai Weiwei has a great obsession for Twitter, frequently updating his fans (and adversaries) around the world about his work as well as openly sharing his most personal political contemplations. Although at times he may resemble a wry uncle, the artist’s fierce powers of observation are ever present as are the threats from a government that doesn’t tolerate anyone who dares to step out of line. Luckily though, it was the Chinese delegation of TV executives, originally invited to Sheffield to participate in one of the interactive workshop sessions, who stayed at home after the festival refused an official request from the Chinese Embassy to remove the documentary from the programme.
Jon Shenk’s poignant documentary The Island President, about former Maldives leader Mohamed Nasheed’s battle to save the low-lying islands from drowning, and Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice, which follows American environmental photographer James Balog on his mission to capture the alarming decrease of some of the world’s greatest glaciers, take different approaches to making an indisputable case against global high politics, which continue to fail in tackling climate change and global warming. Both are necessary and impressive films that appeal to both heart and head.
The standout for me was, however, Matthew Akers’s Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present , for crafting an apt and captivating portrait of the legendary performance artist whose incredible body of work remains just as powerful and electrifying as its creator’s persona. The film follows the 65-year-old Serbian-born Abramović as she prepares for the 2010 major retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and, in particular, for the famous centrepiece of the exhibition which saw her sitting in a plain wooden chair for seven hours a day, seven days a week for the entire three-month duration of the show. Silent and motionless, Abramović simply looked into the eyes of whoever dared and got the chance to take a seat in the empty chair placed in front of her. The emotional effect of the piece on both artist and audience was estranging and exciting in equal measures. Aker’s camera manages to capture a fine glimpse of the incredible tension beneath the surface of Abramović′s seemingly withdrawn face and posture, sometimes pulling in close, sometimes staying back and observing the conspicuous performance from a distance, while never losing sight of its mesmerising, yet ultimately elusive star.
It might have been good fortune that so many fine films came my way in the less than 72 hours I spent at Sheffield Doc/Fest but it did leave me wondering whether some of the best festival films this year are simply to be found in documentary.