The films I saw were:
Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7
A chance to finally see a film I’d heard much about. Taking place in real time (almost), at first glance with all its old street scenes & classic cars this seemed almost like an archive film of ways to get around Paris. But like Battle of Algiers, while looking very much of its period, its also very contemporary as it explores themes and ideas that are still current – personality as performance, fear of mortality, the importance of friendship, what lasts?
As part of the Varda retrospective I also caught the sweet, slight, indulgent The Beaches of Agnes, a nostalgic trip through her life that seemed to me rather dull, laboured, and dated by comparison. Can’t win ‘em all I guess.
Godfrey (Koyaanisqatsi etc) Reggio’s latest, also with a Philip Glass score. Shot in stunning B/W, this is a wordless meditation on the transience of human civilization made up entirely of faces (mostly expressionless) interspersed with occasional landscapes and images of a ruined theme park. Portentous (and dangerously close to pretentious), this lulled me in to considering ‘the human condition’, the destruction of our precious blue planet, human foolishness etc etc. Bit too long & too repetitive, this will work for some audiences, but many walked out of the show I was at.
Good portrait of the band and the city of Sheffield – a gift for the festival opening night. Full of interesting faces & with some lovely scenes such as a group of pensioners singing ‘Help The Aged’. But in the end this is too much of a fan boy movie with too much footage of their final reunion concert for someone like me who is not a huge fan. But it was great fun to see Jarvis and all the band on stage for the Q&A, rapturously received of course as it was a real local-boys-made-good celebration.
Sweet, lovely story of the young Bhutanese boy sent off to the monastery because his mother can’t afford to keep him after his father dies. At the same time electricity is coming to their village, everyone is excited at the prospect of TV & the internet. So much so that his Uncle sells a yak to buy a TV. The boy’s life in the monastery is intercut with developments in the village. The final shots of weather-beaten Bhutanese faces bathed in a blue glow as they blankly watching World Wrestling speaks volumes.
We Are Many
I’ve never seen an audience give a film such a rapturous reception. This tells the story of the ‘Stop The War’ protests of Chwefror 2003 that became the biggest global protest ever. It reshapes the conventional narrative that ‘it didn’t work’ as Blair took us to war anyway, pointing to the vote against intervention in Syria as evidence of its impact on British politics. But the most interesting part is the interviews with Egyptian activists who say it inspired their democracy movement and led directly to Tahir Square. Great interviews, tremendously edited, a little long particularly in the build up to war, but the prolonged standing ovation suggests this really strokes a chord with the kind of activist audience that saw it at Sheffield.
Miners Shot Down
This is a powerful investigation into the Marikana mine massacre when police shot 34 miners in cold blood. The newsreel and police footage strongly rebut the ‘official version’ of events. Full of very strong interviews with the miners who took part in the protest, lawyers etc. Interestingly this deals with the complicity of the government, Cyril Ramaphosa, the Miners Union, etc etc in the brutal treatment of the striking miners. A hugely important film for South Africa, the wider issues around ANC corruption are probably more interesting to audiences outside South Africa.
This is part of the South African film tour that Afrika Eye & others are organising so will be available to book in the autumn. I spoke to the director, Rehad Desai who was happy to come & do Q&As with the film as part of a tour.
A Dangerous Game
One of those films I went to because it fitted a gap in my timetable that day so wasn’t expecting a great deal. But this was a surprisingly good follow up to You’ve Been Trumped that continues the story of the local villagers who stand up to Donald Trump’s development of a golf complex on a pristine part of the Scottish coast. With his law-breaking, bullying, and general nastiness, Trump makes a great pantomime villain to boo every time he appears. This story is intercut with one about a golf course above Dubrovnik where citizens force a referendum and vote against the development. The global picture – the water used on golf courses each year is enough for 80% of the world’s population – seems like an essential tale to tell, but does mean the film loses focus somewhat.
A wasted opportunity, this is a rather muddled take on a hugely important topic. This follows the story of the team that wrote ‘Limits To Growth’ over the 40 years since their warnings fell on deaf ears. Now that so much of what they wrote is coming to pass it would seem like a great opportunity to ask them some hard questions about what’s in store. But this takes too long on the history and fudges the vital questions. While these experts are still travelling the globe making the arguments wherever they can, their views seem to range from slightly pessimistic to deeply pessimistic. They do raise the difficult question as to whether democracies with their cycle of electoral politics can actually tackle the problems caused by being wedded to ‘economic growth’ above all things.
Alex Gibney’s (The Armstrong Lie, Freakonomics, Enron etc) compelling portrait of the late, great Fela Kuti, Nigeria’s answer to Bob Marley was a magnetic performer, true revolutionary, but deeply flawed man. Mixing terrific archive footage of Kuti in action with the creation of the Broadway musical, Fela!, gives Gibney the chance to explore how Fela created his own mythical status through his uncompromising opposition to military rule and all-round rhythmic genius. A hugely courageous freedom fighter who lived in the limelight, there’s plenty of amazing stories to tell about the kingdom Kuti created in his compound - from the day he married 27 wives to the day his funeral brought Lagos to a standstill. An irresistibly enjoyable, eye-opening, mind-expanding, toe-tapping experience!
Nelson Mandela, The Myth & Me
Director Khalo Matabane was an idealistic teenager with fantastical ideas about a post-apartheid era of freedom and justice when the great icon of liberation Nelson Mandela was released from prison. In this deeply personal, highly intelligent examination of the Mandela myth and its enduring impact on South Africa Matabane asks some tricky questions. Has the struggle for equal rights for the black majority been held back by Mandela’s act of forgiveness? Is peace and reconciliation possible without justice? Is what is right for a ‘saint’ like Mandela also right for his fellow countrymen? Very skilfully edited interviews with a wide range of public figures as well as ordinary citizens who are still suffering because of apartheid make for a fascinating film about contemporary South Africa.
Like Miners Shot Down this is also part of the South African film tour that Afrika Eye & others are organising so will be available to book in the autumn.
And then there was the ‘Ecstasy, Breathing and the Creative Process’ workshop. As it says in the blurb this was “A mind expanding shamanic journey . . . and yummy pleasurable experience” – certainly quite unlike anything I’ve ever been to at any other festival, so all power to Doc/Fest for finding space for the esoteric, outer fringes.
Thanks to Tiff and all those at the Hub for the chance to check out how one of the UK’s most buzzy festivals works. Always good to learn how other festivals handle ticket sales, volunteers, marketing (their biggest weakness was an illegible brochure + hard to navigate website), and all the sundry activity that goes into making a hugely successful event.