One Massive Sheffield Wrap-Up

One thing I learned from the film festivals I’ve attended in the last few years is to always trust your instincts. Which is more difficult than it sounds when there is interesting programming from 10 am into the late evening. But by sticking to what instantly appealed all in all I didn’t do too badly and I was able to add another 11 films to this year’s list!

Warning: This is a long post, probably only tolerated with a coffee, tea and/or chocolate. . . 

58.) Pulp: A film about Life, Death and Supermarkets directed by Florian Habicht (2014). What a way to open a festival in Sheffield! The film’s narrative leads up to the last appearance of the band in their native city, interspersing vignettes which feature people of Sheffield talking about their love of the band. I think I’d have liked this film more if I were a Pulp fan – in fact, at the height of their popularity, the band passed me by while I was studying away in some upstate New York library. But never mind, Jarvis Cocker is indeed entertaining to watch – especially when he talks about how odd it will be when old people of the future will recall Reel 2 Real’s “I Like To Move It, Move It” versus”The Lambeth’s Walk” as the music of their generation.  Pulp: A film about Life, Death and Supermarkets is a great insight into how and why the band tapped into the zeitgeist of its time, especially for a foreigner like me.

59.) Happiness directed by Thomas Balmes (2013) – From the director of Babies (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QkytlvAEE2k) comes Happiness, a film set in Bhutan which opens with the country’s ruler announcing the opening of Bhutan to internet and television one decade ago. What follows is the story of how one television set eventually makes its way to a tiny village, with the help of a young boy who had been sent away to a monastery after his father died of a heart attack upon encountering a bear. Happiness is a beautifully shot film, and one with its own rhythm that you either settle into or you don’t. When the filmmaker introduced the film I got the sense that he wanted his audience to judge whether television would bring happiness to these small villages, but for me that was not the point of the film. What was more interesting was watching the villagers interact with the outside world through a small screen, having to find their bearings for the first time as to whether what they were watching was “real” or not. The film ends with a striking montage of villagers watching television, with the TV set out of sight and only the different colours of its transmission flashing across their faces.

Masterclass with the British filmmaker Olly Lambert (http://www.ollylambert.com/) whose breakthrough film was “4 Weeks To Find A Girlfriend” – Okay, this was not an actual film but worth mentioning for its insight into his filmmaking process. In looking over the notes I scribbled down in the near-dark during this session it’s hard to organise them in a way that makes the most sense so I’m afraid they will have to simply be transcribed from my notes.  Olly talked about “voice” (he doesn’t think he has one) versus “sensibility” and how he likes to have the subject dictate the style of the film. In fact Olly said that whenever he finishes a project he wants his next one to be something totally different.

Showing clips from a few of his films Olly talked about how “bringing a circus” into someone’s living room as opposed to going in by yourself can add a formality to the whole process that makes the people you are interviewing feel as though they are being listened to, that someone cares enough to take their testimony seriously. It creates a space in which people can perhaps say things they may never have said before.

He also said he is more drawn to characters than the filmmaking. For him his work is all about the personal enquiry and he feels that when a filmmaker does not have a personal enquiry, then they are just making content – in fact I think he went so far as to say that without the personal enquiry the filmmaker is just making crap!  What struck me in his session was how long and arduous his pre-production process is as Olly spends a lot of time doing screen tests on people who may (or may not) be in his films. Olly also believes that as the filmmaker it is really important to understand why the person wants to be in the film.

In terms of story Olly said you must be clear that you understand the story versus the plot of your film. (The plot is just a sequence of events). And that you need to know what the film is about? And then what it is REALLY about. He also had a great line about the length of a film: “I’ve seen a 2 minute film that’s too long and a 90 minute film that’s too short.” I love that.

Now back to the films…

60.) 1971 directed by Johanna Hamilton (2014). This film tells the story of the very lo-tech break-in of the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971 (the burglars simply looked up the closest FBI office in their phone book). A retrospective story told very well with drama reconstructions that I felt worked! The film brought together the burglars who had not been in touch for decades. I found it interesting to hear the motivations of ordinary people (Pennsylvanians no less!) who felt they had to do something even if it meant putting their families at risk.

61.) We Are Many directed by Amir Amirani (2014). This documentary, about the largest, global anti-war march on February 15th 2003 and the race to war which carried on regardless, had an outstanding reception at Sheffield. The film has an amazing number of interviews – from Tony Benn to Damon Albarn – and archive and takes the audience from being absolutely depressed (having to hear Bush say once again: “My fellow Americans, Let’s Roll!”) to leaving the cinema with the hope that the protest may not have been in vain after all.

62.) 112 Weddings directed by Doug Block (2014). This was my absolute favourite film of the festival and can now be seen in UK cinemas (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s4A07vLA-dI&feature=kp). The filmmaker Doug Block returns to some of the couples whose weddings he’s filmed over the last 20 years (to supplement his income as a bona fide documentary filmmaker) and talks to them about what it takes to stay married. I quickly stopped counting how many times I heard “that’s when the shit hit the fan” and settled on a favourite line which came from a rabbi: “Weddings are easy to make happy. You just throw a ton of money and liquor at them!” Need I say more about this film? A must see!

63.) Web Junkie directed by Hilla Medalia and Shosh Shlam (2014). This documentary was absolutely captivating not only for its story but as a window into China. Parents drug their kids or kidnap them while sleeping to send them off to an internet boot camp for 3 months where they forced to detox from video games (interestingly all the kids in the films are boys). These kids are playing games 10 hours a day and sometimes wearing diapers so they are not inconvenienced by bathroom breaks. But what I found more interesting was the way the kids are treated in the rehab and how they relate to their parents. In one scene, the hospital’s psychologist demands when the parents are reunited with their kids: “Parents, hug your children!” At one point there is talk of how having no siblings and having parents who focus only on their child’s grades has created a loneliness that can only be diminished by a fervent online life. This was my second favourite documentary of this year’s festival and the trailer is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8NdkapFLgcY.

64.) Night Will Fall directed by André Singer (2014). This film within a film tells the story of how a 1945 film about the liberation of the camps never got made after the British and American governments withdrew their support. Interweaving this story with testimonies of people who were there at the liberation, the film is a powerful insight into the end of the war.

65.) Regarding Susan Sontag directed by Nancy Kates (2014). I was surprised by this film which I thought told well the story of Sontag’s life using photographs, archive and interviews.

66.) The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden directed by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine (2013). This film tells an interesting story of a couple who settled on an uninhabited Galapagos island  in the 1930s to pursue their version of Eden. But it wasn’t long before other people came too, and then… trouble! Despite the overwhelming amount of access they had to archival material, I wondered if the film would have made a better novel?

67.) E-Team directed by Ross Kauffman and Katy Chevigny (2014). With amazing access to the places and characters, this documentary gives a fascinating insight into Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Response teams (or “E-teams”) in Syria, Kosovo and Libya.

68.) PilgrIMAGE directed by Peter Wintonick and Mira Burt-Wintonick (2008). This documentary is a father-daughter road trip made by the late and very talented Peter Wintonick with his daughter Mira. Though interesting in terms of facts and trivia of past great filmmakers – from Chaplin to Fellini – I left this film early! The film is sweet and a great tribute to both Wintonicks and their relationship with each other yet I couldn’t get past what I found to be too teacherly of a tone.

I’m hoping that by the 1st of July I can get myself to at least the 100 mark…

 

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