From the Sea to the Land Beyond

By James Murray-White.

This year’s Sheffield DocFest felt like the most buoyant, optimistic and stimulating festival experience so far, of the 3 I’ve attended. With over 2,500 delegates attending the 5 days, and 83 films screening, including 10 outdoors; half a dozen pitching sessions and several million pounds of funding on the table for new documentaries and crossover media projects to be made, being in Sheffield this past week felt like the world of documentary-making is recession proof and ever-increasing in strength.

While the films were loosely categorised into various sections, as in previous years, such as Middle East, Behind the Beats or films about music, Global Encounters, Euro Doc, and Best of British; what emerged quite quickly for me were the twin themes of Place, and Crisis, embodied by an individual within a film, or a society in crisis due to a particular issue, or the wider environmental crisis.

Arriving on the Wednesday evening, the first film I saw was From the Sea to the Land Beyond, directed by Penny Woolcock using 100 years of archive footage from the British Film Institute. This is a glorious examination of what makes our unique Island culture: the British resourcefulness and Industriousness of the past Century, alongside the exploitation of fish, oil and human capital, as well as our gritty determination to enjoy the seaside as a leisure pursuit. Accompanied by the band British Sea Power performing their original composition to the film, both languid and resonant in places, with a pounding rhythm section, this film moved me like no other reflection on British culture. I recommend this highly to Brits and non-Brits alike. Woolcock, a major figure in the British doc scene, was given a DocFest ‘Inspiration’Award, and also premiered One Mile Away, a feature doc exploring gangland culture amongst young Jamaicans in Birmingham.

Jaywick Escapes

An interesting juxtaposition to From the Sea was Jaywick Escapes (dir. Karen Guthrie/Nina Pope), which took a close look at one British seaside resort, sadly very much down at heel and described as the most deprived town in the UK, and at the lives of several residents, who have all arrived there looking to change or get away from past problems. Very much a fly on the wall doc, it builds an audiences empathy with its characters just enough to make you start guessing what may happen to them.

The opening night film, Searching For Sugar Man (dir. Malik Bendjelloul’s first film) combines elements of both place – crossing between Detroit and Cape Town, and crisis: a wonderfully talented musician whose career fell apart and who disappeared for many years. A great story, and very well filmed, but told in too elongated a style, I felt. All the elements are there, and it made a great ‘feel good’ opening night experience, particularly with the surprise appearance after the end credits rolled, and it will do well in cinemas worldwide. Sugar Man came second in the Audience Awards, announced on Sunday, and had previously won at Sundance.

Searching for Sugar Man

My highlight of the festival was Sector Zero (dir. Nadim Mishlawi), a deep exploration of a place with a dark human history, the now derelict area of Karatina, on the outskirts of Beirut. Told through the voices of 3 highly articulate interviewees, interwoven with glorious detailed long panning shots, fully exploiting colour and texture, with a unique soundscape – Mishlawi describes himself as primarily a composer – Sector Zero brings a chill to the bone of the viewer, and a greatly enriched sense of how human communities inhabit spaces, using and abusing a locality as well as each other. I came away with a sense of sadness and futility about how humanity shapes its ends – both in creating desolate environments and not learning the lessons of them, this in marked contrast to Woolcock’s film-assemblage of the sea; although enraptured by this Lebanese director and his crew’s ability to craft a complete telling of a place – really any place where we have gathered. Mishlawi is a director to watch.

Continuing into the Middle Eastern theme, as a former resident of Jerusalem, I felt compelled to watch 5 Broken Cameras (dirs. Emad Burnat, Guy Davidi), The Law in these Parts (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz) and the eagerly anticipated new short  My Neighbourhood, from the Just Vision production company (dir. Julia Bacha). All these films combined elements of the place and the reason for the Individual and Society to be tearing themselves apart, be it exploring Israel’s emergency governing of the West Bank and application of laws there post-1948 (The Law….), or the specific tension currently raging around the West Bank village of Bil’in , which has resulted in Burnat having his cameras broken, as well as tragic deaths and injuries to many, and in My Neighbourhood the equally evocative story of the loss of an Arab family home, followed by an upswelling of Israeli activists support for them.

5 Broken Cameras

Watching this narrative of conflict and co-operation unfold across the screens in Sheffield reminded me of the urgent truth of the documentary form. While living there I understood that filmmakers from Israel and the Palestinian Territories, as well as from across the entire Arab World, have used cameras as tools of truth, weapons of mass observation and anthropological microscopes to unpick, and in these cases, to collaboratively bring their tellings of the stories to an international audience. In the case of 5 Broken Cameras this project started in Sheffield, pitched at a Meetmarket session a few years ago. It won the Audience Award this year.

Some of the Pitch sessions were gripping feasts of stories well told, half-stories under-developed, nervous first-timers and cynical commissioners cutting them down. The Wellcome Trust generously awarded 10,000 pounds each to four projects as development money: another session run by the Discovery Channel had a showreel and web exposure up for grabs. From these sessions I fully expect to see some docs grow and be seen at Sheffield in a few years.

Other highlights of the festival experience, in addition to many formal panel discussions on Industry practise, included director Michael Apted talk about his distinguished career, from the groundbreaking Up series, through to a Bond movie, BBC man Nick Fraser, a passionate fighter for documentaries, launch an important new pamphlet ‘Why Documentaries Matter’ published by the Reuters Institute; several films about artists, including Ai Weiwei (Never Sorry), the revolutionary British punk-poet John Cooper Clarke, (Evidently….) and Marina Abramovic – The Artist is Present, which won the Special Jury Award. This was directed by Matthew Akers, and is particularly poignant for its recording of her recent work at MOMA, where she sat in a gallery and interacted through eye contact on a one-on-one basis with those who wished to. She and others speak movingly in the film of what she saw in people, what they brought to the experience, and what she gained from it. This is a very moving documentary exploring how crisis and humanity itself can be worked with on an artistic level, as well as on many others.

Looking for Nicolas Sarkozy

Women documentary makers featured highly, and Debra Zimmerman, executive director of Women Make Movies, was awarded a special ‘Ambassador of Women’s Film’s’ Award, presented by the Alliance of Women Film Journalist’s. It was the British filmmaker Carol Morley, director of the extraordinary Dreams of a Life (released earlier in the year) who in an absorbing and personal q and a session admitted that making films had saved her own mental health. Her films get deep into personal psychology of the troubled mind, and expose some of the turmoil beneath.

Political crises and corruption were exposed in big feature docs Putin’s Kiss (dir. Lisa Birk Pederson) and Looking for Nicolas Sarkozy (dir. William Karel), both chilling and desperately sad in their own way, while the moral crisis ripping apart the church was at the heart of Love Free or Die (dir. Macky Alston), which explores the gritty conviction of gay Bishop Gene Robinson, pitted against the homophobic Church establishment. Again, this documentary cleverly the form of journalistic detachment to get to the heart of the matter, with the bishop and the facts on the ground telling the story, coupled with great access to figures on both sides of the debate, yet to this observer who hadn’t followed the story previously, I felt enormous sympathy for the bishop and despair toward the Institution, unable to stretch its thinking and beliefs.

Love Free or Die

A season of four films by the Russian master Dziga Vertov came as a welcome relief in this midst of so many contemporary docs to choose from. Having recently watched Man With a Movie Camera (1928) on the small screen, it was glorious to see it here again, with live musical accomplishment. Vertov was the original experimenter in film, and many of his sequences and effects beat hands down what can be done with software today. Three Songs of Lenin (1934) had the eerie overtones of Communist control – it was after all one of the first State commissioned films, but fascinating nonetheless, as it ranged across the Steppe from Uzbekistan to Moscow, and included many shots of Lenin’s body lying in state, with mourners from far and wide. As programmer Hussain Currimbhoy writes: “Vertov was determined to make the role of the camera an honourable one that served humanity instead of placating it.”

Sheffield DocFest is now firmly established as the home and proving ground of documentaries in the UK. This year’s festival melded a sense of place with a sense of documentary exploration and purpose within the tremendously varied work that was shown. This reviewer was thrilled, appalled and exhilarated after the journeys I made and the lives I encountered here in just a few days. Here’s to DocFest 2013.

James Murray-White is a freelance writer, reviewer and filmmaker, based in Bristol, UK. Current projects involve neuroscience research, and several grassroots environmental campaigns. Further information at


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