Notes from Sheffield Doc/Fest 2017

BFI curator Ros Cranston enjoys a number of new documentaries making creative use of archive film at this year’s jam-packed Sheffield Doc/Fest.

Ros Cranston
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Queerama (2017)

Queerama (2017)

A rallying cry from filmmaker Daisy Asquith opened this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest: “No one can ever tell us who or how to love again.” She was presenting her film Queerama, the story of a remarkable century of gay experiences, consisting entirely of footage from the BFI National Archive. Musician John Grant provides much of the soundtrack, and he was in Sheffield to perform after the enthusiastically received screening at City Hall.

Asquith uses choice images and jaw-dropping interviews from the archive, ranging from the funny to the tragic and everything in between. “I knew I could be naughty and change the original meanings,” Asquith said. Her film conveys “a history of feelings” as well as a historical narrative of changing legislation and attitudes in society.

The weekend opened with two captivating football films. Forbidden Games, directed by Adam Darke and Jon Carey, tells some of the conflicting stories around the complicated, turbulent life of footballer Justin Fashanu. His compelling life story is placed in the wider context of society’s attitudes to homosexuality. Again, the film is based around cleverly chosen archive footage – this time researched by Paul Bell, best known for his work on Senna (2010) and Amy (2015) – which makes for a moving, shocking and powerful film.

Forbidden Games (2017)

Forbidden Games (2017)

Meanwhile, Adam Sobel’s The Workers Cup takes an engaging perspective on the life of some of the workers building the infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The atrocious working conditions of foreign workers have been widely highlighted, and this film is structured around a football tournament organised for the workers. While this is acknowledged to be a management PR stunt, the tournament nevertheless provides an opportunity for the filmmakers to gain insights into the stories of the workers’ lives beyond the headlines. The Workers Cup also subtly incorporates a debate about modern slavery, as well as plenty of moments of high sporting drama.

Jaha's Promise (2017)

Jaha's Promise (2017)

Activist Jaha Dukurek is the subject of Jaha’s Promise, directed by Kate O’Callaghan and Patrick Farrelly, which screened as a UK premiere on Saturday. Dukurek is a twentysomething woman, now living in America, who leaves her steady bank job to campaign against female genital mutilation (FGM), having been inspired by the success of the Guardian’s campaign in the UK. First in the US and then in her home country of Gambia, where her father is an imam, she proves to be a persuasive, tireless and charismatic figure. Her backstory and campaigning are followed in a three-year journey for the filmmakers themselves, who weren’t sure where their story would take them. We can be thankful that they stuck with it.

On Sunday Nick Broomfield was entertainingly interviewed by Louis Theroux in a packed Crucible Theatre. Broomfield paid tribute to veteran documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, particularly his advice to “trust the ideas on the edge of your mind”, which inspired Broomfield to realise that the surrounding activities may turn out to be more interesting than the story you’re supposed to be telling. This resulted in his breakthrough successes and widely recognised style of filmmaking.

Whitney “Can I Be Me” (2017)

Whitney “Can I Be Me” (2017)

The interview was a prelude to Broomfield’s highly anticipated Whitney “Can I Be Me”, co-directed with Rudi Dolezal, which was simultaneously launched in Sheffield and presented in cinemas around the UK. Telling the story of the life and death of singer Whitney Houston, Broomfield is uncharacteristically inconspicuous – appearing neither in person nor in voiceover. This had not been the case in previous versions of the documentary: he revealed in the Q&A that the funders wanted him to be present in the film, but Broomfield realised – in the course of more than a hundred edits – that this approach wasn’t working. Houston herself needed to be the heart of the film.

Broomfield also spoke of “his allegiance with an imaginary audience to tell what really happened” in his work. That works both ways, and the allegiance of the audiences themselves is also very apparent as they throng to the wide-ranging documentaries shown at Doc/Fest this year.

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