Sheffield Doc/Fest might be the festival that manages to be all things to all people. There seems to be something for everyone there – be it the ordinary punter, the aspiring documentarian or the host of young volunteers nursing beers and networking in the sunshine. Industry masterclasses focus on ‘breaking in’, getting commissioned, and the practicalities of documentary filmmaking – a veritable crash-course for ambitious newcomers. Initiatives like Meet Market and the BFI Film Fund’s pitching sessions allow selected filmmakers to interact and pitch their ideas to potential commissioners. But the enthusiastic filmgoer will find plenty to see – giving Doc/Fest an affable, open-minded feel and a genuinely democratic vibe.
In terms of the programming, this ‘come one, come all’ approach is key. Held this year from June 10-15, Doc/Fest opens with the UK premiere of Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next – seeing Moore on top form as he contrasts the stagnant American political system with innovative domestic policies around Europe. Moore is in attendance for a Q&A on 12 June. There’s the whiff of the provocateur in the air this year, as fellow button-pusher Louis Theroux will also be on the bill, appearing in My Scientology Movie.
Themed strands of the festival are interwoven, featuring both the standard and the prescient – like environmental change and migration, with far-flung stories of displaced people from Syria (My Aleppo) to Poland (Brothers). Snow Monkey sees director George Gittoes following groups of child gangs in Taliban-occupied portions of Afghanistan. Gittoes asks them to carry cameras instead of guns, with remarkable results.
Other filmmakers, like George Amponsah, ask us to look closer to home. The Hard Stop, which is backed by the BFI Film Fund, examines the police killing of unarmed black Londoner Mark Duggan, and the events leading up to the 2011 riots. It’s a stomach-twisting, insightful film – equally interested in Duggan’s loved ones as it is in the larger maelstrom of police brutality in the UK. Other BFI-backed films screening in the festival include Louise Osmond’s new portrait of Ken Loach, Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach, and Notes on Blindness, which makes use of virtual reality to detail the deterioration of one man’s eyesight.
More stalwart documentary fare includes films on the musical icon (Mavis!, Miss. Sharon Jones), the philandering politician (Weiner), and sport (Crash and Burn). Documentary giants D.A. Pennebaker and Barbara Kopple also have new films appearing in the line-up, with the former appearing in conversation with collaborator Chris Hegedus. Their new film Unlocking the Cage will also be accompanied by retrospective screenings of Pennebaker’s cornerstone music docs, Dont Look Back (1967) and Monterey Pop (1968).
Other cultural luminaries are the subjects of their own films this year; from Maya Angelou: Still I Rise to the well-received Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, picked up by Dogwoof in the UK. The world of cinema will also get its due; there’ll be a mini-retro of Ken Loach’s previous work as well as another in tribute to the late Chantal Akerman. Her most celebrated film (Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) and her final one (No Home Movie) will be screened. A doc looking back at Akerman’s career through her own recollections, entitled I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman, will accompany these.
Women and LGBT subjects feature prominently throughout the fest’s selection – they make up two of the festival’s strands, but happily defy any didactic subject matter. Take Swedish entry Golden Girl, about the world’s most feared female boxer Frida Wallberg. Lauded at Sundance, Kiki is also sure to be a stand-out, offering a view of gay nightlife in New York and following the resurgence of voguing. Wonderfully, Doc/Fest will be holding a ‘Vogue, Strike a Pose!’ party at Sheffield’s 02 Arena on Saturday 11 June.
Of course, there has to be room at Doc/Fest for the oddity or two. Ukrainian Sheriffs seems intriguing – an intimate, comic portrait of two police officers trekking around their remote village on their daily duties. And Two Trains Runnin’ sounds irresistible – a doc by Sam Pollard about the parallel rise of black country blues and the civil rights movement in the American south.
For the intellectually curious, it’d be difficult to wander into any screening at Doc/Fest and not find something fascinating. Beyond the breezy friendliness of the festival, this might be one of its very best facets. Be it a political treatise, a profound testament to human resilience, or simply a great untold story, Sheffield Doc/Fest offers something for filmmakers on the make, casual guests, and anyone in between.