Notes from Sheffield Doc/Fest 2015

Cricket, gospel music, Greenpeace and the social divide – this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest offered a typically diverse platter of themes, finds BFI curator Ros Cranston.

Death of a Gentleman (2015)

Sheffield Doc/Fest seems to expand every year both in terms of the numbers attending and the array of events and screenings. I’m here in my role as curator of political and campaigning film at the BFI National Archive and am looking out for new films in this area, with a view to their potential addition to the national collection. It’s also a fine opportunity to get a glimpse of different experiences – from aspiring young filmmakers hoping to get their break at the MeetMarket to retrospectives of established figures in the documentary world, such as this year’s tribute to the late Albert Maysles.

Doc/Fest pushes the boat out in the locations chosen for some screenings, and the evening of Saturday 6 June saw coachloads of delegates travelling to Sheffield Botanical Gardens for an open-air screening of Mavis!, Jessica Edwards’ debut film, which was pitched at last year’s MeetMarket. This is a warm-hearted tribute to Mavis Staples, the charismatic gospel and folk singer from Chicago. Now 75, Staples is full of chuckles as she reminisces about her life on tour, the civil rights movement, and her encounters with the likes of Bob Dylan and Martin Luther King. There’s plenty of great archive footage capturing her wonderfully rich voice.

Mavis! (2015)

I was pleased to see that The Divide was screening the next day. Inspired by the book The Spirit Level, Katharine Round’s film is about the growing inequality in the UK and US, which has expanded from a work in progress I saw at last year’s festival. This year it really found its moment, judging by the length of the queue to get into the screening – so long that I wasn’t one of the lucky ones who made it into the screening.

Instead, I went to see Albert Maysles’ penultimate film, Iris. It’s a portrait of Iris Apfel, a legendary New York style icon, with a fine line in aphorisms, and someone clearly on the fortunate side of the inequality divide, judging by her considerable wardrobe and accessories budget. Maysles follows her on several shopping trips, the results of which occupy three apartments and a storage facility. Her wit and wisdom make for an engaging watch, and the focus is very much on notions of style rather than any debate about consumerism.

Iris (2014)

A very different world view was on show in Death of a Gentleman. It’s about the ICC (the International Cricket Council) and is billed as an investigation into “the biggest scandal in sport”. The filmmakers, Sam Collins and Jarrod Kimber, made a point of sticking with that phrase, even in the light of current revelations about FIFA. As a non-cricket fan, it was with some trepidation that I went to the screening, but this rousing and powerful film about greed and secret deals at the highest levels of cricket is a persuasive and gripping story, whatever your level of interest in the game. It’s also the opening salvo in a campaign to clean up the ICC. Look out for its release in July.

How to Change the World (2015)

Jerry Rothwell’s How to Change the World sounded like an unmissable film for anyone with an interest in campaigning and this archive-rich story of the origins of Greenpeace lived up to its promise. It was a compelling story of a group of young environmentalists – “mystics and mechanics” – from Vancouver who set out on a reckless boat trip to confront Russian whalers, and accidentally found themselves to be the start of an international movement. The story of the making of the film itself is also a fascinating one. It was inspired by the footage in Greenpeace’s own archive, which was still largely an unknown quantity to the filmmakers as they sought funding – so much so that the producer told potential backers with enthusiastic ambiguity that “I can’t tell you how wonderful it is.” Their leap of faith certainly paid off and the film is exciting, witty and rousing.

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