Notes from Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016

BFI curator Ros Cranston reports from a festival rich in creative uses of archive film to tell powerful political stories.

14 June 2016

By Ros Cranston

Jim: The James Foley Story (2016)

This year’s Doc/Fest appears busier than ever and, with archive film playing a starring role in many screenings and events, there’s a delightfully bewildering array of possibilities for an archive curator to choose from. This includes plenty of documentaries with a political or campaigning angle, my curatorial specialism at the BFI National Archive.

My first port of call on arrival at Sheffield was the Crucible theatre, to attend the BAFTA masterclass Working with Archive. Chaired by one of my fellow curators at the BFI, Katy McGahan, it proved a great opener to my festival. The ever articulate and witty Paul Bell, archive producer (though he dislikes the term) on Senna (2010) and Amy (2015), spoke engagingly on the process of making an entirely archive-based film. “You’re just making a film without actually picking up a camera”, he said. The dominance of archive footage means “you’re always in the moment”, while also following the classic scriptwriting advice of “showing not telling” the audience.

During the festival I saw three new documentaries which, like Paul Bell’s films with Asif Kapadia, use archive film to tell the story of a charismatic individual, albeit with generous amounts of additional contemporary interviews. The first of these was Jim: The James Foley Story (directed by Brian Oakes for HBO), in which the use of family home movie footage of the young Jim, amid a loving family, made his later tragic death at the hands of Isis somehow all the more shocking. Made by a family friend, the film was very much in the style of a eulogy to Foley, apart from some sharp contributions by one of his female conflict journalist colleagues on the frontline, in Libya and Syria.

Uncle Howard (2016)

Uncle Howard is another film made by someone close to its subject, its personal nature at the heart of the story. Directed by his nephew Aaron Brookner, it’s a portrait of documentary filmmaker Howard Brookner, himself director of a celebrated film about William Burroughs, Burroughs: The Movie (1983). Aaron’s new film is both probing and engaging, and while the director is clearly very much a fan of his subject, it also vividly portrays life among the Beat generation in New York’s Bowery in the 1970s.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days (2016)

In contrast, Bobby Sands: 66 Days, directed by Brendan J. Byrne, was made about someone of whom there is no known archive footage (and indeed even very few stills): the IRA prisoner and hunger striker, Bobby Sands. The filmmakers took the step of using reconstruction – showing the building of a prison cell as their set to avoid any ambiguity – as well as powerful use of archival sources and interviews with a range of different participants from fellow prisoners to one of the prison workers. The result is a potent and shocking film. Several audience members left the screening I attended.

Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next took a very different approach to the use of archive film. It was as big on laughs as on startling facts – sometimes simultaneously. Moore’s invasions take the form of appropriating social and moral values from around the world and claiming them for the US, from the generous holidays enjoyed by Italian workers to the high cuisine school dinners eaten by French infants. Moore himself was present at the screening, and in response to an inevitable audience question about the US presidential elections he said, apologetically, that he thinks that Donald Trump will win.

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