Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020: 10 films to try

A tip-sheet on films to watch at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, which has begun with an invigorating selection of documentaries to watch online.

26 June 2020

By Georgia Korossi

Bring Down the Walls (2020)

It’s the 27th edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest this year and, yes, it’s happening despite of Covid-19 – albeit in inventively modified form. It kicked off as a virtual festival online on 10 June and is offering a selection of films, digital experiences and market activities through to the autumn, when parts of the programme will be screened at cinemas in Sheffield (subject to safe conditions).

A total of 115 international documentary features and shorts shape this year’s programme, 22 of which are homemade. Among many things, this edition pays homage to a true pioneer of African cinema, the late filmmaker, poet and political activist Sarah Maldoror. Following her first assignment as assistant director on Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic The Battles of Algiers (1966), Maldoror was among the earliest women to direct a feature film in Africa. She left more than 40 films as her legacy, most of them documentaries. Her first short, Monangambée (1969), and other titles will be screened in the autumn as part of the festival’s Into the World strand.

This year’s retrospective, Reimagining the Land, examines questions of ownership and agricultural labour, with a programme of films curated by Christopher Small, including Mehboob Khan’s epic Mother India (1957). Other exciting prospects include the festival’s collaboration with the NGO Video nas Aldeias for a curated programme with a spotlight on the indigenous communities living in Brazil.

Core grant funding from the BFI, Sheffield City Council, Arts Council England and Wellcome enabled the festival to partner with BFI Player, Doc Alliance Films, Mubi and The Guardian – all of which will host parts of the programme at different stages of the event. Kicking off its virtual sessions, the newly appointed Sheffield Doc/Fest director Cintia Gil and film journalist Carmen Gray chaired a session with a number of film programmers from around the world to talk about the purpose of film festivals. It offered an invaluable exchange of views on the fundamentals of festival production and accessibility, while stating the case for filmmaking as one of society’s vital practices.

Here’s a tasting menu of what’s on offer.

Bring Down the Walls

Section: Rhyme & Rhythm

Bring Down the Walls (2020)

British-born filmmaker and Turner Prize nominee Phil Collins documents a three-part art project that opened to the public in May 2018 with talks and re-recordings of house classics by formerly incarcerated vocalists and musicians. Coinciding with the rise in mass incarceration in the US of the 1980s, the emergence of house music from black, queer and Latin communities is a history that is little known. Collins powerfully illustrates the freedom and joy of nightlife against the brutality of the prison industrial complex. If you enjoyed Jeremy Deller’s Everybody in the Place, a festival favourite at last year’s edition, Bring Down the Walls will be your next Doc/Fest highlight.


Section: Rebellions

Bakoroman (2011)

Ahead of the festival’s autumn tribute to Sarah Maldoror, focuses on the works of Burkina Faso filmmaker Simplice Herman Ganou and American artist Lynne Sachs are now available online via the Doc/Fest Selects platform. Ganou’s Bakoroman is an immersive work that examines the tough world of child homelessness. It follows five children who have left their abusive and restrictive homes at the ages of 7, 12 and 16 and are forced to learn how to lead their lives on the streets. Ganou followed up the story in The Koro of Bakoro, the Survivors of Faso (2017), which is also included in the online programme, while his latest film, The Unknown, will screen in Sheffield as part of the Rebellions weekend.

Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam

Section: Ghosts & Apparitions

Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam (1994)

Described as poems, personal observations and political tools, Lynn Sachs’ experimental documentaries are beautiful experiences. Which Way Is East: Notebooks from Vietnam is a travel diary in which Sachs and her sister Dana journey through a country they previously knew only from TV, discovering its vibrant life and the ghosts of its history. In addition, Sachs’ 35-years-in-the-making project Film about a Father Who will have its international premiere in October as part of the festival’s Into the World strand.


Section: Into the World

Influence (2020)

Influence is Diana Neille and Richard Poplak’s chilling portrait of Lord Tim Bell, co-founder of the notorious British advertising firm Bell Pottinger, who worked on campaigns for Margaret Thatcher and Augusto Pinochet, among many other lucrative contracts around the globe, including in the Middle East and South Africa. A study of the power of advertising as a tool of mass manipulation, it’s a towering achievement with much to say about how democratic systems are being exploited in the modern age.

To See You Again

Section: Into the World

To See You Again (2020)

Carolina Corral Parede’s powerful film To See You Again looks into the lives of families whose loved ones have disappeared during the war against drug trafficking in Mexico. The film introduces us to a group of women who, while searching for their missing children, uncovered a mass grave where more than 100 bodies were secretly buried by the Mexican authorities in 2016. Alongside the forensic work of identification, To See You Again displays the continuing efforts of the state to sidestep its crimes.

Sisters with Transistors

Section: Rhyme & Rhythm

Sisters with Transistors (2020)

A music school with the world’s unsung female composers of electronic music, Lisa Rovner’s Sisters with Transistors will have its world premiere at this year’s festival in the autumn. Expect an exploration of pioneering works by Daphne Oram, Bebe Barron, Delia Derbyshire and Pauline Oliveros, to name just a few.

Space Journey

Section: Rhyme & Rhythm

Space Journey (2020)

Carlos Arayas’s Space Journey is a trip across Chile, from the streets of Santiago to the snowy Andes. Funny and absorbing, while critically observing the effects of inequality, it presents us with a succession of beguiling encounters with the nation’s diverse people.

You Think the Earth Is a Dead Thing

Section: Into the World

You Think the Earth is a Dead Thing (2019)

Florence Lazar’s documentary on biodiversity and ancestral intelligence was filmed on the Caribbean island of Martinique, a former French colony where the huge banana and sugarcane industries have seriously polluted the land and its waters. Continuing a centuries’ old reliance on the wild plantlife, the inhabitants depend on the indigenous medicinal herbs to counter the effects of illnesses caused by the industrial pesticides.

Corumbiara: They Shoot Indians, Don’t They?

Section: Exchange

Corumbiara: They Shoot Indians, Don’t They? (2009)

Part of the Video nas Aldeias partnership, Vincent Carelli’s Corumbiara: They Shoot Indians, Don’t They? is an exceptional ethnographic film about making contact with the Indians and their loss of trust towards white people. Together with a dozen other titles – including Carelli’s earlier film The Spirit of TV (1990), a wonderful look into the power of images – the Video nas Aldeias collection is available to watch now and for free.


Section: Into the World

Aswang (2019)

Aswang means monster, and refers to a shapeshifting spirit of Filipino mythology. It’s a presence that haunts this documentary from Alyx Ayn Arumpac, which charts the Duterte government’s deadly drug war against street users – a campaign that has led to the deaths of more than 20,000 men, women and children, while allowing the drug lords to continue untouched. Her film follows a little boy, an undertaker and a selection of other characters caught up in the effects of Duterte’s purge.