We have more mugs than we need, but these are my very favourite.
We have more mugs than we need, but these are my very favourite.
The second place I officially rented a room, a friend of other friends Darren had recently bought a house and wanted a lodger. We had lots of mutual friends and similar tastes in music, so it seemed like a more comfortable option than at K’s house. Darren and I often had a laugh, shared a love of Star Trek Voyager and Darren would sometimes rent videos of new episodes and we’d watch them together. Friday evenings were Robot Wars and out to Offbeat, Sunday mornings were hungover watching Lee and Herring. Friends often came over to watch weird movies I’d inflict on them, or to play PlayStation Driver and listen to Beachbuggy records. The band Chuck and record label Thee SPC were born and flourished around this time.
Docfest #10 – The Worlds of Ursula K Le Guin, USA. The film I had been most looking forward to overall and the one I have most enjoyed so far. The story of Le Guin’s life is told, including her family background, but her life is integrally weaved in to her work, they are one and the same. The growth and development of her writing as important literature is covered, taking genre fiction to a higher level of attainment as works of art. Le Guin, apparently camerashy, is interviewed lots here herself, and seems a fiercely intelligent, funny and warm person. She discuss her work, and interesting point is how she maturely took criticism of her earlier work (that it wasn’t feminist enough, using male pronouns for a genderless society), to grow and develop her future work. She is clearly a writer interested in always learning and developing, which she states herself, that with each work, it was a new chance for exploration and learning. The power of words is strong with this one. But so are the visuals, some striking animated sequences represent some of Let Guin’s tales, an amazing oil painted version of elements of The Wizard of Earthsea is beautifully rendered. But, as the director herself said when I asked her in the q&a, the animations are perfectly suggestive of the stories and capture their tone but are not concrete enough to spoil the readers’ own imagined versions. The film took 10 years to make and captures Le Guin getting some of the recognition she deserves as an important figure in literature; a wonderful film about a wonderful woman, both with a strong feminist core. I now want to go and read every single one of her books!
DocFest #11 – The Gospel of Eureka, USA. Cancelled 😦 . Gutted I didn’t get to see this, about gospel and drag queens in the southern states of America. There was a power cut at The Showroom and surroundings causing all films to be cancelled for now, who knows if I’ll get to see #12. It did mean I had a wonderful opportunity to run into and have long catch up chats with some of my favourite colleagues, Chris Goldie, Rinella Cere, and Dave Clarke. I will check back at the cinema to see if the have power for my hopeful next and final film of the fest shortly…
Docfest #12 – The Insufferable Groo, USA. Last film of the fest for me, and one of my top 3 favourites. Very much like American Movie, 1999 cult doc about low budget director Mark Borchardt, this follows low budget indie director Stephen Groo, who has made around 200 films on shoestring budgets. The man, a bonafide socially challenged eccentric, is driven by passion for film and stories, and supported by a close knit crew of friends and family. He is clearly difficult to both live and work with, he lives for his art, to the point where his family (Groo has 4 children) are solely reliant on his wife’s low wage. Groo’s films are made thick and fast, getting them done, and done cheaply, is more important than getting the best shot, but that of course is their appeal. Groo has fans in Jared Hess (director of Napoleon Dynamite, Gentlemen Broncos etc), and Jack Black, and Groo’s dream is to get a slightly bigger budget and a named actor in a film, which he achieves with their help. His films clearly have cult appeal, and many funny clips make me want to watch them but I’m not sure people enjoy his films or his story for the right reasons. This doc tries to tread both sides of the line where some are clearly laughing at Groo, others with him, but he seems to earnestly want to be taken seriously and to ” win an Oscar”. I think his films look like brilliant cult pieces of work, lots of elevs, magic, staged fights and low budget superheroes (many played by Groo himself) but i’m not sure he can achieve his goal and be taken seriously in the way he’d like, which is a little bit sad given how much of his life, energy and sincerity he (and his family) put into his work. Much of the comedy in fact comes from how seriously Groo takes himself. The struggles with his DP, a female student/graduate, working voluntarily, are particularly telling. She seems awesome, talented and dedicated, but is clearly not as willing as others to put up with Groom’s “narcissism” or to compromise her own feminist principles. After being fired and rehired by Groo, she almost quits on occasion also due to his disrespect of those around him (Groo’s ‘my way or the highway’ attitude), but its a testament to Lauren’s character that she sticks around. The film is very funny, touching and fascinating document of Groo’s legacy of self made music videos, movies and self-help acting videos. Its great in the same way that American Movie was, but also sad in a similar way, we can celebrate the man and his work bit at what expense to his family, and not quite in the way Groo would like to gain the respect of his peers perhaps. All he wants to do is to win an Oscar and shake Steven Spielberg’s hand, but I think he did pretty good having his golden day with Jared Hess and Jack Black, which is also a joy to watch from behind the scenes. I was pretty gutted to have to leave for the school run and miss the q&a with cast and crew, as I feel some of my doubts would have been satiated, and it would have been cool to get and update on Groo’s current activities.
Docfest #7 – Commander Arian: Germany, Spain, Syria. A close up personal portrait of the YPJ from 2015-now (and ongoing), a Syrian army where women fight for equal rights alongside their male comrades, but also in women only units, against ISIS. They are feminists, fighting to keep themselves from being “women slaves” where the culture of many of their own families treats women as ‘worth less than a piece of cloth’, where options remain only to be wives and mothers. One woman tells of her sister, kidnapped and raped by ISIS, who when she is found pregnant on her return is killed by her own family. The YPJ (Kurdish all-female militia) are soldiers, comrades and their own support network, and are as familiar with kalashnikovs as with caring for each other. They are admirable feminists, literally taking up arms for their own freedom, but also the freedom of their country. Commander Arian herself is an inspiring leader, firm and organsied, caring and philosophical, she regularly talks to the younger comrades to encourage them to consider what kind of future they want as a woman, why they have joined the fight. We follow Arian’s journey as she deals with liberating villages, car bombs, losing comrades and her own physical difficulties after taking 5 bullets. Inspiring stuff and makes you question how far you would be willing to fight for feminism and freedom. The film is dedicated to Anna Campbell, a young feminist from Brighton, who volunteered to join the YPJ to fight, who was killed in combat just 3 months ago. The director Alba Sotorra was at the screening and spoke of the humble bravery of the women, with whom she filmed on the front lines for weeks and months.
Docfest #8 – The People’s Republic of Desire, China. This is like an odd Jeff Noon short story, following the story of two real-life live streaming ‘star’ hosts on the web platform ‘YY’. An entire subculture itself of millions of people involved in watching their favourite host’s shows obsessively, showering them with digital ‘gifts’ expressed as emoticons on lollipops, or cars for the big spenders. The hosts don’t seem to have any special talents, and do little more than chat about nothing much or sing karaoke, except for encouraging their followers to buy them more gifts. The biggest stars have the richest followers, the rich followers have their own fans who applaud them for spending their wealth, money follows money. The hosts lives, however popular, seem increasingly stressful, insular and claustrophobic as they have to work even harder for theor agencies to maintain their popularity ranking. Many of the followers are young lower class Chinese people in menial jobs, with no apparent goals or opportunities in life, and YY is a form of escapism for them, they support hosts like others support sports teams. But its all such an objectionable way of bleeding money out of the poorest vulnerable lonely people in society. One host even cynically mentions something to that effect, that the shows are for “all of you who don’t have the talent of deceit”. Overall, this is a tale of abject loneliness throughout much of Chinese society, the followers don’t have friends but they have YY, and can aspire to be a live streaming host someday. The hosts are caught up in the adulation, but it’s a hollow treadmill of money making, which clearly doesn’t make anyone in this film happy at all. Yet another film illustrating a cultural end of days, craving money for money’s sake world.
Docfest #9 – Love Means Zero: USA. Biopic of Nick Bollettieri, tennis coach to the superstars in the golden ages of the sport. I don’t know that much about tennis, and had never heard of Nick, but found this entertaining and engaging, with a surprising amount of laughs. Nick was responsible for discovering Andre Agassi (amongst other tennis stars), and spent 10 years working closely with him, building a father-son relationship which ended badly over money issues, to the point where Agassi refuses to speak with Nick to this day (and wouldn’t participate in the film). Boris Becker and a bunch of other tennis pros who you might have heard of are featured here (Becker is a charismatic delight), telling their tales of interactions with Nick and his style as coach. Intense, very Italian and somewhat of a ‘character’, Nick comes across as a goal oriented taskmaster with an ability to overlook emotions in other people to get to where he wanted to be. He’s funny to watch though “i react in life and move on…hey, if you were to ask me to list the names of my 8 wives, I probably couldn’t remember” , and refers to himself often in the third person which I found most entertaining. An old man now, Nick does open up a little, expressing regret at not reconciling with Agassi sooner or handling moments in life better, but he is still very much aware of putting on “the Nick show” for the cameras throughout.
I have written each mini-review upon immediately leaving the screening, as fast as possible, on my phone. The purpose is to remember each film and capture my immediate impressions without too much reflection, before the impact of the film dissipates.
Docfest #4 – Have You Seen the Listers?, Australia. A biography of the internationally (and financially) successful street artist Anthony Lister, who i admit i had not already heard of but it seems he’s a big deal in the art world, and has been described as the Australian Banksy. The film is told in first person, narrated by Lister and using tons of his own home video over the past few decades. He tells of the development of his art career from the ’80s to present day, alongside falling in love with his wife, with whom he has three children. The film reveals a man who is self obsessed, focussed on his own art and ego and tells of how he chose to get caught up in the art world and travel for his shows, which his wife and soul mate was unable to keep up with considering she was left to do all the childcare. Lister is making a film full of regret, as he explains how he now realises his wife gave up everything for him and their children, and recognises she made multiple attempts over the years to involve him in their lives, yet Lister contiuned to take them for granted. Its amazing their separation came as a shock to him, he tells of a spiral further into partying and drug abuse. Even after cleaning up and spending more time with his son, who later chose to go and live with his father, Lister once again neglects his son to focus on his own career needs, which results in his son moving back home and refusing to speak to him for months. Although Lister expresses sorrow and regret at losing his family, clearly still full of love and admiration for his estranged wife, this film still comes across as a work of egoism, his work, career and his own contentment, his status as an artist remain at the forefront. An exhibition of work he makes about his family, he says is for them and his children but its clear its for himself and his own need to deal with things. His kids are more interested in the bouncy castle he’s displayed the paintings on than the “I DID THIS FOR YOU” artwork itself. Lister does genuinely express pain and regret at his neglect of his family, and makes what seem like real efforts to rebuild bridges with his children but for me he just comes across as a selfish person, using his own love and pain (rather than thinking too deeply about the feelings of his children) as a springboard for more own his own self indulgent artwork. And his artwork is certainly contemporary and interesting, dark cartoonish graphic art is stuff I like, but I didn’t think Lister’s was anything THAT special. At least Banksy’s work tends to have a political message.
Docfest #5 – The Cleaners, Germany, Brazil. Well. I don’t really know where to start other than that this is the most uncomfortable and important viewing so far. It pretty much reaffirms that people are awful, the internet is awful and internet governance is ridiculously arbitrary and also awful. ‘Cleaners’ are employed secretly, en masse, in the Philippines, privately contracted out by the likes of Google and Facebook to decide whether to allow or delete web content. ‘delete’ or ‘ignore’. What they have to view is as bad as you can possibly imagine, and they have to get through 25,000 images and videos per day. Some cleaners describe the worst things they’ve seen, some have committed suicide, some have quit their jobs. Much of the extreme content most people would agree on moral grounds that it should be blocked. But of course there is the question of censorship. The film intelligently takes the issue of web censorship further to political suppression, freedom of speech, policy makers, and interviews those in charge of said platforms, uses footage of company directors being grilled in court, and speaks with both right and left wing activists. The issues of war, hatred and persecution are dealt with in concrete examples in the third world showing how Facebook has fostered cultures in which persecution not only thrives but is encouraged (by ‘likes’), and the example of Manila’s president citing Hitler killing 3 million Jews as a good example of how to deal with the 3 million involved in the drug trade in his country, propped up by propaganda of a hugely popular popstrel/pornstar seems not a million miles from methods of Donald Trump (who is shown saying openly at a political rally speech that obviously he wouldn’t be president without social media). The film makes clear links with how Facebook (and all social media but FB is a particular target) fosters political outrage, encourages it and plays with it as a way of simply maintaining the interest of its audience. The film is very balanced and deals with some incredibly complex issues deftly and straightforwardly, making it obvious how politics and social media are intertwined. The entire issue is fuzzy even for those in governance, and its clear that its all a messy issue at best. Although there are some unpleasant things and uncomfortable things shown, I’ll hopefully never have to see the horrific things that some cleaners describe. But I’ll never forget their descriptions of things that upset them the most, yet another film with an end-of-days feeling. Everything in this film is important and should definitely not be ignored.
Docfest #6 – Vienna Calling, Czech Republic. I was so glad I stayed for the Q&A, as I had utterly no idea what to make of this film before it. Quite a few people left the cinema at various points in the film, but I stuck it out to see what the filmmakers had to say. It was unclear which parts of the film were documentary, parts fiction, parts staged art performances, all based around a notorious artist who is known for graverobbing, created death-obsessed art and has one of the largest collections (and obsessions with) prosthetic teeth and dentures around. The piece is intended as a work of visual art rather than documentary and is thus rather difficult to follow, much like the meandering trip of the giant black neon lit caravan-hearse the characters are taking. There are however many humorous moments, a key thread follows the theft and attempted return of the actual teeth/dentures of Brahms and Strauss to a museum in Vienna. The presenter/actors are very engaging, one amusing scene sees them at a very famous Viennese cake shop, using the famous dentures in their hands to chomp into the cake. It’s rather abstract, and without the Q&A contextualising this as a mixed format visual art piece with metaphors of the grim reaper, ringmaster, and the artist quasi-explaining his paintings which have skull segments attached to them. Perhaps because it’s Czech, but with the themes of food, eating and death, plus the abstract formation, I found this reminiscent of Svankmajer’s work. Dark humour and surreal comedy throughout, this was interesting, but without the Q&A providing context I’m afraid I would have been less understanding or forgiving! At every docfest screening the audience is given a card to rate the film between 1-4 stars, I heard a man near me tell the staff “I can’t give you my card because I don’t feel able to rate it”, and that’s exactly how I felt also.
I’m lucky enough to have a delegate pass for #sheffdocfest through work. I therefore feel its my duty to make the most of it and fit in as many films as I can (3 per day for the days I can attend).
I have written each mini-review below upon immediately leaving the screening, as fast as possible, on my phone. The purpose is to remember each film and capture my immediate impressions without too much reflection, before the impact of the film dissipates.
Docfest #1 – Generation Wealth, USA. Excellent, about the greed and excess of the modern world, and the explosion over the past 25 years in desire to “be rich and famous”, how its affecting young people, children and the “pornification” of culture. Interviewees from billionaires, LA playboys and girls, pornstars and to some degree a self portrait of the documentarian Laura Greenfield herself.
Many comparisons to the end of days and decline of the Roman Empire. Interestingly ends on an upbeat with those whose have gone through extreme excesses confirming the old adages of “money can’t buy happiness” and what matters is love, family and community. Amazing how many people in this world that simply is not obvious to – and a reminder that we need to actively teach those values to our children in an age when consumerist, body fascist media instructs them otherwise.
Docfest #2 – Room for a Man: Argentina, Lebanon, USA. Kind of a personal video essay by and about a young gay Lebanese filmmaker, his experience of family life with his mother and a culture that is unaccepting of his sexuality, and then a journey to spend time with his father. To be brutally honest, I found this a bit slow and boring, largely close ups and voice over , but little dialogue in general. It definitely got across a sense of claustrophobia and feeling trapped, highlights were segments of his dad chatting but it kind of felt like a film with all the good bits cut out and the boring bits left in. I was willing to go with the poetic slow pace for a while at least, it clearly has a message of a life on hold, but one that is difficult to engage with and maintain interest. Exacerbated by the fact that the most annoying man in the world was sitting next to me who, once his head stopped lolling about from nodding off, he spent the rest of the film constantly checking his iWatch and leaning over every minute to fiddle with something on the floor.
Docfest #3 – Gun No. 6, UK. Really powerful documentary following the story of a gun that is still on the streets of the UK. Starting following the ballistics process, we trace crimes the gun has been involved with, and the story spreads to the personal stories of gun crime victims, and perpetrators also. The most impressive aspect is the involvement of ex-convicts involved in gun crime who are willing participants in reenactments, psychological analysis and speak about their own lives and the reform work and mentoring they are involved with. All the key participants were at the post film Q&A with the filmmakers, and this is clearly an important film for them but also to get out to all young people in the UK. And everyone really. A slice of UK reality many of us don’t normally see and often choose to ignore. Also the first film at DocFest to make me cry.
#2 – The first room I rented, K’s house, Walkley, Sheffield.
A friend of a friend, K, was buying her first house and wanted to rent a room. Luckily for me it was cheap and she seemed nice and knew mutual friends, so all seemed cool. The house was pretty much a shell and K let me decorate my room, and I sanded down and stained the floorboards. I soon discovered K wasn’t the cleanest, tidiest of people and my room was my little clean haven. The inside of the oven turned my stomach and was to be avoided and I would regularly find cat sick on the floor downstairs. K was into dance/techno and would go out with friends on a Saturday, and they would sometimes arrive home around 6am on Sunday mornings and carry on the party, playing more beats in the room below mine, when I was trying to sleep off a hangover. Despite that, I liked K and had a particularly fun random spontaneous night with her at a local pub just hanging out playing pool. I was a poor student living on (literally) about £15 a week (£8 Netto food shop, rest for beer/cheap cider, walked EVERYWHERE), so I had nothing to complain about really. A. rented the other room for a while, whose main thing was BDSM. He was a super nice guy and very open about it. It was the first gaff I’d lived in officially after my parents’ house, and had my 21st birthday there, and I still have a ring K bought me as a 21st gift, so I have fond memories, but due to the mess and clash of musical tastes it was kind of a relief to eventually move on.