Around about June every year, for several days, a large documentary festival spreads across a cluster of venues in the centre of Sheffield, engulfing the city's main arthouse, The Showroom, and several local theatres, odeons, libraries, and small pubs. People milled from place to place. Street vendors set-up outside the screening rooms, so there'd regularly be smoke in the air. There was an outdoor screen on Howard Street—at the foot of a grassy hill and against the muraled wall of a pub we saw Wim Wenders' Pina (2011) and Ben Rivers' Two Years at Sea (2012)—and another in the underbelly of a grand, art deco library, where I bummed tickets to see Martha Shane and Lana Wilson's After Tiller (a producer for the film took pity, since I had not booked in advance).
So perhaps it's hardly surprising that the festival itself sometimes seemed more impressive than the sum total of its main films. Of the new movies that I saw, those poised to be the champions—Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, for example—were generally failures. Whether that was Here Was Cuba, a "talking head" documentary that reanimates and reimagines one of the great historical horror stories of the past century, the Cuban Missile Crisis, as a Zero Dark Thirty-esque thriller, with realism ployed as a commodity, or Pussy Riot, the world-withering centrepiece of the festival itself.
Aspiring to a sort of hermetic hagiography, Pussy Riot, like I’m Still Here (2010), winds up with the documentary equivalent of something like Festen (1998); not only completely immobile, stewing in its own filth, but for each moment, paralyzed by self-righteousness, the film seems to stretch out into an eternity of tedium. In the court trial, assembled from a disparate set of media sources, the trio of band members caught during Pussy Riot’s Cathedral protest—Nadia, Katya, and Masha—run a flippant commentary on the proceeding from inside their own glass-paneled prison cell in the centre of the room as a sort of outsized parody, with the media staring in, lined up like a firing squad with their cameras. Toying with their image, alternating between explosions of laughter and stern masks of expression worn to show how “seriously” they are taking everything. Like the rancid Spirit of ’45, Ken Loach’s hectoring UK Labour Party propaganda gimcrack, Pussy Riot seems to be made on autopilot for the satisfaction of a readymade audience (the Loach is clearly intended as a shovelful of dirt to be thrown into Margaret Thatcher’s freshly-dug grave).
With a mostly-worshipful perspective, John Akomfrah's The Stuart Hall Project, in somewhat of a counterpoint to the thriller structures of these films, is expansive, detailed, and slow-moving like a wide river. As an attempt to balance the legacy of British cultural theorist Stuart Hall with a glimpse at his daily rhythms, personality and philosophy, The Stuart Hall Project can be viewed as sort of an essayistic musical, plotting the trajectory of two lives—the first philosophical, the second artistic—linking Hall’s development as a thinker, an activist, writer, and British citizen with Miles Davis’ progression from his albums Blue Period to Doo-Bop. Hall himself has stated that Davis is the biggest artistic presence in (and influence on) his life. We never get closer to understanding Stuart Hall as a person, if that is even possible at all. Fractured into shards, the film—deliberately shunning psychological portraiture—is an imagistic vision of one man’s travel, life, activism, work.
After Tiller—whose focus is directed on the four doctors in North America qualified to perform third-trimester abortions—rarely digresses from its central search for understanding (or discovering, since we always get the impression that the filmmakers are forming their opinions as readily and progressively as the audience). A bugle-call on the quest for understanding and empathy, proven in the Q&A that followed, where the two directors made it clear that After Tiller was a researcher’s pursuit as much as a statement of solidarity, the powerful momentum of the film is probably heavily indebted to the sense of curiosity embedded in the narrative searching. Refreshingly, it dares to wade into the ethical muck surrounding a political or moral issue, something Here Was Cuba glossed over pretty readily, since on the few occasions that the sheer horror of Kennedy, Khruschev, and Castro’s world-scale macho histrionics presented an opportunity for questioning the morality of politics and leadership, the film segued off onto another submarine-thriller-style tangent.
Almost extraneous to Sheffield Doc/Fest's theatre of new films, a knot of Shôhei Imamura’s lesser-known television documentaries were programmed early every morning to a small room of dedicated followers in a surprising labour of love. Revolutionarily confrontational, In Search of the Unreturned Soldiers (1970/71) follows Imamura's hunt for exiled Japanese war criminals as he tracks them down and forces them to describe their atrocities for the camera. In the first half, In Search of the Unreturned Soliders in Malaysia—a documentary mostly of searching—he meets one of the soldiers, who has new-found faith in Islam. The long-lost soldier now looks only forward, and for the most part shuns Imamura's probing. Ending as the soldier alights a train mid-interview, and waves as it slides out of the station, we move to Thailand where the director boozes with a group of soldiers living in the countryside, whom he tricks into discussing their war-crimes openly as they all gradually get more and more hammered. Recording the horrific elaborations without visible consternation, Imamura jumps from place to place, staging narrated reenactments, walking through parks, interviewing the soldiers as they perform day to day tasks in their beach-bum lifestyle.
In Karayuki-san, the Making of a Prostitute (1975), we meet Kikuyo Zendo, a Japanese ex-prostitute, who, as a young woman, was tricked into travelling on a boat to Malaysia, saddled with a large debt, and forced to earn it back by selling her body to Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Indian men. She lived with other hostaged women, and whomever entered the house had her at their beck and call. Now, she is relaxed, talkative, and funny, having married late in her life and sunk into the routines of life as a housewife. After meeting Kikuyo at the dock, Imamura’s formal technique, to follow her as she leads him around the town to the places where she once worked, is found in observing the modern, as in Lanzmann, as she recounts the past in near-constant narration. "This is fiction", said Imamura in A Man Vanishes. His films are circus: in Karayuki-san, Kikuyo steps in as a ringmaster for the film—enacting a new role—parlaying with Imamura for the place of director, and leading him by the hand to places of interest.
Unlike Imamura, who, though fiddling with reality to suit some of his artistic impulses, tries to present his film as a document of a collection of fragmented memories, the festival’s other resounding triumph—the screening of the new digital restoration of Le joli mai (1963), by Chris Marker and Pierre Lhomme—begins with the template of Jean Rouch’s Chronicle of a Summer and tinkers with everything: each word, phrase, and image a jolly romp and a slight of hand. Criticized by many of the champions and exponents of cinéma vérité at the time, the directors cannot resist transforming the more serious minded interview subjects into affectionate punchlines, and in playing along with the more naturally funny ones (Marker, in the film's first interview, suggests Marienbad as an outing to the cinema to a blue-collar suit salesman whose wit and joviality are the match of Marker and Lhomme's). One part ethnographic survey, another part tarot-card act, Le joli mai is a world of crafty cat and mouse. As with almost all of Marker, images poke out at you: the shadow of the Eiffel Tower on the bridge, the cats in fancy dress, the time-lapsed Paris caught in a zoom, Pierrot le Taxi—an engineer, with pride in his small, beautiful, bric-a-brac artworks made from hub caps and canvas—the film was the most modern and joyous screening of the festival.