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Sheffield Doc/Fest 2011

David Hudson

"No longer critically marginalized as of lesser importance than the fiction feature film, no longer automatically regarded as 'box-office poison,' and with many of its most notable works stimulating widespread debate throughout print and electronic media, the documentary today is enjoying an unprecedented outburst of creative vitality," write the editors of Cineaste in the new Summer 2011 issue. What's more, the rapid evolution of digital technology has made it possible for documentarians to move fast, to fashion raw material culled from ongoing events into cohesive narratives, arguments and/or essays. Case in point: Zero Silence (site; image above), an up-to-the-minute report on the generation that's brought on the Arab Spring, drawing on footage shot between November 2009 and — literally — just a few days ago.

Not only is Zero Silence screening at the Sheffield Doc/Fest (site), running through Sunday, but we're also teaming up with the festival to present it here, worldwide, for free, along with two other films from the lineup: Messenger of the Great River, the story of one of Mali's musical sons, Afel Bocoum; and Remote Transmissions, the newest addition to the Big Stories web-doc series that features collaborations between small town communities and filmmakers in residence.

Sheffield has prompted the Guardian to check in on the state of the documentary. Sampling the package, we find Ben Dowell chatting with Steve James (Hoop Dreams), who'll be giving a masterclass: "I sincerely believe we are living in a golden age for documentary filmmaking." Ross Biddiscombe meets Adam Curtis (The Power of Nightmares), who "insists that he is not a documentary maker, but a journalist who tells stories that 'take serious journalism and fine tune it with low-end trash and jokes' and he dismisses anyone who considers his films — with their unique convergence of quick-fire visual images and off-beat music and background noises — to be some kind of modern art form."

Meg Carter looks into the impact of the evolution of filmmaking technology and social media on documentaries, while Kate Bulkley tackles the transmedia angle. Justin Kary talks with filmmakers who make their docs the centerpiece of a larger online campaign. And Carter and Bukley ask doc-makers how they're going about turning a profit these days.

A doc's verity doesn't necessarily have to be proportional to its "shoddy" aesthetics, argues Kaleem Aftab in the Independent. "[W]hen used in the right manner, composition and staging can enhance the understanding of reality and better put across the intentions of the director. The most eye-catching example showing at Sheffield is Bombay Beach, which won the best documentary film award at this year's Tribeca Film Festival."

On a related note, in a study you can download from Film International, Jez Owen takes on the notion that by applying narrative techniques, contemporary doc-makers "are destroying the integrity of the documentary text by undermining an ideology established over 100 years of evolution."

Updates: AJ Schnack talks with Sheffield's Head Programmer Hussain Currimbhoy about moving the festival from the fall to the summer and has asked him, too, to "tip off some titles from this year's program."

Time Out London asks Penny Woolcock, Pawel Pawlikowski, Leonard Retel Helmrich, Molly Dineen, Marc Isaacs, Nick Broomfield and Lucy Walker to recommend a film each.

Just up at Project: New Cinephilia is an excerpt from Timothy Corrigan's forthcoming book, The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker.

The Observer's Jason Solomons posts a special Sheffield Film Weekly podcast.

Update, 6/12: "The hugely successful, first summer edition of the Sheffield Doc/Fest wound to a close this morning as delegates began to take trains back to London and as the festival presented its awards in a lively ceremony at the Showroom Cinema," reports AJ Schnack. "And when it was all over, it was The Interrupters, Steve James's extraordinary look at a team of gang violence preventers in Chicago, that took home the Special Jury Prize, the top award."


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