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3 July 2016

sheff doc/fest 2016 - review

It's Friday night, and I'm in Sheffield for the opening of Sheff Doc/Fest. Upon arrival, all I can think of is water. The long water-lined wall that runs from the train station up towards the hub of the festival, the Showroom Cinema. The drops of rain that fall onto my camel-coloured coat, and onto the grey Sheffield streets. The water that could be used to douse the mystic fire that has caused the alarm to RAGE, and for the entirety of the City Hall to be evacuated.

Outside, a colourful ocean of umbrellas leads up to where Michael Moore will be debuting Where To Invade Next, his first documentary film since 2009's Sicko. It's an hour until we manage to make it into the majestic venue, but once we do, I'm overcome with awe by the ginormous screen at the front of the palatial hall in which I sit. In the queue, I've managed to make a friend. We discuss what we're excited to see, and swap suggestions. Despite the damp delay, everybody's in high spirits and soon we're flying high into the doc-scape. The film is thought-provoking and optimistic. The subsequent Q&A is both evocative and hilarious, with talk ranging from Moore's disbelief with his home nation at their repeated inclination to elect idiots, to him singing British football anthems to us, the elated crowd. 

This is why Doc/Fest is so special: the documentarians themselves. Over the course of the festival, almost every event is followed by an insightful, interesting talk. In the Crucible Theatre in particular, the greats of the format gather to ruminate on their craft. The future of documentaries, and of public television in general is discussed at great length. Will we see more of an integration with social media channels, as mentioned by one of the panel in the talk Professor Green: Documentaries and Me? Is the end of the BBC nigh? 

My other highlights include the lovely Reggie Yates chatting about his career, along with how he's inspired by Louis Theroux, and the inspiration himself's comical My Scientology Movie.
 Watching Louis as he holds a camera up to the face of a Scientologist armed with his own camera in a kind of equipment stand-off, with Louis asking "what're you making a documentary about?" is potentially one of the most hilarious things I've ever seen. The farcical nature of it is what makes it truly a joy to watch, reminiscent of Louis' earlier tongue-in-cheek filmography. India In A Day is a fascinating portrayal of a country changing at whiplash speed, a collage of citizens' own footage. Princess Shaw's impeccable vocals and her love of the phrase "Rock Sauce" livened up the showing of Presenting Princess Shaw on Saturday night. The anecdote in Maya Angelou and Still I Rise where activist and all round badass Angelou acts unknowingly as a mentor for Tupac Shakur made my heart melt. Visiting the Alternate Realities Arcade, placing on my head the technology, and finding myself in the Jungle in Calais was immensely sobering, disorientating, heart wrenching but incredible. It's hard to turn a blind eye to the cause when you can hear the sounds and see in 360 degree clarity the appalling conditions of the humans attempting to survive there, and the brutality of the police. In Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, we see Robert's identity as inherently tied in with New York City, a mix of the aristocratic elite, and the Factory Starlets interlaced with the downtown gay sex clubs. We see his photographs, crisp with taboo. Artfully grotesque. Lustfully ornate.

Documentaries, of course, seek to document, and 2016's festival has been one that reflects the environment we find ourselves in. The referendum is a topic that finds its way into every conversation. The themes of migration, identity and home are central strands in so many of the films on the listing. The world is in flux, and so is what we want to view, and the way we watch. 

I'd never been to Sheff Doc/Fest before, but I would attend again in a heartbeat. I found myself constantly in complete awe at the amount of events, talks and films there were, as well as how incredibly friendly and inherently enthusiastic all of the delegates, volunteers, and cinema buffs  were. One of the best experiences I've ever had!

I'll be posting my reviews of some of the delicious docs over the next couple of weeks.

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