‘Documentary Is a Very, Very Broad Show’: Sheffield DocFest Chief

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As with so many festivals, it’s easy to feel a little overawed when first glancing at the full program of films on offer at Sheffield DocFest (June 4-13).

Despite the challenges of programming during a pandemic, the Sheffield team has pulled together an impressive lineup of 78 features and 88 shorts in its films program.

Among the 55 world premieres are Oscar winner Steve McQueen’s 1981-set race relations series “Uprising,” “Leaving Neverland: Michael Jackson and Me” director Dan Reed’s latest “In the Shadow of 9/11,” Peabody Award winner Mark Cousins’ meditation on sight, “The Story of Looking,” and Nick Green’s biopic of the fugitive former CEO of Renault-Nissan “Carlos Ghosn: The Last Flight.”

It’s the second edition of DocFest to be led former DocLisboa director Cintia Gil, both of them realized during the pandemic.

Casting her eye over a lineup that has offerings from Senegal to Latvia, Iraq to Denmark, and Haiti to Scotland, Gil says the biggest challenge of programming a big collective event like DocFest is doing so while in isolation.

“The concern this year was relevance,” says Gil. “How could we somehow put together a festival that would have complementary programs with different ways of approaching the questions we want to tackle, and at the same time be as welcoming to as many people as possible?”

Steve McQueen’s 1981-set race relations series “Uprising”
Courtesy of Sheffield DocFest

In a bid to welcome people, this year’s DocFest is more of a hybrid event than 2020’s digital only experience: the festival takes place both in Sheffield and online and with a number of titles showing at 16 cinemas around the U.K. These include opening film “The Summer of Soul” by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, Mayye Zayed’s “Lift Like a Girl,” about female weightlifters in Egypt, and Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” a portrait of the Black attorney, activist, priest, poet and memoirist.

As for the questions DocFest wants to tackle, a number seem to stand out. One is political: how cinema responds to ideas of resistance. Gil says DocFest has sought to “build resonances” across the program around issues such as racial justice, economic inequality, the rise of fascism and climate change.

This political outlook runs deep through the program. For example, there’s the world premiere of Srđan Kovačević’s “Factory to the Workers,” which sees workers in a collectively run factory in Croatia struggle to weather the economic forces and organizational disputes that have battered them since they took over in 2005.

Meanwhile, there’s the international premiere of Brazilian film “Nũhũ Yãg Mũ Yõg Hãm: This Land Is Our Land!” by indigenous filmmakers Isael and Sueli Maxakali and their collaborators, made after their land was taken from them. In Raj Patel and Zak Piper’s “The Ants and the Grasshopper,” a Malawian campaigner travels to the U.S. to persuade Americans that climate change is real, while the world premiere of Anam Abbas’s “This Stained Dawn” tells the story of a feminist movement struggling to assert itself on the streets of Pakistan.

Another issue that Gil says DocFest was keen to explore through its program was film language. “What we can see from our program is that documentary is a very, very broad show,” she says, referring to the many different ways of telling factual stories that are showcased in the DocFest lineup.

But a major challenge for the genre, thinks Gil, is how to preserve and expand this “richness” as not all forms of storytelling are backed by funders. “Our selection is also a question to funders and decision makers and gatekeepers to think about what documentary is, and what they can take from this wide variety of voices and storytelling,” says Gil. By way of example, she cites Ephraim Asili’s “The Inheritance,” which weaves fiction and documentary together in telling the story of a young man who inherits his grandmother’s house and turns it into a Black socialist collective.

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Courtesy of Sheffield DocFest

At the same time, Gil says DocFest has sought to build on its ambition to be an “internationalist” film festival. “It’s not just about showing films from many territories. It’s really about showing a very plural vision of what film can be and what the world is.”

Many of these themes are clearly evident in DocFest’s opening and closing films, as well as its special screenings. Opening film “Summer of Soul” seeks to reframe history by throwing a spotlight on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a largely forgotten, but culturally important celebration of Black history, culture and fashion – which took place just 100 miles away from the much better-known Woodstock festival of the same year.

Similarly, Steve McQueen’s “Uprising” focuses on three often overlooked events from 1981 – the New Cross Fire, which killed 13 Black teenagers; mass protest the Black People’s Day of Action; and the Brixton riots. “ ‘Uprising’ is not just a question of rebuilding historical justice, but also understanding where we are at now,” says Gil.

Mark Cousins’ closing film “The Story of Looking,” meanwhile, plays with the conventions and language of documentary, and is billed by Gil as a “beautiful, intimate film” about looking.

The selection also speaks to the big theme of the past year, COVID 19. Gil says it’s a subject the festival wanted to address, but only with “very special films, and not too much.” In Special Selection is the world premiere of Brian Hill’s “Where Did the World Go,” which sees people from across the U.K. talk about their own experiences of living through a pandemic, with the poetry of Simon Armitage providing a narrative spine to the film. Elsewhere, the world premiere of Charlotte Ginsborg’s “Songs for the River” sees the director film the London housing co-operative that she lives in, charting the residents’ diverse experiences of the pandemic.

The 20th anniversary of 9/11 is also a focus, with four films addressing the event in the Special Screenings section. Three are world premieres: Dan Reed’s “In the Shadow of 9/11,” Phil Grabsky and Shoaib Sharifi’s “My Childhood, My Country – 20 Years in Afghanistan,” and Arthur Cary’s “Surviving 9/11.” The fourth is the U.K. premiere of Daniel Bogado’s “9/11: One Day in America.”

Elsewhere, there are talks and panels from speakers such as David Olusoga, Campbell X, Betsy West and Julie Cohen, not to mention retrospectives, and distinct film sections including the International Competition, U.K. Competition, Into the World, Rebellions, Rhyme & Rhythm, and Ghosts & Apparitions.

Seeking to sum it all up, Gil says: “More than telling what the world is, our program points out how many different things the world can be, and how there are many different ways we can make documentary films.”