Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019: Some Short Thoughts

Dan E. Smith
Jun 13 · 9 min read

This was the first film festival I had visited as a genuine pass-holder — before this, I had only visited some movies during the BFI London Film Festival back in 2014 — so the whole ritual was bizarre for me; even a little alienating. A sea of faces familiar with the waters, and here I was, splashing around — some drowning man. A tad out-of-my-depth. A tad lonely.

I’ve learned that festivals are energy-sapping — I do envy/worry about people who can plow through five/six films a day over the course of a week without becoming insular nocturnal creatures — or maybe they are. That much visual information in the span of such time — such little time for reflection, to come to terms with the images, to piece out the mechanisms you’ve had the blessing of witnessing —is exhausting. I never felt the urge to write because I hadn’t even given myself the breathing room to consider my own thoughts. I don’t think I even came across another critic — but I know they’re out there. It’s only now — two days on — that I can begin to lock myself away with my own thoughts and contemplate the feast I had the joy of being served.

None of these thoughts are really reviews — thoughts are all they are. Neither do they represent the best that the festival had to offer, in my honest opinion. Luck was not too kind to me in this regard as I never actually got the chance to watch any of the films which received awards — so Luke Lorentzen’s Midnight Family, Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation, Archana Phadke’s About Love, Garrett Bradley’s America, and Nyasha Kadandara’s Le Lac (to name but a few) are all films I never had the chance to see. No doubt, however, that they’ll continue to have a fruitful life beyond the boundaries of Sheffield.

DIEGO MARADONA (dir. Asif Kapadia)

Asif Kapadia is a case of familiar ideas done well. His documentaries have never broken down the barriers of formal and narrative expectations — but they do not have to. Both Senna and Amy survive by themselves as cultural timepieces, held together by a skeleton of archival magic and a core urge to tell a great story. In this regard, Kapadia may well be filmmaking’s most-appealing living pop-curator. Diego Maradona completes this triptych, and once again these familiar ideas are executed with signature polish. The audio-visual footage is clean and immersively-produced, combed through by a narrative trajectory of sufficient tonal buoyancy; enough to keep an audience enamoured, embittered, confused, star-struck, and humoured in equal bouts. Yet with all the respect that Kapadia is due — for the time and care with which he pores through history and cultural memory — Diego Maradona is a safe bet: a familiar uncontroversial tale of the follies of success, the grip of vice and scandal, and the power of the Icon.

TATTOOED TEARS (dir. Nick Broomfield)

Nick Broomfield’s Tattooed Tears explores a maximum-security prison for young male juveniles; troubled lives cast from society for their crimes, locked in darkness, manoeuvring and shifting through compassionless regiment and cold-stone corridors. The prison warden choruses our entrance to the prison — officers like sedated fascist cherubs are his audience, sat awkwardly like unobservant spoiled children. There is a nasality and dullness with which he delivers his call of “punishment, not rehabilitation” — this, plus his Christopher Guest-like appearance and demeanour (almost as if he were one of his characters) come together to incidentally form the shades of an authority subverted — at least in tone, if not in truth. Throughout, the film plays out as vignettes — rough slices of dimly-lit conversations and confrontations; exchanges and aggressions. The doldrums of the ideologies which fuel the prison — the bureaucratic services of the hegemony and the norm — are displayed as aggressively condescending: men stuck at screens clicking buttons with grammar prompts, and group sessions designed to drill in the virtues of subservience and the brilliance of American capitalist culture (much to the defiance of one prisoner). Most fascinating is its preoccupations with the male body: here, bodily autonomy is stripped. The oppression of the body under the power of the state is framed as a physical violation; as exploitation, invasion, self-destruction, and assault legitimised: “necessary” by virtue of a code of conduct — it goes beyond emasculation and becomes pure dehumanisation. The film’s final scene — of a young man locked in solitary confinement — displays this at its extremes: exacting restraint and contortion upon a body that has itself become a prison for a troubled mind, it becomes a performance of authoritarian will,.

Sheffield Doc/Fest brings this film to us on its 40th anniversary — revived in an era when private prison systems across the world destroy and dictate the lives of so many, as the law of the laissez-faire grips tighter and tighter. Tattooed Tears is an urgent indictment of a culture of incarceration — more than just a time-capsule of civil injustices, it is the washed-out sweating close-up of American power; the ugliness that keeps the heart of the banal ever-beating.

LIMA SCREAMS (dir. Dana Bonilla, Ximena Valdivia)

A visual album in celebration of the secret nooks and crannies of Peru’s capital that burst with sonic fury. Lima Screams is told as a succession of moments — as musical passages floating between streets and night-clubs; abandoned housing and modern architecture; the city’s concrete confines and the borders where nature takes over; all the realms in-between. Its vision of Lima is that of an untapped wellspring of creative individuals; artists and musicians exploring sound and musicianship through their own means, finding expression themselves, their environment, and their instruments of choice. Its filmmakers — Dana Bonilla and Ximena Valdivia — create far more than just an aesthetic-appropriate music-video collage; their images are fundamental extensions of the sound, explorers of their own design in an urban buzz filled with identities and lives colliding with insatiable passion. Minimal disco synths score the primary colours of Peruvian dance halls. Haunting double-bass experimentation confined within the deep-red glow of an underground space, with words painted on the walls with no soul to read them. Fractured noise and visceral digital screeches disturb and intrigue the pedestrians on the city streets.

If this is just a fraction of Lima’s voice, imagine what else there is to discover.

I also want a copy of the soundtrack.

E-TICKET (dir. Simon Liu)

The official website for Simon Liu’s E-Ticket sells it as both an archive and as a “retelling of Dante’s Inferno for the streaming age”. Is that what we are being sold? A ticket to hell?

If hell exists in the streaming age, it is the place where forgotten souls — images hidden away — have come to feed. E-Ticket’s freneticism is an effort to contain those images within itself, constantly vibrating before its viewers with nostalgic entropy . So overwhelming in its accelerated and broken slide-machine vision that, amongst the chaos, it succeeds in become something else entirely: a strident flow of new patterns, new dances, new ideas bursting forth from images now given new life and new meaning. Interchanging vertical/horizontal strips of tape, glowing freely and telling their own story, become rainbows in the ballet. One image struck me — if I can begin to recollect it — of an out-of-focus airplane silhouette, suspended in a column of yellow light, between pillars of blue. What meaning do we attach to this? There is no point in stating the obvious, for what does the obvious even mean with these images — this hyper-active pore through lost memories and sentiments, as new ones arise from the smoke of the fervour.

RUSHING GREEN WITH HORSES (dir. Ute Aurand)

As Ute Aurand’s Rushing Green with Horses floats past, it ceases to become a mere succession of memories, evolving into an exploratory look at memory itself — its functions, its quirks, its oddities — what it means to detach these from the day-glow of the subjective remembered, and into the cold and judgemental night of the objective. Images linger but with jumps and uneasiness. There is a disconnect between sight and sound, as both play-off each other, possessing their own story to tell — tied to a moment, nonetheless. The abandonment of time, with memories as causal relations rather than chronologies, constantly changing based on a multiplicity of themes and thoughts and emotions; faces beget faces; plants beget cities. We dream of colour, and from that, we find out why. Red. Blue. Yellow. Do you remember those tiny houses with multi-coloured roofs? The fragile celluloid image is a perfect fit as memory-in-technology — home videos captured in their fleeting material state, aching to be recollected. A man in the audience praised the lack of subtitles — I agree. Memory has no subtitles. More than that, it prioritised the idea of experience as fundamental to memory above understanding; emotion above reason.

ON THE PRESIDENT’S ORDERS (dir. James Jones, Olivier Sarbil)

James Jones and Olivier Sarbil’s view of police violence under Rodrigo Duterte’s rage against drugs is more thriller than documentary — closer in spirit and tone to a Denis Villeneuve project than anything else: the stability and sharpness of its night-time street-lit chiaroscuro drag us into their Sicario. This is how these police officers love to be framed — even the filmmakers have admitted that this is the case — cameras fashioning them as skull-masked judiciaries of bravado, of dark masculinity, of mythology secrecy, of authority manifest. But how should we view these images alongside those of massacred civilians? Of Manila locals who cannot stand the sight of them? Of lives already burdened, now invaded and disrupted further with violence beyond their control? Shame that the police are granted even a modicum of style to gorge upon — I always prefer the subversive potency of a sterile image: it does not mask atrocities, tells no tall tales, and exposes fascist eccentricities as bare and hollow — even if delivered alongside tale of the boy whose father was shot in the street by plainclothesmen on a motorcycle. Alongside the tale of the undertaker who profits from the deaths, and all his casual indifference.

ADVERSARIAL FEELINGS (dir. Lorem (Francesco D’Abbraccio)

Some comments around the screening.

The truth is in the name. I do not share in some people’s hostility towards AI artwork. During Adversarial Feelings, there were numerous walk-outs throughout, and scoffs at the announcement of another chapter — another few minutes to spend with the visual mayhem projected before them.

The filmmaker, Francesco D’Abbraccio, explained how in many cases, the music was chosen first and the artificial intelligence system would create the visuals around it — constructing itself from a database of images and ideas. Some hostility towards this idea of an “artificially-intelligent” artist stems from a deeply inhuman and cold connection — it feels wrong to enjoy something made without thought and feeling; without true emotion and pain and experience.

I believe this anxiety yields a vast creative potential that remains unfulfilled, deeply set back by misunderstanding. AI art brings up an interesting dilemma on the creation of meaning in artwork — is meaning born from the artist itself or from our own experiences — or somewhere in-between? Should we be denying ourselves a simple pleasure derived from a cold origin — if we dismiss a pattern/an idea/a visual flash/a momentary touch of emotion, despite origins which are incapable of sharing or experiencing such phenomenon, are we not just lying to ourselves? Rocks and water and air do not feel emotions, yet boundless beauty can be found in the collisions of these soulless elements.

We must acknowledge that AI works have their uncanny features — an alienating sense of the familiar is as true an experience as any other, and is an oft-discussed part of the Gothic mode. Imagine AI’s potential in the realm of the cyber-Gothic — a genre for the online age that, cutting to the core of the human experience as the Gothic often does, uses and deals with artificially-intelligent creativity precisely because of its ability to conjure up the unheimlich.

Dan E. Smith

Written by

MA Film and Film Cultures @ Uni of Leicester / BA Film Studies and Visual Arts grad.

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