Every June, the city of Sheffield plays host to filmmakers and film lovers from all over the world in search of the latest and greatest in the field of documentary. We sent Ben Halford to give us his round-up of his picks for Doc/Fest 2018.
Before Father Gets Back (2018, Dir. Mari Gulbiani, Georgia/France/Germany)
Two young girls, Eva and Iman live in the Pankisi gorge in Georgia where Wahhabist Islam has become popularised. Iman aspires to be a film director and is starting to find her own identity whereas Eva is struggling with the same issue and the influence of her fundamentalist father. A surprisingly sweet insight into childhood set against some jaw-dropping landscapes, the film does right to put the human story up front as opposed to judgement on the culture, looking in and observing a small community where conflicting cultural interests collide.
Counting Tiles (2018, Dir. Cynthia Choucair, Lebanon)
A group known as Clowns Without Borders makes it their job to go to refugee relief efforts providing humour for those who have gone through hellish circumstances. What we get is a film that presents the organisation but without much actual demonstration of their efforts resulting in something that rather undersells their cause and seems far from complete or interesing.
Disorder (2009, Dir. Weikai Huang, China)
Taken out from the Retro/Electric Avenues archives, Disorder looks into the operations of the emergency services in urban China and it’s not a pretty depiction. From the grainy black-and-white VHS format used (which can make this film a bit of a strain on the eyes) to the corruption and the disturbing incidents that are captured, Disorder is far from a feel-good story but its forthrightness is unquestionable.
The Distant Barking Of Dogs (2017, Dir. Simon Lereng, Wilmont, Denmark)
Amidst the chaos and ever-present risk of death in Crimea during the Russian conflict with Ukraine over the peninsula, a young boy named Oleg goes about his life as we see his unusual position in the world. An extraordinary portrait of civilian life within battle lines that beyond the staggeringly dangerous circumstances in which the film is made represents the enduring and universal innocence of childhood. Amazing stuff.
The Dread (2017, Dirs. Paulo Apapro, Martin Benchimol, Argentina)
A number of inhabitants of small Argentinian community claim to have healing powers but none can claim the ability to cure “The Dread” a strange mood disorder which can only be cured by a strange outsider. As is to be expected, this film has plenty of fun and interesting eccentrics even if the footage of them comes at the expense of learning more about The Dread. The one who can heal the condition however is captured with an extradorinaiy amount of near-feral fascination and is worth seeing the film for alone.
Ex-Shaman (2018, Dir. Luis Bolognezi, Brazil)
In 1969, an isolated tribe in Brazil was contacted by European-Brazilians. Almost fifty years later, the tribe has come under the influence of missionaries and Christianity whilst their shaman remains at an arm’s distance. What began life as a study of several native shaman, eventually became this more personal study that doesn’t quite latch onto our shaman Paiter Suiri as much as it could or his practices but provides an intriguing story as well as a great perspective on a group of people undergoing rapid westernisation.
Generation Wealth (2018, Dir. Lauren Greenfield, USA)
Lauren Greenfield investigates the idea of the American Dream in a country that seems to pride itself on capitalist excess, whilst she also touches on the dangers of the porn industry and the idea that she may be a workaholic. It’s as scatter-shot as it sounds as Greenfield jumps from one theme to the next and it really hurts the film. However, the first two of those three ideas, when explored, produce something fascinating.
German Class (2018, Dir. Florian Heinzen Ziob, Germany)
The day-to-day business of a German language class in a Cologne school is captured here with a relatable frankness, humour and heart. The children, all from non-German backgrounds and most liable to be relocated to another country with little notice, shine through their different personalities and struggles whilst teacher Ms. Vecchio is a very relatable but admirable figure in helping these children receive an education.
Hale County, This Morning, This Evening (2018, Dir. RaMell Ross, USA)
A look into the lives of African-Alabamians over the course of five years is the intent of director RaMell Ross in this documentary. Ross is a filmmaker with a very dynamic sensibility and some really interesting approaches to filmmaking which makes this a worthwhile watch. However, his desire for flashiness can somewhat be at the expense of the film and its nature of documenting for documentation’s sake does make the whole affair somewhat engaging but listless.
Infinite Football (2018, Dir. Corneliu Porumboiu, Romania)
Laurentiu Ginghina, a former factory worker now working in administration claims to have a plan to reinvent football if not invent a new sport altogether by changing the pitch shape and player formations. What this film is more than a demonstration of this new kind of football is a look at a true eccentric. That is what deserves the attention for a film that at just seventy minutes ends things all too abruptly, but his thoughts on Superman and Spiderman (yes, you read that right) and his father’s musings on life as well are easily the highlights.
Last Year In Utopia (2017, Dirs. Jana Magdalena Keuchel, Katharina Knust, Germany)
Contestants on a Big Brother-esque reality TV show return one year on to the show’s location and watch actors reenacting key scenes from the experiences of the contestants. A very meta insight into society and human interaction but perhaps succeeds a little too well in its ideas of sterility and detachment, leaving a rather dry experience behind.
The Proposal (2018, Dir. Jill Magid, USA/Mexico/Switzerland)
Artist Jill Magid directs and features prominently in this film about her exploring the legacy of Mexican architect Luis Barrachán. With prints of his work almost entirely owned privately by a Swiss corporation, Jill finds an unusual means to negotiate with having the works shown. A sparky and confident debut by a first-time director, even if the motivations explored very much fall into seemingly unintended “unreliable narrator” territory.
Three by Attiyat El-Abnoudi (Horse Of Mud/Sad Song Of Touha/The Sandwich)
A three film retrospective of Egyptian female documentarian Attiyat El-Abnoudi, showing the lives of the poorer communities of the Arabic countries in the 1970’s. Given the limited resources, these are hardly pretty films (with the exception of The Sandwich, which boasts some striking cinematography) but are still interesting insights into often-ignored demographics from something of a ground-level and honest perspective.
Turning 18 (2018, Dir. Chao-Ti Ho, Taiwan)
The adolescent journey of two girls from Taiwan’s indigenous community are followed; visiting issues surrounding alcohol abuse, parental neglect, early motherhood and an emerging LGBT community. The inherently unpredictable nature of documentary filmmaking does serve to make this a film of contrasts between the two focal figures, Chen and Pei, but also not fully explored to an entirely satisfactory end. Still, as an insight to Taiwanese society, it does a good job.
When The War Comes (2018, Dir. Jan Gebert, Czech Republic, Croatia)
Jan Ebert’s documentary delves into the lives of the Slovak Recruits, a paramilitary organisation in Slovakia motivated by noticeably far-right rhetoric by its young leader Peter Svrcek that is now looking toward being a political party. Frighteningly ominous but with a black streak of comedy running underneath, When The War Comes makes for uncomfortable but very rewarding viewing.
Whispering Truth To Power (2018, Dir. Shaleema Sadat, South Africa)
As the public protector, Thuli Mandosela’s role was to ensure fair treatment to the citizens of South Africa. Noted for her calm demeanour and humanitarian goals, Thuli is beloved by the people but the corruption charges brought against then-president Jacob Zuma, make her final days in office difficult. Unreservedly glowing in its praise of Mandosela, Whispering Truth To Power is still an enlightening portrait of an admired public figure but the film’s most interesting aspects are off to its sidelines as a study of political divide between the post-Apartheid Afrikaans community and factions of South Africa’s far-left that even touches Mandosela’s home life.