Time Out joins Joan Rivers, the BNP and drunken roller-skaters in Sheffield

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The Sheffield Doc/Fest is the country’s leading documentary film festival – and this year’s crop of global docs was especially impressive. Tom Huddleston heads north.

The Sheffield Doc/Fest, now in its seventeenth year, is a film festival with two distinct personalities: on one hand, we have the expected parade of angry eco-tirades, outsider artists and street-level politicos with a point to score. On the other, we have Joan Rivers, transvestite dance troupes and hundreds of sloshed movie geeks on roller skates.

The 2010 festival opened with a gala appearance from Ms Rivers, in town both to introduce ‘A Piece of Work’, a very entertaining insight into her hectic life, and to offend as many people as possible, in part by wondering aloud why the makers of socially conscious Darfur expose ‘The Devil Came on Horseback’ would want to make a film about her. ‘I could have fed more starving children,’ she observed.

Other high profile festival events included a screening of ‘The Arbor’ introduced by its director, Clio Barnard, and another chance to catch this year’s biggest Brit-art-doc ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, at which the director, Banksy, might well have attended. You never know.

For Londoners, the item of most interest was ‘The Battle for Barking’, a blow-by-blow, door-to-door account of the scrap between Labour’s Margaret Hodge and the BNP’s Nick Griffin for control of the East London borough. Granted remarkable access to both sides, first-time feature director Laura Fairrie presents an impressively even-handed portrait of political wrangling in a poverty-stricken borough. And, as she admitted in the post-screening Q&A, her commitment to objectivity has been rewarded by the fact that Hodge allegedly disliked the film on first viewing and the BNP have so far refused to watch it. Though, given the looks of horror on their faces in the film’s climactic election-night scene, they probably just don’t want to be reminded that they lost – badly.

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For me, the top honour at the festival was shared by two very different films. ‘Miscreants of Taliwood’ follows 60-year-old gonzo Aussie documentarian George Gittoes into the heart of the Taliban stronghold, the tribal areas of northern Pakistan, where a rogue film industry has sprung up, bringing low-rent action and romance to audiences starved of escape.

This industry has enraged the local mullahs so much that they’ve declared open war against the filmmakers: kidnapping them, murdering them and blowing up the outlets where films are sold. None of which deters Gittoes: in a remarkable display of courage-slash-stupidity, he wades neck-deep into danger, starring as the villain in one movie, directing another and generally making himself a public enemy. At times hilariously funny, at others almost unwatchably disturbing, ‘Miscreants of Taliwood’ is a furious tirade against those who seek to suppress creative freedom in any form.

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My other top pick was ‘Marwencol’, a quietly devastating portrait of unwitting outsider artist Mark Hogancamp. Left physically and mentally traumatised by a savage gang attack, Hogancamp’s singular form of therapy was to build a 1/6th scale model of a WW2-era French town in his back yard populated with Action Men and Barbie dolls, where he would re-enact the traumatic experiences in his life and photograph them. Tender, insightful and deeply sympathetic, ‘Marwencol’ takes the predicted artist-biopic route from small-town obscurity to a New York gallery exhibit but invests it with such wit and warmth that it’s impossible to object.

Other highlights of the crowded festival programme included the lighthearted and wonderfully watchable ‘Donor Unknown’, about a California beach bum whose past as a regular sperm donor comes back to haunt him, ‘Marathon Boy’, about Indian marathon-running toddler Budhia Singh and his controversial coach Biranchi Das, and ‘The Flaw’, an angry expose of American financial practice which works superbly as an idiot’s guide to the credit crunch.

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Others were less successful: ‘Belair’, a film about an experimental movie production company in 1970s Brazil, contained too much footage of arty hipsters wandering around slums and not enough insight into the cultural and political climate of the day, though the chance to see full-colour footage of that iconic era was priceless. Meanwhile, ‘Player Hating: A Love Story’, a potentially fascinating portrait of doomed Brooklyn rap artist Half-A-Mill, failed because its director, a middle aged, middle class New Yorker called Maggie Hadleigh-West, was simply too willing to let her subjects set the tone, resulting in a film packed with the kind of bling, bluster and self-mythologising which has become the tedious bread-and-butter of modern hip hop.

But Sheffield Doc/Fest isn’t just about the movies: give a documentarian a glass of free wine and a roller rink and all that breast-beating business goes right out the window. The Thursday night roller disco was a wild affair: you’d be surprised how fast a drunk filmmaker can move if you strap wheels to his feet. The big bash at City Hall on the Friday was a similarly riotous affair packed with free grub and cheap plonk, though the wedding-quality dancefloor antics did begin to pale once 2am rolled around.

But, as with so many other things in life, DocFest is all about striking a balance, and watching a placid, autumnal documentary about the later works of Ingmar Bergman (Stig Bjorkman’s ‘…But Film is My Mistress’) turns out to be a surprisingly pleasant way to deal with a hangover. And if nothing else, this year’s selection proved that documentary filmmaking is in rude health.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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