|Artwork (The Big Melt) by Tom J. Newell, artist in residence at this year's festival|
This final day was a rather strange end to the festival! I only saw two films, and one of these wasn’t actually a documentary.
The doc of the day was Emptying the Skies, Douglas Kass’s film based on Jonathan Franzen’s essay for The New Yorker on the issue of migratory bird poaching in Europe, which follows the work of CABS (Committee Against Bird Slaughter) as they take on poachers. Franzen himself was present for the Q&A, along with Douglas Kass, his brother and producer Roger Kass and two of the activists from CABS. The film was, at times, a moving portrayal of people willing to put themselves in danger to protect what they love, and the activists came across very well indeed, but it was a very one-sided view of the situation and, not knowing anything about Franzen, I found his interventions far too abstract to be of use to the film. No doubt his name gave clout to the project, but his detachment from the cause detracted from the overall cohesiveness. In the Q&A he was similarly aloof, offering only the occasional (though admittedly funny) bon mot. Much more interesting were the activists, whose love and enthusiasm were very apparent. Head activist Andrea Rutigliano located himself as a new breed of trapper, getting a thrill from seeing the species of bird found in the traps, but also from releasing them. This was a film with great drive which could have used more focus on the serious political and environmental issues and less airy philosophising.
The rest of the day involved talking, eating and drinking, three integral aspects of the festival. Sheffield Doc/Fest is a social event as much as a film one, where friendships and professional partnerships are forged by the minute. The 20th anniversary trailer which preceded the films highlighted the importance of pitching and bitching, schmoozing and boozing, love and hate and films and fights, and all manner of other stuff which makes this festival so special.
The final film was the newly restored version of Werner Herzog’s 1972 masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which follows an ill-fated attempt to find El Dorado by the insane titular soldier, incarnated with febrile energy by Herzog regular Klaus Kinski. This was preceded in the programme by Herzog’s documentary My Best Fiend, which explores the complicated relationship between the two men. This continued a trend of this year's festival in pairing an old doc about a film/filmmakers with one of the films, following Hearts of Darkness/Apocalypse Now and Fear of God/The Exorcist. It made for a somewhat bizarre conclusion to the festival, which traditionally ends with something of a crowd-pleaser (last year’s Bones Brigade, for instance). Aguirre has a unique power drawn from its melange of insanity - non-sequiturs, impossible visions and Kinski's impressively barmy lead - and the calculating narrative economy (it only lasts 90 minutes - would that Hollywood could learn from this). It is also, quite simply, one of the most beautiful films ever made. My head remained in the jungle.
Looking back, what can be said about Doc/Fest Twenty? It has been another successful year, certainly, but rather different in tone to 2012. Whereas last year saw a number of ‘big’ docs, such as Oscar-nominated Five Broken Cameras and BAFTA and Oscar-winning smash hit Searching for Sugar Man, this time we perhaps had less of these sure-fire successes, but possibly more overall quality, with no films that we saw standing out as outright failures.
One aspect which I, as a Sheffielder myself, wholeheartedly support is the way in which Sheffield itself has been made a focus. From festival director Heather Croall’s dedication of opening night event The Big Melt to the steelworkers to the issue of Sheffield’s importance as a counter-voice to the Conservative government in the 1980s, this year made it clear just how important the city is to the alchemy of the festival's success. Sheffield Doc/Fest is as much about Sheffield as it is about documentaries and festivities. It could not happen like this anywhere else.
We can’t wait for next year.