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Sheffield Documentary Film Festival 2016 - Thoughts and recap

Saturday 18 June 2016, by Elizabeth Mizon

"In that silent room, I heard two sounds. One high, and one low. Afterward I asked the engineer in charge why, if the room was so silent, I had heard two sounds. He said: “Describe them.” I did. He said “The high one was your nervous system in operation. The low one was your blood in circulation.”

– John Cage, on his experience in Harvard’s anechoic chamber

At this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest I saw Stefan Sagmeister’s dick, live voguing, and more than one dead child. The massive range and power of documentary storytelling felt fully present at Doc/Fest 2016, and gripped me completely. I loved it for that. For everything that was explicitly communicated at SDF this year, however, there was something glaringly unspoken – at least in any public, panel-sanctioned forum.

The annual 5-day event is a massive undertaking, allowing the UK its (mostly) premiere glimpse of the crème de la crème of the year’s international documentary films. The festival guide is a bloody tome, thicker than most bestselling paperbacks, containing 160 films, and such an array of talks, competitions and networking sessions it’s impossible for anyone to experience the festival in its entirety. The films I chose to see were a mixture of what I thought would be moving or would be fun, and happened not to clash with others I thought would be movinger and funner.

Considering recent events, a huge amount of the programming this year was traumatic. I purposely bookended my schedule between A Happy Film and Michael Moore’s Where To Invade Next? (which I’d argue is his best film since Bowling For Columbine.) As much as I appreciated the exquisite design of the former, its narrative choices are equally fascinating and questionable. I began my weekend leisurely, considering the merits, and lacking, of a story helmed by an eccentric and wealthy designer in tandem with two consecutive directors.

Special mention goes to Cameraperson, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s feature montage of stunning offcuts from her career, during which time she’s worked with Laura Poitras on CitizenFour, Michael Moore on Farenheit 9/11 and Kirby Dick on The Invisible War. The film begins with a statement describing the images included as those which have ‘marked’ her.

Several of them – hearing off-camera surprise at capturing a bolt of lightning, followed by a pause, then a sneeze that rocks the frame; her mother, in the full throes of Alzheimers, standing physically sturdy yet mentally absent in an increasingly violent gale; a prosecutor describing images that he holds in his hand, but we never see, of the corpse of torture victim James Byrd Jr. – marked me also. I have not yet fully processed the combined experience of these story fractions; I felt genuine relief at being able to attend the Documentary and Trauma workshop the next day, secretly hoping, for the sake of all future Doc/Fest attendees, that it would run every year.

There is no doubt that this antidotal scheduling of experiences was a privilege. But then, the entire thing was a privilege. I was able to attend due to a grant scheme (and I’m not even that broke). For two days I, alongside others from the Radical Film Network - a nascent, international web for progressive filmmakers of whatever stripe – were gifted free accommodation and passes, due to the network being awarded development funding to provide costs for events such as this. This incubates it, fosters its growth and may help it become greater than the sum of its parts while it has no solid means of survival except its participants’ need, and free labour.

How many of us can afford between £100 and £300 for a festival pass, a £400-ish hotel bill, probable £50+ travel and spare change for extras (like eating) for the best part of a week? Removing blame from any one door belonging to the festival, the government, the global economy for a moment – it was and is simply a rhetorical question; one that is way too old. It came up in conversation with other lucky SDF punters over and over again; not unlike the conversation I’ve had over and again in my hometown about prices at our primary arts centre. The £6.50 benefits concession might be a significant drop from the full price ticket, but it’s still 10% of a weekly jobseekers allowance.

‘The arts’ is currently confined to this cost/equal access paradox. It’s become no one’s fault but everyone’s responsibility. Much of this decade’s cultural conversation has foregrounded complaints about diminishing access to anything and everything, and the arts in particular, after comprehensive public funding cuts, attacks on schools’ humanities syllabuses and the destruction of commons spaces by gentrification. And still, participation in events such as Doc/Fest is prohibitively expensive. The best I can say about a panel on diversity in filmmaking that potentially costs £700+ to get to is that it’s… annoying.

I wish I could share the breadth and depth of narrative chunks I experienced first-hand. How saturated the programme was with stories about desperation, and dangerous migration, and torture and then, following a year of political moments, reflect together on the change (or not) at SDF 2017.

That only-those-wealthy-enough have full access to the cultural event of the year (in official documentary terms) - where they can bombard themselves with timeout that allows input, output and regeneration of ideas – is a truth perpetuated to the nth degree. It’s my feeling that the cultural framework around documentary, as a stark and revelatory exercise, should be ‘better’ than that.

The best documentary films tell true stories about change, and the best of those facilitate it. To fully recognise that, cultural infrastructure needs to cultivate transparency around its own journeys. I’d hope that the SDF team might launch itself into an explicit conversation, and find a workaround that guarantees wider participation in the near future.

My experience of Doc/Fest 2016 was maybe best captured by The Pursuit of Silence, as part of which composer John Cage describes entering an anechoic chamber, hearing nothing but the inside of his own body. Listening to his own nervous system work without realising it. To be able to communicate well we must be able to take time out of the lock-in of every day in a space dedicated to reflection, to hearing others in the world as well as ourselves in ways we didn’t know were possible.

It needs to be less homogeneous if the field is to truly thrive. This is a bigger problem than one event, but the cultural fall-in-line is the silent support of these economic mechanisms. We all know this – if we would collectively and publicly and emphatically confront the reality of that narrative, we would more likely move towards actually changing it. Doc/Fest is a brilliant space – I want to be able to return, alongside a band of new bloods.

Elizabeth Mizon is Elizabeth Mizon is a staff writer at The Canary, the producer of media documentary The Fourth Estate and co-director of the Bristol Radical Film Festival.

Follow her at @elizabethethird

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