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The 4th Sheffield International Documentary Festival

By Ben Levin

A man holds up his handcuffed wrist, from Werner Herzog's  'Little Dieter Needs To Fly.'

The theme of the 4th Sheffield International Documentary Festival (October 13-19) was "Making History." A broad range of subject matter and stylistic approaches were evident in the week-long event, including the conventional historical documentaries, personal histories and documenting people as they navigated a defined period in their lives, from a few days to six years. Many professionals from the British television networks and independent production companies joined others in attending the event.

The guest directors for this year's offering were Yiktor Kossakovsky from Russia and Alan Berliner from the United States. In the past, other American directors featured have been Robert Drew, Richard Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker and Errol Morris. A retrospective of Berliner's work was shown, including Nobody's Business, his film about the relationship with his father and family, which has been screened widely and discussed at some length in previous issues of this magazine. The printed program gave no indication as to the acquisition or exhibition medium, although work was projected as video, as well as 16mm and 35mm film. This was a refreshing change from festivals that re-strict what can be shown based on format, and consequently increased the potential pool of work that might enhance the program theme. Roger James, chair of this year's festival, stated that the theme is chosen before the selection process begins. According to festival researcher Alex Cooke, work was considered for the festival, in part, based on recommendations from key distributors and television professionals, or as a result of previous screenings at other major festivals. For the most part, the films had not been broadcast ("transmitted") on British television, and festival director Kathy Loizou said that this is intentional. It makes for an interesting dichotomy in the high level of participation by television makers, but one that allows for screening new material of high quality and stimulating dialogue about fresh approaches to both subject matter and form.

Sunshadow (Sweden, 58 min., 1996), directed by Susanna Edwards, is a stunning portrait of Chistina Sanchez, a 23-year-old who is striving to become the first woman to graduate a matador in Spain. Stylistically, the film could be compared to Madonna: Truth or Dare in its use of very polished "performance" footage juxtaposed with gritty behind-the-scenes material, although in the case of Sunshadow, with much less control asserted by the subject. The film chronicles the arduous matador-training process with intense footage of interactions with Sanchez's parents and trainers, and dramatic footage of her bullfighting, leading to the inevitable injury. Production values were impressive and the work included obvious sound effects, also foley, used to increase the tension in the piece. Highly dramatic music is used throughout, in a manner that may be irritating to some viewers who eschew this sort of thing in a documentary. It's an impressively crafted work, nevertheless, that should continue to receive international attention.

In creating McLibel, Two Worlds Collide (U.K., 55 min., 1997), director Franny Armstrong took three years to follow two citizens trying to defend themselves against a libel suit brought by McDonald's. Accusations had been made about the alleged unhealthfulness of the food, poor employee working conditions and numerous questionable business practices. In several scenes, actors were used to represent McDonald's legal team and their expert witnesses, while the defendants and their witnesses were played by the actual parties. This made for an interesting mix and was an effective way to represent the trial itself, which dragged on for almost two years.

Rhyme or Reason (U.S., 94 min., 1997), directed by Peter Spire, is an energetic look at the history of Hip Hop. It is done in a frenetic style, with much intercutting between numerous characters, bits of music, location shooting in "the 'hoods." These elements combine to effectively articulate the relationship between the form and its cultural roots. The film recalls Listen Up..., the documentary about Quincy Jones released several years ago, but the style is probably more appropriate to the content in this case. Production values are high and the piece appears headed for theatrical release.

Viktor Kossakovsky's Sreda/Wednesday (Russia, 93 min., 1997), winner of the 1997 FIPRESCI Prize at Berlin, follows the filmmaker's search for the other 100 people born in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, July 19, 1944. Using a highly subjective style of shooting, he develops a variety of arresting situations, intercut to establish a mosaic of human circumstances. The approach recalls Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin's Chronicle of a Summer and Kossakovsky treats the people in the film with care and respect, while probing personal histories embodied in his intimate interactions with his subjects. In many respects, this film most captured the spirit of the festival theme.

There were several films that dealt with the homeless, as well as others living on the hinges of their society. In The Street (Canada, 79 min., 1996) three homeless men in Montréal were filmed over a six-year period by filmmaker Daniel Cross. Beyond the extraordinary length of the shooting period, the film is also remarkable in the filmmaker's attempt to aid his subjects (or "contributors", the term currently used by many in the U.K.). The frustration he experiences allows the film an added formal layer as he himself becomes a major character in the piece. Even with its rough edges, the film reminds us of documentary's power to chronicle a process or situation over time.

Gigi, Monica and Bianca (Belgium, 84 min., 1996) is a portrait of three young people living in a Bucharest railroad station. We leant their past histories and follow them as Gigi (aged 17) and Monica (aged 15) prepare for the birth of their child. Directors Yasmina Abdellaoui and Benoit Dervaux make no attempt to offer any help; but a high level of intimacy is achieved in the shooting style, and the piece is edited at an appropriately patient pace. Visits to relatives in the country suggest alternative possibilities and the film closes after the baby is born, with a faint hint of optimism.

In the case of Working for the Enemy (U.K., 59 min., 1997), Sean McAllister followed 35 year old Kevin, on welfare ("the dole") for 18 years. The film observes Kevin's personal battle with those who want him to work, while he chooses to continue doing his own art works without the pressures of having to sell them for an income. Following the screening, the participants, including Kevin, engaged in a lively discussion, one that touched on many of the moral and ethical issues involved in this kind of filmmaking. Produced for the BBC's United Kingdom series, it was one of the few documentaries shown at the festival that had been previously transmitted.

There were two films selected for the festival that were shot in South Africa. In My South African Home Movie (Germany, 89 min., 1996), filmmaker Jens Meurer journeys to a home he left to avoid military service during the peak of apartheid in the 1970s. He effectively uses family photographs and home movies to establish the past in clear juxtaposition with his probing of the current situation. He visits his father, as well as friends from his youthful days there. In one of the strongest segments, he is reunited with the servant/nanny who played an important role in the daily life of the family when he was young. She is now able to talk to him about her new life and her feelings about the past. The subjective personal style of the film enhances this process and makes the dialogue between them possible.

In The Land is White the Seed is Black (France, 48 min., 1996), director Koto Bolofo chronicles a Black history teacher's return home after 20 years in exile. He had to leave South Africa after he was accused of being a communist: the authorities had found a Marxist quotation in his notebook. The film was shot with an old wind-up Bolex on a low budget, but the filmmaker effectively uses voice/over interviews, still photographs and an eclectic selection of music to create a moving essay about a person's contact with what is left from the past. The filmmaker's family had spent 24 years in exile, no doubt a major motivation for a film that had to be made, under whatever the circumstances.

IDA board member André Singer introduced Werner Herzog's recent documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly (U.K./Germany, 75 min., l 997). It chronicles a German-born U.S. pilot 's experience of being shot down during the Vietnam War, his tortuous time in prison camp and his miraculous escape. The past continues to permeate his life, and Herzog skillfully uses his personal dialogue with Dieter in combination with an eclectic mix of archival footage, still photographs and music. He also accompa­nies Dieter back to Southeast Asia to recount the adventure. Subsequent to Sheffield , the film was transmitted on the "Storyville" series (BBC]) that also included Nobody's Business.

The following films of note were also screened but have been covered in previous issues of the magazine: Nobody's Business (U.S., 60 min., 1996), East Side Story (Germany, 76 min., 1996), Calling the Ghosts—A Story of Rape, War and Women (U.S., 63 min., 1996) Licensed to Kill (U.S., 80 min., 1996), all at the Berlin International Film Festival (ID, June 1997); Bye Bye Babushka (U.S., 76 min., 1997), from the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival (ID, September 1997); and A Healthy Baby Girl (U.S., 56 min., 1996), screened at the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival (ID, May 1997).

Also included in the screenings were two programs of international shorts, a selection of documentaries from British film and television schools, a group of films "Made in Sheffield," and a presentation by Eastman Kodak: "Real Life on the Big Screen."

A major dimension of this festival was Delegates Weekend, when close to 300 professionals from the industry, and others interested in developing a career in the field, arrived for a series of workshops and forums. It also provided an opportunity for younger filmmakers to interact with those more established. This aspect of the festival needs to be seen in the context of nonfiction film 's vitality in the U.K. In 1996, for example, 1,500 new documentaries were transmitted on British television. Approximately 2/3 were produced in-house by the BBC, ITV or Channel Four, with the other 1/3 being produced by independent companies funded by commissioning editors at each of the major networks.

This part of the festival was organized much like a professional conference. Among the topics covered in the sessions were the use of archival footage, documentary making in Eastern Europe, factual soap operas, co-production possibilities and docudramas.

One of the sessions, "A Career in Documentary—Strategy or Serendipity?," was standing room only. This forum included case histories of several documentary makers who had found outlets for their work on British television and a panel of commissioning editors from the networks who talked about the development of ideas and their criteria for deciding what gets funded, whether for an ongoing series or a single documentary ("one-off'').

"Journeys Round My Navel" dealt with some of the issues surrounding personal family histories and self portraiture, while a special forum was added to allow for discussion of possible impact that changes contemplated in privacy laws could have on documentarians.

A memorable evening session featured a two-hour interview with Jeremy Isaacs, executive producer of the World at War series, former head of Channel Four in London, and executive producer of a new 24-part series on the Cold War currently in production. Through all of the sessions, the quality of the discussions was high , as was the enthusiasm for the vitality of the documentary form.

Small screening facilities and a complicated ticketing system were irritating at times, resulting in some people being turned away on the weekend. This should be rectified next year with the addition of much needed additional theater space. With its interesting mix of film screenings, guest filmmakers, forums and panels, the Sheffield festival will no doubt continue to thrive.

BEN LEVIN teaches documentary at the University of North Texas; his work has been screened at the London Film Festival, Margaret Mead, the Museum of Modern Art and on PBS.