Saturday, 16 June 2012

Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012: Day 3

Day 3 of DocFest started bright and early with Danish director Michael Christofferson’s Peruvian documentary The Law of the Jungle, which deals with a group of indigenous men charged with unlawfully occupying an airfield owned by Pluspetrol and the lawyer who takes on the task of defending them. We’re shown how the company’s pipelines have damaged the natural habitat, from levelling the forests in which the indigenous population hunt, to polluting the streams which feed into their water supply. While we see how the court system struggles to acknowledge the rights of the indigenous populace, it’s also a shocking look at how the local police operate. Christofferson includes the police’s own video footage, which clearly shows them planting weapons on the accused, but cuts out just before they beat them. It’s perhaps less stylistically or narratively successful than some of the other films we’ve been watching, but it’s honest and it’s heartfelt and it’s difficult to ignore.

Next up was Palestinian documentary 5 Broken Cameras, from Emad Burnat and Guy Davidi. It’s the chronicle of Burnat’s life in the Palestinian village of Bil’in, just on the Israeli border. When the Israeli government builds a wall that encroaches on their land, the villagers spend the next five years protesting. We witness five years’ worth of unlawful crackdowns on unarmed demonstrations in which lives as well as livelihoods are lost. The filmmakers contrast the historic developments with the life of Burnat’s youngest son, born at the time of the wall’s construction. It’s tough to watch but it’s an emotional experience. Burnat and Davidi allow us to connect with the town’s inhabitants and show the relentless tear gas responses to their demonstrations, and how the conflict is a part of their lives from such an early age. It made a clear impact with the audience at DocFest, who gave the directors a standing ovation.

Rachel Wotton and Catherine Scott

From Palestine to Australia, next up was Catherine Scott’s Scarlet Road, which presents Rachel Wotton, a sex worker in New South Wales who mostly works with disabled clients. Rachel raises awareness for the rights of sex workers as well as Touching Base, a group which helps people with disabilities find sex workers. It’s a very funny, very moving film that wears its heart on its sleeve. Wotton is an engaging, funny, intelligent subject but it also gives us an insight into the lives of her clients, who are totally honest about what it is that she provides them with and just how invaluable a service it is. It steers well-clear of the negative aspects of the sex industry but Scott spoke afterwards about how it had been her intention to make a film that would counter the vast majority of discussion on the subject, which typically portrays sex workers as victims. While it’s obviously a contentious issue, Scarlet Road approaches it with heart as well as a wicked sense of humour.

From New South Wales to New York, we next saw Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present. This film comes with the backing of HBO and distribution company Dogwoof, and details Abramović’s performance piece at MOMA, in which she sat in the museum for three months looking at whoever sat opposite her. Abramović is a fascinating, fiercely compelling subject about whom we knew nothing before watching the film. As such, we felt that perhaps slightly too much of the film was taken up with the piece itself rather than her history, but there’s no avoiding the fact of her magnetic presence and the confrontational nature of her work. As ever with documentaries about artists, there’s a certain amount of erudite fawning but you can’t say that she hasn’t earned it. Her willpower and determination translates wonderfully. We also loved the James Franco cameo!

Alison Klayman via Skype

The final doc of the night was Alison Klayman’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.  In the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake, Chinese artist and political activist Ai Weiwei decided to shine a light on how the government suppressed the truth about the extent of the tragedy through his art and on Twitter, which set him on the path to becoming an internationally recognised advocate of political transparency. Klayman gives us a glimpse into his personal life, with his very young son and his many cats, and, more importantly, follows his constant effort to chip away at the unassailable, unquestionable veneer of the Communist Party. He’s a subject as entertaining as he is intriguing, and it’s a fascinating glimpse at how social media can be mobilised behind a charismatic individual. Klayman appeared afterwards for a Skype Q&A, and impressed us with her verve and clear passion for Ai Weiwei’s cause.


This was yet another highly educational day of docs. In introducing Never Sorry, festival programmer Hussain Currimbhoy said how happy he was to see so many people attending. We can only respond by saying how happy we are to have been given such a marvellously eclectic range of films to attend! Bring on day 4.

JH & MP 

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