Highlights from Sheffield Doc/Fest 2020

17 Jul 2020 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

7 mins
Us Kids
Us Kids

Every June, the city of Sheffield becomes a hub for film industry professionals and documentary fans alike as they flock to the Steel City for Doc/Fest, one of the largest and most prestigious non-fiction film festivals in the world.

As with many festivals at the moment, Doc/Fest 2020 moved to become an online event this June due to COVID-19, although there are some physical screenings in Sheffield tentatively scheduled for the autumn. What hasn't changed from previous editions is the quality and diversity of titles on offer. This year's festival involved 115 films of varying lengths - short films, feature films and everything in between - and hailed from 50 countries around the world, including 22 British productions.

Below, we highlight some of our favourites from this year's Doc/Fest.

Us Kids

On 14 February 2018, the deadliest school shooting in US history took place in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others. Some of the survivors - including Emma Gonzales and David Hogg - decided that enough was enough, and sought to turn their traumatic experiences into activism. This in turn sparked a passionate and resolute movement across the country seeking to reform gun laws and put an end to NRA money in politics. 

This incredibly moving documentary charts the actions of the youthful group, from setting up the March For Our Lives protest to touring various cities and states in the hope of educating voters in the run-up to the US mid-term elections. We also explore the thoughts, hopes and dreams of the activists. With topics as varied as the Black Lives Matter movement, media representation and mental health all encompassed - and with events expressed through eloquent, informed and engaged young voices - Us Kids is an extremely inspiring, energising and hopeful look at the possible future of the political landscape.

Recommendation

If you like the sound of Us Kids then you may also be interested in He Named Me Malala, available to order now from Into Film. He Named Me Malala is a documentary following the personal and political life of Malala Yousafzai in the wake of surviving a Taliban attack.

Flint

The city of Flint, Michigan has been suffering a water crisis for a number of years. In April 2014, Flint changed its source of drinking water in a cost-cutting measure from Lake Huron to the city river. It would result in lead poisoning for many of Flint's residents, including children. Though tenants would be assured in October 2015 - some eighteen months later - that the crisis was finally behind them, with the decision being reversed and a return to Lake Huron for drinking water, the damage had already been done. Filters needed to be bought, but residents struggle to get them to work; volunteers hit the streets to dispense water and provide information; citizens used hundreds of water bottles every day to do what we consider as basic activities such as boiling the kettle, washing dishes or taking a shower.

And then events took another turn. An outsider claims that the water still isn't safe and vows to conduct his own testing, with the authorities warning the public not to trust him, leading to a conflict around experts, public opinion, the media, and science. 

Flint is an impactful documentary from British filmmaker Anthony Baxter about a lower-class, predominantly BAME community horribly failed by its government.

Recommendation

If you like the sound of Flint then you may also be interested in Fahrenheit 11/9, available to order now from Into Film. Fahrenheit 11/9 is a documentary from acclaimed filmmaker Michael Moore which also investigates the Flint crisis and many other aspects of the current political landscape in the US.

The Story of Plastic

This large-scale production opens with the quote "the future of plastics is in the trash can", a line which came from a senior figure within the plastics industry itself all the way back in 1956. The film's position is to examine why that future has yet to come. 

Comprised of infographics, case studies, archive clips and animated sequences, The Story of Plastic offers a timeline of notable, landmark moments within the plastics movement. The documentary focuses on corporations' relationship with the material, rather than putting the responsibility on the consumer, which has tended to be the case in most other examinations of the subject. With half of all the plastic that has ever existed having been produced in the last 15 years (and 91% of that having never been recycled), this is a timely, urgent and necessary call-to-action about the state of the natural world within an engaging and accessible narrative.

Recommendation

If you like the sound of The Story of Plastic then you may also be interested in An Inconvenient Truth, available to order now from Into Film. This seminal documentary from Al Gore looks at climate change, and proved a huge turning point in the environmental movement, and remains just as relevant today.

Influence

This biographical film charts the career of Tim Bell, a highly influential and controversial figure within the PR industry who left his mark on some of the biggest political moments in recent history. Bell boasts of his work ethic and admits to being - in his words - amoral, though not immoral, following money and fame and willing to work with anyone as long as it helped him get what he wanted. Campaigns he was a part of included Margaret Thatcher's initial (and subsequent) elections - including the ‘Labour isn't working' advert - as well as being brought in to help handpick the successor of dictator General Pinochet in Chile, heading to Apartheid-era South Africa to work for Mandela's opponent in the elections, and getting involved in post-war Iraq in 2004, with many more all across the world in between. 

Eventually it would be a return to South Africa and his involvement with the Jacob Zuma controversy that would bring him down, supplemented with an ill-fated appearance on Newsnight in September 2017. As well as covering marketing, the media and recent historical events, Influence is a timely look at the impact of behind-the-scenes figures in politics.

Recommendation

If you like the sound of Influence then you may also be interested in We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, available to order now from Into Film. We Steal Secrets is a documentary that charts the creation of a website that made its mark on history, featuring the testimony of its highly controversial creator, Julian Assange.

We're Still Here

This small-scale British documentary follows residents of various London boroughs as they fight back to combat the so-called ‘housing crisis' all over the city. Tenants provide testimony of their personal experiences both to the camera and also within public forum settings such as council planning meetings, where they accuse local authorities of enacting what is tantamount to social cleansing policies. 

We hear of individuals being offered alternative accommodation in cities as far as Birmingham, Manchester and in Scotland; of tenants being given just a day's notice to vacate their property; of the fallacy behind ‘right to return' schemes and their incredibly low take-up, and more. Unsurprisingly those most affected are communities that are already vulnerable; largely the poor, working-class, ethnic minorities and/or immigrants, as well as the increased number of people - even those with jobs - that are now in poverty and require financial support. 

As one resident puts it: "it's not the case that there aren't enough houses; it's the case that the houses are too expensive to live in". We're Still Here is an eye-opening examination of government policy, marginalised voices and community-led activism.

Recommendation

If you like the sound of We're Still Here then you may also be interested in A Northern Soul, available to order now from Into Film. A Northern Soul is a British documentary that follows a resident of Hull as he attempts to make a positive impact on his community during its time as UK city of culture in 2017, with the city having previously been hit with the effects of long-term economic austerity.

Look out for these titles in cinemas and online throughout the rest of 2020 and beyond. Sheffield Doc/Fest will hopefully return with further screenings this autumn. For more information, visit the Sheffield Doc/Fest website.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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