Highlights from Sheffield Doc/Fest 2021

14 Jun 2021 in Film Features

4 mins

Every June, Sheffield hosts one of the leading documentary film festivals on the circuit. After last year's virtual event, 2021 saw a partial return to normality with a digital-physical hybrid, with some events taking place in Sheffield and in cinemas around the UK, with further access available through the online player.

With 166 films of all lengths - comprising shorts, mid-length titles and features - from all around the world and tackling a variety of topics, there was plenty to get stuck into. Below, members from Into Film's curation team and two of our Young Reporters highlight some of our favourite titles from this year's programme.

Into Film's Curation Team

Joe, Curation Manager

Historically, much of the focus for music in the summer of 1969 has been around the legendary Woodstock festival. But just 100 miles away, in New York, the Harlem Cultural Festival was also taking place, assembling an extraordinary array of artists including Stevie Wonder, Sly & the Family Stone, B.B. King, and Nina Simone. Despite being filmed, the footage was never seen and largely forgotten, but has now been painstakingly restored for this joyous, exuberant celebration of culture and harmony. As well as the music, the filmmakers have interviewed surviving performers and audience members, illuminating the historical context the almost entirely Black festival took place in just a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, and with racial violence being an everyday reality for most of those involved. During the festival, man landed on the moon, but this meant little to some in the crowd that day, more concerned about their earthbound problems being routinely ignored by those in power. Summer of Soul is an intoxicating musical experience that also serves as an invaluable record of a historical period with many parallels to our own.

The name Pauli Murray is not widely known today, but it should be. A campaigner for racial justice in the 20th century, Murray was many years ahead of their time, packing in work as a human rights campaigner, lawyer, poet, professor, and the first Black woman to be ordained as an Episcopalian priest into a remarkable life. This loving documentary looks to bring wider attention to their astonishing achievements: jailed for refusing to move from their bus seat 15 years before Rosa Parks, leading protests around segregation in restaurants two decades before the Civil Rights Movement took off in the United States, to name two from an enormous list of accomplishments. As well as their activism around racial justice, Murray was also hugely active in campaigns around gender identity in ways that have only relatively recently truly taken hold in wider public consciousness. My Name Is Pauli Murray does not break any new ground in terms of its filmmaking approach, but instead highlights and celebrates the pioneering work of its subject, finally elevating their historical profile to where it deserves to be. 

Michael, Curation Coordinator

22 minute short film Tictoc follows Felix, a 16 year-old from the seaside town of Cleethorpes in the north east, who has Tourette's syndrome. Keen to break the stigma and share his story with the world, we see Felix doing ordinary teenage activities - playing basketball, boxing, working out, chatting with a friend - while having to contend with an unpredictable and difficult condition. Filmed with clear empathy for its protagonist who wants others to try and understand what it's like to live in his shoes, Tictoc is an essential British film for young audiences about a condition rarely represented on screen.

Stormskater is a 6 minute short film about a London-based roller-skater named Ishariah Johnson, better known as Stormskater, who opens up about her experiences of the sport. She talks about learning from others in the community and being prepared to share that knowledge with the next generation of skaters, as well as the need for open spaces in urban areas. Combining themes around gender, race and identity, this short documentary - shot like a music video - is as empowering as it is revealing.

Into Film's Young Reporters

Mie, 19

When We Were Bullies is a whimsical documentary about coincidences, guilt and childhood. The film never fails to be intriguing. From its wonderful soundtrack and animations, it draws you into the story of a bullying incident in the filmmaker's childhood. With many moments of reflection on the human condition and growing up, it's a fascinating film tinged with both regret and hope.

No Straight Lines: The Rise of Queer Comics chronicles the artists who formed the queer comic book scene as it is known today. This fast paced documentary is as educational as it is enjoyable. Whether you are knowledgeable about comics or are interested in learning more, it paints of picture of community and legacy. An overall uplifting and genuinely sweet film, No Straight Lines comes highly recommended.

Catriona, 19

The empowering documentary, Lift Like A Girl, showcases the outstanding strengths of young and talented Zebiba from Egypt. While the young weightlifter showcases her physical strength, this piece also communicates how mentally strong she must be to overcome the battle that stands in the way of her achieving her dreams.

An extremely beautiful piece which looks at the life of hardworking Anita, The Ants and the Grasshopper is spiritual in how it looks at how issues like climate change and gender equality can affect areas like Malawi. The film really opens your eyes to how an empowered woman can make such an impact in building a sustainable future when it's something she is truly passionate about, and a quote that stood out to me from the film is "the best men know that when women are empowered we are all better off."

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