Highlights from Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018

15 Jun 2018

4 mins
Minding the Gap still
Minding the Gap still

Once again, documentary fans from around the country headed to Sheffield this June for the 25th annual Doc/Fest, a showcase of non-fiction film, television and virtual reality from around the world. In addition to hundreds of features, many of which are receiving their world premieres and responding to events in the social and political zeitgeist, the festival is well-known for its unique ability to connect aspiring non-fiction filmmakers with the industry movers-and-shakers that can enable their dream projects to happen. 

Doc/Fest also has a reputation for being one of the most welcoming and inclusive film festivals on the cultural calendar, with an emphasis on community that is reflected not only in the spirit of the festival, but the underlying themes of many of the films themselves. This makes it the ideal space for audiences to try their luck on something new and challenging, and discover how documentary cinema is often able to reflect and comment upon events in the current world far more rapidly and provocatively than many feature films.

Joe and Michael from our Curation team headed up to the festival for a few days and reported back on some of their highlights.

Joe - Film Curator

A Northern Soul

Engaging for 14+

Following the acclaimed A Syrian Love Story, director Sean McAllister spends a year in his hometown of Hull, reflecting on the changes to the area during its time as UK city of culture, as well as the impact of long-term economic austerity. The film largely follows Steve, a struggling warehouse worker by day - and hip hop performer by night - as he takes a musical bus around schools and local council estates to bring culture to those unlikely to be reached by the regeneration. Steve is a compelling presence, with a wonderful rapport with the young children, who demonstrate impressive poetry and hip-hop performing skills when encouraged. But the documentary also angrily captures the impact of cuts on the community and individuals, complementing a warm, personal, but powerfully complex portrait of the area.

Out 

Engaging for 14+

Composed entirely of YouTube coming out videos from young people, this funny, emotional and sometimes deeply upsetting documentary captures the unique process everybody who comes out as gay experiences. Admirably, the filmmaker imposes no comment on the footage, instead letting the young people speak for themselves, in often extraordinarily eloquent and dignified ways. Although the footage comes mostly from Western countries, implicit in this is a stark reminder that in many parts of the world, making such a public statement would not only be hugely dangerous, but actually criminal. Out is a tremendous film, outlining why young people post such videos, as a proud declaration of who they are, but also to send a message to people who may not feel ready or able to speak out in such a way and let them know they are not alone.

Lost Warrior

Engaging for 16+

After a brief period in Somalian extremist organisation Al-Shabab (following a stint in a London prison where he was radicalised) Mohamed is no longer welcome in the UK, but is desperate to return and be with his wife and young son. One of several titles screened around the theme of young people and forms of Islamist fundamentalism at the festival, this was perhaps the most accessible for young people. This is partly because much of it takes place in and around the streets of East London, but it's also a result of Mohamed having a natural charisma and chemistry with the camera. Taking in themes of trafficking, the refugee crisis, asylum applications, radicalisation, and human rights, without attempting to offer easy answers or justifications, this is an insightful, compassionate document of the link between the personal and the political.

Michael - Film Curation Officer

Minding the Gap

Engaging for 16+

First-time filmmaker Bing Liu's coming-of-age documentary records the lives of himself and two of his skateboarding friends as they grow up in their Rust Belt hometown of Rockford, Illinois. The footage bridges the gap between adolescence and adulthood over a decade-long period, as 23 year-old Zack becomes a father for the first time and 17 year-old Keire gets his first job. The director asks tough questions around masculinity, domestic abuse, family relationships and race while offering escape and optimism through their combined love of skateboarding. Executive produced by Steve James (Hoop Dreams), Minding the Gap won the Audience Award at Doc/Fest, while Bing Liu picked up the New Talent Award largely due to the way he skilfully merges the personal and professional. The film is set for a UK cinema release soon.

German Class 

Engaging for 11+

Last year's Doc/Fest included a charming film called School Life. German Class is a very similar observational, naturalistic documentary, tracking refugee schoolchildren who have left their war-torn home countries (such as Albania and Iraq) for a new life in Germany. Shot in black-and-white, it closely tracks the development of students over a school year, with family pressures, the threat of deportation and language barriers piling on top of the everyday struggles of school life, such as bullying. Despite these difficulties, German Class is a warm, often funny and inspirational film which demonstrates the selflessness of teaching and the impact it can have on future generations.

Grenfell

Engaging for 14+

This moving, timely documentary played on the one year anniversary of the tragic tower fire where 72 people lost their lives. Featuring residents of Grenfell tower and its surrounding area as contributors, the film is filled with the voices of the people who were not listened to until it was too late. Interspersed is mobile phone footage of the event and subsequent days, providing intimate, direct access. With similarities to activist documentaries including We Are Many and The Hard Stop, this is a film about an important event in modern British history, highlighting the struggles and inequalities linked to working class lives, full of anger, injustice and, above all else, an encouraging community spirit. 

Grenfell is available to view for those with a TV license on BBC iPlayer until Tuesday 10 July 2018.

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