Unmissable sights and sounds: introducing Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019
Stefan Tobler, founder of Sheffield-based And Other Stories, tells Northern Soul why he’s more excited about Doc/Fest than Cannes.
If discovering incredible films and having the chance to hear film directors like Werner Herzog speak is your thing, don’t miss what’s happening in Sheffield this week: a globally important film festival that’s home grown here in the North with the glorious Peak District framing it all. Professionals are starting to arrive from more than 60 countries for meetings, screenings, Q&As and pitches for hundreds of films. A lucky few films will be honoured with prestigious awards. But Doc/Fest stands out because it is a public festival, showing films for all. As a Sheffielder I am biased of course, but apart from the fact that I may need to keep a waterproof handy instead of swimming trunks, I’d take the friendly, welcoming buzz of Sheffield Doc/Fest over the – let’s face it – cheesy glitz of Cannes any year.
The festival takes access for all so seriously that at the Doc/Exchange space on Tudor Square, right at the heart of the festival, you can just turn up without a ticket any time for free talks and films, and there’s another free screen by the pedestrianised Howard Street on the way up from the train station. Meanwhile, the Door to Doc programme works with community groups in more disadvantaged parts of Sheffield to provide a whole VIP welcome to people coming to see a documentary for the first time. And if you want to take in a bunch of films but can’t afford a festival pass, there are Doc/Lover wristbands offering a good price for 12 screenings.
So, what should you see? The best thing to do is follow your interests to one of the many strands, which range from Doc/Expose for issues-based reportage to the most aesthetically innovative films in Doc/Vision to many alternate reality and digital art installations, thanks to Arts Council England funding. Of course, the films themselves can’t be contained by one idea or strand. The range on offer is incredible. I’ll focus here on a couple of films in the Doc/Rhythm music strand (in a parallel piece on Big Issue North, I’ve had a look at other films in Doc/Fest 2019 that you might want to check out).The Sound is Innocent is the UK premiere of a documentary that will probably make you think again about what music and documentary film are. Billed as the story of electronic music, don’t expect club night electronic music – this is about the history of the avant-garde electronic music developed since the post-war era by contemporary music’s most out-there and up-for-it experimenters, who see all sound as potential music and want to play with it. They often break down the separation of music-maker and instrument-maker. For example, John Richards gets groups of people together (Do It Together being more fun than DIY, as he says) to tinker with old bits of tech and make new sound machines that can respond to the musicians’ movements. One of these happenings, if you will, becomes part of the film.
Why I’m particularly recommending The Sound is Innocent is that the experience of watching the film mirrors the strangeness of the music. In the prelude to the main narrative, the filmmaker and narrator Johana Ožvold (directing her debut full-length film) is standing in a modernist building where a conveyor belt is sedately rolling old items of tech (a valve radio, a loudspeaker, a dot matrix printer) over the end of an internal balcony, so they tumble down a level onto a huge pile of buzzing, flickering objects. She tells us what the objects are, nothing more. The empty building seems to be an empty institution of some kind (a former school? a university at night? an archive? lab?). Ožvold walks round without saying a word on camera, but often watching the composers talk about or perform their music, either directly in the building or on a TV or computer screen that is itself part of a scene filmed in the building.
The film performs the mystery and theatricality that’s unfolding in the music: Ožvold does not explain why, for example, two composers from Berlin are dressing up in a head-to-toe black suit to play their self-made electronic instruments, or why she dresses head-to-toe in a white plastic suit to enter the archives room. Perhaps it’s a nod to the eerie feeling in sci-fi films soundtracked by electronic music pioneers’ soundscapes. Not only does she not speak, there’s an almost disdainful look on her face often, she’s certainly not showing any warmth as she watches the interviewees talk. She’s not speaking, and we listen to the largely unexplained sounds with her. I loved the film, though I can’t say it has made me want to rush out and spend all my evenings listening to its electronic music in the way that watching Wim Wenders’ Pina, his incredible documentary about the dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch and her theatre group, turned me immediately into a contemporary dance fan. But I think that’s more revealing of me than the documentary. If you’re open to an experience and something new then I highly recommend this one. The filmmaker will be in attendance for a Q&A after the film at both of its screenings, at 11.25 am, Saturday 8, and 9.30pm, Monday 10.
Programmed with other short films at the screening Doc/Rhythm Shorts 1 (9.15pm, June 8), I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Jenn Nkiru’s Black to Techno. The British director is known for her unique, experimental style and here she mixes archival footage and new imagery to look at techno and its birth in Detroit. She will also be interviewed in depth at 1.15pm, Sunday 9, on ‘film, art and cosmic archaeology’ no less.
And I haven’t had space to write about some of the other interesting looking Doc/Music strand events and films, such as Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love, Nick Broomfield’s documentary about Leonard Cohen and his Norwegian muse, Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl (no need for explanation there), A Dog Called Money (a film by photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy about the making of PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project album, including jointly undertaken trips to Afghanistan and Kosovo) or Lisbon Beat, which takes us on a trip around Lisbon’s suburbs to explore an Afrobeat sound developed by the African diaspora community in Portugal. Lisbon Beat is co-directed by experienced cinematographer Vasco Viana and Rita Maia, a DJ who also presents at Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM. Rita Maia will be on the decks at Lisbon Beat: The Afterparty on Friday night, while Sunday night sees hip-hop godfather Rodney P bring a house party vibe to town.
The sheer amount on offer can induce anxiety. You have to accept that you won’t catch all the great films this time, and that a good film festival is just the start – giving you ideas for what to try to catch later. Many of these films will have a UK release in one form or another. If you’re in Sheffield the day after the festival, you will have one final chance to see the film that wins the Doc/Fest Audience Award.
And lastly, as I’m writing here for Northern Soul, I need to mention a film that references Northern Soul, the music: in Paradise Square from noon to 9pm on June 8, there are drop-in, 10-minute screenings of A Soft Rebellion in Paradise, artist Chloë Brown’s film of 200 women in Paradise Square last year marking the spot where, in 1851, for the first time in the UK a group called for women’s suffrage. Brown’s film mixes a poem by Sheffield poet Geraldine Monk, music by DIE HEXEN, protest and even the Wigan clap, as developed by Northern Soul audiences. This is festival with a lot of northern soul – an outward-looking, curious, playful, welcoming and ahead-of-the-pack northern soul.
By Stefan Tobler, Founder of And Other Stories
Sheffield Doc/Fest runs between June 6-11, 2019. For more information, click here.
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