If the arts end up keeping anything positive from these pandemic times, I hope it’s the hybrid model of festivals and exhibitions where they have site specific and online lives. Over the last year and a bit I’ve attended a bunch of festivals – both film and music – online that I would realistically have never been able to attend in person for geographical or time reasons.
Sheffield Doc Fest, is a fortnight long documentary film festival that I’ve been planning to attend in person for at least the last decade and that I finally managed to do in an asynchronous, semi-virtual fashion this year. I’m pleased to see that they’re also following what I think of as the Africa in Motion model, where the films tour the country as well, I think I liked their version better with the remote screenings being the same night as the festival screenings – instead of weeks or months later – so that even if you couldn’t, or didn’t want to be, physically in Sheffield, you could be in a screening with lots of other people. I find the pre-recorded zoom Q&As that are in vogue at the moment even more awkward than their in-person versions but I think they do help the audience feel part of something bigger.
Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
This was the first and certainly the best attended of the Sheffield Docs being screened, and it was definitely my favourite. It tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, that took place across six weeks during the summer of 1969 in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park), both the festival and the film about it celebrate Black history, culture and fashion, and capture a powerful and transformative moment in history. It also feels very much a film of this moment, telling a story, a history, that has been hidden, that doubtless many would prefer to remain so, despite, or perhaps because of it’s joy and positivity.
Many of the interviews are with ordinary folks from Harlem who attended as teenagers, and there’s some particularly poignant commentary from them about the importance of cultural history being recorded and taking it’s place in the historical record. (One man talking about watching footage of a concert he attended as a small boy, said something along the line of: its real, I knew it was real I was there, but now I know it’s really real, I can prove it.)
One of the film’s great strengths is the quality of the concert footage. It was recorded with the intent to sell the footage to TV Stations, the director of the original footage talks about pitching it as ‘Black Woodstock’ to executives, hoping they’d be hungry for something both similar enough and different enough to that cultural phenomenon. His baffled frustration forty years on that they weren’t comes through clearly. Whatever their professed reasons for turning it down, it wasn’t the footage quality – doubtless it’s been restored in the process of digitisation but both visuals and especially audio are too good for the originals to have been anything but top quality professional work – rubbish in, rubbish out after all – and it holds up well.
It’s both a great concert film, and an important and accessible film about the a side of the sixties in the US that we don’t hear enough about in the cultural and historical memory of that time.
Lift Like a Girl
This is a strange film. It’s an observational documentary – which does seem to be rather in vogue at the moment – and there are no real ‘to camera’ interviews. Not only is it a film without a narration, but a film that feels like it has no authorial voice. Officially, the protagonist is a young weightlifter called Zebiba following her from ages 14 to 18 as she strives to become a champion weight lifter. She struggles and strives, argues with her coach and watches everything with large cautious eyes. There’s clearly a lot going on behind those eyes, but we never really get any insight into what’s going on behind those eyes, or even really get to know her as a person. It’s obvious that her struggles are less physical than they are psychological, arguably she’s motivated more by the making her coach and the younger weightlifters proud of her than by the prospect of winning itself, let alone medals or prizes.
She does however make the perfect foil to her coach Captain Ramadan, a legend in his sport who trained the first Egyptian woman to medal at the Olympics in weightlifting. He spends the film trying to parle that fame and reputation into resources and success for the girls of a poor neighbourhood of Alexandria. He’s abrasive and aggressive, but also charming and committed and despite how much time he seems to spend shouting at them, it’s clear that the girls he trains think the world of him. He gives what is the closest the film gets to actual interviews, but more in the form of pontificating speeches that are given as much for the girls or their parents as they are for the camera. It seems very much that the relationship of trust is between himself and the director and everyone else trusts and/or tolerates the film-makers because he does. He’s the man with the plan and he dominates every scene he’s in – even in his rare moments of silence he’s compelling, drawing the eye irresistibly. The film feels as though it’s constantly fighting not to be about him rather than about Zebiba.
The Story of Looking
The last of the three documentaries I saw was Mark Cousins latest film, The Story of Looking, which is an oddly elegiac film, full of nostalgia, grief and hope. It’s a film about the power and the pain of looking, of what visual culture means to us collectively as a culture and to him individually as a film-maker and a person. It uses as it’s central conceit, the idea of turning Cousins’ darkened bedroom as a camera obscura, projecting an imagined journey around Edinburgh and the wider world onto the screen in front of the audience and plays with the idea of imagination and objective reality accordingly. (The film is definitely at it’s strongest when we’re watching the shadows on the wall, rather than sitting in the objective reality that is inside the camera obscura with the director.) It’s a strange film, but also compelling and lovely. I saw it in an almost empty cinema – there were two other viewers, all of us there by ourselves on a Saturday night, sitting in opposite corners of the screen – it was definitely a film to be seen alone in the dark, but it deserved more of us.
It’s partly based on his book of the same name and partly on the experience of having a cataract removed from his own eye. (Fair warning for eye harm.) The film features some fairly shocking imagery, but always in a measured and conscious fashion, it’s presented as imagery that pushes boundaries as part of a discussion about why it pushes boundaries and how it impacts the viewer. (Strangely the hardest part to watch, for me, was the small Syrian refugee Adam cry and not receive comfort – it felt the most voyeuristic somehow in a way that surgery or corpses or naked bodies did not.) We even see parts of Cousins’ eye surgery which oddly enough I found morbidly fascinating and somehow captivating, there was no revulsion like that provoked by that clip of Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel/Dali, 1929) – perhaps it’s intent that makes the difference, surgery has intent to heal, whereas the other is an attack however fake the eye might be, the intent of the imagery is to cause a visceral negative reaction. I’ve seen that clip a dozen times since I saw it the first time in film class nearly twenty years ago and every time I recoil from it, however braced for it I thought I was.
This film is only confrontational up to a point, as we face along side Cousins’ the reality of what sight loss might mean to someone like him, whose whole understanding of the world is visual. (As a very short-sighted person who spends a lot of time behind a camera, it certainly made me feel a lot of complicated emotions along the way.) Mostly it’s a love letter to visual culture and to vision itself.