Recently I attended Sheffield Docfest, the UK’s (and one of the world’s) leading documentary festivals, which, this year, celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Comprising five days of screenings, seminars, parties and a program market, it runs the gamut of documentary sub genres, attracting filmmakers, distributors, cinema and television executives from around the globe.
The first session I attended was Melvyn Bragg’s talk about the arts on TV, at The Crucible Theatre. Neither Arthur Miller nor snooker were involved. For the most part, Bragg talked about and showed clips from his Sky series, covering subjects as diverse as Dizzee Rascal & Tinchy Stryder on Grime, David Hare on Oscar Wilde, Nick Hytner & James Cordon on theatre, Tim Minchin on comedy and Tracy Emin, who stated “My bed was seminal” (yes, we saw the stains). Above all else, what this demonstrated, for me, was just how compelling a talking head can be when it has something to say and is engaged in well researched intelligent discourse…and how this makes a complete mockery of the recent trend for over-scoring and camera tricks in documentary. Asked, during the Q&A, if he has sold out by going to Sky after declaring the arts should be for everyone, Bragg replied “If it’s good enough for David Attenborough….” He also made clear his contempt for ITV’s lack of arts programming and his hopes for the BBC’s review.
Day 1′s highlight was the opening night film ‘Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer’. Telling the story of the imprisoned band, it gained quite remarkable access, that included disturbing scenes of the trio behind bars in a cell within the courtroom in which their show trial took place. Although the film raised almost as many questions as it answered, it succeeded in changing my perspective on the band. Prior to watching it, I had considered Pussy Riot to be little more than a musically inept irrelevance. Having watched it, I now understand they are a musically inept relevance.
Day 2 opened, for me, with ‘Clearing the Way for International Distribution – Reversioning, Archive and Clearance’, a panel that brought together leading international distributor, Zodiak Rights and Getty Archive. Covering everything from the difference between ‘fair use’ and ‘fair dealing’, what constitutes incidental use and when & where clearances are needed, to which country’s copyright laws allow parody, it was comprehensive to say the least and of as much relevance to those producing for the domestic market as for the international one. Of the numerous tips it delivered, perhaps the most pertinent was to always clear festival rights, so that buyers can actually see things!
Later that morning I attended ‘The Business of VOD’, the star of which, Vimeo’s Jordan McGarry, stated that “documentary has always been big on Vimeo.” She explained that the best way to get one’s work seen on Vimeo is to engage with its community (by commenting and liking) and that doing so will enable one to create a great community of their own within 1-3 years. When asked if filmmakers should restrict their content to one targeted platform or upload their work to multiple platforms, the panel’s unanimous verdict was the latter.
At lunchtime I went to a screening of Electro Moscow, which, given its subject matter – obscure Russian synthesizers, really ought to have been called Moskow Elektro. As something of a synth geek, I was looking forward to lots of bleeps, bloops, zaps and micro electronics. However, whilst there was some of that, the film was, for the most part, a tale of a life behind the Iron Curtain, in which synth collectors met KGB agents on street corners at night in order to ‘procure’ electronic components that had fallen off the back of a tank (sic).
Later that afternoon, Adam Buxton presented the Sheffield debut of music video institution, ‘Bug’. As I had only just completed a promo for B.E.F. featuring Kim Wilde, this was, for me, both a treat and a festival highlight. Buxton was on excellent form and had the audience in stitches, as he delivered polished comedy routines based around an eclectic selection of music videos, the best of which was Cyriak Harris’ recent promo for ‘Cirrus’ by Bonobo.
The choice between seeing Michael Palin in conversation with Miranda Sawyer, or a film about Johnny Moped with an extended Q&A featuring punk legend Captain Sensible, that evening, was, for me, a no brainer. From the moment I caught site of the poster in the delegates centre, nothing was going to stop me from seeing Basically Johnny Moped. A feature length documentary about proto punks ‘The Johnny Moped Band’, whose various lineups included Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and Captain Sensible of The Damned, it tells one of the great (until now) untold chapters of the pre history of punk rock. Directed by Captain Sensible’s son, Fred Burns, it’s funny, touching, visually inventive and was my favourite film of the festival!
Day 3′s ‘Sky Factual: The Talent Story’ panel, boasted an eclectic mix of executives and talent (including TV’s Ross Kemp), that, at points, were difficult to tell apart, given the extent to which everyone was ‘on message’…
‘Alan Yentob in Conversation’ was everything one would expect. It included clips from and discussion of his BBC Arena films ‘I Thought I Was Taller – A Short History of Mel Brooks’ and ‘David Bowie Cracked Actor’ (one of the clips from which, by a strange coincidence, being the exact same one that Adam Buxton had mercilessly parodied the day before at Bug). Discussing his body of work with Nick Fraser of BBC Storyville, Yentob described his Orson Welles film as “The Thing I’m most proud of.” Talking about the importance of trust between filmmaker and subject, which he characterised as “a conversation,” he explained that he always retains editorial control over everything he does (but will take things out if absolutely necessary). He went on to describe editing as an “important part of the creative process,” saying “You always make things better in the cutting room.” Almost in response to Melvyn Bragg’s comments about the lack of Arts programming by The BBC and his hopes for The Beeb’s review, Yentob stated that the outcome of the review will be “more arts than ever before.”
‘Behind The Curtain: How Film Festival Programming Really Works’ brought together festival programmers from SXSW, Hotdocs & Realscreen, who provided clarity and insight into what to do and what not to do with one’s films. Research (and the lack thereof) was, ironically, a theme, with Janet Pierson from SXSW saying “I wish filmmakers went to film festivals before they submit to them,” and Charlotte Cook from Hotdocs saying “find the right fit, don’t chase prestige.” Not submitting unfinished work was another theme, summed up by Janet Pierson’s comment that “Every year [at SXSW] we show things we’ve rejected the previous year, because filmmakers are in a rush and submit things that aren’t ready.”
By contrast, the ‘US Funding Opportunities for International Filmmakers’ panel that followed, was more soporific, than terrific. In fact, had I been able to bottle it and sell it as an insomnia remedy, I would have all of the funding I need.
Richard Pryor: Omit The Logic, also omitted some of the primary sources one might have wanted to see onscreen and much in the way of detail about the multiple allegations of domestic violence towards his wives. Nevertheless, it managed to provide a fairly balanced view of and some insight into one of the world’s greatest stand-ups and as such is a must see for comedy fans.
The penultimate day’s proceedings kicked off with one of the unquestionable highlights of the festival – a talk by legendary Hollywood Editor, Walter Murch. For anyone not familiar with Murch, his filmography includes everything from ‘The Godfather’ (I, II & III) and ‘Apocalypse Now’, to, most recently, ‘Particle Fever’, a feature length documentary about Quantum Physics, which he discussed during an eclectic and fascinating talk, to a packed house.
Opening with a mini state of the industry address, Murch said that although “scripted cinema is going through the doldrums…cable TV and independent cinema are vibrant…[and] surprisingly there’s a resurgence in documentary and animation,” and this “crisis point” in cinema is as much an opportunity as a threat.
Moving onto the subject of editing, Murch quoted Victor Fleming (Director, The Wizard of OZ & Gone With The Wind) “Good editing makes the film look well directed, great editing makes the film look like it wasn’t directed at all.” He then showed photos of his rather minimal editing setup for ‘Particle fever’ which consisted of just a board filled with post it notes, a computer and two monitors, which he said he works at standing up. Reassuringly, his screenshots showed a timeline that was almost as much of a mess as one of mine. On the subject of software, he said simply “Final Cut 7 rest in peace.” Then he talked about his book ‘In the Blink of An Eye’, explaining the editing theory it espouses, which, he added, has recently been proven by a team of neuroscientists.
Extremely intelligent and funny, Murch gives the impression of someone whose DNA is part celluloid, to the extent that he even speaks in filmic metaphors. I (and I think everyone else in the room) would have happily listened to him all day. All in all, Walter Murch was probably the best 20th Anniversary present Sheffield could have had.
Having just spent a day and a half with one of Prime Focus‘ senior colourists, grading my B.E.F. / Kim Wilde promo, I was eager to attend their session on preparing features for theatrical release, which was every bit as excellent as I expected. Comprehensive (to say the least), it explained not just what is involved from their perspective, but everything that one can and should do before handing a film over to them. This included all of the common pitfalls to avoid and some extremely useful technical information about frame rates, colour spaces, DCPs, sound mixes, Dolby days, M&E clauses, Quality Control Reports and Post Production Supervisors. To say they know their shizzle is an understatement. Having had first hand experience of working with Prime Focus, I cannot recommend them highly enough and certainly know where I’ll be heading when I have feature that’s ready for theatrical release.
“It Didn’t Sound Like That In The Studio,” proved to be the perfect follow on seminar. Making the point that most TV producers don’t understand what is needed for cinema, it examined the minefield of multiple mixes that may be required (e.g. stereo, 5.1, DTS, Dolby Atmos 28.2, etc.) and suggested always mixing for the biggest of these formats first, then progressively folding down the mix until one reaches the smallest format. Handy tips included, where possible, always doing a sound and picture tech check at festivals prior to the screening of one’s film, as front and rear, left and right speakers are often set up incorrectly. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit to emerge from this session though, was that the BBC’s ‘Natural History’ series was shot mute and all of the sounds were added in post (cue another controversy).
Later on, I walked like a man into I Am Divine. The definitive biography of Harris Glenn Milstead aka gay icon, Hi-NRG hit machine and longtime John Waters collaborator, Divine. Using clips from Divine’s films, TV appearances, musical performances, rare archive material and interviews with John Waters, Ricki Lake and the usual suspects, it tells the story of Divine comprehensively, from cradle to grave, in a voice that seemed both authentic and celebratory.
After the final day’s awards ceremony, with the ever excellent Jeremy Hardy, I attended my last seminar of Docfest – a technical masterclass in sound recording with Kim Longinotto, the over arching narrative of which was always use a sound recordist…a sentiment with which I couldn’t agree more. Then I rounded things off with a second screening of ‘Basically Johnny Moped’, which this time, was followed by a Q&A with the band’s drummer, Dave Berk.
‘Basically Johnny Moped’ has a special screening in London, this Thursday, at KOKO. The Johnny Moped band will be reforming and playing a very rare gig afterwards, for which they will be joined on stage by Captain Sensible. Tickets are available here.
Sheffield DocFest returns 7-12 June 2014. Registration has just opened with significant savings offered for those booking early.