Earlier this month, Vanora Fung, a former student on our BFI/Whicker documentary course, attended her first ever Sheffield Doc/Fest. Read on for her ‘notes from the field’ from a film festival newbie! Vanora Fung is a artist, writer and filmmaker hailing from Sydney, Australia. Based in London, she has a deep passion for creating thought provoking work at the intersections of identity, place and belonging.
DAY 3 (Saturday 8 June)
Craft Summit Session: Filming the Unfilmable
Chaired by: Krishan Arora (SBS)
1) Colette Camden, director of Married to a Paedophile (currently available in the UK on 4od)
2) Carl Javér, director of Reconstructing Utøya (screened at DocFest)
This session explored how documentary filmmakers tackle taboo subjects and stories that can’t be shared openly, while also respecting the ethical, legal and personal sensitivities of the people involved. Both directors’ creative approaches were discussed and clips from their respective films were shown to illustrate this. In Married to a Paedophile, the director preserved the anonymity of the partners being interviewed by having actors lip-sync their real-life audio testimonies. This innovative technique helped to protect the identities of the contributors without detracting from the expert visual storytelling – and also provided a welcome technical challenge to the actors involved. In Reconstructing Utøya, the filmmaking team created a safe space for the survivors of the 2011 massacre in Norway to collaborate with actors and other young people to recreate their memories of the day, enabling them to regain some control over a traumatic situation in which they felt powerless. The director emphasised that this was in no way a therapy session, but was a creative way to wrestle the narrative away from the perpetrator and back to the lives and memories of the survivors and those killed in the massacre.
Watching the European premiere of Jeanie Finlay‘s documentary, Seahorse. A powerful film about a trans man called Freddie McConnell who decides to have a baby, and becomes the first man in the UK to carry and give birth to his own child. The Q&A revealed the process and close relationship that ultimately formed between the Director, Jeanie Finlay and Freddie’s decision to choose her as the person to direct the film, as a way to control the story and not make him and his story into a spectacle. They had a shared creative vision with the three years it took to make the film.
The Edge of Democracy, directed by Petra Costa
I then headed to the UK premiere of The Edgy of Democracy, which is a comprehensive education into the current political climate in Brazil. It looks at the country’s current and former Presidents, the cycle of corruption that has led to the slow demise of their democracy, and the devastating return to a populist military dictatorship.
Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, directed by Werner Herzog
You may ask, who is Bruce Chatwin,? Herzog admitted that he hopes that this film will inspire the audience to subsequently go and start reading the work of Chatwin. Herzog doesn’t pull his punches and his responses during the Q&A were direct and rebuking. He even berated an audience member who was asking him a question for being part of the “culture of complaining” – something he has no time for!
- Queuing in the standby line for over an hour for the popular film For Sama… and just missing out on getting in by a handful of people.
- Being super tired from all the queuing. The struggle is real!
DAY 4 (Sunday 9 June)
The day started with Werner Herzog in conversation.
An entertaining masterclass of sorts, Herzog discussed his filmmaking process, approach and mindset, highlighting several clips from a variety of his films such as Grizzly Man, Bad Lieutenant, Encounters at the End of the World. The session was full of brilliant soundbites from Herzog, including the following:
“As filmmakers, we are not flies on a wall.”
“I don’t care if something looks phenomenally ugly on screen… I do completely wild things and it’s fine!”
“I modify facts so that they resemble truth more than reality.”
Herzog confessed that he doesn’t tend to follow the conventional method of “shooting for coverage”, and even had to ask an assistant on set to explain the meaning. Instead he shoots with the end in mind. He also stressed the importance of keeping to budget, if not under budget, in all his films. He told the audience that he once saved $2.4 million dollars on a film, and that the producer had joked about wanting to marry him ever since! He urged filmmakers to just go out there and get started, rather than waiting for commissions or permission!
Chicken & Egg Pictures (Egg)celerator Lab Pitch
It was exciting to watch 10 pitches for incredible films by a cohort of international women filmmakers selected for this year’s (Egg)celerator Lab programme.
The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files, directed by Tim Kirby & James Ross
This film was on my list of MUST SEE, as much of my own work and research is aligned with themes of identity, race, class and migration. David Olusoga explores the historical roots of the present day Windrush scandal, looking at the handling of the Windrush generation and their descendants by the British state. The filmmakers described the documentary as a “history film that speaks to the present”, they recognise their responsibility to expose the foundations on which today’s racial and social inequalities are built.
Industry session: Meet the Distributors
This session involved many, many executives from various distribution companies introducing themselves to an audience of filmmakers. Each representative had about one minute on stage to explain what they were looking for and how they worked with filmmakers. We expected this to be followed by a riot of filmmakers and producers pouncing on the executives once they had left the stage, but disappointingly they were all very well behaved. Perhaps queueing etiquette had infiltrated their psyches too.
Marianne & Leonard: Words of Love + Conversation with Nick Broomfield
To end this packed day I watch the very moving and personal Marianna & Leonard: Words of Love. Director Nick Broomfield knew Marianne personally, when she and Leonard Cohen were young lovers on the Greek isle of Hydra in the 1960s. He fondly recalled the experience of living on the island at that time, and the strong presence of Leonard and Marianna who always attracted special people around them. An audience member cheekily commented that “there was a great balance in the film… with just the right amount of you” to the filmmaker, who commented that his presence in this film was quite different to his previous work. On the origins of his documentaries, Broomfield told the audience that he always starts “recklessly” as he believes it keeps him “awake and terrified”. He went on to say that he doesn’t believe you should know what a documentary is before you start, and that the viewing “should mirror your emotions and discoveries” just as it was when making the film.
Feeling very awkward when my phone failed me after I asked Nick Broomfield for a selfie while I tried not to fangirl too obviously. Thankfully it eventually worked!