Sheffield Doc/Fest has exploded in recent years, but the locals don’t seem to have noticed yet. An unpretentious old steel town-cum-developing Northern powerhouse, Sheffield becomes a cultural hub for six days each year. Many of the born-and-bred continue minding their own business in the meantime, apparently without realizing they’re rubbing shoulders with some of the most important and influential people in the world of documentary. Were any local to have followed the mysterious groups moving between screenings, though, they’d have found venues—a handful of small cinemas, theaters, city halls—bulging with filmmakers, press and prospective buyers.
The other major hint for outsiders as to the goings-on was, bizarrely, a traditional American school bus—with the words “Sheffield Doc/Fest” writ large on the side—awaiting passengers as they exited the Sheffield train station. Whether intentionally or not, the vehicle was perhaps an indicator from the off of the festival’s mindfulness this year of U.S. affairs. Recent American political history was served well by the likes of The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution and Greenpeace doc How to Change the World, eventual winner of the festival’s Environmental Award.
More urgent matters took priority, though, with features screened on topics as current as gun control (Surviving Sandy Hook), the war on drugs (Cartel Land), sexual abuse on university campuses (The Hunting Ground), economic disparity (The Divide), racial tension (3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets), and climate change and its continued denial (Merchants of Doubt). Adam Curtis’s phenomenal Bitter Lake, a mesmerizing collage charting U.S.-Middle Eastern relations from the 1950s to the present day, also got an airing, alongside drone warfare pic Drone.
There were, of course, films in the program not quite as interested in America or the current sociopolitical climate. One standout, The Confessions of Thomas Quick, sought to pull a trick on the audience by warping the traditional purpose of the documentary—to document the truth—in telling the story of Sture Bergwall, once believed to have been Sweden’s first serial killer. Doc/Fest is a U.K. festival, so Britain was well represented, too. But even there, the present political situation seemed the focus, with films on Margaret Thatcher’s legacy (Generation Right) and the far-right movement (Angry, White and Proud).
There was also the well-made—if slightly one-note—British feature Falciani’s Tax Bomb, which presented the slippery figure of Herve Falciani, who kicked off worldwide investigations into tax fraud by stealing information from HSBC Geneva in 2009. Unlike Thomas Quick, this was another literal-minded, straightforward documentary—many of the high-profile features this year were, almost as though progression of and experimentation with the medium took a momentary pause so filmmakers could in this turbulent time focus on making calls for change.
On the whole the lineup at Doc/Fest 2015 was angry, and astonished by the times. Much on show was of a caliber high enough to transfer that shock over to audiences. Surviving Sandy Hook proved a dud without the requisite insight to make an impact, but The Hunting Ground, The Divide and Cartel Land all scored direct hits as critical observations on the U.S.
The Hunting Ground in particular is an unsettling expose. Border thriller Cartel Land, deserved winner of Doc/Fest’s crusading Tim Hetherington Award, is a crushing story of what you already suspected about violence and corruption in Mexico, but The Hunting Ground reveals that extreme amoral behavior is being aided and abetted on the apparent safety of U.S. soil, too. The Divide shatters the image of the golden American ideal almost as harshly as Hunting Ground, only instead of doing so by exposing college campus abuse, it reveals rising inequality to be an illness infecting not just those on the lower rungs of society, but the people at the top, as well.
The one film that towered above all had nothing to do with America or Western political concerns. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence, a companion piece to Oppenheimer’s own The Act of Killing, opened Doc/Fest and set a bar that the following 150 films couldn’t touch. Again, the director’s attention is on the perpetrators of Indonesia’s 1965 genocide, now old men who joyfully regale stories of torturing women and drinking the blood of their victims.
Naturally for something so challenging, there were walkouts; either these members of the audience didn’t see Act of Killing, or they expected Oppenheimer to go easy this time. Instead, he hits harder. The Look of Silence opts not for hallucinatory imagery like its predecessor but rather captures the arrogant executors in close-up, for both the audience and the film’s main subject, a brother to one of the ’65 victims, to watch in grisly fascination. It is, quite probably, a second Oppenheimer masterpiece, and was the greatest feature at Doc/Fest this year, despite the festival’s noble efforts to make an impact highlighting problems elsewhere.