With cinemas open once more and the film world gradually regaining some sense of what things were like in The Great Before, the film festival circuit is taking slow steps toward normality. Cannes – currently scheduled to happen in July, whether Brits are permitted to go or not – is the milestone everyone’s waiting for, but in the meantime, smaller festivals are forging ahead with hybrid physical/digital editions. Which, honestly, may well be the future, as the last year has made many such events realise the inclusive advantages of opening themselves to a wider, less geographically specific audience.
The Sheffield DocFest, always an adaptable, forward-thinking festival, is among those. After last year’s edition was rendered digital-only by the pandemic, this year’s – which kicked off on Friday and runs until next Sunday – is returning to cinemas and sites in the steel city, with a comprehensive online programme for the rest of the UK on their Sheffield DocFest Selects platform. Individual films (as well as short film collections) will be available to stream for 72 hours after their live premiere for £5 each, while a selection of recorded talks and Q&As can be watched for free.
It’s a lively, resourcefully programmed selection, too, healthily blending crowd-pleasing documentaries with more specialised or esoteric approaches. Their opening night choice is, most rousingly, in the former camp. One of the sensations of January’s Sundance festival, Summer of Soul (…Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a genuinely special concert doc, bringing to light a black cultural landmark overshadowed by Woodstock in 1969: the Harlem Cultural festival, where Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone and Mahalia Jackson were among the performers. Director and musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson has excavated a bounty of electrifying stage footage, but there’s rich historical consciousness underpinning it all.
Alongside Thompson’s film, the festival’s other big-name coup is the first episode of Steve McQueen and James Rogan’s much-awaited Uprising, a three-part BBC series intertwining three key events in British black history from 1981. The first examines the tragedy of the New Cross Fire, in which 13 teenagers were killed.
The festival’s international and UK competition strands, meanwhile, offer lower-profile but nonetheless fascinating attractions. I was thoroughly caught up in French filmmaker Vladimir Léon’s knotty, intimate My Dear Spies, in which he and his brother unravel their family’s possible history of Soviet espionage: it’s a personal account imbued with Le Carré-esque mood. New York filmmaker Nira Burstein’s Charm Circle is also a tangled familial investigation, but marked by wry eccentricity and alternative identities. On the UK side, Don McCullin: Almost Liverpool 8 frames its present-day portrait of Liverpool’s Toxteth area against the 1970s work of the legendary photojournalist.
One of the best films I saw last year is set to have its UK premiere in the globally oriented Into the World section. Russian political filmmaker Vitaly Mansky’s Gorbachev. Heaven is an extraordinary observational portrait of the former Soviet president in his dotage: between everyday routines and mealtimes in his vast yet airless outer-Moscow mansion, he reflects (and occasionally prevaricates) on his flawed political career and legacy. The results are illuminating and strangely poignant even when he shuts down; Mansky’s camera aptly cloaks him in beautiful, mournful half-light.
There’s little shadowed space to be found in the remarkable All Light, Everywhere, in which American experimentalist Theo Anthony inventively investigates the politics of seeing and surveillance, inviting to consider subjectivities of the human eye, the filmmaker’s camera lens and the police body-cam alike.
Finally, for the real cinematic bargain-hunters out there, the festival’s DocFest Exchange section offers a programme of environmentally themed shorts and features, all available to stream for no charge. Among the selections: Victor Kossakovsky’s superb, tacit animal-rights doc Gunda. Get it while it’s free.
Also new on streaming and DVD
Dogs Don’t Wear Pants
Surprisingly subtle and moving for a story centred on S&M, Finnish director Jukka-Pekka Valkeapää’s superbly acted black comedy lives up to its unimprovable title. Following a middle-aged widower’s grief-led journey into the BDSM scene, it offers the nuance and considered sexual politics you might have missed in Fifty Shades of Grey.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
R&B star and acting novice Andra Day earned her Oscar nomination for this overwrought but compelling biopic, bringing a bone-deep understanding of the performer’s drive and exhaustion, rather than technically fastidious mimicry. The film around her, as we’ve come to expect from director Lee Daniels, is a mixture of direct emotional punch and garish bad taste, but she holds it together.
I Am Samuel
Released in timely fashion for the start of Pride month, this affecting documentary from Kenyan filmmaker Peter Murimi empathetically probes the challenges of identifying as gay in a country where homosexuality is criminalised. At its centre is Samuel, a reserved young man reconciling his out life in Nairobi with his traditional rural upbringing. It’s currently streaming on Bohemia Euphoria, a newly launched platform dedicated to under-represented voices.
Breaking Boundaries: The Science of Our Planet
Less than year after A Life on Our Planet, his impassioned “witness statement” on climate change and threatened biodiversity, David Attenborough once more uses his Netflix platform to consider the crisis and constructive ways to address it. If there’s a certain public service announcement formula to these documentaries, the message merits repetition – and he remains a voice of essential authority.