Over a period of 21 years, Sheffield Doc/Fest has grown into one of the world’s biggest documentary festivals. The festival opened (Sat 8th) and runs until Thursday 12th, and takes place all over the city, and in as far-flung locations as the Peak District and Chatsworth House.
The opening day was chock full of major events: the European Premier of the documentary Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, which covered the band Pulp’s lauded return to home town Sheffield. Unfortunately, tickets were whipped up almost as soon as annoucned, so I wasn’t able to go. But I did go and see internationally renowned journalist and documentary-maker John Pilger talk in the afternoon, and in the evening, I travelled to the interestingly named ‘Devil’s Arse’ cave in the Peak District to watch the Sundance award-winning documentary, Happiness.
John Pilger shot to fame with his documentary of 1970 The Quiet Mutiny (you can find all his documentaries online on his website, here), in which he reports from the Vietnam War, and discovering disillusioned and openly rebellious soldiers in the process. His career has spanned over five decades; after each international documentary, he returns to his native Australia to record the plight of the marginalised Aborigine people, which his most recent film, Utopia, covers.
In his discussion, Pilger was candid and insightful. He is wary of the way that journalism and news is headed. He claimed that there was such a cacophony of unregulated information (online, through mobile phones), that it was difficult to separate the truth the bilge. Tellingly, he said he was distrustful of mainstream news sources such as the BBC.
In the Q & A section of the talk, I asked him to elaborate on his opinion of the current Ukraine crises. I had read an article of his in The Guardian where he appeared to be sympathetic to the Russian position, and I was interested in whether his opinion had altered as the crises had evolved.
He replied that I had slightly misquoted him – that he was sympathetic to the Russian people rather than the government, but was also wary of Western and NATO aggression (such as the planned NATO military exercises on the Russian border).
At the end of the talk, I asked him if he had any advice for someone aspiring to become a journalist like him. He said that the most important thing was to use one’s initiative; head to an area of political intrigue of crisis, link up with a local website or blog, and to do one’s own reporting. This was the best way of gaining experience.
In the evening I went to the Devil’s Arse cave to watch the documentary Happiness, by acclaimed French director, Thomas Balmes. The documentary explores the anticipation of TV for a rural family living in the mountains of Bhutan, after television and radio is finally legalised by Bhutan’s ruler. Everyone in the village expects their lives to dramatically transform – often unrealistically so – when the incredibly new technology arrives. Running parallel is the story of the family’s son, Peyangki, who has been sent to grow up in a Buddhist monastery as his mother can’t afford to send him to school. Lonely and bored, the climax of the film comes when Peyangki’s uncle takes him into the city to buy the fêted TV. Peyangki’s wonder at the flashing neon lights and hordes of people is something to behold, as are the stunning shots of the land and mountains in Bhutan, which form the backdrop to most of the film.
The ‘Devil’s Arse’ cave provided an interesting setting in its own right. At one point in Happiness, some birds tweeted on the screen, to which the bats in the cave appeared to respond by squawking loudly. It would be a lie if I said that the cave added anything to the film though; the mountains of Bhutan and the Peak District were too different for the setting to offer a unique perspective.