The Preview: Seven Documentaries to Catch at Sheffield DocFest 2023
By Abby Sun
Sheffield DocFest has survived operating as a carousel, rotating through festival directors and programmers every couple of years for the last decade. (Through the tumult, a mostly-local operations and industry programming staff remained relatively constant.) One sign of the festival’s continued relevance to UK nonfiction film production is that Brits simply refer to the festival as “DocFest,” as if no other documentary festival in the festival could be confused for this one. Sheffield also maintains global aspirations to be a major launch pad for festival creative documentaries. The prolonged instability appeared to stem from a mismatch between the Board of Trustees and the heads of programming they would hire. As was widely reported in industry trades, the dispute centered on what weight the UK broadcasting behemoths and their often staid TV programs deserved in the festival’s official film selection.
For the 30th anniversary 2023 edition, former IDFA senior programmer Raul Niño Zambrano was officially named the festival’s Creative Director after a year as “acting” in the same role, balancing broadcast mandates against a strong, though only slightly adventurous mix of more creative fare. He leads a small programming team bolstered by a much larger, international group of program consultants and advisors. In this program, broadcasters dominate the festival’s talks section, eventizing the accompanying screenings without taking up room in the ample competitive sections. This shift is reflective of the global TV commissioning environment, where budgets have shrunk and market participation has dwindled. For example, for several years now the largest prize by far at Sheffield’s market and pitching forum, the MeetMarket, is the £100,000 Whickers Film & TV Funding Award. This jackpot is funded and administered by an independent foundation as a direct intervention against the conservative funding trends of broadcast commissioning. (Our colleague Keisha Knight, IDA’s Director of Funds and Advocacy, is a judge for the Whickers Pitch.)
The festival starts today and select films are available for purchase to stream for UK general audiences; industry accreditation unlocks streaming titles without geoblocking. Some of the international premieres, such as Richland and Q, were included in last month’s edition of “The Preview” column. For this recommendations list, we pulled together a mix of nonfiction projects that we’re anticipating will become the festival’s discoveries.
Documentary cinematographer (A Thousand Cuts, 2019) and third-generation Baltimorean Gabriel Francis Paz Goodenough makes his directorial debut with this portrait of local politics writ large. Starting with the election of Baltimore mayor Brandon Scott, who entered office as the youngest mayor in city history, and continuing through the challenges of his first year in office, this feature tracks the holistic promises of a wave of progressive, Black civic leaders elected in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Editor Thomas Niles first came to prominence for his work on the kinetic Baltimore-set 12 O'Clock Boys (2013), and is best remembered by this writer for his work on the exceptional short doc Ghosts of Sugar Land (2019). This doc looks poised to join the cadre of documentary portraits that presage the rise of a national-level political star.
In the Rearview / Skąd dokąd
The wartime refugee story gets a stirring update from Polish filmmaker Maciek Hamela, who documents six months of ferrying Ukrainians fleeing the war with Russia. That is, Hamela, who speaks Russian, is both the director of the film and the driver and lifeline for his passengers. Described to me as “the Ukrainian War Manakamana” after its world premiere last month in Cannes’ ACID sidebar, the varied interactions between driver and passengers also reminded me of the setup of last year’s semi-fictional marvel, David Easteal’s The Plains, which comprises a year of a pair of colleagues’ work commutes (Easteal is, like Hamela, also the driver). Or of Abbas Kiarostami's Ten (2002), which is cited by Hamela in interviews as a formal inspiration for this project (the driver in Ten, Mania Akbari, an acclaimed filmmaker whose many films have shown at Sheffield over a decade, now claims Kiarostami stole and misrepresented both her original idea and footage). But this film doesn’t have the fixed camera consistency of those more experimental projects. Hamela’s mix of handheld intimate camera, passenger/protagonist confessionals, candid moments, and political urgency bode well for the film’s prospects in creative and more general circles.
Long Distance Swimmer - Sara Mardini / Gegen den Strom - Sara Mardini
Sara Mardini became an international celebrity and hero when she and her sister Yusra towed their boat of refugees to safety after its engine failed—their real-life story was adapted into a Netflix fiction film that premiered at TIFF last year. After briefly settling in Berlin, Sara became a humanitarian activist as a volunteer lifeguard for Emergency Response Center International, an NGO that aids other Mediterranean refugees. For this work, she was swept up by Greek authorities and charged with human trafficking. British director Charly Wai Feldman picks up the thread after the fictional adaption ends, combining underwater dance sequences with the quotidian rhythms of Sara’s life, her relationship with Yusra, and the endless waiting game as a slow legal battle drags on. Funded by German broadcaster SWR in collaboration with ARTE, this feature travels to Sheffield after a festival bow at Hot Docs, and is sure to stir conversations about European hypocrisy and what happens after the glare of media—and fiction remake—sensationalism.
No Winter Holidays / ढोरपाटन (Dhorpatan)
This documentary two-hander, a debut feature from Nepalese co-directors Rajan Kathet and Sunir Pandey, features breathtaking vistas and a high-stakes version of the character-driven conflicts that characterize many recent observational works. The protagonists are a pair of widows—married to the same man—who have to get over their dislike of each other in order to survive the harsh rural winter. Produced by the directors, veteran producer Gary Byung-Seok Kam (the first Korean producer nominated for a documentary Oscar), and two members of the Romanian-Indian-Italian film collective NoCut, this project is part of a South Asian co-production Renaissance. We’re particularly intrigued by NoCut’s brand of gorgeously lensed, patiently edited, and deeply political works. After co-directing their accomplished debut feature A Rifle and a Bag (2020), collective members Cristina Hanes, Arya Rothe, and Isabella Rinaldi have branched out to support the works of other auteurist filmmakers from around the world.
Stone Town / 石塘镇 (Shi Tang Zhen)
It’s been a decade since we’ve gotten a new film from Chinese filmmaking pair Jing Guo and KE Dingding. This mirrors the gap in production from many Chinese independent filmmakers as government crackdowns on independent film continue. These co-directors split camera, sound, and editing roles, similar to how they made the resolutely vérité Shanghai Tales trilogy of documentaries, which found support from international broadcasters. Longtime documentary spectators might fondly remember Circus School (2008), a standout observational feature with impressively dynamic camerawork. Guo and Ke’s latest clocks in at exactly three hours, and finds them documenting the struggles of a dying fishing hub (the eponymous Shitangzhen, on the Eastern coast of Zhejiang province, just south of Shanghai) trying to pivot into tourism to sustain the local economy. The spine of the film is intimate portraiture of two residents, whose late-night drinking provides the backdrop for a particularly Chinese flavor of absurdity and nihilism in the face of relentless nationalized modernization.
Three Films from the Sheffield Film Co-op
This special screening is a curated selection of radical feminist filmmaking from a filmmaking cooperative of (non-film) working mothers, organized by Sheffield program advisor Rachel Pronger and (present-day) feminist film collective, Invisible Women (Pronger is a co-founder). The two shorts, That’s No Lady (1977) and A Question of Choice (1982), and mid-length Bringing It All Back Home (1987) represent a spread of the collective’s members, styles of documentary filmmaking, and production values, which rose sharply after the founding of Channel 4 and its remit towards supporting localized and experimental film productions. In an article first published in the Sheffield Tribune, Pronger goes into great detail on the Sheffield Film Co-op’s origins, networks, connections to second-wave feminist activism, and the recent resurgence of interest in the collective’s work.
We end by spotlighting a surefire music and biodoc blockbuster on the UK band Wham!. This film mines unseen archival footage for nuanced portraiture. It’s the latest offering from current docuseries hitmaker Chris Smith (100 Foot Wave, Bad Vegan), who is idolized in U.S. indie filmmaking circles for his documentary debut American Movie (1999) and following up last year’s moving "Sr." (featuring Robert Downey Jr. recounting the life and career of Sr.). Unlike many of the other films on this list that don’t have distribution, this one is, like Smith’s other recent projects, a Netflix offering. Streaming starts on July 5.
Abby Sun is IDA’s Director of Artist Programs and Editor of Documentary. She is a 2022 Warhol Foundation Curatorial Research Fellow and formerly was Curator of the DocYard and Editor of MIT Open Documentary Lab’s Immerse.