When the entire Sheffield Doc/Fest programming team was ousted last year, there were fears the fest would lose its reputation as the UK’s pre-eminent documentary festival and become a bland and anodyne experience; more interested in finding the next My Octopus Teacher or yet another True Crime drama rather than genuinely soul-searching original visions. Nonetheless, while I can’t speak for the quality of the features – or if the general vibe around the festival has changed – the short selection available online is thankfully still as strong as it has ever been. Skewing darker than usual, the threats of authoritarianism, pandemics, wars, unchecked capitalism, drug abuse and oftentimes, some combination of two or more of these issues, are a constant presence, the shorts selection unwavering in highlighting the issues of the day, while also providing space for contemplation in the process. They also seem to flow into each other in very satisfying ways, creating an opportunity for comparison and discussion. We’ve gone deep into the competition, special sections and sidebars to pick out ten shorts from the festival that you simply need to put on your radar.
The Family Statement – Grace Harper & Kate Stonehill
The success of a TV show like Succession lies in the fact that it’s not fantastical, but more or less in line with the reality of super-rich families doing whatever they can in order to protect themselves, including stupidly sharing highly sensitive information over WhatsApp. Grace Harper and Kate Stonehill’s The Family Statement overlays leaked messages between members of the Sackler family as they frantically try and navigate a pending lawsuit. More interested in covering their tracks than considering their direct involvement in promoting the oxycontin addiction crisis that ravaged the USA, their messages are overlaid with testimony from victims, expertly bridging the gap between victim and perpetrator.
Good Intentions – Andres Villasenor
If The Family Statement shows us the way the rich insulate themselves from their evil actions, Good Intentions shows us the brutal reality: this drug addiction documentary has to be one of the most heart-breaking short films I’ve ever seen. Filmed over the space of ten years, and including footage directly taken from its subject, Good Intentions follows the life of Alan, a French man in Barcelona trying his hardest to shake his drug addiction. Meanwhile, gay hook-up apps are allowed to freely promote crystal meth, making it all but impossible for Alan to move on with his life. Devastating and highly empathetic in equal measure.
Safe Space – Mirelle Borra
The crystal meth crisis, often taken for sex, is not the first epidemic ravaging gay communities. Safe Space from Mirelle Borra takes us back to the classic ballroom era of New York, where the AIDS pandemic was ripping people apart, but they refused to back down, responding with resilience, creativity and by cutting some brilliant shapes. This grainy video footage of queens and kings smashing the floor is overlaid with computerised queer voices from across Africa and the Middle East; detailing their struggles with coming out, escaping from brutal regimes, and the problem with being categorised as mere victims in their new countries. Tragedy and hopefulness commingle, showing us the importance of highlighting collective struggle, both in film and on the dance floor.
The Great Abandonment – Shirley Abraham & Amit Madheshiya
Governments around the world responded much quicker to the coronavirus pandemic than they did to the AIDS crisis, but questions linger over the damage that such lockdowns caused. Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya’s film The Great Abandonment documents how this was felt particularly harshly in Mumbai, where migrant labourers were unable to return to their village homes and were stranded on the streets. The scenes are shocking: children have nowhere to defecate, police beat people with sticks, wages are withheld and the most vulnerable in society are hosed down with disinfectant. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is shown socially distancing in a giant mansion, brutally laying bare the vast gulf between the people of India and the man tasked with helping them.
The Good News Day – Lucas Zacarias & João Paulo Vicente
The testimonies detailed in these shorts are so sad, it can be tempting to purposefully look for uplifting and happy stories. You could even dedicate a special day for good news, like Brazilian outlet IG. Their biggest mistake? Picking September 11th, 2001. Using a wealth of archive footage, edited in smart and fluid ways while boasting a playful score and game talking heads – people who deeply understand the essential irony of the situation – Lucas Zacarias and João Paulo Vicente’s The Good News Day is fairly lighthearted but contains an important lesson about the ethics of journalism and how difficult things cannot just be ignored.
Happiness is £4 Million – Weixi Chen & Kai Wei
If collective good news or happiness cannot be achieved, perhaps it’s still doable on a personal level. The title of this clever Chinese film refers to the amount of money we are told you need to live a comfortable life. The quote comes from a property speculator who has emerged from humble beginnings to become the new face of rampant, unchecked Chinese capitalism. When a trainee journalist is tasked with interviewing him, she is naturally reticent to talk to a man who represents the opposite of everything she stands for, but the final result is far more nuanced and fascinating, providing a great insight into both the need to gain material wealth and the approach needed to write a great magazine piece.
1 Kilo – 3 Euros – Ani Mrelashvili
If Happiness Is £4 Million is all about the bombast of big purchases, this film is all about the little things in life. When you live abroad, it’s the small slices of home that you cherish the most. In 1 Kilo – 3 Euros, people rush in and out of a small parcel shop in Berlin, looking to transport letters, parcels and even beeswax back home to Georgia. In the meantime, the patrons discuss how there is no place quite like their native country, resulting in a tender, observational doc about the ties that bind people to places even when they happen to live far away.
Peace and Tranquility – Myro Klochko
There’s little Peace and Tranquility on show in Myro Klochko’s film, screening as part of an especially created Ukrainian section at Sheffield Doc/Fest. Created in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion, Klochko films a play by Andrii Bondarenko that expertly uses montage and narration to create a portrait of Ukraine often missed out in grim news coverage; a place frantically searching for its identity, keeping its culture in place as a vital means of resistance. It ends with the recommendation of classic war literature, spanning from Czech novel The Good Soldier Schweik to War and Peace to The Kite Runner; re-emphasising the importance of art in the face of annihilation.
Five Scenes From the War in Afghanistan as They Appear in East Sussex – Frank Martin
There are Russian troops (and various mercenaries) in Ukraine right now who will be haunted for the rest of their life. It’s easy to make this statement: just look at the veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan war who deal with anxiety, PTSD and depression. Frank Martin’s smart and perceptive film Five Scenes is set entirely in the lush green spaces of East Sussex, yet the horrors of Afghanistan, including crucial decisions either made or not made linger long in the mind of its protagonist who lays bare his complex feelings regarding the war. An extraordinary, heart-rending effort.
The Score – Aleksandra Bilic
When you have lived through brutal conflicts, the question remains as to whether or not you even ‘want’ to remember. In Aleksandra Bilic’s intimate and personal film, this is the key question asked by her mother, who fled Bosnia in the mid-90s as genocide ripped through the country. Anchored to her mother’s abandoned piano-playing career, The Score finds the perfect metaphor for interrupted lives, allowing its characters to put their guard down and find a way forward, even if the scars of war can never be truly healed.