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Thoughts on 2021 Sheffield DocFest

This year’s Sheffield DocFest was once again held virtually and so I was lucky to be able to watch a selection of titles that screened. Below are thoughts on a few of the many documentaries I watched.


The director wears headphones and holds a recording microphone above her head as she contemplates

White on White (Bílá na Bílé)

Viera Čákanyová’s Antarctica-set video diary White on White gets much out of its setting. Antarctica (still a rarity on film for all sorts of very good reasons) makes for a suitably riveting location as the Czech filmmaker observes the climate, weather, Artificial Intelligence, penguins and even herself. Filmed over 54 days in tandem while making the feature documentary FREM, Čákanyová has collated her material—lots of static shots, reflections and toil—into a package that is often confounding, but always transfixing.


Winner of the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival’s world cinema prize, White on White must have proven a strangely prescient film if watched during or after a COVID lockdown situation (as I was). Its observations about a person’s mental state during moments of solitude and artistic discovery seem outsized for the very miniature film that White on White ultimately is. I cannot comment on whether this effort of self-therapy was successful for Čákanyová or not, but I found it an interesting directorial diversion that mesmerises along its creator’s path to enlightenment and fulfillment.


Nuhu yãg mu yõg hãm: This Land is Our Land!

Fuelled by righteous First Nations anger, I nonetheless did not feel that this doc deserved its award as best international film from the festival. Directing by the four-person combo of Isael Maxakali, Sueli Maxakali, Carolina Canguçu and Roberto Romero, This Land is Our Land suffers from repetitiveness in its storytelling and even in the words that their subjects speak on screen. I was particularly impressed by the unconventional camerawork by Maxakali most of all and it is quite clear that all four have a unique perception of Indigenous issues in Brazil, something that remains all too rare in filmmakers across the globe. But while the power of history seeps through every frame as the filmmakers explore the trauma of white colonialism on these Indigenous men and women, even at just 70 minutes it feels like a short film that has been expanded beyond its means.


Two prisoners in a courtyard, both without a shirt on. One lies on the ground in sunglasses, while the second stands and appears to be flexing for the camera

Rancho

In Rancho, Pedro Speroni takes the viewer inside a prison in Dolores of the Buenos Aires Province in Argentina. A western audience may balk at the idea that this place is maximum security, but it is and the contrast to what we have seen in (particularly) American films and documentaries is stark and no doubt at least part of the point here. The incarcerated here share cells where they are allowed to wear their own clothes and cook their own meals. In between trading violent stories, they build businesses buying and selling and eagerly await visitor days where they are allowed to hug and touch and kiss their loved ones.


Speroni takes Rancho’s name from the colloquial term within the prison walls for its inhabitants. Your friend is a “rancho”. You “ranch”. As a film about prison, it effectively enlightens to the experience for these men, particularly with regard to themes of masculinity. Yet, at only 70 minutes it does feel perhaps slighter than it should have considering it was filmed over two years. There are key figures who Speroni follows more closely than others, but as a film it is relatively formless. Nevertheless, its refreshing pivot away from the brutality of male prison life makes this more than just a curiosity.


Songs for the River

Charlotte Ginsborg's COVID documentary ventures where others have not. Diverting from the chaotic hospital wards and grand political statements, the delicately quaint Songs for the River instead chooses to focus on the more mundane experiences of the pandemic. Focusing on a single co-op building in London, Ginsborg observes the daily rituals of the residents. For some it is watering the building’s plentiful, beautiful planters full of flowers, for others a goss with a glass of wine on the terrace, while others stretch their aching bodies.


The rather twee communal vibes were a bit too cutesy for my liking, but I found its quieter examination of quarantine life to be refreshing and even calming.

As this period of isolation stretches from weeks into months, and a Christmas reprieve only leads to more heartache and tragedy, Ginsborg find lovely rhythms that better replicate the 2020 experience. While I don’t think it makes for a particularly great movie, as an artefact and a document of a time, it has a unique perspective.

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