While you can expect to see plenty of columns from journalists of a certain age over the next few weeks pretending that Glastonbury is still culturally important, I spent much of last week at Sheffield Doc/Fest – the UK’s leading festival for documentaries, which is celebrating its twentieth year. There are certainly parallels to other festivals: Doc/Fest featured big headline acts (Jarvis Cocker, classical pianist James Rhodes, Ken Loach, Werner Herzog), cool rising stars (Mike Lerner’s Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer; the true story of US intelligence and UFOs in The Mirage Men) and the downright quirky (The Secret Life of Uri Geller – Psychic Spy?). Like many festivals, the really cool kids treat the main acts like a sideshow in favour of hanging out (or networking, as they call it here), and you are never more than five feet from a man named Julian who is terribly passionate about climate change and social justice.
There the parallels end, however. Everyone at Doc/Fest seems like they’ve had a good wash, for starters. More importantly though, unlike in music festivals where the quality is always in careful balance with the atmosphere, seeing the documentaries treated to big-screen treatment, and discussed in panels and Q&As, ennobles the films on display, offering a rare chance to properly interrogate and scrutinise them outside of the chaos of TV scheduling.
Not every film benefits from this treatment, it must be said. Notes From The Inside with James Rhodes was a classic case in point: a ready-made Channel 4 doc, taking us on a journey around its subject, which felt less than the sum of its considerable parts. Rhodes, an engaging presenter and wonderfully gifted pianist, used the film to explore the relationship between art and mental illness, interspersing his reflections on his own struggles with depression alongside interviews with patients and bursts of thrilling, intimate performances.
This could have potentially been a powerful film detailing a troubled artist’s complex relationship with illness and art; it could have explored the consolations of art and what it reveals about the human condition; or, it could have told four fascinating, if harrowing, tales of struggling with (and managing) severe mental-health issues. Yet cramming all of these topics into just over three quarters of an hour left you with a crippling sense that this was less documentary than beautifully rendered emotional blackmail. It ticked a lot of boxes and touched upon some powerful areas (wonderful music; personal tragedies; stigmas being challenged), but it ultimately lacked any great insight into subjects which deserve so much more.
You were left with a similar sense of frustration, albeit for different reasons, by the feature-length film A Fragile Trust (directed by Samantha Grant), which reflected on the infamous case of journalist Jayson Blair, whose sacking from the New York Times provoked much anguished media soul-searching back in 2003. This was an extraordinary tale of an undoubtedly talented young man who – either due to mental illness or sociopathic chutzpah – brought down the top brass of the world’s most influential newspaper, after an internal investigation revealed a significant number of instances of plagiarism and fabrication in his five-year stint as a reporter.