A Glastonbury for documentaries

spiked’s TV columnist checks out the great, the good and the quirky at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest.

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.

Unfortunately, this film about journalistic failures, extended from a short student film by Grant, was chronically let down by its own journalistic shortcomings. We spent too much time hearing from Blair – who might well be described, at best, as an unreliable narrator – and a few snapshots of the institutional failures that allowed a newspaper that prided itself on its thorough reportage to nurture such a viper in its nest. Yet, in failing to decide whether A Fragile Trust was a character study of the damage a compulsive liar can wreak in a world built around trust, or a serious study of the state of media accuracy in the digital age, Grant left you more confused than curious. It also left you with the nasty thought that, in giving Blair so much airtime, we were giving him far more attention than such a nonentity deserves.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, was a film which could not have been more lightweight in its subject matter, yet was crammed full of piercing insight. The Road To Fame, from director Hao Wu, followed students from Beijing’s Central Academy of Drama as they battled to take part in a unique production of musical Fame, overseen by Broadway directors and choreographers. What could have easily been played as a cheerful Glee-like romp instead becomes an extraordinary portrait of Chinese youth, and the enormous pressures placed on its members as the first generation to come of age under both unheralded material prosperity and the one-child policy.

With remarkably deft storytelling, The Road To Fame presents us with some familiar stereotypes – the cocky kids from poor backgrounds in stark competition with pampered yet less talented rivals; disapproving parents willing their kids into more stable, drabber careers; a reminder of the high stakes involved in the ruthlessly competitive job market of China (itself boasting 10million unemployed college graduates).  But it then takes those stereotypes and unravels the more specific human complexities underneath. Here the old stage-school canard – the importance of being yourself and following your dreams – is flipped around into a provocative question for a generation who are coming to terms with the dreams and aspirations that prosperity affords.

Fortunately, the project has been picked up by BBC Storyville and should make its appearance on British screens in December. Make sure you catch it when it does appear. Meanwhile, if any of the other 120-odd films at the festival can offer the same level of enrichment, we should be in for a cracking year of documentaries.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

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