It takes a special kind of nerd to walk through the streets of London obsessively looking at the driver of every taxi in the hopes of spotting Tony from the Up films. That was me on Saturday during a brisk walk through the rain on my way to catch a train to Sheffield for this year’s Doc/Fest. Also in that wet walk: a brief stop at Covent Garden for a feeling of disappointment that it doesn’t look as it does in Lindsay Anderson’s 1957 short Every Day Except Christmas. Or My Fair Lady — because I’m not just into docs. I also stopped into the original Forbidden Planet to look at Doctor Who toys and almost bought a t-shirt that says “Keep Calm and Don’t Blink.” Again, a special kind of nerd.
The last time I was in England was 1995, for an art class trip. In those days, I might have been all over the opening night festivities involving a screening of the new concert film Pulp: A Film About Life, Death and Supermarkets followed by Jarvis Cocker spinning records at an after party for three hours. Never mind that I didn’t officially become a Pulp fan until that fall when Different Class came out. I’ll admit that I would still have enjoyed seeing both of those highlights now, but the choices I did make on my first day of the 2014 Sheffield Doc/Fest were quite memorable just the same. I watched a film in a cave, after all.
I arrived in town in the afternoon, in the midst of a full day of screenings. They start things off later in the week than some fests, but they sure do just jump right in. Unfortunately, I missed the early-slotted world premiere of the New York Review of Books history, The 50 Year Argument, which I hear featured a really great Q&A with co-director Martin Scorsese, via Skype. There were also screenings of some older films, such as The Corporation and Cleo from 5 to 7, the latter not nonfiction but programmed as part of an Agnes Varda retrospective going on through the week. While getting lost navigating the seemingly small city — the area housing the fest feels more like a college town than a historically industrial center — I discovered at least one alternative (or supplement) for the locals: an outdoor performance of a musical about cycling.
My first appointment of the day was a screening of The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz. As a huge fan of the film (see my review from SXSW), it was a special honor for me to introduce the doc and its director, Brian Knappenberger, to the packed audience. Watching it again in this setting was a different experience. The techie crowd in Austin was prone to clapping throughout, for all the many points of achievement in Swartz’s brief life and career. The Sheffield group was more quietly attentive and I believe a little more affected by the emotional build of the biographical narrative. Unless that was just me sniffling in the back, nearly brought to tears again on my second viewing.
I thought I was too choked up to immediately kick off the Q&A, but I’m sure many in the house understood if I did come off as blown away. Knappenberger and I discussed the doc’s immediacy, how he began shooting within weeks of Swartz’s suicide, and why this is another necessary film for our time from the director of We Are Legion, both for its topical importance and its topical accessibility. Questions from the audience were a lot more focused and relevant than I’m used to from festivals; they wanted to know about how Knappenberger shot the highly emotional interviews with Swartz’s family and friends (a small, intimate crew), what MIT thinks of the doc (they’re apparently not happy) and the progress of Aaron’s Law, a proposed amendment to the Computer Fraud and Abuse named for Swartz (it was stalled last month but the hope is that the film will help its passing).
For my second screening of the day I hopped aboard a bus, which took festival attendees out into the country amidst the sheep and cows. There’s a cavern in Derbyshire nicknamed “The Devil’s Arse,” where the fest began showing films last year. It’s enough of a tourist attraction that there’s a mini bar just outside the entrance, though it’s not so transformed that the bathroom options aren’t portable toilets. As I walked in, I met Nick Fraser of BBC’s Storyville doc showcase. He’s the type of person you want to meet at events like this, an elder of the doc community who humbled my reputation as a “doc expert” to smithereens. He threw so many recommendations at me that I have at least a year’s worth of homework, including as many books as films, and at least half of which I wish I’d written down because my memory stinks. It was also nice to discuss mutual boredom with The Act of Killing with the guy who wrote this.
As for the main event, Happiness was an absolutely perfect film for the occasion and setting. Maybe not the most apt selection, as that is probably Cave of Forgotten Dreams, which is in fact screening there on Day 2, but probably the next-best pick. Thomas Balmes’s follow-up to Babies is focused on an 8-year-old prospective monk whose remote Bhutanese village is about to get electricity, and with it television. The premise was paralleled by the way it was watched, inside of a remote natural wonder that has been wired for lighting and, for this case, the import of a giant screen. It’s one thing to sit basically outdoors and watch a film mostly set outdoors, especially when there are screeching bats above and at first you think that’s part of the screening, and when your seat is adjacent to a rock wall with water trickling down (I couldn’t tell if this was because of the earlier rain or a normal natural process). The film and experience reached peak accordance, though, when the boy and his family get their TV and choose to watch, of all things, Wrestlemania.
Maybe a scripted sports program doesn’t seem like it fits the themes here, but that irony is what made it so wonderful, partly for the way it’s a reminder of all the artificiality involved in the meta layers of the screening. The film ends with close up shots of the characters’ faces as they watch, seemingly looking out at us in our own constructed alteration of the wild. Fake fighting is about as brilliantly extreme as they could get for a representation of the contrast between TV and the lifestyle of the Bhutanese Buddhists.
Seeing a movie in a cave is one of those things you can’t pass up when you’re at a film festival, yet it’s also one of those events that is so much about the experience of how the movie is watched that the movie itself does lose some of its capability for being reviewed for its own value (not to mention that this particular experience was filled with distractions, including the shivers we had because it became quite cold in that cave). Happiness is a doc that will always be significant for its reflexiveness and therefore will always be significant for our watching it and how, but I do look forward to toning down the experience part the next time I see it, to properly look at the film critically.
At the end of the first day, I missed the opening night party, which was apparently at capacity when the buses returned from Peak Cavern (as the place is officially called). So, I closed out my initial evening in Sheffield with a pint, some planning for the next day and, of course, chatting about docs with English doc-lovers. Stay tuned for my report on Day 2, which hopefully will consist of a lot of great docs.