Sheffield Doc/Fest Day 2: Archive-Based Stories Trump Muckraking Exposes
On the second day of Doc/Fest, I didn’t take in any special events of the sort I began with. And unless you count being nearly run over by a gang of 10-year-old hooligans on Razor scooters, my non-screening experience was rather unexciting. This was my time for a full day sitting in auditoriums discovering films I’d previously never heard of. A lot of Sunday’s programming included a number of great docs I’d already seen (such as 1971 and Point and Shoot) so I navigated the non-familiars. That can be a gamble, but I think even if I didn’t love most of what I saw on Day 2, I feel I had a well-balanced marathon of films I’m glad I saw.
Here are some brief thoughts on each title, ranked in order of my favor:
Last Days in Vietnam
I had actually heard of this one ahead of time, and Nonfics has even featured a review of the doc, which is about the American evacuation of Saigon in April 1975 and is the latest from director Rory Kennedy (Ethel). My initial takeaway is that it’s remarkable how much footage exists of these events, especially from the final hours and throughout the airlifts. At one point, one of the interviewees today admits that he can’t describe what the overcrowded ships looked like anchored around Con Son island — and he doesn’t have to, because we can watch the clips. Seeing a film like this makes me madder about having to watch the same iconic shots used over and over in other docs whenever there’s a mention of the war’s end. That said, sometimes even Kennedy’s use of certain archival material feels randomly selected. It’s a film for which visuals are background illustration for talking-head storytelling as opposed to narrated caption of what we’re seeing. Much does go hand-in-hand with what the interviewees are talking about, however, and although the gist of what was going on can seem overstated throughout the historical recall, there are a handful of truly amazing specific accounts here. It’s the one definite must-see doc of the five features and one short I saw yesterday.
Alfred and Jakobine
This film is also notable for the treasure of archival footage included. Jonathan Howells makes a strong, promising debut with the romantic story of the title characters, aided by the fact that they had documented much of their initial trip together driving a jalopy around the world in the 1950s. When I call this a romantic story, I mean that not just because there are, at the center, two people in love. Their time together was more of a passionate affair filled with adventure and freedom and is narrated poetically from Jakobine’s diaries of the time and whimsically scored with heavy accordion by Nick Urata. Of course, that kind of affair doesn’t last, and the couple separated decades ago. In the second half of the film, we follow Alfred fixing up the old taxi and driving it one last time across America to see her again. That stuff is heartwarming and cute, but the back story overshadows the newly shot stuff more than it sets it up. I think there are better ways Howells could have arranged the plot of the doc, even if those choices might have been manipulative, in order to keep a consistent energy.
A Memory of Christmas
Adorable and funny two-minute stop-motion animated doc from Ainslie Henderson illustrating a man’s account of a disturbing family photo from his youth. Not much to say about it, except that I wanted more.
All This Mayhem
In spite of being only 96 minutes, this doc is one of those chronological life stories that can feel really, really long. But it doesn’t have much fat on it; there’s just a lot to the tale of Australian bad boy skaters Ben and Tas Pappas, who caused a ruckus in the U.S. as feuding rivals to Tony Hawk and drug-fueled rock stars of the sport. Produced by Vice Films and directed by the boys’ childhood friend, Eddie Martin, it’s another captivating film about a subculture that has always easily lent itself to features due to how much of the non-professional side of skating is heavily documented. All This Mayhem, though, is mostly great for a few of its talking heads, especially Tas, who provides the backbone (ironically due to spinal injuries noted in the film) of the doc while primarily speaking on camera from prison.
A Dangerous Game and One Rogue Reporter
I lump these two films together at the end not just because they each feature a scene in which someone projects movies onto the wall of their antagonist’s building, but they are also both by journalists turned documentarians and have been slammed by their adversaries (mostly on screen) as not real journalism.
The first one, A Dangerous Game, is Anthony Baxter’s sequel to You’ve Been Trumped, and it’s basically an update on the continuing story of Donald Trump’s controversial development of a golf resort on the coast of Scotland. There is more muckraking of the Michael Moore variety, but a lot of it is just a showcase of the first film’s impact. The follow-up’s existence is due to the original’s power, but like many doc sequels it’s hard to see the value of this one on its own. A Dangerous Game might sell itself on having an actual sit-down with Trump, finally, yet it’s too brief and edited rather disrespectfully, which at least in that moment makes Baxter seem no better a man than his subject. It’s like Moore’s infamous interview with Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine yet even less fair.
One Rogue Reporter, meanwhile, is the kind of film that is funny, sure, but hard to ultimately take seriously because it’s so silly. Co-director Rich Peppiatt is a former tabloid journalist who quit the business and now aims to expose its evils from the inside. He’s an on screen host and prankster and clown, and while he has the whistleblowing perspective, he’s not really confirming any hypocrisy or ethical bankruptcy that isn’t already understood with Fleet Street. It is entertaining and short, at least, though there’s not a lot to appreciate here outside of the UK, except that it does feature interviews with internationally popular actors Hugh Grant and Steve Coogan as well as a ton of classic film clips. As far as British investigative documentary is concerned, nobody is going to be as entertaining an ass as Nick Broomfield, and he’s always more intriguing by playing naive rather than puckish. One Rogue Reporter, which was also directed by Tom Jenkinson, is little more than an extended nonfiction sketch, akin to correspondent pieces on The Daily Show, humorous more than important.