Sheffield Doc/Fest Day 3: The Art of the Film Festival Q&A

Web Junkie Q&A

As someone who takes pride in conducting critical interviews with filmmakers, the differences between that art form and the film festival Q&A are difficult to adjust to. I’m moderating a handful of the latter here at Sheffield Doc/Fest, and I’m fairly new to the experience on that side of the stage. My third day was comprised primarily of three screenings for which I had the honor to introduce and then host a conversation with the directors and, in one instance, an additional special guest. The key is that it’s a hosting duty. I’m there to emcee, not dig in, and it’s more for the audience than for myself.

The thing is, an interview on this site should technically be for the audience, as well. And it is, but not in an interactive sense. However, I wondered if perhaps my preferred interests in documentary form and meaning and ethics aren’t what readers prefer. At film festivals, the audience wants to know very briefly about the making of the movie, usually just the basics of how the project came into being and why. Then it’s typically about the content. You’ve got those who want to know more about the subject matter that isn’t in the film, those who want to know where the characters are now, those who want to share their own relevant (and often irrelevant) stories, those who are already knowledgeable or familiar with the topics or people the film is about and who want to discuss further with more authority than curiosity. And of course those who simply want to thank the filmmakers publicly.

From the Q&As I’ve moderated and attended so far, I’m really impressed with the audiences at Sheffield. They don’t ask a lot of the dumb questions I’m used to in many parts of the U.S. There was one person at the screening for Web Junkie who made comments about herself and her internet-addicted brother, but she ultimately was interested in the characters of the film as they might help her understand her personal relevance, not an attempt to make the filmmakers see why she’s somehow significant. Where attendees of Doc/Fest can seem rather impolite in terms of phone usage and loud whispering, they make up for afterward in their civility and judgment and sophistication. That was even the case with a film such as All This Mayhem, where skateboarding star Tas Pappas attended the Q&A (which I did not host) and got the crowd riled up, more in a sense of engagement and excitement than volume.

My first screening of Monday was Vessel, Diana Whitten’s film about the controversial Women on Waves organization that campaigns for and aids in women’s reproductive rights around the world. I’d seen it at SXSW but liked it a lot more this second time. It’s not a doc that’s just notable for its issue and interesting story angle — taken by its subjects, who travel by sea in a boat equipped with a small abortion clinic, that is, rather than by the filmmaker. Vessel is certainly strong for the most part because of its main character, the intelligent and tough yet surprisingly laid-back Dr. Rebecca Gomperts, but it also handles the decade-long story and the advocacy in a straightforward manner that is sufficient, not simple. I also this time had greater appreciation for the animation employed in the film for lengthy expository moments that would otherwise have been cinematically dull.

Given that the Vessel screening was first thing in the morning, there were fewer Qs from the audience than I’d have liked. That means that I ended up asking things about the form, such as the use of animation, which I thought maybe the people aren’t as interested in as I am. However, I did receive a tweet later in the day from someone in the audience who thanked me for asking about that element of the doc. The thing about a fest like this is there are all kinds of people in attendance, from doc fans to doc-makers, and you never know what they’re wanting — which is fine since they can bring up anything themselves.

But it’s not always easy to tell the favored direction of discussion from crowds, especially at first. After Web Junkie, for instance, I was surprised with how much people did want to know about its making. Of course, there’s good reason for the curiosity. The film, about a prison-camp-set rehab for teens addicted to online gaming outside of Beijing, is directed by two Israeli women, Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medallia, neither of whom speaks any Chinese. And when they explained that they had to live on-site the whole time of shooting, without freedom to come and go as they please, that made for far more questions than we had time for.

As you can see in my review of Web Junkie from earlier this year, I have a lot of criticisms with the film itself (fortunately Shlam and Medallia were not familiar with the review, which might have made for an awkward meeting). After the Q&A, I wished for a totally different documentary about the production of that film. The filmmakers are an intriguing duo, particularly for how the older Shlam comes off as a bit of a tech hater while Medallia is apparently enough of a junkie herself — as much as any of us Westerners are with our phones — that she found a secret room at the camp where the Internet was hiding. I want to see that stuff. But if that can’t exist, it’s in my imagination, fueled by the stories we only get to hear by sticking around for festival Q&As.

Alex Gibney Q&A

My third and final appointment of the day was for Alex Gibney’s Finding Fela, the only one I hadn’t seen beforehand. The director was joined on stage by Rikki Stein, friend and manager to Fela Kuti, and professed guardian of the man’s legacy. For the Fela fans in the audience, there was a great interest in hearing from Stein on firsthand accounts of the Nigerian music icon. Meanwhile, I mainly wanted to hear from Gibney on the challenge of making a film about someone he’d never had a firsthand encounter with, given that he tends to make films about living people. Would anyone else there have cared about that or, as I also became curious with while watching the film, the director’s thoughts and challenges regarding making a film about a hero compared to making a film, as he more often does, about a disgraced figure?

I got a tease of an answer to the second question, at least. When we chatted briefly afterward, he stated that it is refreshing and noted that he saw the main subjects of Mea Maxima Culpa as heroes, too (something easily forgotten with the other focus on the Vatican).

As for any other discussion of the film’s form, there was a great question from the audience about the mix of the conventional talking head and archive-based biography style with footage from a performance of the musical Fela! — footage I consider to be a sort of reenactment technique in the context of the documentary. The man wanted to know if there was anything from Kuti’s life that Gibney wished he could have dealt with more but for which there was neither direct documentation nor depiction in the stage production. There was a lengthier answer than this, but the director indicated obviously that it’d be great if every subject could just document every bit of their life, which acknowledges how dependent docs like Finding Fela are on earlier coverage — and just as with Gibney’s Hunter S. Thompson film, Gonzo, this one had the benefit of there already being old, little-known verite documentaries on Kuti.

I’m scheduled for one more Q&A this week, for Steve James’s Roger Ebert doc Life Itself, and that may be the biggest challenge in terms of my not wanting to turn things over to the crowd (because I have so much to discuss, not because the audience isn’t worthy). Fortunately, Sheffield is the sort of comfortable, everyone-is-equal festival where you can run into filmmakers on the street or at parties or at other screenings and easily approach them for a continued conversation. Here, the Q&A is only the start.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.