At the start of Sheffield Documentary Festival on June 9th the kaleidoscopic glitter of Cannes had just about settled on the over-sunned suit jackets of the film industry. The themes of the 70th Festival de Cannes kept a finger on the pulse of world current affairs, expressing the tension and the turbulence of recent events. Films including Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless and Michael Haneke’s Happy End set a mildly apocalyptic tone, almost too appropriate in today’s rocky political climate. This makes sense: the fictional world has the liberty to explore the shady concepts lurking in the hinterlands of the world’s collective subconscious, but documentary must face head on the very real social, political and historical changes that affect audiences right here, right now. Doc/Fest is one of the best festivals for harnessing time-sensitive issues and concerns and this year’s programme in particular seemed dedicated to amplifying the hushed voices of those who have, until recently, been vastly underrepresented both in front of and behind the camera.
The 2017 festival opened with the world premiere of British filmmaker Daisy Asquith’s Queerama, a beautiful, at times chaotic montage of the BFI’s extensive LGBT archive over the last century. Commissioned just 12 weeks before its premiere, the film was made to mark the 50 year anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, which decriminalised gay sex between men in both the public and private sphere. Sex between two women was never banned, as lesbians apparently never existed, nor was female sexuality particularly noteworthy in the eyes of the law — naturally.
Queerama moves through its timeline thematically rather than chronologically, using footage from prominent queer films from the last 100 years, such as Different from the Others (Richard Oswald, 1919) and The L-Shaped Room (Bryan Forbes, 1962). The film uses pivotal scenes to outline the historical background of the gay rights movement, set to the soundtrack of openly gay and HIV-positive musician John Grant’s haunting tunes — a welcome nod to current changes in representation in the music industry. The sound of these lyrics reverberating around the cavernous walls of Sheffield City Hall set the tone for an exploratory and refreshingly non-heteronormative programme.
Yet, there is something haphazard about the narrative as it moves through loose themes such as love, intimacy and homophobia almost at random. The film tosses chronology out the window in favour of a subjective reordering, and although this is a technique that is gorgeous to watch (as one stunning image shimmers into another) the subject matter seems too large for a 75 minute film to contain. The lack of storyline or clear structure creates an ambiguity that is particularly problematic when telling previously concealed LGBTQ+ stories. In one excerpt, a scene from an all-girls school is contrasted with images from an all-boys school, seemingly to highlight the early potential for homoeroticism. I was left wondering if these scenes were being strung together provocatively to create a narrative that, though significant and subversive, wasn’t necessarily true.
I also couldn’t help the thought that a century of LGBTQI+ stories and the vast knowledge of the BFI national archive deserved more than three months of (albeit extensive) work. It feels even more essential as we move forward in the quest for diverse representation on screen that we tell these stories with truth and clarity. That said, the 1950s BBC reporter who punctuates the film with his interviews of brave gay and lesbian contributors acts to signal progress. His questions seem comically naive amongst today’s non-binary and sex-positive audience. “What do lesbians do in bed?” he asks. Well, we live in wonder…
One of the films that more successfully explored sexuality in all of its depth was Venus from Finnish directors Mette Carla Albrechtsen and Lea Glob. Initially setting out to make an erotic film shot by and for women, the directors changed direction when they realised that the introductory interviews with contributors were more interesting. Glob and Albrechtsen called an open online casting and interviewed women in Copenhagen in the same room over a number of years. Their talent in extracting truth is astounding as the women reveal some of their most intimate moments and darkest betrayals, the fantasies that haunt them and the sexual experiences that shaped them. One woman candidly tells the story of her first ‘breast orgasm’ aged 14, describing the scene (stilettos, a leather couch, two girls in love) with such passion that the audience almost comes to recall the memory as their own. Another contributor questions progressive attitudes towards female sexuality and submission, asking if modern feminism occasionally serves to repress the sex lives of professional women: “People say to me, ‘You are such a strong and intelligent woman.’ So does that mean I can’t lie on my back and be nice?”
Hearing women talk so openly about sex and vulnerability, passion and power was both incredibly moving and refreshing, as Glob and Albrechsten manage to create an entirely safe space in which their contributors can speak openly. In this film women become sexual beings in a profoundly unusual and insurgent way. This gives a wholeness to the characters that highlights the true complexity of what it is to be a woman. The end result is a film that whilst occasionally uncomfortable (as one contributor describes her incest fantasy in acute detail) is also deeply human.
One problem that looms over the film is its lack of diversity. White women of all shapes, sizes and sexual orientations are interviewed, yet not one woman of colour is given a voice. Are there no women of colour living in Denmark’s capital? Or did Glob and Albrechsten not do enough to ensure a wide range of responses to their open call? By leaving out these voices the directors seem to drastically undermine their own cause, letting the film down a great deal in the process.
An interesting feature of this year’s programme was the way in which sexuality was threaded into the films but not overly stressed or accentuated – gone were the dramatic coming out stories and campaign films. Today’s audiences can now see some gay people on screen, not struggling with being gay but just actually being gay. Yance Ford’s Strong Island handled sexuality as a part of, but not all of, the film’s compelling narrative. The documentary is an intimate look into the racial undertones of the murder of Ford’s brother William Ford Jr in 1992. Gunned down in a petty argument over a car repair, William’s white killer Mark Reilly was never brought to justice. Instead, the all-white jury determined that Reilly had reasonable cause to shoot Ford. The film is beautifully cinematic but also feels entirely private and intimate. It’s hard to imagine the presence of a film crew during interviews between Ford, her mother and her brother’s best friend, as well as in phone calls between the director and the authorities involved in the case. It is this dichotomy that anchors the film and makes it both personal to the director whilst remaining intelligently well balanced.
One of the most touching moments comes when Ford calls her partner after hearing vital information on her brother’s trial. “I just wanted to hear your voice,” she says, stifling tears. Ford touches on her sexuality with a forward-looking lightness, reiterating in the post-screening Q&A that she wanted to stress that although her sexuality was something that she struggled with, her family did not. The film manages to detail the facts of the crime itself whilst also exploring the complexity of black familial relationships with a delicate touch. Ford tells her story with reference to her sexuality where it is due, whilst managing to maintain the integrity of the crime story and its injustice. The film explores what gives someone justifiable reason to kill an how the death of one member can kill the family entire.
This year’s Doc/Fest asked important questions and Jennifer Brea’s Unrest provided another refreshing insight into a mostly unknown world — the lives of those living with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME). The disease is one that effects six times more women than men, giving Unrest deeply feminist roots that are framed around the personal story of the director’s own experience with the illness. The self-shot narrative doc tells the story of Brea and her husband Omar, newly weds who were devastated when Brea was diagnosed with ME after a period of illness. Struggling to find support, Brea turned to the internet to find other sufferers and hear their stories.
The result is an emotional 96-minute documentary featuring ME sufferers and their families across the world. They call themselves ‘The Missing’ and have started the #MillionsMissing campaign to highlight the invisibility of Chronic Fatigue sufferers. Brea documents her own experience with admirable bravery, showing the hardest moments alongside the joyous, dancing with her husband in the garden one evening before crumbling to the ground in exhaustion. The feminist message of the film is particularly resonant, as it looks in to the history of so-called ‘female hysteria’ and questions whether this medical phenomenon was simply a series of misdiagnosed cases of ME. Many women report the lack of belief and support among the community at large, with one mother, Leeray, describing how her husband left her when she didn’t have the energy to look after the home and children. The film tells the story of those suffering with such an enigmatic and misunderstood condition, while also exploring universal notions such as the blaming and doubting of women, the delegitimising of female experience and the role of women in the home.
The Doc/Fest programmers chose to screen one of this year’s most talked about documentaries — the Netflix acquired Casting Jonbenet (Kitty Green). In 1990, six-year-old beauty queen Jonbenet Ramsey was killed under mysterious circumstances at her home in Boulder, Colorado. Suspicion immediately fell upon the child’s parents, who were at home at the time of the murder alongside her older brother Burke. The charges were later dropped as DNA evidence found traces of a man’s DNA, unrelated to the family, on Jonbenet’s clothes. Casting Jonbenet is a documentary that is as much about performance and hearsay as it is about the case, with particular emphasis on perceptions of Jonbenet’s mother Patsy Ramsey, who was often described as ‘cold’ and ‘calculated’ by the media in the aftermath of the murder.
The format of the film is genre-bending and experimental, composed entirely of interviews with local actors auditioning to play the Ramsey family in a reconstructive film. Some of the most haunting interviews are those with the kids auditioning to play Jonbenet herself, with one questionably made-up little girl asking the camera, “Do you know who killed Jonbenet Ramsey?” These moments with the actors provide a deep symbolism that highlights the feminist dilemmas of Jonbenet’s case in a way that no previous crime documentary on the subject has managed to master.
The film opens with the actors auditioning for the part of Patsy Ramsey, setting her immediately as a key character in the story and also the main suspect in Jonbenet’s death. One actress states candidly that, “Patsy was at least involved, I’m not sure if she did it.” The interview is juxtaposed with an actor auditioning for the role of husband John Ramsey, who stresses John’s innocence and hints towards “the more manic” Patsy as the culprit. One of the actresses questions that whether as a former beauty queen herself, Patsy was jealous of Jonbenet’s success. Another alludes to a theory that Patsy’s impending 40th birthday had caused her so much stress that she killed her child, stating that, “The mother had to do it, she was about to turn 40.”
By allowing the public perception of the story to emerge in its own words through interviews with speculating actors, director Kitty Green shines a revealing light on perspective and the image of the ideal, nurturing mother. The ‘should haves’ relating to Patsy Ramsey’s demeanour change with each actor’s response to her seeming lack of maternal emotion following Jonbenet’s death. Like Unrest, the film’s structure allows the audience to see how quickly society can blame and pigeonhole women, with the public willing to believe that the threat of turning 40 is enough to drive a woman to kill her six year old daughter. In this way, Casting Jonbenet can seem slightly exploitative — the film uses Jonbenet’s case as a way to highlight sexism and public disfavour towards women, yet the point echoes in a way that in any other format would have seemed unconvincing. The mirror is turned round on the audience itself as we realise our own prejudices whilst being simultaneously unable to escape them. We ourselves cannot defuse our blame and suspicion of Patsy, despite the lack of evidence against her, revealing our own innate misogyny at the very heart of the problem.
Speaking about the fact that women made up a third of the Best Documentary nominations for the 2016 Oscar’s, Dr Martha Lauzen, executive director of the Centre for the Study of Women in Television said, “Traditionally, documentaries have been more welcoming of women and diversity in general because the barriers to entry are lower than they are in narrative features.” This year’s Sheffield programme made it to an even better 46%, including women from each continent, from all facets of the LGBTQI+ spectrum. Women with disabilities were telling dynamic female stories from their bedrooms, from war zones, from history and beyond. This leap in representation is not one to be taken lightly, and documentary continues to welcome and empower women to step out of the shadows and have their stories heard in full. Audiences can expect that next year’s Doc/Fest will no doubt speak to and reflect the public consciousness in a way that only excellent factual programming can.