Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014 — Reviewed

Jay Bernard finds an alternative exploration of technology, truth and storytelling at this year’s provocative documentary festival…

I ended my preview piece for Sheffield Doc/Fest with a question about truth — what it is, how to tell it — and it is a given that the third largest documentary film festival in the world would grapple well with this problem. It might also throw up a few other questions around the nature of documenting the world in a digital age.

Alongside the big films of the festival — Jury Award winner Attacking the Devil, We Are Many, Regarding Susan Sontag and Youth Jury Award winner The Internet’s Own Boy (see full list here) — was the interactive and digital media programme that excavated the question of truth formally as well as topically. A mysterious site it turns out to be, with fragments of surveillance, new audiences trapped in the amber of economics, and intriguing footprints in the ethical marsh.

Two representatives from the BBC presented their current project, Perceptive Media, with a view to “telling stories how we used to tell stories.” There continues to be an acute anxiety around storytelling in the media and games industries, largely because it requires nothing besides the ancient tool of language. A 2011 video suggests that within these industries, “Stories are often the last thing thought about and the first thing pulled apart.” That the BBC presented a radio that paused speech when its user started speaking but continued playing a backing track – a bizarre finger to the pause button — was indicative of a more obvious problem: it seems much of the new technology is driven not by the desire to tell stories, but the desire to stay ahead of the market.

“What happens when people no longer respond to stimulated experience, as we become more and more numb to violent images? What will we turn to then?”

Still, depending on how you look at it, this could be an interesting moment for writers. Take the case of Nonny De La Pena’s intriguing Project Syria, which uses Oculus Rift, virtual reality software now owned by Facebook, to further engage people in journalism. You put on a headset and find yourself standing in a square shortly before a bomb goes off, then in a desert camp populated by ghostly refugees. As was the case with Door in the Dark, an interactive experience about blindness (both literal and figurative), trust comes into it; you are, after all, unable to see what is really happening around you. And on another level, two concerns arise: to what extent can a technology owned by a corporation protect and increase journalistic freedom and the integrity of what is reported? And, given the rapid development of technology, what happens when people no longer respond to stimulated experience, as we become more and more numb to violent images? What will we turn to then?

Bootcamps, apparently. Web Junkie is an insightful portrayal of how the teenage victims of social and cultural alienation are treated. China is the first country to classify Internet Addiction Disorder as a mental illness, and the result is desperate parents drugging, kidnapping and tricking their children with a military style intervention. Produced by Eve Ensler among others, Web Junkie was a direct cause of the bootcamp being shut down after it was shown at Sundance, and was among the best explorations of social alienation.

“Breadline Kids’ embodiment of hardship contrasted greatly with Grayson Perry’s entertaining and knowingly problematic presentation on class”

Another take was Breadline Kids, featuring several children acutely aware of their place on the edge of society. Their embodiment of hardship contrasted greatly with Grayson Perry’s entertaining and knowingly problematic presentation on class, which again was complicated by some of the ideas in Non Fiction Diary, an unsettling Korean piece that linked murders by several poor, angry young men  to the collapse of a shopping centre and a bridge.

And some lighter pieces. Best game-documentary of the festival was Type:Rider (above), in which you travel through the history of typography as a colon. The Honest Liar featured the Amazing Randi, a retired magician who made it his mission to expose new age charlatans. In a beautiful twist, Randi turns out to have some secrets of his own, while the frauds he debunked did just as well, if not better. One Rogue Reporter, Richard Peppiat’s revenge against the invasive tabloid newspaper industry, is brilliantly told. Particularly sweet is the bollock shot of an unsuspecting editor.

In The Dark, who organise live listening events, were a chance encounter whose excellent programme suggested that the future of storytelling might involve stripping away technology. In a blacked-out room, Brett Ascarelli’s piece It’s Private stood out as a humorous and exacting engagement with the themes of motherhood and privacy; her subject, the mother of a friend, point-blank refuses to engage with prying questions out of a deep respect for others – particularly former UN chief Kofi Annan. Since Ascarelli will never know the facts, she tries to invent them, and is told straight up: “It’s quite amusing, so long as no-one thinks it’s true.” A very timely find.

Jay Bernard

Look out for The Internet’s Own Boy on demand an in cinemas later this month — see all Sheffield Doc/Fest films and news here

Posted on 18/06/2014 by thedoublenegative