Sheffield Doc/Fest: theme tune of the decade is anger
Apart from sitting in a multiscreen studio for a week, with a clean feed of Twitter, Instagram and Whatsapp, going to a documentary festival is one of the best ways of understanding the zeitgeist.
This weekend the Sheffield Doc/Fest is in full swing, and from the look of the programme, the zeitgeist is summed up in one word: discontent.
I remember going to a fine art postgrad show in the mid-2000s and the course director’s sickly smile when I asked: where’s the anger?
Then, in the lost world of the pre-Lehman bubble, young people were creating intensely personal stories disengaged from social conflict.
— Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) June 7, 2014
The new film-makers
Let me just list some highlights at Sheffield to illustrate what’s changed: Utopia, a film by John Pilger (pictured) about aboriginal struggles in Australia; Miners Shot Down – about the Marikana massacre; Still the Enemy Within, about the British miners’ strike; The Internet’s Own Boy – about Aaron Schwarz, the hacker who committed suicide rather than face a jail term for putting academic journal content free online; The Case Against 8 – about the struggle for same-sex marriage in the US; and We Are Many, the story of the global demos against the Iraq War in 2003.
Though there’s a fair smattering of oldsters cranking out this excellent, angry, work it’s obvious that, for the young generation who’ve never worked with videotape and 35mm film, the Canon 5D camera has become a weapon of unhappiness.
Just as every demonstration now sees not raised fists, but raised hands pointing smartphone cameras at the action, the aftermath is video; and this video can be collected and stored very easily – and becomes the primary source material not just for instant news, but for Security Council meetings, war crimes tribunals, and of course documentaries.
But the Doc/Fest – one of several globally important events for film-makers – also illustrates the mismatch between this world of angry brilliance and the official media.
Chasing the numbers?
Most documentaries take months or years to shoot, weeks to edit and then – on the evidence of the documentary festival trail – live out their lives at festivals and non-profit cinema screenings and end up online, generating revenue for Google or Apple.
At the Oscars, where deep down the list close to the make-up artists they award documentaries, you’ll often see films shortlisted whose actual public audience has been tiny.
At Sheffield, in among the throngs of wannabes and has-been moviemakers, there is an elite sociological group called “decisionmakers”. These are the people from TV networks who have the power and money to buy the documentaries.
But for modern TV the definition of the word documentary is quite loose. You can technically put two blond supermodels in hotpants in the Nevada desert and set two redneck trackers on horseback to hunt them, testing their survival skills while providing 30 minutes of soft porn and call it a documentary.
While there’s none of that here, you can feel the pull of the phrase “audience figures” even on the TV people who are from public service broadcasters, and supposed to be thinking of content first and ratings second.
From an economics perspective, it’s the classic modern problem of content: anybody can make it, it can be shared for free, but if you want to be paid for it you have to tailor it to some kind of audience criteria to get through the gatekeeper system that TV networks still represent.
But from a political perspective, there’s a bigger problem. If the signature tune of the 2010s is anger – and not just raw anger but finely crafted and expertly evidenced anger as with many of the films here – TV stations are going to look frankly unhinged from reality if all they show is a mixture of superb academic history programmes and the odd grueling conflict documentary. (Don’t get me wrong – there’s some great documentaries on TV, just not the mix selected here.)
There’s a lot of money riding on the prospect, in the next 10 to 15 years, of complete disaggregation of television into digital video. I’ve just started using the movie rental button on my Sky box – other boxes are available – while the US has seen massive uptake for Netflix, and YouTube has begun to create serious channels for factual content.
It takes you deep into a world of choice, and at some point it will tip into a situation where the programme guide is irrelevant except for news, live sport and shopping channels.
This – as long as the internet gatekeepers can stop themselves from censoring stuff – creates the possibility of a much more free, globalised and horizontal market for documentary videos.
A craft in flux
The purists from the 1960s and 70s, who defined our understanding of what a doc can do, might say that a lot of what’s produced is substandard. And by their standards that might be true.
But I think the internet and social media are rapidly changing where documentaries sit and what they do. It used to be the height of the film-maker’s craft to make one – like writing a symphony for a classical composer – and in general, in the age of politically guarded public service TV, the documentary had erred towards a neutral and objective tone of voice.
But for many of the young film-makers they are prepared to have a go and throw stuff together, in the opinion that, as Heinrich Heine once put it, they are “soldiers in the great war for the liberation of humanity”.
Frame by frame, clumsily edited sequence by sequence, and with a lot of cadged archive and shaky camerawork, this generation is learning to shoot first and worry about who’ll pay for it later – and to express anger, and commitment, and the general opinion of the tech savvy that the old world is a) over and b) irrelevant.
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