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Monday, 14 July 2014

The Search For Weng Weng Interview: Andrew Leavold

As a cult film scholar, former owner of Australia’s largest cult video store ‘Trash Video’ and more recently a video – journalist, to say Andrew Leavold is an authority on ‘cult cinema’ is more than an understatement – as an individual that has immersed himself in both the commercial and ‘fan’ cultures of the rare and bizarre. However his latest documentary about pint sized Filipino action star, The Search for Weng Weng ,was a crowd – funded passion project, taking him on an investigative adventure to the Philippines to seek facts, dispel myths and close the book on the cult movie icon once and for all. However, even Leavold couldn’t have possibly predicted how his own intervention with the vaults of Phillipine cinema would influence and re- situate domestic debate on ‘B – movie value’, igniting a whole new context for understanding the obscure, gimmick plagued legacy of the cult actor.
Originally catching The Search for Weng Weng during Sheffield Docfest’s programme, what initially drew me to the film were angles of investigative journalism and ‘cult movie’ history. Yet what The Search for Weng Weng truly achieves is the filmic re-creation of ‘the search’, creating a shared audience experience of the surprises and emotive swells that  Leavold himself faced throughout the process. If the similar doc on obscure musician Searching For Sugarman was a dubiously constructed marketing aid to help transition Sixto Rodriguez back into the limelight, Leavold’s film is a more honest and sincere piece of work and most importantly, an extension of his own passions and experiences.
Catching up with the ‘Australian Tarantino’ in the midst of his European Search for Weng Weng tour, Flickfeast talks cult – movies, Philippine film culture and ‘adventure’ with the promising new fan – filmmaker and cult movie guru. 

FF: I understand you are in the middle of the Weng Weng tour at the moment… How has the experience of touring the film been so far? Especially the experience of returning Weng Weng to Cannes after 32 years?
AL: Cannes was the biggest head-trip of all, and not just for the obvious reasons. It was more the feeling of Weng Weng’s story coming full circle. A kind of vindication, in a way that his story could be told on the big screen in Cannes instead of playing like a cartoon, when For Y’ur Height Onlywas being sold there in 1982. First up after Docfest we played the movie in an industrial park in Berlin. We then played the first 20 minutes along with a French-dubbed Weng Weng film in a tiny cellar in Paris to around 70 crazed B-film fanatics. Last Thursday was in the last grindhouse cinema in Copenhagen run by American writer Jack Stevenson, a real hero of mine. Right now my partner and I are sitting in a wooden house between the forest and the ocean in rural Denmark so I guess it’s impossible to choose highlights – they just keep falling on your head.

FF: The perfect setting for a B – Movie you could say?
AL: Yes I’m still waiting for the sound of chainsaws

FF: I’d like to rewind back to Trash Video and your experiences with cult cinema. Your previous films seem to take inspiration from cult and exploitation cinema and you also have a hand in festival programming. What is it about ‘cult movies’ that you find so appealing and do you think the cult cinema audience differs across international borders?
AL: Good question. For me, my film addiction always fed on what I called “eccentric” cinema. Not only the obvious genre films, but the stranger, more personal ones. It was always a challenge to find a film more genuinely odd than the previous one. I’ve never been enamored with deliberately bad-for-the-sake-of-bad films so when For Y’ur Height Only appeared on the radar I knew this was a special film and the work of true outsiders What I’ve discovered is that a film like For Y’ur Height Only binds an audience of like-minded adventurers together and is – or should be – the real definition of “cult” cinema. A small yet devoted follower of a film relegated on the fringes of cinema and reviled or forgotten by most film watchers. You can’t manufacture that


FF: To an extent do you think ‘cult’ cinema audiences played into the success of the Kickstarter campaign for the movie? Was this your first experience with crowd – funding?
AL: Yes, my very first foray into crowdfunding. I had no idea how it worked before piecing the campaign together but as far as I can tell, the film was perfect for Kickstarter. It allows for an ever greater feeling of participation in the filmmaking process than just putting on fundraising screenings or selling T-shirts and the global Weng Weng Tribe had already been following the saga of trying to get the film finished for years. So to actually participate in funding its post-production, or to donate your “I Heart Weng Weng” photo for the final credits moves the relationship between filmmaker and film follower one step closer  and for a figure like Weng Weng who inspires such a strange devotion by his fans the relationship is perfect.

FF: So out of all the cult films you have been in contact with … Why choose Weng Weng?
AL: Who knows? I guess no other figure was swathed in such mystery. I mean, zero Information on the most basic of personal details. Name, place of birth. Filmography and even the most basic of facts. Was he alive or not? All adventures start out with a great mystery to solve and I guess I was the only one who bothered to start asking those questions or had the opportunity to go the Philippines and start digging. In the process, it’s completely transformed my life from video store clerk to globe-trotting filmmaker and the adventure, for the time being, just keeps going!

FF: In being perhaps the first person to formulate a history of Weng Weng, did you feel a responsibility initially towards representing him. If you had found out negative traits about him in the process do you think your own fanatic love for the icon would have interfered with your objectivity as a journalist – filmmaker?
AL: I’ve never thought about that before. As a filmmaker you DO for whatever agenda you are trying to push have a responsibility to present as unbiased version of the truth as possible. Otherwise your film is propaganda for whatever agenda you are trying to push so whatever facts I discovered about Weng Weng, they’re all on display. And sometimes all you have are opinions or speculation. The real challenge, I discovered, was piecing together a fair and honest portrait of Weng Weng from unreliable sources faltering memories or absent faces. Has my love of Weng Weng clouded the process? I don’t know.

FF: In regards to actually making The Search For Weng Weng, you previously described it was a very guerrilla filmmaking process. How did pre – production processes factor into the investigative element of the doc and what was your process for tracking down the myriad interviewees?
AL: When I started filming on the first Manila trip, I had so little to go on that I met up with Bobby Suarez – one of only two people I knew in Manila – and started from there asking the question “Do You remember Weng Weng? That was the question I asked everyone I met who was even remotely connected to the film industry! Each meeting was usually as a result of a Chinese-style introduction by someone else and so I just kept meeting people and asking the right questions, until I found Weng Weng’s brother. Then the story changed to become a very intimate one, a story of poverty, exploitation and betrayal. Then I knew I had a story to tell. As for the guerrilla aspect of the filmmaking process I was flying by the seat of my pants borrowing what little money I could to keep going back to Manila shooting on whatever camera I could lay my hands on from mini-DV to I-Phone (luckily Kickstarter paid for a Canon C300 for the final shoot). No plan, just blind luck and chance (and “chutzpah”!) that’s an appropriate word in this context, I think.

FF: Now to the star himself Weng Weng. How would you say your perceptions and views on the individual have changed throughout the whole filmmaking process?
AL: At the beginning of The Search For Weng Weng, the audience is mostly like me: fascinated by the absurd image of a tiny karate-kicking James Bond from the Philippines. Subsequently the audience goes through the same journey as I did over the seven years of filming – becoming more intimately involved in Weng Weng’s very human plight so that by the end of the film, you’re face to face with Ernesto de la Cruz, son of Felix and Rita, the child-like miracle kid who, through bizarre circumstances, achieves a weird kind of immortality through his films.

FF: If you had met Weng Weng, what questions would you have asked him?
Al: “How did it feel?” “What was it like?” Did you ever regret not making another movie? I want to know what was happening to him as he experienced his dizzying ride out of the Baclaran slums into what would have seemed like a fantasy life in the spotlight and then his equally dizzying slide back into obscurity. Regrets? Moments of happiness? The questions wouldn’t end then we’d probably go to a shooting range in a shopping centre and blast away on his custom-made .25

FF: Were you at all disappointed in what you found especially in regards to the sad circumstances of Weng Weng’s death?
AL: Disappointed isn’t the word I was gutted by his producers’ treatment of him while he was in their care and particularly the way in which he was sent home to Baclaran after he had outlived his usefulness to them. I think Filipino audiences react most acutely to the part of Weng Weng’s story where the Caballes take him into their care, announce to the world they have “adopted” him, and call themselves his Ninong and Ninang (Godfather and Godmother) which, to Filipinos, is a sacred, life-long bond. That betrayal affects local audiences on a most profound level. Once Weng Weng leaves the Caballes’ care, his connection to the film world is broken so he slips instantly back into obscurity and poverty, except for the attention of his immediate neighborhood, and dies anonymous and penniless. Still, he had an amazing ride for several years so really, there’s a balance to his story between incredible highs and lows I mean, what an incredible personal narrative!

FF: Alongside having birthday tea with Imelda Marco, having spent a lot of time in the Philippines, were there any difficulties that you faced during the filming?
AL: Access to archive material, for one I discovered after many frustrating months that the TV station’s vaults had gone up in flames during the revolution to oust the Marcos and the government tanks rolled right through the walls and blew them up! All of Weng Weng’s TV appearances no longer exist, same as half of Weng Weng’s 14 films. Getting permission to include clips from his Tagalog films also proved impossible. Also when I first started travelling to the Philippines, a good percentage of people I talked to were upset that I was investigating their more disreputable genres instead of their artistic achievements – “Why Weng Weng?” was often their response. It took a while to win them over and re-frame the discussion so that their B films could be seen as an important component of their own cultural history. I still encounter resistance even now when I’m waiting for my PhD to arrive and I’ve been lecturing at Filipino universities since 2008 teaching kids their own film history! Yet I’ve managed to make some influential friends in film circles and I’m not the freak I used to appear to be (or maybe I am and don’t know it!!!)


FF: What’s your assessment on modern Philippine film culture having spent so much time there?
AL: Film is a lot healthier now than when I first visited in 2006 back then everyone had given up on cinema – local cinema which was down to less than 50 features a year was a hell of a decline from over 300 films a year in the early 70s! Digital film-making has changed everything and now no-budget “indies” are playing in multiplexes. Filmmakers like Brillante Mendoza and Lav Diaz are playing prestigious festivals all over the world and even genre films like On The Job are getting a theatrical release in the US so the spotlight has finally been shone on the Philippines after languishing in the shadows for twenty-plus years. For me, the timing of finishing the film has been fortuitous because the Philippines is back on everyone’s radars and The Search For Weng Weng is travelling on that wave of interest much further than I would have dreamed of back in 2006. Now, if only I can get that Filipino action film I want to direct off the ground…
FF: Although you are with Monster Pictures at the moment have you found international distribution for Search For Weng Weng an what are the future plans for the film? What’s on the horizon for future Leavold projects?
AL: Monster Pictures are both Australian and UK distributors and international sales agents. At this moment I’m not sure how many territories they’ve sold but we’re trying to get the movie out there as wide as we can. If all goes well, we’re off next year on Film Safari – a six part TV series going to the last uncharted outposts of ‘Weird Cinema’. It seems like a sensible next project, I think.

FF: What is the best way for people to support and track the progress of the film in the future?
AL: Best way to track us is on Facebook either under “The Search for Weng Weng” , my personal page (I make friends with everyone!) or by email:

FF: Finally you have been described as the ‘Australian Quentin Tarantino’ several times before. How do you feel about this label and what is your opinion on the recent popularity of exploitation movie pastiche?
AL: Personally I’m not a huge fan of pastiche or self-aware, post-modern filmmaking and tend to prefer the originals, so I’d take the original Django and its namesakes over Django Unchainedany day. I think the “Australian Tarantino” tag came from my 15 years in the video store trenches rather than a shared philosophy in filmmaking but I suspect if I ever get to meet him we will have a shit lot to talk about.

“The Search For Weng Weng will be released on DVD by Monster Pictures before Christmas 2014″

Sheffield Docfest Review: 2014

As one of the most anticipated festivals on the international calendar, Sheffield Docfest is an event that not only brings together professional documentarians, distributors and producers from around the world but expertly balances the public and industry divide, transforming the city into a cultural playground with an excitingly strong industry presence. Now in its 21st year, Docfest continues to spread its tendrils across Sheffield, with this year seeing more cave screenings in the peak district, two outdoor city screens, screenings in the heritage site Chatsworth House and innovative workshops bringing together decision makers, aspiring filmmakers and the premieres of future Oscar calibre documentaries.
With 2014 being my third year at the festival, it was exciting to experience a similarly complex collection of films selected by director of programming Hussain Currimbhoy ranging from the investigate to the esoteric, with an eclectic mix of stylistic approaches and elegy, activism, morality, memory and change emerging as strong thematic undercurrents. With appearances from award winning documentary film makers Alex Gibney, Steve James and Martin Scorsese (via Skype), the original line – up of Pulp and a host of other eccentric and passionate guests, Docfest 2014 demonstrated how important and esteemed the festival is becoming as a location to bring people together, represent the un –represented and to educate and promote change. If that sounds a little lofty the festival also has its simpler pleasures, including begrudgingly applauding the American embassy every five minutes, drinking coffee like a fleet street hack and watching hilariously dated archive films about the pleasures of cycling (a full programme in fact).
While money undeniably pulsates through the festivals crucial fostering of distribution deals and partnerships, the calibre of filmmakers and films that choose Sheffield for their world and European premieres, showcases the status and importance that Sheffield Docfest has garnered as hub for astounding filmmakers and the medium of documentary film. To see past Docfest premieres Searching for Sugarman (2013) and Act of Killing (2014) trail blaze to Oscar recognition, each annual visit to Docfest is an opportunity to see astounding contemporary docs and even though seeing 24 films this year barely scratched the surface of the programme, the festival undoubtedly housed some hidden gems and future hits, poised and ready to be unleashed upon the world.

Day One
Night Will Fall (World Premiere)
Starting the fest with a healthy dose of harrowing post – liberation concentration camp footage, the historical importance of a film like Night Will Fall initially eluded me, as a meta –doc about a British propaganda film 70 years in the making, shot by Allied soldiers who filmed the atrocities at liberated concentration camps such as Bergen Belsen and Auschwitz. Masterminded by Sydney Bernstein (founder of Granada TV) with involvement from Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder and Richard Crossman, the film was originally withdrawn within 6 months of being green lit, with American and British governments withdrawing support subsequently leaving the film in archival stasis for almost 70 years. Raiding the shocking Holocaust archive footage and examining the politics and socio – political context of the period, director Andrew Singer weaves an innovative web around the ill – fated production, fate and motives of the film, touching upon the subjective way liberation films reflected national propaganda and the psychological damage the filmmaker / soldiers faced in a series testimonies – where interviewees lips tremble and eyes lose focus as they recount re –living filming the atrocities.
Fittingly decades later holocaust archive never fails to lose its power with the doc using a mixture of footage from mass graves of bodies frozen in painful expressions and warehoused piles of hair and shoes, to the vacant expressions of the liberated prisoners breaking the 4th wall and gazing into the lens of the camera, unable to comprehend their ‘hell is over’. As a mixture of powerful archive and testimony matched with a wider political canvas, the film is an incredible exploration of the political importance of early film in representing war, the socio – political debates around representing the holocaust and the repression of difficult social documents that sought to use shocking filmmaking to evoke progressive change. Being released through BFI in its final version the original Bernstein film is set to become one of the most important documentary films of the 20th century and Andre Singers documentary similarly will become its crucial companion piece as a timeless educational document of one of humanities most unbearable atrocities.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets
Sitting down in the Town Hall, donned by green lasers and a neon Pulp sign towering over the audience, the premiere of Pulp: A Film About Life Death and Supermarkets was a spectacle to say the least. However this is pretty unsurprising given the bands Sheffield origins and Jarvis Cockers excessive performance of a live score for Sheffield steel industry documentary the Big Melt at last years Docfest. With the original line – up in attendance for a post screening Q and A and director Florian Habicht’s charmingly wacky public persona, the film was ironically both a homecoming and a send – off for Pulp, reflecting on their last UK concert, their careers and their personal origins in Sheffield.
As most music documentaries often focus upon band footage and the egocentric monologues of musicians, Florian Habicht’s film presents an interesting tableaux of the band from interviews with people on the streets of Sheffield to migratory fans and local musicians, revealing the emotional and formative effect the band has had on the people of Sheffield. While finding their fame in London was a key decision to their current success (£10 million album sales) the film explores how their songs were informed by living in Sheffield, focuses on how Jarvis’s lyrics and band itself have become been both spawned and maintained in the Sheffield landscape and delves into questions of both class and philosophy with humor and heart. For people who are not particularly avid fans of Pulp (such as myself), untainted with zealous nostalgia the least interesting parts of the film tended to be the exclusive live footage from the homecoming gig; yet thankfully the band interviews offer a mixture of heavy laughs (Jarvis is on top form) to the odd intimate moments such as keyboardist Candida Doyle recounting her physical and emotional struggles from arthritis from the age of 16.
While fans of Pulp probably see the very existence of this film as non sequitur and need no convincing, beyond the band footage and interviews is a documentary experience that re – writes the music doc rulebook, creating a tapestry of Sheffield partly through the philosophical words of ‘the common people’ in a manner that is both life affirming and occasionally bewildering. While the post screening Q and A embarrassingly revealed that most of the members of Pulp now shop at Waitrose and haven’t even visited Sheffield for the last ten years, Fabian Habicht’s film is a deeply impressionistic exploration of the connections between music, place and memory, is a real audio-visual treat and may even convince non – believers that Pulp were indeed more than ‘just a band’
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆
Miners Shot Down
The closing film of the night Miners Shot Down, contributed to a strand of ‘resistance’ running through the programme, ranging from the global anti – war movement of We Are Many to Thatcherite miners strikes in Still The Enemy Within, focusing upon the combination of violence, injustice and corruption that stem at the heart of clashes between work unions and the state. In this case Miners Shot Down focuses upon South African workers, who have struggled to earn a living wage digging platinum for the British owned company Lonmin for decades. Dismayed that their union was in bed with the company, the workers began a strike in August 2012 ending in the police murdering 34 miners and injuring many more. With the discovery of decisive new footage, director and current affairs journalist Rehad Desai investigates the story of the massacre through the testimonies of surviving members of the strike, South African officials and lawyers representing the inquiry, looking to point a finger at the collusion between state and corporations and painting a dark unforgiving picture of post-apartheid South Africa.
This was one of the films of the festival that really shook a nerve with audiences, revealing the twisted mockery of the justice system of South Africa, where police remained unrepentant and an iron wall is erected regarding discussion of the issue from main politicians. The main emotional resonance of the film comes from the abundance of footage from video – journalists filming the strike in which we get a sense of the workers passion, courage and desperation as they attempt to maintain a peaceful protest in the wake of severe intimidation. This becomes all the more disturbing when we are put in the viewpoint of the police (through archive footage) as they gun down unarmed fleeing miners, blurring the lines between self – defence and extermination. As a film experience, Desai’s directorial structuring of the film re-creates the suspense, fear, shock and dark humour throughout the 7 day protest, combining chronological accounts of the event alongside referencing leaked email communications, interviews and testimonies that explore how massacre was potentially pre – meditated by the chief of police as an executive action to end the strike. Hinging on the light of this new evidence, the aggressive stance of the film and new perspectives of the event are said to be decisive in bringing justice to the miners and the families
Miners Shot Down is political filmmaking at its best, using strong narrative and cinematic techniques to paint a multi – faceted picture of a shocking event, revealing previously unseen links to both South African authority, multi – national industry and workers’ rights. As poverty and hunger become rife and platinum strikes and workers’ rights remain a pressing issue in South African politics, the film beckons viewers spread awareness and provoke action towards the issue and the ongoing enquiry. As a breathlessly cinematic and deeply troubling film with a haunting soundtrack to boot, Miner Shot Down not only paints a brutal picture of South Africa but similarly of the UK, particularly the dominant shareholders in outsourced mining companies who create the corporate structure that both exploits manual workers and turns a blind eye towards atrocities committed under their umbrella of influence. For more information on the issue and for details of how to spread awareness check out the official website of the campaign.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Day 2
Point and Shoot
Going into Point and Shoot relatively blind, the gods of festival chance rained blessings upon me with one of the more formally and thematically interesting films of the programme. In a similar style to other documentaries that focus upon unique individuals solely or partly constructed by filmmakers, Point and Shoot demonstrated a conflict between documentary and self – awareness in an evocative character study almost entirely constructed from self – shot footage. The said star of the movie is American Matt VanDyke whose desire to have a ‘crash course in manhood’ and live out his favourite film Lawrence of Arabia, set him on an adventure across the Middle East with a motorcycle and camera and hand culminating in him joining Anti – Gaddafi forces in the Libyan war. In collaboration with Oscar nominated director Marshall Curry to whom Van Dyke had to sacrifice creative control, Point and Shoot shares similarities with Grizzly Manas a travel adventure documentary exploring issues of delusion and mental illness, in this case being vanity, voyeurism and crippling OCD.
Director Marshall Curry skilfully assembles Van Dykes adventure through the Middle East with entertaining effect, from his initial adventures through Africa with a motorbike head – cam, to his return to Libya to fight with anti – Gaddafi forces which lead to a subsequent imprisonment in solitary confinement for 5 months. While many of Van Dykes adventures show a compulsion to film everything, the film takes a turn for the dark side when the transition from previously firing at unknown enemies is broken by an opportunity to kill an unsuspecting Gaddafi solider … on film. As both a surreal individualistic adventure further perpetuated by Van Dykes love of action films and video games, Curries impartial filmmaking throws up a lot of questions about the character of the adventurer, alienating himself from his family, entrusting them with his mailed footage of his activities in war and his constant identity crisis ‘I am a filmmaker or a soldier?’ putting him in danger time and time again.
Director Marshal Curry re-enforces these themes further, with the Libyan war being one of the most filmed wars in history. With mobile phones and cheap cameras being the portal in which ordinary men can re-invent themselves as ‘action movie stars’ , the camaraderie of Van Dyke and his Libyan companions reflects perhaps a more universal desire for self – representation and reinvention amidst the troubling backdrop of guerrilla warfare . What started out as a film about a middle – class basement dweller creating a travel diary soon becomes a question of the cost of using media to situate self – identity and with director Curry mentioning that there are indeed two ‘official websites’ for the film (both director and ‘star’), it appears that the struggle for representation remains a comically present issue separate from the films main narrative. As a dizzying, harrowing initiation into ‘manhood’ and examination of the dehumanizing effects of war,Point and Shoot is a deeply thought provoking film about the individual psyche filtered through the gauze of over 5 years of archival video diary.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Life Itself
After recently passing away from cancer in 2013, it seemed fitting that there should be a film about the life of Roger Ebert : the quick witted, opinionated and charismatic film writer who brought the pleasures of film watching into the mainstream through the vastly popular weekly show At The Movies. For a writer so vehemently characterized by his TV persona, the tragic irony of his battle with cancer (robbing him of the ability to eat drink and speak), failed to deter him from writing some of the best work of his life in his last ten years. Based on his autobiography of the same name Life Itself, acclaimed director Steve James is invited in Ebert’s world in his last years, looking back over his fondest memories of his colleagues, the movies and the experiences that shaped his life. In a similar direction to motor neurone disease awareness filmI am Breathing, the film is characterized by the realities of Ebert’s illness such as his daily oesophageal suction which often manipulatively breaks the nostalgic archives of Ebert’s past with an adrenalin shot of harsh reality. While this dynamic of the documentary could divide audiences, Ebert himself expressed a desire to represent his daily life – no matter how hard it is to stomach.
However despite Eberts illness in his final years confining him to a wheelchair and hospital, his spirit is truly inspiring, with ‘present’ sections of the film seeing him losing none of the mischievous sarcastic character that allowed him to become such a prolific media personality and cinema advocate for almost half of cinemas history. As director James delves into his past from early years as a Chicago hack and his love / hate relationship with his partner in crime Gene Siskel, to his influence on filmmakers on such as Martin Scorsese, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, the scale of his personal and profession contributions to cinema are simply mind-blowing. In many ways the film is also philosophical, with Ebert’s narration of his own autobiography bridging the gap between past and present as we travel with him through decades, directors and the occasional venomous review. As Werner Herzog’s aptly describes him ‘soldier of cinema’, Steve James’s sensitive bio – doc is a deeply moving film that really captures both the resilience and strength of an individual, while also functioning as an elegiac final goodbye to such a passionate and influential cultural figure. However to really appreciate the film is to become enveloped in Ebert’s incredible story and whatever your opinions of the man and his work, the sheer beauty, scope and sensitivity of Life Itself  will have you reaching for the tissues and will surely help you fall in love with the movies all over again.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

All This Mayhem
Documentaries on early skateboarding are relatively common, so just when you thought you had seen it all, you can trust a producer live Vice to unearth a story that metaphorically bites your face off with a dark thematic stories involving drugs, deception and personal descent. All This Mayhemdoes this and more, as an account of two Australian brothers Tas and Ben Pappas, who shook up the rapidly changing vert scene with their unique brand of high intensity tricks, seeing them temporarily usurping Tony Hawk from his throne and setting them on the fast path to prestigious pro careers. Yet it wouldn’t be a Vice doc without exploring the darker side of fame and the Pappas brothers story is one that is both deeply tragic and ultimately gruesome, skilfully woven together by director Eddie Martin in a delirious journey into the lifestyle and cultural zeitgeist of skateboarding in the period.
Tas Pappas (interviewed from a prison cell) leads us through this incredible story along with the friends and family that encompassed the hard partying entourage along the years, touching upon the effects of drug use and fame on relationships, using a wide array of archive and interviews to paint their cautionary tale. Although the Tappas brothers fates are ultimately devastating, the film most interesting assertion is the relationship between Tas Pappas and Tony Hawk, a rivalry tainted by competition and the ESPN’s corporate influence on the sport which Hawk embraced resembling ‘the brady bunch’. Although Tas Pappas beat Tony Hawk at his own game, it appears that Hawk’s influence over the sport ‘literally marrying a women from ESPN’ potentially denied Tas Pappas the chance to compete to perform ‘The 900’ before Hawk. The rivalry between Pappas and ‘The Hawkman’ is undoubtably one the highlights of the film and was a vehement topic of questions in the post screening Q and As.
Although the accounts of child stars travelling to America and becoming consumed and ultimately destroyed by the lifestyle is nothing new, when set against the dynamic and thrilling background of acrobatic vert skateboarding and skilfully structured by director Eddie Martin, All This Mayhemis a hugely entertaining documentary, chronicling the perils of life in the ultra – fast lane, personal redemption and frailties of fame wrapped up in the a delirious youthful montage of skate tapes and handicam home videos.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

The Internets Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz 
In a similar elegiac vibe to Roger Ebert send – off Life Itself, Youth Jury Winner The Internets Own Boy attempts to use the documentary form to capture both the factual and emotional perspectives of the life of a unique individual, which in the case of someone like Aaron Swartz could be an incredibly difficult task. As an internet innovator and digital activist, Swartz was a child prodigy who throughout his life pioneered creative commons philosophy, RSS feeds and radically opened debate about internet neutrality and freedom. Yet when he was dragged through the American legal system because of his involvement in leaked JSTOR databases from MIT servers, the financial, political and emotional pressure caused Swartz to commit suicide in 2013. With the world barely coming to terms with the death of such an internet giant, director Brian Knappenberger (We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists) tackles similar subject matter of internet activism with an emotionally resonant portrait of internet infancy and an individual who used his talents for ethical, rather than financial gain.
For anyone not familiar with Swartz story the documentary follows a fairly linear path, from the humorous accounts of Swartz as a child prodigy (lecturing to rooms of executives while barely taller than the podium) to his maturation from digital innovator to digital activist. Knappenberger has a lot of archive to play with from webcam testimonials to grainy home videos and while attempting to construct an identity of such a complex figure in 105 minutes is a difficult task, the result is a deeply moving story that forces you to question your own views on surveillance and freedom of information. At a time where hacker collective ‘anonymous’ leave companies trembling in fear and whistle-blowers such as Edward Snowden have created political maelstroms due to their actions, the story of Aaron Swartz is a story that fits into this ethical meta – narrative as an individual who fought against the grain of the US legal system for a crucial cause unfortunately at the expense of his own mental health. Connecting on an emotional and political level The Internets Own Boy is an incredible documentary that has the potential to connect with younger audiences and will hopefully become an incisive social document in informing the debates surrounding the democratization of the internet and freedom of information.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Day 3
The concept of ‘offshore’ is normally associated with organised crime, piracy or shady corporate dealings, yet for activist artist Dr Rebecca Gomberts the concept was a crucial opportunity for her cause; that is – questioning whether women have the basic rights to decide what happens to their own bodies. With abortion being illegal in many European countries and many more women dying from dangerous black market operations, Women on Waves founded in 2001 was a team that traveled around the world to countries and provided abortions in international waters (which due to the laws of flagship and abortion being legal in the Netherlands) gave many women a crucial lifeline to circumvent their own national law to get what they required. As a cause plagued by internal contradictions and criticism, Director Diana Witten handles the subject matter and history of the movement with investigative detail, tracking the hostility and challenges that the movement faced while creating a contextual tapestry of the disparate views on abortion throughout the world.
As any fledgling political movement will have experienced, the early days were far from rosy, from Nazi – taunts, police intervention and egging. From an initially un – registered clinic held back by administrative neutrality to a powerful movement championing reproductive rights and overturning the law in many countries, it’s hard not to get swept along in the romantic idea of socially liberating pirates under feisty spokesperson Rebecca Gomberts – the passionate heart and soul of the piece. Just when you get caught up in the drama and spectacle of both land and sea based protests, the issues of why women need access to abortions becomes shockingly relevant through Women on Waves helpline as excerpts of testimonials exploring rape, poverty and self – harm violating contextualize the legal requirement for ‘choice’ in these matters.
With the boat initially existing as both a practical necessity and marketing gimmick, the movement also has further outreach in receiving calls and dispensing advice to women from underdeveloped countries / those without the means to get to the boat. Educational didactic animations on this topic litter the piece, providing advice on how women can mix ‘over the counter’ drugs to safely induce abortion.  With this mix of education, history and social awareness the film set to serve as a strong political tool in encapsulating the movement and as an entry point into the complexities of the abortion debate. As a winner of the first Peter Wintonick award celebrating activist film-making, Vessel truly rises above its initial gimmick of a ‘feminist abortion boat’ to a nuanced, educational and powerful film about activism and its ability to change the world. One of my personal favorites of the festival.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★★

Web Junkie
As a teenager spending large swathes of time enveloped in computer gaming and the wonders of early dial – up, there does come a point where pizza boxes block out the sun, you wear the same t – shirt for days on end you develop a strong aversion to sunlight when you finally realize may have a problem. While some may view excessive internet usage as a crucial method of communicating and engaging, the Chinese government has taken a harder line, as the first country to recognize ‘internet addiction’ as a clinical disorder. As a result Chinese parents have gone to extreme methods to enter their children into rehab – a boot camp environment that promises to restore a sense of order and discipline in their lives from their dependence on ‘electronic heroin’. Living within the camp and filming without authorization from wider Chinese authorities, directors Hilla Medaila and Shosh Shilam have produced an intimate, undeniably bleak documentary exploring the corrosive effect of technology on families and the individual, while also alluding to wider issues of the relationship between the individual and the state.
With a an increasingly disillusioned youth retreating into virtual worlds leading to unemployment, parents bringing their children to the camps often have deceived them and as the children recount their own journeys to clinical boot camp, their reflections on their own apparent ‘addiction’ are a mix of anger, resentment and confusion. For a film filled with 16 year old boys the film fittingly captures bravado and camaraderie inherent in the dorms, while also taking dark turns when the rehab process revolves around pseudo-science, borderline state indoctrination and emotionally difficult counselling sessions where children who were once resilient to authority, break down in tears and plead to escape their militarised prison. While the reasons for the craze remain unclear – inadequate parenting, over stimulating society, pressures of the state? – the film fails to put forth any strong political statements leaving you often as bewildered and out of the loop as the poor children themselves. However for a country that has openly censored google in the past, perhaps the camps perhaps represent a wider political issue of enforcing ‘reality’ in a youth increasingly disillusioned with it, with opting out of societal participation through virtual worlds becoming an act of civil disobedience? Who knows….
As the filmmakers secret filming did not allow them to leave the camp, the documentaries static position with this environment is reflected by the failure to engage with the wider issues of the phenomenon. Yet through testimony and observation it is revealed that the children find the internet a far more considerate, stimulating and caring environment than ‘reality’ and as they are subjected to militarized indoctrination against their will, it is not exactly a stretch to identify with their argument. While the documentary should have been more political opening up the scope to wider socio – cultural contexts, Web Junkie is still an indicative expose of generational conflict, filtered through the cultural gauze of the internet and shot with an impartial gaze that skates the ice of the issue in favor of smaller more focused viewpoint. With the said rehabilitation camp being shut down as a result of the film’s release, the existence and growth of these camps is a concerned symptom of living industrialised countries and is a subject that would potentially benefit from more investigate documentary work.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Beyond Clueless
Beyond Clueless was a bit of a wildcard in the programme this year – an experimental video essay surveying over a decade of 1990s teenage movies backed by the dreamy original score of pop duo Summer Camp. Organised into ‘chapters’ tackling themes of alienation, loss of the self and lust, the film creates an audio – visual journey through almost 200 teen films, taking the all too familiar clichés of high – school drama and cult teen movies and enveloping them in interesting social theories and analyses. Solely funded through a kick-starter campaign film critic Charlie Lyns pastiche is a postmodern treat, with some truly astounding editing drawing iconography, setting and mood together into a visual unison that at times resembles the work of artist Nicolas Provost. With cult teen star Fairuza Balk’s narration adding a Mean Girls type internal monologue to the movie and a selection of films that range from classics of the genre to a surprisingly valid homoerotic reading of Euro trip (didn’t see that coming), Beyond Clueless is a filmic voyage through adolescence, spanning time and genre with a formal style that exudes intelligence and creativity. I look forward to what Charlie Lyn has up his sleeve next.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Finding Fela
As a documentary filmmaker at the top of his game, Oscar wining director Alex Gibney’s work is often vastly cinematic, incredibly well researched and effortlessly entertaining and when I heard he had his latest film at Docfest it was almost impossible to say no. While tackling large issues such as corporate corruption, Vatican paedophilia and the impact of WikiLeaks in the recent past, his latest film takes a slight change of direction as documentary of African musical icon Fela Kuti, the pioneer of the ‘Afrobeat’ genre. As a complex counter cultural figure who revolutionised African music, Gibney takes an interesting approach to the Kuti’s legacy with star studded interviews and rare archival footage alongside the production of a stage adaptation with famous afro – beat troupe Antibalas. Exploring politics, cult of personality and posthumous impact, Kuti’s life is fascinating trip of a national hero who represented traditional African music on the world stage, while also putting his own neck on the line on a day to basis due to his volatile lyrics (he was arrested over 60 times during the Nigerian 1970s political dictatorship).
From travelling around the world with his witchdoctor companion, occasionally marrying 27 women in one day and possessing a legendary libido, Fela Kuti’s public persona resembled that of a demi – god with untold public support, his own political party MOP (movement of the people) and 20 minute songs channelling polyrhythmic fusion of Jazz, Funk and traditional west African chants. Yet for a man with such a confident public persona Alex Gibney also touches upon his darker private life, including emotionally scarring political murder of his family, drug – use and his tragic death from AIDS – captured in the skilful mixture of scope and personal testimony that Alex Gibney does so well. With the Broadway musical of his life ‘Fela!’ funded by prominent black media personalities (Jay – Z), the documentary also runs into interesting ground through inter – cut rehearsal footage where art imitates life and actors imitations contextually inform Gibney’s documentary archive, subsequently exploring Fela Kuti’s historical and contemporary influence (with his Broadway show being the first ever to make the journey from New York to the Nigerian capital Lagos).
While drumming up support for the Broadway show producer Stephen Hendel once described Fela Kuti as ‘one of the greatest composers, musicians and activists of the 20th century’ and while that may seem hyperbolic, Gibney’s doc truly captures of the essence of the what made the hip – shaking enigma such an important cultural figure (which despite his womanizing and questionable parenting) is set to capture the hearts and mind of whole new generations.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
The 50 Year Argument
As a publication freewheeling through half a century of American and literary and cultural life, theNew York Review of Books was a product of history and circumstance, conceived during a dinner party between poet Robert Lowell, his writer wife Elizabeth Hardwick and their neighbours Barbara and Jason Epstein as a reaction to the 1963 New York newspaper strike. As they say ‘the rest is history’ – with the publication being a cultural mouthpiece for long – form essays on social, cultural and political issues, edited under Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers for over 40 years. As a retrospective examination of the publications longstanding influence, Director Martin Scorsese and long time documentary collaborator David Tedeschi team up again after the biodocs of George Harrison and Bob Dylan, to produce an intelligent but ironically un – critical meditation on the review and the thinker, debates and ideas that the publication disseminated across its history.
While not a major Scorsese work by any extent, the documentary rewards curiosity allowing a historical snapshot of various cultural zeitgeists in American history and the figures for which the publication became mouthpiece to incite debate and occasionally stoke controversy. With figures ranging from Edward Said and Susan Sontag, to Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal, the documentary focuses less upon its political character of the review but on its focus on human rights and the manner in which it contributed to and perhaps changed American history. With a slow, meticulously woven style, sliding between beautifully shot contemporary interviews and archival footage, it provides archival entertainment in its most ferocious seminal debates to modern examples taking a stance challenging mainstream media orthodoxy on the war on terror post 9 / 11 for example. Taking a similar tone to its subject matter, the documentary feels like a long – form essay itself, rigidly structured, in – formative but most problematically self – righteous, at times feeling like a Silvers accredited advert for the publication itself.
With a Martin Scorcese Skype Q and A and a sold out world premiere hosted at docfest, the film certainly found its audience of middle class cultural elite at Docfest and perhaps has a quite limited appeal as far as wider audiences are concerned. Yet, as observational shots see editor Silvers sitting surrounded by dusty volumes it’s evident that the existence of long – form journalism in the internet age is perhaps under threat – yet this is something Scorcese willingly ignores focusing upon the archaic newsroom, thinkers and ideas that made the publication such a cultural institution in a love letter to traditional journalism, considerately constructed and basked in nostalgic haze.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Day 4
Originally commissioned by Nick Fraser for BBC ‘Storyville’ Brakeless is a documentary that uses the simple concept of a human disaster to un-earth incredibly interesting and troubling aspects of Japanese society, most notably their obsession with efficiency and punctuality. Having always though this was a stereotype, Japanese native Kyoko Miyake dispels its comic nature, focusing upon public commuter transport and the immense pressure drivers are under to stay to un – realistic pressurised time schedules – an aspect that tragically led to the death of 107 people when a driver failed to catch up with an 80 second delay. Structuring the film with the events of the accident first, like a forensic investigation the documentary flits between horrific survivor testimonies rendered in surreal animation, to cultural commentary questioning whether the true blame lies with the company West Japan Railway and its draconian rules. Opening the film with a question of responsibility, Brakeless cleverly opens up throughout to examine an idiosyncratic element of Japanese society that may seem like a humorous stereotype but a different perspective raises even more pressing questions about the relationship between technology, transport and the individual in industrialised societies. With engineering technologies rendering increasingly faster and prided on their journey times, the chances of another accident again in future seem like question of when rather than if, where speed and efficiency ends up replacing accountability and safety. Scathing, thought provoking and beautifully structured, Brakeless is an evocative analyses of modern Japan and an incredible example of investigative documentary. Seek it out
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

One Rogue Reporter
As the second film about journalism I had seen at the fest One Rogue Reporter was as far from the New York Review of Books as you could get, the literal ‘gutter press’. In this sleazy world of thinly veiled racism, sex and false stories was disillusioned Daily Star hack Richard Peppiatt – that is until he dropped a bomb of a resignation after 2 years that was scooped up by the Guardian, leading him Levenson enquiry to the role of journo – vigilante. Having gigged live comedy for a year around his experiences as a journalist, One Rogue Reporter is an extension of topical humour Peppiatt wields as a director / writer in a film that balances hilarious expose pranks with a serious exploration of the tabloid editors responsible for the ethical and moral dip in journalism over the last decade.
Turning the tables former and current fleet street editors with a collection of hilarious pranks and confronting the aggressive immoral editors tabloid techniques, Peppiat strips them down (sometimes literally) with their own tricks of the trade, using deception, invasion of privacy and coercion to ‘hold power to account … one tabloid editor at a time’. While revealing the nature of the pranks themselves would spoil the fun for first time viewers it’s safe to say some of them are truly incendiary material, with Peppiatt dwelling in the editor’s bumbling reactions to demonstrate the ironies of editors who cannot stomach the same bile that they churned out in the past.
With a host of media campaigners and past victims of gruesome tabloid campaigns including Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and John Prescott and Peppiatt’s own voiceover as an amiable companion throughout poking fun at his own ‘career suicide’, One Rogue Reporter stylistically apes the very institution it criticises but does so in the name of vengeance, social justice and plain old fashioned fun. With Peppiatt already ‘in talks’ with distributors and a great deal of interest shown about the film – despite being self – financed and edited on a laptop – its certain that the format of One Rogue Reporter would be perfect for a commissioned TV series so let’s hope that comes to fruition (preferably before Fleet Streets lawyers get to him).
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

An Honest Liar
Having previously screened at Tribeca Film Festival, An Honest Liar was a truly breath-taking experience full of surprises, illusions and mystery which is pretty fitting really, bearing in mind the film is an account of world class escapologist, magician and showman ‘The Amazing Randi’. Randi’s philosophy was that magic was built on a willing suspension of disbelief or an ‘honest lie’ which would become increasingly problematic due to rising waves of psychics, faith healers and conmen using his tricks of the trade to deceive the masses for financial gain. In a tenacious defence of his own craft directors Tyler Measom and Justin Weinstein take us on a journey through a hugely enjoyable series of Randi’s exposes from the spoon bending of (nemesis) Uri Geller, to televisual faith healers aided by ear – pieces and gullible congregations. As a mixture of pride and purpose Randi’s self – image as a crusader of ‘truth’ doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a few secrets of his own. Secrets that even escapologists can’t wriggle out of.
With a mixture of testimonials, hilarious archive and an aging Randi himself narrating the documentary, the film initially follows a traditional narrative path before a third act twist forces you to question your own gullibility, tonally shifting from a sense of celebration to confession in a conclusion that is both uncomfortable and ultimately heart-breaking. This paradox of the nature of truth, lies and morality is a thematic undercurrent that almost romantically fits the life of an old fashioned magician, proud but fading and with a personal deception ultimately being his most costly trick of all. From meeting denial and hostility at every facet of his magical activist career, Randi’s journey is a truly inspirational and An Honest Liar is a film that cleverly treads the beaten tracks of bio – docs and in the tradition of the profession Randi helped develop, adds a little documentary magic of its own to seal its final conclusions. Intimate, hilarious and at times deeply moving, An Honest Liar was one of best documentaries at the festival, exploring the fluid membrane between belief and deception and the symbiotic relationship between the audience and storyteller.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

The Search For Weng Weng
A formal education in ‘bad movies’ isn’t an easy ride, it takes years of dedication trawling the aisles, taking gambles and consuming film on face value alone outside the manipulative tentacles of marketing discourse. In a modern film market where online distribution has partly destroyed the pleasures of independent video shops, some films that pass through this ‘gatekeeper’ process become lost forever, except in hearts of their zealous admirers. Allow director Andrew Leavold ‘The Australian Quentin Tarantino’ to step into the fray, owner of Australia’s largest cult video store and fan boy of the elusive Weng Weng – an instant fan since he first witnessed the 2 foot 9, womanizing, cool as ice agent ‘00’ in Filipino action movie For Yu’r Height Only. While appreciation of para – cinema gets some buy on cheap laughs at house parties, Leavold had so many questions about Weng Weng’s life and identity the only rational step was taking the plane to the Philippines and digging for answers. The ensuing documentaryThe Search For Weng Weng is a funny, honest and ultimately fascinating portrait of both the actor and an underrepresented film culture, with Leavold reaping boundless filmic treasures on his travels.
From opening the documentary with the typically hilarious bad clips of Weng Weng flying round in a jet pack, Leavold’s various interviews form a domino effect as he interviews former production staff, co – stars, friends, relatives and at one point surreally joining former dictator Imelda Marco at her birthday celebration. Throughout the collected testimonies the picture that emerges of Weng Weng is one of subdued tragedy, a quiet man, thrust into the limelight, exploited out of his own wages and through international film festivals (Manilla, Cannes) inadvertently becoming a national icon of Filipino cinema to Western audiences. Yet despite Andrew Levold’s journey being erratic to say the least, with dubiously inconsistent footage and sound quality, the questions answered and information collected builds up Weng Wengs life through the people that knew him best, humanizing him, telling his life story and finally dispelling the insulting nickname Weng Weng with the discovery of his birth name.
International low – budget quick productions often inadvertently become ‘cult movies’ in transit because of a lack of domestic context available to the viewer (especially with VHS). Yet, in a film that explores as much about film history and production contexts as much as its pint size title character, perhaps director Leavold’s greatest achievement is re – situating this contextual understanding of Weng Weng from that of ‘court jester’ to one of the most important figures in Filipino film history. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Last Hijack
From frequent news headlines to feature films such as Captain Philips, the evocation of Somali pirates is often an issue that is weighted heavily towards the victim’s perspective. Yet the plight of Somalia and piracy is not a black and white issue, with poverty and social status often forcing disillusioned young men into the hands of pirate recruiters. With piracies ‘heroic’ image fading away in villages and the piracy game being increasingly dangerous due to tightly controlled waters, for veteran pirate Mohammad he two choices : capture one last ship or settle down with his new fiancée amongst uncertain prospects. Does he enter another failed marriage where a return to piracy beckons a ‘divorce by text’ or does he become a poor but responsible adult to his several neglected children? The modern dilemma of underdeveloped countries and piracy is explored adeptly by directors Tommy Pallotta and Femke Wolting, in mixed method approach of surreal animation and observational documentary, creating a portrait of a community where survival means making difficult choice and coming to terms with the consequences.
While the character of Mohammed could be seen as a seemingly cold, irresponsible and sexist individual (characteristics he undoubtably gained in his younger days as a pirate), the signature animation not only explores the way the pirates captured ships, but Mohammed’s childhood in which drought forced him to leave his home and desperation forced his father to crime. The animation becomes the most interesting element of the film when it takes on more surreal metaphorical significance. This is breath-taking in the opening sequence with a pirate throwing a grappling hook into the sky and transforming into an eagle or in a later sequence falling to a watery grave, enveloped in a spiral of colour and darkness. These more surreal animations contrast so effectively as they embody how displaced the idealised view of pirating is from the community and the way naïve youths ideas of money and empowerment through a life of piracy, morphs and changes into a life of danger and dependency. While the animation is there for purely practical reasons it takes on a life of its own when coupled with music and sound design, adding an extra – diegetic dimension to the documentary unlike anything else at the festival. While Mohammed does make a choice at the end of the documentary its repercussions are left elliptic, which is perhaps fitting for a documentary that attempts to explain the complexities of Somali life through observation, art and allusion. Sublime
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆
Day 5
After missing the original opening night cave screening of Happiness, I was lucky enough to catch it at the Howard Street Screen, basking in the sun with an overpriced sandwich. Yet even seeing the film in a bustling city centre did nothing to detract from the beauty of director Thomas Balmes cultural snapshot of an isolated Himalayan mountain community through the antics and adventures of one 8 year old child. When his father is killed by a bear and his mother cannot afford school fees, young Peyangki is sent to a local monastery with only a single fellow student and the Lama for company. While circumstance sets Peyangki to be groomed to a life of solitude, tolerance and prayer, big changes are on the horizon: a decade after their ruler opened up Bhutan to television their village is finally getting electricity. When Peyangki’s uncles television falls of his horse he is forced to return to the city for another set inviting Peyangki along for the 3 day journey. In a village poised on the precipice of great change, and monks leaving for the city in droves for the lure of the city, will technology bring ‘happiness’ to the community?
As a purely observational documentary with a sweeping score, Happiness is a charming film especially as it is a world view seen through the eyes of a mischievous and inquisitive child. From being framed against the vast landscapes of the Himalayas, to exploring the cities bustling web of neon lights and hectic traffic, Peyangki in many ways resembles Antoine Doniel from Truffaut’s ‘400 Blows’, wielding a type of unintentionally rebellious honesty that makes his conversations and perceptions of the world fascinating. As the Lama early on in the film laments the lure of the city on the traditional duties and role of a monk, the theme of technologies transformative effect on the individual is something that is ambiguous, especially in relation to long term well – being. This is re – enforced by the final montage of the film as the occupants of the village engage with television for perhaps the first time in their lives, shot in close – up with their faces lit by the nascent buzz of American wrestling, as we are presented with a montage of faces staring back at us transfixed and connected by technology to another world. As similar short docs like Vultures of Tibet explored the corruption of Tibetan Sky Burial by Western photographers, it appears that the influence of electricity is a significant moment of change and one that cannot be reversed, with the final montage being contrastingly sinister to Peyangki’s wonder and discovery throughout the rest of the documentary.
Both intimate and expansive, with fascinatingly cinematic compositions (richly deserving of its Sundance award) and complex themes explored throughout, Happiness transforms us to a remote corner of the world posed on great change, exploring the generational and religious divides within the such isolated communities and the charmingly inquisitive spirit of childhood adventure. A surprisingly immersive experience and future festival hit.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

The Overnighters
As a documentary that spread through word of mouth reputation at Sundance to win its Documentary Special Jury award, The Overnighters was by far one of the best films of the Docfest programme this year, as a complex account of individual struggle, class and community. The film revolves around Jay Reinke the pastor of the Concordia Church in North Dakota which due to recent fracking operations has become a destination for thousands of migrant workers looking to make a better life for themselves. In offering floor space to many of these troubled drifters in his ‘Overnighters’ programme and building a positive community from people at a loose end, Reinke soon becomes an effigy for the communities paranoia and hate, accused of harbouring paedophiles and convicts and struggling to maintain a public persona despite his own hidden inner turmoil. In transforming the Church into a shelter, providing food and community to many struggling workers director Jesse Moss creates a picture of Reinke that is both deeply personal and representative of a changing America, with the Christian concept of ‘loving thy neighbour’ quickly becoming a double edged sword when self – interest and fear are involved.
Jesse Moss presents both and objective and personal viewpoints into understanding the people who find themselves under Reinke’s care – with some supporting families in other American states and others on nihilistic warpaths into oblivion. While Reinke is a good Christian man, it is heart-breaking to see his own contradictory personal and private live dissolve under the pressures of a congregation leaving in droves and a community desperately looking to push through legislation to illegalise ‘The Overnighters Programme’. While a final act twist dispels hidden complexities of Reinke’s character in a roadside diner confession, our amiable time with the pastor ends almost as abruptly as the drifters who pass through Americas small communities, leaving an excruciating lack of resolution about his future in North Dakota. As a film about class, morality and the emotional invasion of small American communities, ‘The Overnighters’ paints a picture of America that is bleak and unforgiving where benevolent utopia can never last, soured by the oil covered hands of industry money and fear. A truly incredible film and my favourite of the festival.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★★

The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came To Eden
A Galapagos giant tortoise looks sinisterly into the camera while narration informs us that for people who visit the island, the tortoise can determine if they have ‘good intentions’. While this is an excuse to keep revisiting filler shots of tortoises chewing to create ‘suspense’  it is the only cringe-worthy element of The Galapagos Affair – otherwise, a fascinating , hilarious and at deeply troubling exploration of an unsolved murder mystery that took place on the Galapagos Island of Florena. As a film using a mixture of archive footage shot by a visiting research vessel that interacted with communities on the island and actors such as Cate Blanchett narrating ‘characters’ from existing archival journals, the documentary is a compelling mixture of real  – life events and fictional storytelling.
The transition from Eden to ‘Hell’ was a slow burning one for the island communities as originally there was only WW1 survivor and philosopher Dr Friedrich and his mistress Dore Strauch leaving a Germany becoming consumed by Nazism. Yet, although travelling to paradise in many was a revolutionary denial of society, the characters could not escape their own personalities which became increasingly ugly as their paradise was ‘invaded’ when news of their lives reached the press. As more families start to inhabit the island and the arrival of egocentric French ‘baroness’ and her two lovers signalled plans to build a hotel, tensions reached a breaking point as idealism turned to jealously and a disappearance of two of the island dwellers left everyone pointing the fingers of blame. Through home movies, stills, colourful writings and interviews with the key players descendants, directors Dayna Goldfine and Daniel Geller weave an absorbing thriller revolving around the exacerbating tensions on the island during a 1934 drought, that led towards the eventual tragedy which still remains unsolved.
As a classic ‘who – dunnit?’ flitting effortless between past and present, The Galapagos Affair is an amazing example of archive footage used in an engaging way, taking advantage of the island dwellers own compulsion to construct their image to Europe via the medium of film while playfully letting you interpret your own theories regarding who pulled the trigger…
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★☆☆

Day 6
 Kids On The Breadline
It isn’t Sheffield Docfest without a few British social issue films and the year one of those wasKids on the Breadline, A True Vision production directed by Bafta winning filmmaker Jezza Neumann tackling the issue of food poverty within the UK. With Over one and a half million people in the UK having to turn to food banks last year alone, Neumann approaches the issue through the lives of Cara (9), Rosie (8) and Niomi (14) taking us into their lives in London, Hull and rural Suffolk to explain in their own words what poverty really means. From balancing the travel expenses of Leukaemia treatment with buying food, to prostitution and the lure of malevolent loan shark companies, the children and their parents in their eloquent words paint a picture of modern poverty in Britain that leaves you both sorrowful and angry. As a huge political issue, the film also perhaps dispels the middle class notions of food banks being another abused state hand – out and while perhaps the film is manipulative in itself to use children to confront parents with the issue of food poverty, the film also has hope and treats the subject matter with a sensitive and understanding balance. Commissioned for Channel 4 the film will hopefully provoke more discussion and debate on the issue and de-criminalize food banks as an embarrassing, undignified form of social aid.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

Judgement in Hungary
Having done the rounds of many documentary film festivals around the world Judgement in Hungary is less of a stylistic experience and more of record of a landmark case in Magyar law, as four neo Nazi’s stand trial for a series of murders against a Roma family. The documentaries basic style, filmed at a trial lasting over 3 years, alternates between several cameras where the accused sit intimidatingly close to those testifying against them, both at the mercy Judge Laszlo Miszori’s aggressive style and with director Eszter Hajdu also refusing to shy away from the courts evidence including pictures of child mutilation.
Yet as the films frustratingly long run – time reflects the slow judicial process of the ‘show trial’, perhaps the most disturbing sentiments come from testimonies of authorities, where it is revealed members of the court may sympathize with the racist sentiments on trial, with the phrase ‘you people’ occasionally flaunted by senior court members in relation to ‘The Roma’. Despite its bland presentation the conflict between Neo – Nazi gangs and the Roma is something I witnessed at Edinburgh Film Festival in 2013 with drama My Dog Killer and presenting the issue through the realities of the court process helped to unearth the disgusting hate crime and conflict between gangs and ethnic groups and the deeper issues underlying Hungarian society. A difficult but incredibly interesting documentary experience.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★☆☆☆☆

We Are Many
One of the most exciting things about film festivals is the way certain films can connect with an audience, creating a buzz that spills out from the screening room into the general language of the festival community. One such film that was spoken about in terms of standing ovations and superlative language was We Are Many, proclaimed as one of the ‘hits’ of the festival and given a third screening. As a film eight years in the making, it’s easy to see why Amir Amirani’s account of the global – protest movement was so successful as a film that explores the journey to and beyond the biggest anti – the march against the war of Iraq in February 2013. As two million people walked the streets of London saying ‘No To War’ the protest had a snowball effect spreading across almost every continent (including Antarctica).
Summoning an eclectic cast of characters, from Damon Albarn and Danny Glover to Noam Chomsky and Tony Benn – the campaigners and activists involved recall the wave of anger about the Wests reaction to September the 11th as political eyes became fixed on Iraq and a ‘shock and awe’ campaign was enacted despite the huge global protest movement. What Amir makes clear however is that the story didn’t end there, from following the after – protest movement to revolutions in the Arab world to the wave of public dissatisfaction when congress and parliament was outvoted in from intervening in the Libyan war – arguing that this may not have been possible without Bush and Blair’s response to the protest movement. While the value of protest is often explored in panoramic terms perhaps the most moving aspects of the documentary are the personal stories of those effected from American soldiers throwing away their medals in disgust to British foreign secretary Robin Cookes’ dignified speech in Parliament, choosing conscience over self-interest (which in itself received audience applause).While some critics identify the films self – aggrandizing tone to be essentially a contradiction of the basic failure of the protests primary aims of stopping the war, the film does make a strong case for the value of protest, with archive footage, testimony and Amirani’s fluid editing presenting a movement that was a brute reflection the potential of ‘people power’ in pursuing political aims.
While the film is inspirational it balances this sense of achievement with a scathing look at the politicians who escaped from the legal war unscathed, from a comedic Bush speech about not being able to find WMDs intercut with horrifying war imagery, to Tony Blair’s secret negotiations with parliamentary members to sway parliament in the direction of Bush interests. While on one side We Are Many is a film about one of the largest protest movements in history, it also opens up a stale can of worms with regards to the politicians who profited from the war and still have not been held accountable. Moving, vastly ambitious and at times shocking, We Are Many is political documentary that has as much hearts as facts, thankfully living up to its festival hype and hopefully set for national and general screenings later this year.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime
As this years Special Jury winner and a fascinating account of institutional journalism actively righting legal wrongs, Attacking the Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime focuses upon Sunday Times editor Harold Evan’s investigative long term campaigns in a stylish film that is both historical and contemporary, flourishing with wit, emotion and power. While Harold Evan’s time as a journalist had him involved in campaigns with social purpose from exposing Soviet spies and campaigning against the death penalty, his most hard wrought case was for victims of Thalidomide, a drug developed by the Nazis in WW2 to counter the effects of nerve gas, prescribed by British doctors as an antidote for morning sickness – subsequently leading to thousands of children being born with serious defects.
In a campaign lasting over ten years Harold Evan’s obstacles were numerous, from minister for Health Enoch Powell failing open enquiries at the time it was being prescribed, dodging legal libel and public disgust towards Thalidomide children and keeping the public pressure on the company Distillers and their evasive tactics of providing adequate compensation. Directors Jacqui and David Morris skilfully combine archival footage and slow revealing of the ‘Nazi war crime’ element of the story with interviews with ‘thalidomiders’, stylishly intercut with Harold Evans delivering a speech on his career and the value of journalism in the halls and vacant libraries of Durham University. In the same manner in which 50 Year Argument uses setting to evoke a nostalgia for an the triumphs of ‘old journalism’, Attacking the Devil makes a strong case for the morality of journalistic practice. From being small voices of sanity pitted against corrupt and powerful organisations, Harold Evans stresses the importance of institutional journalism as a mouth piece for campaigns seeking justice, due to the power papers can have in swaying public opinion away from the types of corporate coercion and court deals that indeed made the journey for thalidomide justice just a long and difficult one.
As a documentary was mentioned in the same breath as Night Will Fall at the Sheffield Docfest awards, the film is undoubtedly an account of the horror the Nazis brought into the world but more importantly the ‘David and Goliath’ story of small groups of campaigners fighting against government apathy and corporate corruption receiving justice. As an inspiring slice of British journalistic history and a nuanced mixture of style and form, traversing decades and exploring big themes that resonate today it is understandable why Attacking The Devil won the festivals most prestigious prize and hopefully should serve as a moral textbook for the immoral tabloid editors  castigated in earlier festival film film Rogue Reporter.
Film Rating: ★★★★★★★★★☆

Last Man On The Moon
As another ‘hits of the festival’ screening, director Mark Craig introduced his documentary as the ‘story of an old space cowboy’ and as the film opens to old gentleman watching rodeo from the stalls , we are transported via flashback to a vivid montage of astronaut training in a distant nostalgic blur. The enigmatic man later walking around the now derelict NASA launch sites and home of the 1960s Apollo missions that put man on the moon is Eugene Cernan, an astronaut who paved the uneven, often perilous path to lunar exploration. Originally selected as a test navy pilot along with 14 other individuals, Cernan was placed in an incredibly competitive environment which saw them become the closest, friends and adversaries in a context where each launch was fraught with danger and potential accidents. As one of the only astronauts who was sent twice to the moon both before Neil Amstrong (Apollo 10) and for NASA final lunar mission (Apollo 17), Cernan is an authority on which to explore the burgeoning space technology of the 1960s, in a deeply moving personal account of the things Cernan loved, lost and experienced during his 8 years as an astronaut.
The immediate appeal of Last Man on The Moon is its beautifully cinematic sensibilities from Cernan’s time as a reckless young pilot, to his time on the post – career convention circuit juxtaposing hotel lifts and motel rooms with the solitude of space. When it comes to Mark Craig’s representation of space the results are truly awe inspiring and in the way that feature film Gravityfailed to provide characterisation, the film builds up the character of Cernan’s through his own literary narration, archive and interviews to make the philosophical and emotionally experience of space and indeed the moon, a powerfully significant experience. As an epic biography set against the surreal moonscapes and rare insights of surviving former astronauts Last Man on The Moon is a beautifully introspective experience, exploring memory, mortality and individuality in the face of being involved in one of the most pivotal moments in human history – now sadly resigned to museum displays across central America. You will it hard to adjust to reality after this one.