A buzz of activity has taken over the vibrant and slowly gentrifying English town of Sheffield. Bright orange flags adorn lampposts and equally neon bunting covers every horizontal surface worth decorating — is once again time to celebrate the all mighty documentary. Between June 10th and the 15th, Sheffield’s population will swell by as much as 30,000 as film lovers, makers and buyers mingle and spread their love of this hallowed cinematic medium. The 2016 iteration of the Sheffield Doc Fest boasts a film lineup consisting of 29 world, 20 European and 14 international premiers, alongside an international contingent of buyers and programmers hunting for the best of the best. People have come from all over the globe to discuss and praise their chosen format, and the atmosphere is one of friendly support and camaraderie. Over the next five days, films on every subject imaginable, and many that are too far fetched to be fictional, will screen (accompanied by Q&A sessions), industry leaders will hold talks about the current market landscape and knowledge will be shared, spread and exchanged.
Through the flurry of activity that accompanies arrival at any festival, day one began with a mix of joyousness and sobriety. The Chantal Akerman memorial retrospective at this year’s fest includes three of the late director’s films along with a documentary she participated in shortly before her untimely death last year. I Don’t Belong Anywhere: The Cinema of Chantal Akerman is Marianne Lambert’s ode to the iconic director and feels as if it discovered a purpose somewhere between filming and the editing room, mirroring Akerman’s supposed tendencies when making her own projects. I Don’t Belong Anywhere drifts between an insightful profile of a great living director and a haunting tribute of a woman who left us all too soon. Clips taken from Akerman’s storied oeuvre commingle with interviews and become oddly bookended with recreations of Lambert’s own devising. Glimpses into Akerman’s style and cinematic raison d’êtres reveal little about the messages behind her films, but they do an excellent job at promoting a great deal of her under-seen works.
The Akerman retrospective continued with a screening of her 1983 free-form documentary One Day Pina Asked…, which follows choreographer Pina Bausch and her dance troupe, The Tanztheater Wuppertal, on a European tour. Perched from a vantage point amongst the audience or off to the side, Akerman’s camera tries to capture the flutter of emotion in each of the dancers’ movements as they glide, crash and whirl across the stage. Something truly special develops when a director known for pregnant pauses and abstract imagery turns her focus to something as whimsically bizarre and joyously perplexing as Bausch’s choreography. Somehow finding a static frame that captures the dynamism of the interpretive dance, Akerman’s glare feels unnoticed, even when the dancers are being interviewed one on one. Perhaps used to an emotional nakedness, these players seem immune to the gaze and interact as freely (it seems) as if the camera were not present.
Chantal Akerman’s take on the documentary is not one of wordy explanations, interviews or stock footage, it is a world of curious exploration and observation. Telling her audience everything they need to know by watchfulness alone, she conveys a sense of knowledge almost intuitively — her interest is our interest. Juxtaposing a documentary about Akerman with a documentary by Akerman was instrumental in the formation of expectations and stylistic assumptions. It is impossible not to hear her cigarette-hardened voice of 2015 speaking about the conventions she holds most dear when watching images she captured more than 20 years prior. About as close to a posthumous Q&A as one could possibly get, the I Don’t Belong Anywhere/One Day Pina Asked… double bill provides answers before questions ever arise, and yet, something remains unsaid. But that being the case, any documentary that claims to have all the answers rarely does and would hardly be worth watching.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.