2016 Film Essays

Sheffield Doc/Fest Day Two: Politics and ‘Pickle’


Saturdays in Sheffield move at a slow and groggy pace. Delegates meander through the festival grounds (the University of Sheffield Campus and Center City), still hazy from the welcome parties the night before. Queues for Sunday’s tickets seem to appear with the sun, and many films, much to the chagrin of those waiting in said queue, have generated enough buzz to warrant selling out before noon.

The first stop of Day Two is the Short Doc Programme – Animal Nation. Four shorts grouped together for, you guessed it, their focus on animals, comprise the entirety of the 90-minute program, and each selection offers a totally different set of unique aesthetic and emotional qualities. The standout of the short animal documentaries is the delightful Pickle. Director Amy Nicholson finds inspiration in the daily lives of her father and his wife’s menagerie of strange and unusually handicapped pets. Named for a fish that couldn’t swim, Pickle playfully recreates the lives of Tom and Debbie Nicholson’s deceased “pets” — their obsession with helping the helpless a constant delight. Interviewed against a serene and almost celestial white background, the simple act of recounting stories of found and rescued animals (alongside their strange mortal exits) delivers a powerfully funny experience that is over far too soon. Nicholson makes light of death in a refreshing way that makes it seem less like the inevitable end of everything good and gentle, and more like the comical conclusion to an already bizarre journey. As viewers “meet” more and more of the long-gone critters, the stories piggyback on top of one another, creating a riotous series of top-that fatalities and a sense that life is far too short to take very seriously.

Command and Control


The world’s most powerful source of destructive energy is in the hands of children. Tired, overworked children. At least, this is the case that Command and Control makes for America’s nuclear program and the disasters that have befallen nuclear weapons since their inception in 1945. Adapted from Eric Schlosser’s book of the same name, Robert Kenner’s film takes its audience inside the 1980 explosion of a Titan-II nuclear missile still housed in its silo in rural Arkansas. An unfortunate series of events lead to massive amounts of the ICBM’s fuel leaking out into the underground facility, prompting evacuation, panic and the delayed (and frustrating) head-scratching of bureaucracy. Using an intuitive and nearly seamless mix of stock footage, newsreels, Air Force training films, recreations and CGI, Kenner and his team create a thriller out of thin air. Despite knowing the outcome (a nuclear bomb did not explode in Arkansas, because Arkansas still exists), a heavy shadow of doubt looms over the film. Oversight, lengthy chains of command and outright stupidity forces apprehensive laughter from the audience, as the consequences of a worst-case scenario are far too grave to comprehend. Interviews with the crew responsible for the upkeep and control of these (thankfully) long since abandoned weapons provide a chilling look into the US’s nuclear program and the mental states of those directly in control of these weapons.


Nothing mixes quite like politics and a funny name. The run up to elections is like watching a marketing competition for surnames, with familiarity and a vague associative positivity being the key ingredients to success. Anthony Weiner has a name that is childishly memorable, with a public image that is equally hard to forget. As a former aide to the ex-congressman, Josh Kriegman was given strangely unfiltered access to the beating heart of a New York City mayoral campaign, and has cobbled countless hours of idle and active recordings into Weiner: a documentary that shares its name with block-lettered election signs, newspaper headlines and crawling television tickers.

Although Weiner technically provides an answer the pivotal question as to why he allows Kriegman such close access, it is hard to take a politician at his word, and this mystery lends an amusing allure to the project. After being disgraced by a scandal, Weiner resigned his congressional post, and was left to pick up the pieces of his shattered political career, along with those of his crumbling marriage. Which, as it turns out, can be achieved by running for Mayor of New York City. Weiner’s reintroduction to the public and political sphere makes for some incredibly enthralling viewing and gives the audience a seemingly undoctored peek into the election process. Filming day and night for four months, Kriegman’s camera catches some tense moments of crisis, marital strife and glimpses into the mind of a hyper-charismatic leader.

The counterpoint to Weiner’s ability to trash talk opponents and become the loudest voice in any room is his contemplative and brilliant wife Huma Abedin. Considered one of Hillary Clinton’s right hand people, Abedin shows an undeniable penchant for calculated cleverness whenever she is turned loose on perspective donors, interviewers and Weiner’s election staff. Fraying only when forced to relive the horrors of her husband’s infidelity, Abedin’s poise and intelligence balance Weiner’s brash outbursts and flamboyance. Already available on VOD in the United States, Weiner is an unmissable documentary for anyone even tangentially interested in the political process.

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.