2016

Sheffield Doc/Fest Day Three: Grey Skies, Surprise Guests and Uncle Howard

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Sunday has arrived, and with it, Saturday’s rain has stopped. Yet, the possibility of more wetness looms heavy in the air. As the day wears on and the weather holds, festival delegates and Sheffield citizens alike pack the deck chairs set up in front of massive outdoor LED screens curious of the constant stream of available documentary programming. These outdoor theaters are spaces to relax, if only for a minute, and help attendees decompress from watching documentaries in the dark all day. First-timers have had days to memorize quickest routes between venues, cafes with the fastest (and free) WiFi and their preferred eateries. The streets that were once packed with visitors have decongested, becoming streamlined byways for the tightly-scheduled commutes of Sheffield’s newest navigational experts.

Where to Invade Next

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As one of the fathers of the modern activist documentaries, Michael Moore must find the Sheffield Doc Fest too engaging to leave, because he showed up unannounced at the 14:45 screening of his Where to Invade Next, offering as much advice and guidance as would fit in the limited time between screenings. Having claimed at the end of Capitalism: A Love Story that he would no longer be making films about America, Moore (ever the rebel) has skirted around his own ultimatum by making a film about things that America doesn’t do. Faking an invasion of Europe (and Tunisia), the documentarian travels from country to country “picking the flowers” from their public policy and asking the question, “If [country] can do it, why can’t we?” By cherrypicking the best aspects of countries, Moore is able to unleash upon his audience some truly head-scratching moments of dumbfounded incredulity. From governments that have put commonsense measures into place or merely use their taxes to help fund public welfare (as Moore points out, “welfare” is a dirty word in America), the simplicity of it all is compelling, if not just a far-off glimpse into a bright and shiny future. Of course, Where to Invade Next is packed with the director’s signature deadpan humor, tossed in with a bit of lost-in-translation guffawing, but the film manages to find an emotional core. Powerful feminist sentiments develop early in the documentary and snowball into a plea of equality for more than the sake of women, but for the sake of humanity itself. Although Moore does his best to tear down the wall of ignorance between Americans and our bloody history of racism, these points are likely to be lost among the steadfastly ignorant when made from the blindingly-white “utopias” of Norway and Sweden. Activism is, indeed, Moore’s legacy, and Where to Invade Next pays homage to his past while taking it into a sharp and funny future.

Uncle Howard

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Legacy can be a tricky topic for any perspective documentarian to cover, but when that legacy belongs to a close family member, and one who was himself a documentarian, it feels almost necessary. Howard Brookner was a film student when he managed to ingratiate himself with legendary beat poet William Burroughs and completed his first aptly named feature, Burroughs. Howard would go on to make only two more films before AIDS claimed his life, along with a great deal more of America’s population. As a colleague and collaborator to mammoth independent film figures like Jim Jarmusch, John Waters, Hisami Kuroiwa, Tom DiCillo and more, to Aaron Brookner, he was just a really cool uncle.

Discovering that Howard had left a massive amount of footage from Burroughs behind in a New York apartment nicknamed “The Bunker,” Aaron’s quest to find the lost footage grew and transformed until it was more memoir than a thrilling hunt for archival film. Although it takes place early on in Uncle Howard, the discovery of the impossibly comprehensive store of celluloid, sound reels and video was what transformed Aaron’s project into its final form. Discussing the film’s evolution during the post-film Q&A, Aaron (who looks a great deal like his uncle) approached his film with the same open mindedness with which Howard approached his films. Ruminating on process rather than the final product, Aaron’s film finds a voice within the tear-moistened eyes of Howard’s friends. Seeing not only the lasting impact the young director had on his peers (each seems to have a cornucopia of journals, diaries, pictures and hand-written notes), alongside the physical manifestations of his meticulous filming, Aaron is able to understand his uncle as more than an unruly authority figure, but as a man every bit as confused and delighted by life as he.

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.

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