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The Lollapalooza of Documentaries

Sheffield, UK’s DocFest is back! And on a mission to connect filmmakers and artists alike
Alternate Realities Exhibition. Credit: Hannah Gauntlett for Together Films

Sheffield’s International Documentary Festival (DocFest), which happens in June every year, this year, hosted 135 films from 55 countries. Many UK and world premieres, industry panels, workshops, talks, parties, virtual reality installations, dance events and drinks, all over the place, (it’s hard to keep up) for six days and started June 23rd. If you’re even moderately interested in making a documentary or a short; this is the place to be. It’s a gathering of smart creative minds wanting to make a difference in the world through global visual storytelling, as well as offering an unbelievable smorgasbord for documentary lovers. 

There were 95 features, 40 shorts, 29 works in Alternate Realities, and a few competitions. And lots of parties. Oh, I said that already.


Curzon exterior: A three-screen boutique cinema in a converted 19th century bank. Credit: Jedd Warren


From one Victorian building to another, and nine different screening locations around the city center, there are Heritage Sites, cobbled streets, pigeons, and a genius homeless saxophonist on the corner – setting the scene. Sheffield is known for its musicians, from Joe Cocker to Def Leppard to Human League, ABC, Arctic Monkeys and Pulp to name a diverse few. 

I hope someone signs this guy. He’s great on the sax!

Sheffield provided all the steel for New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, and is England’s fourth largest city, where 60,000 International students roam, Michael Palin was born, and Tina Turner played her final gig.

It was the restart of the physical festival again, as DocFest suffered, like many others, by having to go online for two years due to COVID — although they still had thousands of attendees. Now in its 29th year, it’s one of the most vital documentary film festivals in the world.


First Look: ‘Moonage Daydream.’ Credit: Brett Morgen


Opening night at Sheffield City Hall saw the UK premiere of Moonage Dream, a film on David Bowie’s life directed by Brett Morgen. It was the first public showing since the Cannes Film Festival, and extra special because it was fifty years almost to the day that Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust, took to the same stage in 1972.

The film is a kaleidoscopic journey of unseen Bowie footage pieced together after being released by the Bowie Estate in 2017 –- five million pieces of unseen material, including rare and never-before seen drawings, recordings, films and journals, that Morgen spent three years going through. It’s not for the faint hearted. A mirage of loud bassy music, early shows, interjected by old interviews, flashing lights, and Bowie’s artwork that he hesitated to show. His art is brilliant, as you can imagine. He worked mainly in acrylics. 

The film however seemed a marathon to sit through at 2 hrs 14 minutes, no matter how much I idolize Bowie, I couldn’t take it and left before the end. Could be my undiagnosed ADHD. You can check for yourself –- Moonage Dream will be in cinemas from September.

Another important film to look out for, The Territory about Bolsinaro’s massive land grabbing tactics in Brazil, and the Indigenous tribal members who are trying to save the forest, two of whom were at the screening. They believe that the Amazon Forest is the lungs of the planet, and that they are the protectors of the forest, for us, the rest of the planet, meanwhile they are being indiscriminately killed, as the deforestation goes on at an alarming rate. Interestingly, with the film being held up due to COVID, the filmmakers (including Darren Aronofsky) decided to give the cameras to the tribe to do their own filming, which they did for three years. This incorporates fascinating scenes of everyday life of the Uru-eu-wau-wau people, and the beauty of the forest, that we must all try and save.

The DocFest film spectrum covers memories, journeys, cultures, the harshness and injustice of the US prison system, war and refugee crises, and decades of art and culture, from In the Court of King Crimson, about Robert Fripp and members of the famous prog-rock band, to THE AGE OF RAGE – The Australian Punk Revolution, to stories of isolation, courage and survival, including Marwan — Tomorrow’s Freedom, about the much loved Palestinian political leader, Marwan Barghouti who is imprisoned in an Israeli jail. Too charismatic for Israel, therefore a threat, they threw him in jail for five life sentences. 

Sounds all too familiar in this world.