Creative Nonfiction

Nick Pinkerton on the 2018 Sheffield Doc/Fest

Leigh Ledare, The Task, 2017, color, sound, 118 minutes.

ONCE THE BLAZING FURNACE OF THE NORTH OF ENGLAND, Sheffield’s steel mills had for the most part gone cold by the 1980s. It was around this moment of postindustrial bottoming out that the city was reinvented, via much public money, as a haven for the arts, one outgrowth of this being the founding in 1994 of the nonfiction Sheffield Doc/Fest. During the course of the quarter-century since, the reputation of Doc/Fest—the largest festival of its kind in England and one of the largest in the world—has waxed and waned, as festival reputations tend to do, though this year was held up for particular scrutiny, marking the arrival of the new director of film programming, Luke Moody, formerly of the BRITDOC Foundation.

This was my first trip to Sheffield, and so I cannot positively say if the estimable Mr. Moody’s arrival has changed the culture of the festival or if the culture of the festival needed changing in the first place, but I can report that some remarkable movies passed through South Yorkshire over the six days. Some, while new to UK audiences, had been traveling awhile on the festival circuit: RaMell Ross’s Hale County This Morning, This Evening garnered so much advance praise since its Sundance premiere that one couldn’t help but be a little wary—a mistrust which the movie dispels within minutes with its serene, utterly sui generis approach. The material that makes up the film was accumulated during the period that Ross, a onetime pro-basketball hopeful turned photographer, was coaching and teaching in largely African American Greensboro, Alabama.

Two young men, incoming Selma University student Daniel and expectant young father Quincy, emerge as something like the film’s principal characters, while Ross himself plays a vital offscreen role, an accepted oddity around town as a northerner and as a black man with a movie camera. Ross has an eye for off-kilter compositions that create recurring experiences of disorientation and discovery, seemingly having absorbed and internalized William Eggleston’s dictum “I am at war with the obvious.” But what he’s made is a distinctly cinematic endeavor, not a portfolio that happens to be made with moving pictures. Hale County comes with some prestigious cosigners—the ubiquitous Laura Poitras has a producer credit and Apichatpong Weerasethakul is listed as “creative adviser”—but the movie belongs entirely, undeniably to Ross. It’s a beautiful film, yes, but also a gutty, startlingly confident one, full of tonal shifts and seemingly counterintuitive decisions—downright goofy intertitles, a sudden interpolation of racially charged archival footage—on the way to a closing image of everyday fortitude: endless drills on the basketball court. The movie has a deceptively offhand manner, but nothing in it is left to chance—those drills, for example, echo an earlier extended sequence of one of Quincy’s toddlers running amok; intricate internal image-rhymes abound. Ross, to venture a not entirely inappropriate sports metaphor, is like a player continually taking his shots off-balance and from the most disadvantageous angles, and he sinks every one of them.

If only in nonfiction filmmaking, 2018 has thus far been a good—even great—year for the Yanks. Among the other auspicious works by US filmmakers at Sheffield was América, a movie which takes place entirely in Mexico. The title comes from the name of the ninety-three-year-old grandmother at the center of a family’s drama. Opening in the tourist town of Puerto Vallarta, the movie focuses on the figure of Diego, a unicyclist, stilt-walker, and all-purpose urban attention-getter. This overture-like opening ends with Diego returning to his hometown of Colima to assist in caring for América, shunted on to her grandchildren—Diego, Rodrigo, and Bruno, who arrives some ways along in the movie—after their father is jailed for elder abuse. With deceptive ease, codirectors Chase Whiteside and Erick Stoll pass the narrative baton between the brothers, young men sometimes awkwardly and often movingly trying to adapt to the role of caretakers for América, who is girlishly giddy one moment and seemingly senile the next. Shooting a subject who is perhaps only somewhat cognizant of her participation in a film, Whiteside and Stoll tread an extraordinarily thin line between intimacy and discretion, and in this as in all aspects, their film is guided and distinguished by an alert mindfulness, an emotional intelligence determining where the camera needs to be and has the right to be. The evident trust between filmmakers and subjects results in shots that any documentarian would kill for—such as the brothers, all trained as circus performers, forming a human tower in ascending order of age. But they save the best for last, one of the most devastating codas in recent memory.

Erick Stoll and Chase Whiteside, América, color, sound, 76 minutes.

Uniting the best of the American features was an unusual level of commitment: Hale County is the end product of five years of shooting; América spent three years in gestation; and Bing Liu’s skate park autobiography piece Minding the Gap, another Sundance standout making its UK premiere, mines a dozen years of footage shot in the filmmaker’s hometown of Rockford, Illinois—a depressing place to live, from the looks of things, but a great place to carve up the often empty streets and sidewalks. Its focal characters, united by a passion for skating and by personal acquaintance with domestic violence, are Liu, largely off-camera, and two of his friends since childhood, Keire, a teenager still coping with the death of his abusive father, and Zack, a twentysomething party boy preparing—or rather not preparing—to become a young father. Liu’s film, available on Hulu as of mid-August, captures his friends in both fluidly shot skate-video-style action and in earthbound everyday life, landing daredevil tricks with ease while struggling mightily to clear mental hurdles. Liu handles the elliptical passing of time smartly, the braiding of his storylines less so, but if ever there was an instance of the triumph of feeling over technique, this is it.

Aside from the upstart Americans, several veteran filmmakers were in fine fettle at Sheffield. The Romanian Corneliu Porumboiu, whose last documentary work was 2014’s soccer-themed The Second Game, returns to nonfiction with Infinite Football, a character study of the filmmaker’s friend Laurențiu Ginghină, a bureaucratic functionary who harbors dreams of perfecting a new set of football rules that will allow for more unimpeded movement of the ball. He has made a very glumly funny film about utopian thinking and its seeming inability to leave well enough alone. Like Whiteside and Stoll, Porumboiu has the benefit of a great subject, while the prolific Ukranian Sergei Loznitsa, in Victory Day, concerns himself with individual subjects not at all. As in his last nonfiction feature, Austerlitz (2016)––a procession of detached, fixed-camera compositions taken among packs of tourists milling about the grounds of the Buchenwald concentration camp––Loznitsa makes the crowd his star.

RaMell Ross, Hale County This Morning, This Evening, 2018, color, sound, 76 minutes.

The crowds in question are gathering to celebrate May 9, the holiday marking the Red Army’s costly triumph in the Battle of Berlin. You might take the scene to be in Russia, for the vast majority of the people we see here hail from points somewhere in the former USSR, but it is in fact in the southeast of Berlin, in Treptower Park, home to a Soviet war memorial erected in 1949, a monumental monstrosity of Stalin-era pomp whose friezes of thick-necked war martyrs are intercut with widescreen groupings of bike gangs, Putin superfans, folk dancers, merry drunks, sullen teenagers, and so forth. A public speaker is seen haranguing passersby on the subject of the continued presence of the Third Reich in the contemporary world; his warning is quite close to what Loznitsa is pursuing here and in Austerlitz, movies that confront twenty-first-century Europe with twentieth-century tragedies to which living links are rapidly disappearing, finding history at once right at hand and separated by an impossible distance.

That our millennium doesn’t lack for catastrophes of its own is a point made abundantly clear in Canadian found-footage sorcerer and cameraless filmmaker Dominic Gagnon’s Going South, a fierce, glittering collection of apocalyptic auguries culled from online deep diving and the second part of a cardinal point tetralogy begun with Of the North (2016). Like Victory Day, Gagnon’s film lacks a single protagonist, though certain aspirant YouTube stars appear throughout—a teenage trans girl discussing her travails for her followers, an alcoholic seen cycling between relapse and recovery, a gentleman explaining the ins and outs of Flat Earth theory, a gold grills expert and proud Trump voter, an expat expert on the Thai sex trade—usually all addressing the camera directly. The common strain between these disparate testimonials is a fervent belief in self-realization and reinvention, but this is troubled through close proximity to a fleet of ill-boding images: a palm tree in flames, a pair of parasailers swept up in gale-force winds, ice caps crumbling into the sea.

As a pungent distillation of the experience of internet-mediated virtual reality circa 2018, Going South was matched only by Leigh Ledare’s The Task, a maddeningly and hysterical—in both senses of the word—work that began as an installation at the Art Institute of Chicago and was then included in the documentary festival True/False in Columbia, Missouri, earlier this year, and then found its second act as a feature film. With the action confined to a single room, with three days of palaver boiled down to about two hours of screen time, The Task depicts a congregation of men and women from all walks of life intensely engaged in the Tavistock Method of roundtable group discussion. In theory, the debate and discourse are meant to reveal something to those collected about group dynamics; in practice, they become a forum for scattershot callouts, the airing of grievances, white-knight peacocking, and performative contrition, with individual egos again and again sidetracking the assembly from their common goal, the exact nature of which no one can seem to agree on, along with anything else. The result is as near to a flesh-and-blood enaction of the experience of a comments section or social-media cacophony as you might find in cinema—a register of horror particular to the digital age, on view in this old steel city.

The 2018 Sheffield Doc/Fest took place from June 7 to 12, 2018.