Review: Saturday @ Sheffield’s DocFest



HBO continues its record of producing fine penal docs – The University of Sing-Sing (2011), Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall (2013) – with Solitary; an exploration of life in the ‘supermax’ Red Onion State Penitentiary in Virginia. Red Onion keeps its inmates in a perpetual state of ‘seg’ for a range of infractions committed in the general prison population; everything from escape attempts to assaults on guards. Writer/Director Kristi Jacobson was given an unprecedented amount of access into the solitary confinement regime at Red Onion; she details the daily mechanics of maintaining this segregated population, while also tracking back down the road with the prisoners to get an insight into what brought them to Red Onion. There is a methodical degree of detail and distance to Solitary that stands in contrast to the more emotive pitch of Herzog’s Into the Abyss (2011) and Louis Theroux’s various excursions into maximum security facilities; the authorial voice is minimized in favour of an investigatory detachment. But Solitary is also a visually striking piece: with stunning photography, lingering tracks and subtle compositions which contrast the ugliness it captures. The camera serves to articulate much of what is left unsaid. The interview segments have the feel of the inmates reaching out and leaving their mark, with a degree of playing up to the camera; but the bravado makes the stories all the more plaintive. Solitary shows in harrowing detail the death of possibility that attends the loss of freedom.

Grand Jury Prize winner Cameraperson details the career of renowned documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, using footage from films on which she has worked to create a stunning visual memoir. Johnson – whose credits include Derrida (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), The Oath (2011) and Citizenfour (2014) – has travelled the globe over the course of her twenty-five-year career, and the footage encompasses the pain, drama and conflict of human life: from a boxing contest in Brooklyn to a maternity ward in Nigeria; to the sites of atrocities in Bosnia, Rwanda and Liberia; to Guantanamo Bay and Tahrir Square. What shines through in Cameraperson is the bravery and empathy with which Johnson approaches her work; the energy and compassion with which she pursues the truth of every scenario. It is striking that these vignettes retain their power despite being removed from their original context, and the totality of these images takes on its own kind of harmony. Though we rarely see Johnson, we feel that by the end we know her through the breadth and specificity of her lens: we meet her family, we hear her cry, we share in her fear, frustration and anxiety. Cameraperson is an ode to craft, passion and dignity that is both intensely personal and universal in its scope; offering a fascinating insight into the combination of process and instinct that constitutes the act of creation, and the degree to which filmmaking captures something the naked eye can’t: a form of mediated truth with its own profundity.

Command and Control tells the fascinating and terrifying story of how a nuclear warhead came close to detonating at the Titan II missile complex in Damascus, Arkansas, in 1980. Based on the book by Eric Schlosser – Fast Food Nation (2001), Reefer Madness (2003) – and directed by Robert Kenner – Food, Inc. (2008), Merchants of Doubt (2014) – Command and Control plays like a high-stakes thriller, seamlessly blending dramatic recreations, archival footage and witness testimony to create a tense, oppressive atmosphere – it is a testament to its effectiveness that the tension never abates despite knowing the outcome. Kenner skilfully utilises a large cast of characters without losing sight of the main story trajectory; the testimonies of these men are powerful, the toll of what they went through etched on their faces. Command and Control offers a brief history of Cold War paranoia and profligacy in which ‘money was free’ and the US amassed an ever greater nuclear arsenal; but there is also a great deal of gallows humour to enjoy, particularly in the contrast between the global significance of Titan II and the Arkansas backwoods that surrounds the base. Command and Control offers a startling insight into what Schlosser describes as ‘immense power slipping out of control’, and the political machinations behind that power.

The undisputed highlight of the festival was Weiner, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s hilarious, humane and frequently excruciating account of New York congressman Anthony Weiner. For those who don’t know, Weiner was a rising star of the Democratic Party; a firebrand and showman whose blistering congressional orations earned him celebrity status; married to one of Hillary Clinton’s most trusted aides, Huma Abedin. Then a photo was posted on Weiner’s Twitter feed in which Weiner’s, er, weiner was prominently featured. Weiner resigned in disgrace and it looked like another promising progressive career had been undone by sexual peccadilloes – an all too familiar narrative. Weiner became a national punch line, but he refused to stay down, so to speak, and two years later mounted a bid to win the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York. Kriegman and Steinberg were given full access to the campaign, and what they captured beggars belief. There is a point towards the end of Weiner when Kriegman asks Weiner: ‘Why did you let me film this?’ One has to question the rationale behind its existence, but Weiner is an absurdist classic, playing like a cross between Pennebaker’s The War Room (1993) and The Thick of It. As bathos teeters into pathos, Weiner is raked over the coals of public opprobrium, roasted in New York’s merciless tabloids and lampooned on late-night TV, and decides to go full-on Bulworth. But for all its comic potency, Weiner has a sad coda. We come to see what Weiner sacrificed and what the electorate lost: Weiner is a powerful speaker with genuine progressive ideals; and for all his personal failings, he emerges from the film as witty and engaging, if somewhat oddball. However, one feels a great deal of sympathy for the long-suffering Huma, whose facial expressions throughout this ordeal are priceless; there are moments between her and Weiner that are almost physically uncomfortable to watch. Kriegman and Steinberg stumbled into a perfect storm of awkward; and the end result is ribald, riotous and resonant filmmaking; a jaw-dropping illustration of just how wrong a second act in American life can go.

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