Reimagining the Film Festival Landscape in the Time of a Global Pandemic: The 27th Sheffield Doc/Fest
by Sofie Cato Maas
Cinema is one of those rare forms of art where the relation and tension between aesthetics and ideology, past and present, and formalism and realism, come forward. In such times when the lived reality seems to surpass fiction, hence becoming too hard to grasp, this duality between harmony and dissonance that cinema embodies can offer the spectator a way to relate to whatever it is they live through. Now that most film festivals have had to cancel their upcoming editions or reshape them online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the self-reflexive questions that has been raised by this new reality, is what cinema can offer the spectator in a time of crisis. How does cinema and the realities that we are presented with on screen, fit within the kind of uncertainty that we live through? Cinema has always been a way for me to comprehend feelings I do not fully understand. Where words seem incompetently inadequate, cinema manages to grasp those incomplete thoughts and indescribable fears and desires that roam the unconsciousness, through its synthesis and interdependence of images, sounds, and words – a medium perfect for grasping our ambiguous relation with the real. That this is one of cinema’s unique qualities was also palpable in this year’s program of Sheffield Doc/Fest.
The 27th edition of the UK’s largest documentary festival, the first year under the leadership of Doclisboa’s former director Cíntia Gil and her new artistic team, took place on an online film platform called DocPlayer. The whole program presented on this platform, of which I can only highlight a small section here, is firmly rooted in both historical and contemporary actuality and closely interwoven into the conflicts and contradictions that we are faced with now, thus manifesting cinema both as consolation and a radical platform for change.
There are several main themes that become visible and weave through all the strands, yet they all relate to one concept that has suddenly become of greater importance than before the pandemic: namely the landscape and how it represents change, history, memory and, above all, displacement. The Ghosts & Apparitions section occupies a unique position by offering an inventive context surrounding contemporary new documentary cinema, while simultaneously creating parallels between the present and the past. This strand forms an investigation into cinema’s representation of history and its ability to alter it alongside memory and the spectators’ vision of reality. Cinema’s visual flexibility makes the invisible visible as it forces its spectators to look at reality in a different way.
The festival also created special focuses dedicated to the work of three pioneering directors: the legendary anti-colonial activist and poet Sarah Maldoror, Lynne Sachs and Simplice Herman Ganou. As a tribute to Maldoror, who sadly recently passed away due to the COVID-19 virus, the festival will show her celebrated short Monangambée (1969), and other programming, later this year in cinemas, as part of the Into the World strand.
Both Sachs and Ganou are directors that use cinema to investigate the complicated relationship between the camera and the human body – going beyond the human body as an articulation of ideas and concepts. With the video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, Sachs created an online journey through her work to explore the way in which the human body features in her cinema, addressing gender, sex, race and generational differences. In it, Sachs guides us through the versatility of her body of work, returning mostly to the question of to what extent it is possible – or should it be possible – to explore yourself (as a film/documentary maker) in your film in relation to whatever the subject of the film you are making is. The lecture interrogates what it means for the camera to analyse the human body and what it means that the body that is in power when filming, the filmmaker’s, is entirely invisible.