From Serena Williams to Sonita Alizadeh: women in docs at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2016

Between 10 and 15 June 2016 I was happily immersed in the world of documentary and virtual reality (VR) at Sheffield Doc/Fest, the biggest international documentary festival in the UK, now in its 23rd year. Documentaries about women and films directed/produced by women had a strong presence across all festival strands, not just the one called ‘Women in Docs’, and there were numerous women creatives taking part in talks and sessions in the Alternate Realities programme. For the first time this year, the Festival’s support also extended to all delegates with children, offering an affordable crèche located near Festival venues.

In a small retrospective strand ‘Remembering Chantal Akerman’, Sheffield Doc/Fest paid tribute to Belgian artist and director who passed tragically last year. Three of Akerman’s films were shown: the iconic Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels (1975), One Day Pina Asked… (1983), an insightful portrait of choreographer Pina Bausch and her creative process, and the last film Akerman made, No Home Movie (2015): a series of conversations with her mother shortly before the latter’s death. Belgian filmmaker Marianne Lambert’s documentary I Don’t Belong Anywhere – the Cinema of Chantal Akerman (2015) was a perfect companion piece, with Akerman, her long-time editor Claire Atherton and other collaborators and friends talking about her work. Watching Akerman relate how she realised her mother was at the heart of her work and how she was afraid that, after the mother’s death, she may not have anything more to say, sounds an ominous tone after Akerman’s suicide.

Recent research suggests that fiction films with at least one woman director employ more women in other creative roles (as writers, editors, cinematographers) than films with only men directors. Women directors and writers also tend to bring more women-centric stories to the screen and offer more complex female characters (who speak and, when they do, talk about something other than a man). That is, of course, not to say men never do; there are some great woman protagonists in fiction films written and directed by men, and at the festival I enjoyed every minute of gripping Serena by Ryan White, focussing on the external pressures alongside her own vulnerabilities that Serena Williams faced in her quest to achieve four Grand Slams in a row (a “Serena Slam”) in 2015. Other great man-directed documentaries on women included Ido Haar’s Presenting Princess Shaw (winner of the Feature Doc Audience Award), about the unlikely rise to viral stardom of a New Orleans care worker, and Jeff Feuerzeig’s Author: The JT LeRoy Story, where he has Laura Alberts, the woman behind the phenomenon of the rise and fall of Jeremiah “Terminator” LeRoy, take centre stage to narrate the controversial story from her perspective.

However, with my feminist film editor hat on, I gravitate towards double F-rated documentaries, with women both behind and in front of the camera. The task wasn’t that difficult as most documentaries about women were made by women too, including films revolving around physical activity. Besides Serena which I already mentioned, I enjoyed Swedish director Susanna Edwards’ Golden Girl, showing woman boxing champion Frida Wallberg as she recovers from a brain haemorrhage, as well as Hell on Wheels, a short by British director Emma Miranda Moore, presenting the adrenaline-fuelled, body-positive world of Roller Derby and especially women playing for the London Rockin’ Rollers.

Sonita raps revolutionary lyrics in front of her admiring peers, speaking out about child marriage and violence against women

Women of colour dominated stories of remarkable women artists whose careers often intertwined with political activism. From the US, there was Jessica Edwards’ Mavis! (2016), about gospel singer Mavis Staples, and documentary veteran Barbara Kopple’s Miss Sharon Jones! (2015). African-American writer and activist Maya Angelou, famous for the recitation of her poem ‘On the Pulse of Morning’ during the first inauguration of Bill Clinton in 1993, received a nuanced portrait in Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise by Rita Coburn Whack (co-directed with Bob Hercules), in which the audience finds out that Angelou was a woman of many talents, including acting, calypso dancing and singing and performing in strip clubs. Interviewed in the film, Hillary Clinton asserts that Angelou’s childhood years autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) was one of the first subjects she discussed with her just-met romantic interest Bill Clinton. ‘And Still I Rise’, Angelou’s poem referenced in the documentary’s title, links it to Serena: the best woman tennis player in the world recites it with passion at the end of the film.

From other places around the world, there was most notably Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s Sonita (winner of Youth Jury Award), uplifting and heart-breaking at the same time. As we catch a glimpse of the world of Afghan refugee girls living in Iran after escaping the Taliban rule, it quickly becomes clear that the girls, sometimes as young as 13, will all be sold into arranged marriages with much older men selected by their families: for poor parents the fee they can get for a young bride substantially boosts the family’s budget. Sonita Alizadeh is one of these girls, facing accommodation hardship with her sister and niece. But she also raps revolutionary lyrics in front of her admiring peers, speaking out about child marriage and violence against women. Avoiding spoilers about the story’s end (I really recommend you watch it if you can), I want to signal that the film raises another set of important questions, those about the involvement of the documentarian in the lives of people she films. “Sonita, I must record the truth, it’s not OK to interfere like this with your life,” says the filmmaker, shortly before making a crucial intervention into Sonita’s future.

The theme of arranged marriage was also explored by Indian director Pritha Chakraborty in her short Silent Voices, where she looks at young women of Kolkata whose dreams and talents are abandoned in the midst of family compromises.

Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson stole my heart at the first viewing

First-time director Nanfu Wang’s Hooligan Sparrow is a poignant reminder that women’s rights are human rights, or that perhaps the drawing of such a distinction is inadequate and harmful. The documentary follows Chinese women’s rights activist Ye Haiyan (the eponymous “Hooligan Sparrow”), famous for her offer to have sex for free with migrant workers back in 2013, as she exposes the endemic sexual exploitation of schoolgirls in local Chinese politics. Due to her political activism, single mother Ye gets evicted together with her young daughter from a number of flats, while the filmmaker faces difficulties of her own as secret police hunt her down, trying to confiscate the footage of activist protests. A debut feature, Hooligan Sparrow may lack overall focus but the energy and commitment of women at its heart are definitely worth witnessing.

My absolute favourite was the documentary that also won the Grand Jury Award, Cameraperson by Kirsten Johnson, an artisan cinematographer who worked on films such as Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour. Compiled from the riches of the footage shot by Johnson over the years, including many outtakes, the film is part a visual memoir, part an investigation into what it means to be a woman with a movie camera in war zones and among survivors, part (still!) a tender documentary about the people from around the world whose lives Johnson touched and who she was touched by. It stole my heart at the first viewing and although some of the interviews included were difficult to watch, as the credits rolled I wished it had never ended. Johnson was also one of the panellists for the ‘Female Trailblazers: New Ways of Working in Media’ discussion, next to our regular contributor Sophie Mayer.

British women producers worked on the films that made waves at the Doc/Fest

Unfortunately, there weren’t too many films directed by British women at the Doc/Fest. Besides two shorts (the aforementioned Hell on Wheels and Gillian Callan’s Recorded Absence), I only managed to track down two feature documentaries: Louise Osmond’s Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach (also produced by Rebecca O’Brien) and Claire Ferguson’s Destination Unknown. Good news is, however, that British women producers worked on the films that made waves at the Festival. Jo-Jo Ellison is one of co-producers of Notes on Blindness, a highly original film on John Hull, a theologian and writer who lost his sight as an adult, which won the new Storytelling and Innovation Award. The film came with the most immersive VR experience (Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, winner of the Alternate Realities VR Award) I have ever experienced. Dionne Walker produced The Hard Stop, a documentary exploring the world of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old man whose unlawful killing by the police in Tottenham in August 2011 triggered massive civil unrest, spilling over from North London to other places country-wide and transforming the terms of British political debate.

I was exhilarated to see that three out of four panellists during the talk ‘Breaking In: A Guide for Film Industry Entrants’ were women, including Magali Pettier whom I interviewed (alongside her producer Jan Cawood) about her first documentary feature Addicted to Sheep earlier this year. She was joined by Daisy-May Hudson and Alice Hughes who worked together (as director and producer respectively) on Half Way, documenting one year in the life of Daisy and her family after they were made homeless by a landlord evicting them from a privately rented house in Epping. I must admit that Chasing Dad, a film by Phillip Wood, also seemed well worth watching after the introduction by this only man on the panel (bar the chair).

Last but not least, Jane Gauntlett’s In My Shoes: Dancing with Myself, a VR experience designed to make the viewer understand how living with epilepsy feels, put virtual reality technology to great use, tugging on the boundaries of the audience’s empathy.

During the five days of hanging out in rainy Sheffield, I regretted many times that I lack the superpower of bi-location (definitely my superhero skill of choice) as there were always more films to see, filmmakers to talk to, parties to dance at. I am still to catch up with two documentaries by Mexican women on Mexican women, Maya Goded’s Plaza de la Soledad and Tatiana Huezo’s Tempestad (winner of the Tim Hetherington Award). Sadly, I also realise that some of the films I mention here will never get distribution, but if you keep an eye on your local arthouse cinema’s listings or follow distributors on Twitter (for example @Dogwoof), you may get lucky. To whet your appetite, you can read short synopses of all Festival films and events on Sheffield Doc/Fest website.

Serena is available on BBC iPlayer for about three weeks more.

If you live in or plan to visit London soon, the following documentaries will be screened at Bertha Doc/House in London in July 2016:

The Hard Stop on 14 July (and later on release in UK cinemas from Friday 15 July).

Hooligan Sparrow on 15 July.

Miss Sharon Jones! and Cameraperson as part of Doc/Fest Picks 23-24 July.

If you like documentaries and want to check out some older stuff, read Sophie Mayer’s round-up of Sheffield Doc/Fest 2014.

All pictures courtesy of Sheffield Doc/Fest.
First picture is a still from Serena. It shows a black woman in a whita and pink striped sports jumper, black leggings and black open-top sports hat, walking towards the camera, talking to a white man in white sports attire next to her. There are other people around them, including a white woman with blond pony tail on the right and three men in red sports clothes behind them.

Second picture is a still from Cameraperson. It shows a white woman, wearing jeans and a short-sleeved dotted top, holding a small video camera, in the middle of a crowd of black women wearing traditional colourful clothes. White woman is facing left as if she wanted to move forwards to change her position.

Third picture is a still from Notes on Blindness. It shows a small child reaching up to an adult bearded man’s face, taking off or putting on his glasses. Both are seen from profile and it’s framed to only show their heads and the child’s hands.

The video, taken from YouTube, is for Sonita Alizadeh’s Brides for Sale, with English subtitles.