Sheffield DocFest 2021: Films to put on your watchlist
James R | On 05, Jun 2021
This weekend marks the launch of Sheffield DocFest 2021, which goes ahead both online and in cinemas, bringing the best new documentaries from around the world to everyone in the UK.
Running from 4th to 13th June, the festival will include 55 world premieres, 22 international premieres, 15 European premieres and 59 UK premieres, featuring the first installment of Steve McQueen’s new series for the BBC, the feature directorial debut of Questlove, the world premiere of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Looking and much more in between.
The line-up is mostly streaming on Sheffield DocFest Selects too (Sophie Robinson’s I Get Knocked Down, for example, is only available in cinemas). Films cost £5 each to rent online (a pass is available for £50 covering the whole online catalogue) and they are available to stream for 72 hours after their initial debut, which is at the same time as their in-person cinema screening.
For more informations, see the full line-up and our guide to how it all works here. Not sure where to start? From Gunda to The Monopoly of Violence, here are 24 films to put on your DocFest watchlist:
Opening Film: Summer of Soul (…Or When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
For six weeks in the summer of 1969, just 100 miles south of Woodstock, The Harlem Cultural Festival was filmed in Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park). It was an epic event that celebrated Black history, culture and fashion. After that summer, the footage was never seen and largely forgotten – until now, thanks to the feature directorial debut of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson.
Until 7pm, 5th June
Every year, humans slaughter about 70 billion livestock. Aquarela director Victor Kossakovsky lets the camera linger on one of these animals: the sow, Gunda. Does she know her fate? What is she thinking? What does she think of us? Using black-and-white cinematography and an ambient soundscape of the farm’s natural noises, it’s moving, mesmerising and unique piece of cinema.
Until 5pm, 7th June
Directed by Steve McQueen and James Rogan, Uprising is a vivid and visceral three-part series for BBC One which examines three events from 1981: in January, the New Cross Fire which killed 13 Black teenagers; in March, Black People’s Action Day, which saw more than 20,000 people join the first organised mass protest by Black British people; and then the Brixton riots in April. The series reveals how these events intertwined in the early months of 1981, and how, in the process, race relations were defined for a generation. A live Q&A is also streaming on YouTube at 5.15pm.
Until 6th June, 5.15pm (24 hours)
The Return: Life After ISIS
A unique portrait of a group of Western women whose teenage years were spent supporting ISIS, but who now want to return to their countries and transform their lives. Among them are Shamima Begum, who travelled to Syria from the UK when she was 15, and Hoda Muthana, an American accused of encouraging her Twitter following to support the Islamic State. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 11am.
Until 9th June, 11am
Intimately shot in his home, and emerging somewhere between artist portrait and testimony, Riverrock is a conversation with the musician, poet, sociologist and thinker Negro Leo. He articulates his ideas about the development of music, Brazilian and international politics, the ascension of neo-Pentecostal religions and his obsession with social media, all while making parallels with his own life and work.
Until 9th June, 1.30pm (72 hours)
My Dear Spies
In contemporary Paris, filmmaker Vladimir Léon delivers his brother Pierre an old suitcase that he had taken from their mother’s house after she died. In it, they find documents connecting their Russian grandparents, Lily and Constantin, with the Soviet secret services working in Paris before the Second World War. The two brothers then begin an investigation, travelling from Paris to Russia, and wandering among the ruins of lost worlds and unspoken stories. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 2.15pm.
Until 9th June, 2.15pm (72 hours)
If god were a woman
Laura lives with her parents in L’Alfàz del Pi, a small town in the autonomous community of Valencia, in Spain. She likes to sing and is a fan of Ariana Grande. Three years ago, she started her transition. Despite the difficulties, her family, friends, and schoolmates support her desire. Now, her dream is to have her first communion. Laura’s mother starts to make preparations, despite having no certainty as to whether the church will grant Laura her wish. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 2.15pm.
Until 9th June, 2.15pm (72 hours)
My Name Is Pauli Murray
Fifteen years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her bus seat, and a decade before the US Supreme Court overturned separate-but-equal legislation, Pauli Murray was already heavily involved in the battle for social justice. A pioneering Black attorney, activist, priest, poet and memoirist, Murray shaped landmark litigation – and consciousness – around race and gender equity. Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s profile is told largely in Murray’s own words. A live Q&A is also streaming on YouTube at 5pm.
Until 9th June, 5pm (72 hours)
Second Coming (Retrospective)
A part of a curated group of films from Black women writers and filmmakers, don’t miss the opportunity to revisit debbie tucker green’s 2014 absorbing, moving family drama about an unexplained pregnancy. Idris Elba and Nadine Marshall star.
Until 9th June, 5.30pm (72 hours)
Pennsylvania-born filmmaker Ephraim Asili has been exploring different facets of the African diaspora – and his own place within it – for nearly a decade. His feature-length debut, The Inheritance, is a vibrant, engaging ensemble work that takes place almost entirely within the walls of a West Philadelphia house where a community of young people have come together to form a collective of Black artists and activists. Based partly on Asili’s own experiences in a Black liberationist group, the film interweaves a scripted drama of characters attempting to work towards political consensus with a documentary recollection of the Philadelphia liberation group MOVE, which was the victim of a notorious police bombing in 1985. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 8.30pm.
Until 10th June, 8.30pm (72 hours)
Silas Tiny’s documentary reflects on the role that São Tomé, the former Portuguese colony, played in saving hundreds of thousands of starving children, after Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu unilaterally declared the independence of the state of Biafra from Nigeria in 1967, leading to the first post-colonial conflict on African soil. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 2.30pm.
Until 11th June, 2.30pm (72 hours)
In The Shadow of 9/11
Director Dan Reed brings a different perspective to the tragedy of 9/11 ahead of the 20th anniversary of the attacks, focusing on the US government’s domestic counter-terror sting operation and the case of the “Liberty City Seven”. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 6pm.
Until 11th June, 6pm (72 hours)
Songs for the River
Over the course of a year, filmmaker Charlotte Ginsborg filmed the London housing co-operative that she lives in, looking to chart the residents’ diverse experiences of the pandemic, across the daily life of numerous national lockdowns. Some experienced the illness itself, while others faced the stress of work on the front line. Each Saturday, the residents came together to sing with each other from their communal balconies and walkways, and these songs permeate throughout the film. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 5.45pm.
Until 11th June, 5.45pm (72 hours)
Located in Brasilia, the nation’s capital, and designed by the famous architect Oscar Niemeyer, the Palácio da Alvorada (Dawn Palace) is the official residence of the president of Brazil. Workers Party member Dilma Rousseff was the president of Brazil from 2011 until 2016. Alvorada Palace follows Rousseff and her closest members of staff over the days that lead up to the impeachment trial that resulted in her downfall.
Until 11th June, 11.30am (72 hours)
The Monopoly of Violence
In this stimulating – sometimes shocking – French documentary about police violence in France, filmmaker and journalist David Dufresne examines the ways in which a government comes to justify brutal acts enacted against its own citizenry. David Dufresne’s film mixes footage of attacks on protestors (largely on protestors from the gilets jaunes, or ‘yellow vest’ movement), and interviews with intellectuals, police officers, and victims of police assault.
Until 12th June, 8.15pm (72 hours)
Double Layered Town / Making a Song to Replace Our Positions
Set in Rikuzentakata, Iwate, Japan, in the year 2031, Double Layered Town is a story written by Seo Natsumi, which plants the seeds for new folktales to be born in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. It details the town that once stood, and also the one that was built after the completion of land elevation work.
Until 12th June, 8.30pm (72 hours)
The Vocal Vidas are an all-female a cappella group from the cradle of Afro-Cuban music, Santiago de Cuba, their infectious spirit and four-part harmonies draw from a melting pot of multicultural references, embodying the sounds of Cuba. In 2017, the ensemble were invited to perform in the United States for the first time, just as diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba began to falter. As they travelled to Los Angeles, playing in restaurants and jazz clubs while preparing for their biggest concert ever – in front of 4,000 Angelenos at Downtown LA’s Grand Performances – the journey of the Vocal Vidas came to resemble the story of two geographically close yet ideologically disparate cultures, hoping to reconnect in the face of international uncertainty.
Until 13th June, 5.30pm
Where Did The World Go
When Brian Hill and Simon Armitage started hearing about the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, it felt right to produce an artistic response to the crisis, to document and record what was happening in an extended film poem. In Where Did The World Go, a number of people from across the UK talk about their own experiences of living through a pandemic, while the poetry of Simon Armitage provides a narrative spine to the film. To bring this poetry to life on screen, director Brian Hill uses a variety of techniques: mixing archive footage, musical sequences, and contemporary dance. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 6pm.
Until 13th June, 6pm (72 hours)
Raised in Sierra Leone, and now a Londoner, Sorious Samura is one of his nation’s most celebrated TV journalists. However, two decades of telling negative stories about Africa has taken its toll. Desperate to change the narrative, he turns to his best friend and mentor, Charlie Haffner, a playwright from Sierra Leone. Together, these two friends embark on a journey to create an inspiring work of national theatre, hoping to restore pride to a nation that despite having an amazing history, remains one of the world’s poorest countries. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 11.30am.
Until 13th June, 11.30am (72 hours)
After fifty long years in the business, David Raven is still shaking his sequins as ‘Maisie Trollette’, Britain’s oldest drag artist. David’s 85th is fast approaching and a special birthday performance has been arranged for him in Brighton, the UK’s capital of camp. Walter Cole, who, at age 87, holds the record for the oldest performing drag queen in the world, is flying from Portland to meet David for the first time. But professional rivalries soon flare between Britain’s feisty Pantomime Dame and America’s regal Pageant Queen, and as the big day grows nearer, David must deal with the unique challenges that performing in your eighties can bring, including battling with Alzheimer’s.
Until 14th June, 2.15pm
The First 54 Years
From his living room, Avi Mograbi adopts the role of classroom teacher in this timely documentary that provides insights into the Israel/Palestine conflict. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 8pm.
Until 13th June, 8pm (72 hours)
All Light, Everywhere
Focusing primarily on the use of police body cameras, All Light, Everywhere is a propulsive, kaleidoscopic essay film that explores the shared histories of cameras, weapons, policing and justice. In a visually distinctive survey that traverses a long historical timeline, Theo Anthony connects contemporary usages of camera technologies within law enforcement and militaristic contexts with their historic precedents, proposing the idea that any camera can be used as a weapon, and often is.
Until 13th June, 8.30pm (48 hours)
King Rocker (Retrospective)
Robert Lloyd, best known for fronting cult Birmingham bands The Prefects and The Nightingales, has survived under the radar for over four decades. But how, if at all, does Robert want to be remembered? Comedian Stewart Lee, and director Michael Cumming (Brass Eye), investigate a missing piece of punk history in this superb film that was set to premiere at last year’s Sheffield DocFest and went on to be broadcast on Sky Arts (where it is also available on-demand until 31st October 2023). A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 2pm.
12th June, 2pm
Closing Film: The Story of Looking
The Story of Looking sees Mark Cousins prepare for surgery to restore his vision. Cousins explores the role that visual experience plays in our individual and collective lives. In a deeply personal meditation on the power of looking in his own life, he guides us through the riches of the visible world, a kaleidoscope of extraordinary imagery across cultures and eras. At a time when we are more assailed by images than ever, he reveals how looking makes us who we are, lying at the heart of human experience, empathy, discovery and thought. A live Q&A is streaming on YouTube at 7pm.
12th June, 7pm