Flying the rainbow flag @ Sheffield Doc/Fest
After last week’s comedy-horror Dead Snow, it’s time for a brief break from European films to revisit some more documentaries – and with very special cause. June 12th – 16th saw the 20th annual Doc/Fest, and with its triple-bill opening night that featured a screening in a cave, a live score accompaniment by Jarvis Cocker and the new Pussy Riot doc, it justified its claim as bigger and better than ever before.
Many films impressed, but it was the likes of The Act of Killing, Particle Fever and Blackfish that were some of the big-hitters, looking at the subjects of genocide, scientific advancements and animal captivity respectively. Others that made an impact included Project Wild Thing, The Crash Reel, Dirty Wars, The Summit and The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard, all of which are worth keeping an eye on. And though it was the aforementioned tour-de-force The Act of Killing that won the Special Jury Award, the Youth Jury presented their prize to LGBT film God Loves Uganda.
God Loves Uganda looks at the issue of Christian evangelicals flocking to Africa to spread their message of God’s supposed love whilst proclaiming the inner-workings of his apparent will. They target vulnerable Ugandans who are simply looking for guidance regardless of where it comes from. But the on-looking film audience are more acutely aware of the religious, political and corporate agenda of these outsiders, as the documentary focuses in on the now widely-known “Kill the Gays” bill highlighted in last year’s documentary Call Me Kuchu.
What is essentially a message of hate and intolerance sweeps its way through the nation from American shores under the guise and pretence of love and education. Yet there are intelligent Ugandans who realise that being gay isn’t (or rather shouldn’t be) a crime and do whatever they can to oppose this line-of-thought, despite the risk of violent reaction involved with such a stance. These are religious people too, and the decision to include these individuals is a brave and powerful counterbalance to the bigots – whether American message-spreaders or Ugandan hate-crimers – over the course of the documentary.
Despite how it sounds, I find myself torn as to whether it was as suitably stirring or riling as many would have you believe. I found it to have a weirdly light-hearted and humorous tone throughout much of it, though perhaps this was to counteract the offensive acts and words scattered across the screen, or maybe it’s just me becoming [worryingly] desensitized to such portrayals. Regardless, both the audience action and critical response of its award-status suggest that most others disagree, and necessitate its viewing upon release.
But my LGBT-highlight of the festival was Valentine Road, a film that I knew very little about beforehand but which turned out to be a bit of a hidden gem. The documentary covers the reaction to the shooting and killing of an LGBT teenager in an American school by another kid with what a modern-day sympathetic therapist might describe as “apparent Neo-Nazi tendencies”. The strength and courage of the protagonist before his untimely death are really moving, as are the testimonies of his friends in their determination to remember him well.
There are numerous aspects of the film that work as side-issues and sub-plots in provoking discussion and could hold viewer attention for the length of a documentary in their own right. The question of whether the criminal should be tried as an adult or a child is one of these themes that very much stick out, and is a fascinating topic of murky grey viewpoints presented as either black or white depending on which side you listen to. The uncomfortable elephant in the room is that the maniacs just might have a point, but they’re going about their argument in completely the wrong way.
This leads us on to undoubtedly the most unique feature of Valentine Road, and is the reason I implore you to see it in an audience if/when it’s released cinematically in the UK. The staggering communal reaction it incites mid-film is one of those rare cinema experiences that can’t be replicated. The antagonistic characters quickly descend to such baffling, ludicrous and unbelievable depths that the crowd could do nothing except to look around at each other in amazement and laugh. It spirals into farce at this point in the best possible way and – as director Marta Cunningham stated in her post-film Q&A – it’s the very moment where you realise that it’s documentary gold.
It seems odd to laud Valentine Road for causing laughter in such an excruciating and harrowing personal portrait, but the light relief is palpable and necessary, and it serves to highlight the point of how irrational these characters are. Most importantly it provoked a reaction of incredulity during this point, whereas the wider issues in the documentary asked important, intelligent questions about character, loyalty, the legal system and a whole lot more.
And that wasn’t even the end of the LGBT offerings at Doc/Fest. A films-on-film strand gave punters the opportunity to sit through a doc-and-fiction double-bill of I Am Divine – the story behind John Waters’ leading lady – as well as one of their biggest collaborative hits, Female Trouble. And though the latter was as wicked and obscene and hilarious as ever, the John Waters season will be saved for the other side of our European tour where one of the most fucked-up, eccentric and enigmatic gay idols will receive the time and words that he, his stars and his films all richly deserve.