Kylie Boltin interviews the programmer of one of the UK's leading documentary film festivals, Sheffield Doc/Fest, which takes place from November 5 - 8.
17 Oct 2008 - 12:08 PM  UPDATED 16 Jan 2014 - 3:40 PM

There are over 100 films screening at this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest. Programmer Hussain Currimbhoy discusses some of the highlights.

KB: When I first saw the trailer for Cat Dancers a few months ago, I was blown away. It's the story above anything in this documentary that gets you in. Ron Holiday is a fascinating and generous person to make a film about. At one stage, a top adagio dancer on the world stage, a world renowned "Cat Dancer" with his wife, Joy and later Chuck Lizza and now a cat behaviourist. What in particular drew you to programming the doc?

HC: I didn't even see Cat Dancers until earlier this year and just popped it on one night after watching some other rather forgettable films and it just captured me right away. Ron is very distinctive you know? His voice, his manner, his clothes and that wonderful wig - the wig has just got a personality all its own. You really can't help but like the guy. I enjoyed watching him and found myself trying to figure Ron out – I actually caught myself talking to myself during the film! Not judging but just trying to think with him and what it must be like being this eccentric, but intelligent and really sensitive fellow in that part of America. Then the story of his life, the fact that he even met a woman like this that was compatible with him, starts to pull you in deeper. His love life gets really interesting – I don't want to spoil it with details - and you're all on their side and then the story just turns. Ron turns. It changes so unexpectedly – though you get a feeling in the back of your head that something is going down, you don't want to admit what. That shock of the pivot in the story – it was perfectly placed and timed and surrounded in very good and intuitive filmmaking – that is what made me think this is something people are going to love in a cinema. I did some research on it - though this was perfunctory, as I was sure doc/fest should have this film – and that was it. I was sold!

Cat Dancers
Director: Harris Fishman / USA

KB: Harrison uses archive material to create a full picture of Ron's story. He's stated that it was a huge challenge to "activate" this past via the available super 8mm, home video and other archival materials that Ron had accrued over a 40-year period. How important is story in selecting a doc for Doc/Fest?

HC: Cat Dancers, when you tell your friends about it, just comes out weird you know?! Even though it's a remarkable and totally original story it needs to be told with rhythm and sensitivity - both for the subject and the audience – in order for it to have that impact. Story is of course important – but it doesn't have to be the motor for a good doc. Characterisation is just as important to me. One of my favourite documentary films in the world is 'Portrait of Jason' by Shirley Clarke from 1967. It's got lots of little stories in it, all told through one absolutely amazing character – that's what makes it so memorable. Its totally had a resurgence this year and has played a lot in France and at the Edinburgh FF this year because the character – and he is the only one on screen for the whole film, is what says everything about place, time, politics, gender issues, cultural classes - everything. Principles of fiction filmmaking apply to documentary in so many ways and that is easy to forget. But with documentary you aren't bound by the rule of story with such veracity as you are in fiction so I don't necessarily look for story in a doc first and foremost. I look for life – though I'm often confronted with death.

KB: I ask this because, Jean-Louis Schuller's 25-minute short doc, Chunking Dream, made as part of delivery for the British National Film and Television School, is totally different - an abstract documentary. I'd say it's as much about space, place and time as it is a comment on the 131 different cultures co-existing in the Chunking Mansions area. Tell me about the selection of this one?

HC: This is totally not fair because I'm a sucker for films set in apartment blocks, hands down. Even then, this film is a babe. Jean-Louis is a DOP by trade so he knows how to create atmosphere in the lens. But he also knows how to be discreet and to observe. This is what made me watch this film not once but twice. The imagery is very vivid. I mean, you can see that he's working with a certain pallet, you know? That is so rare in docs. I'm really looking for a cinematic experience when selecting for doc/fest and that kind of intention behind the camera really works in a film's favour. But in this case, he also manages to get some fantastic scenes – like the elevator scene and the Christians. The diversity and spark of life that you find in places like Hong Kong and KL was encapsulated here very well and this is a student project no less!

KB: It's a very different side of Hong Kong we see in this doc – a side of desperation, illegal existence in a country that doesn't recognise asylum seekers. Best summed up by a 'character' – we don't know who he is – who relates the diversity to the eco-system: "I see that people are made by God the same as flowers." Would you say this film is likely to be broadcast on TV?

HC: Hard. Broadcasting tastes in the UK are wide reaching and they do commission some bloody fantastic stuff here on telly – things that just wouldn't find feet in the USA or Australia. So I would not be surprised at all if it was screened at night some time on telly here. I think a film like this is a beautiful interlude to any TV show you are about to watch. I'm willing to bet the next show you watch, whether it's the news, a serial, reality TV (another form of doc right?) will in some way relate back to the themes and issues raised in Chunking Dream. Pluralism, capitalism, and love- its all there somewhere, so why not put it on telly? Having said that... I wonder if a TV station would be afraid to lose impatient viewers by putting on a 25-minute doc about cramped living at night. People generally don't really want to see immigrants getting treated the way they actually get treated either. They like to see clean assimilation. We're doing some sessions and debates on the futures of theatrical docs at the festival this year that handle these kinds of questions. I really ought to sit in on one!

KB: Finally, The Biggest Chinese Restaurant in the World (Director: Weijun Chen) is a feature documentary about a traditional Chinese dining hall in Changsha, the provincial capital of Hunan in Southern China where guests are entertained during service on the stage for 800 customers over two levels. Owner Qin Linzi, is a maverick female entrepreneur, rising from 2 Euros a month to one of Hunan's 20 self made millionaires and boss of 1000 employees. Tell me about the selection of this doc?

HC: As you know we are doing a special focus on the Toronto International Film Festival this year with a collection of their docs. Namely Blood Trail (UK), Of Time and the City (UK), Examined Life (Canada) and Biggest Chinese Restaurant. There are some serious animal right issues in this doc that caught me a little off guard. And though it's part of a series that has aired on telly here in the UK (it was part funded by BBC and produced by Drivethru Pictures from London) I was still really intrigued by the restaurant owner and her rise from nothing to a hell of a something. She defies a lot of what we think about China. And she's her own woman, which I couldn't help but admire. She's kind of living on the cusp of believing in herself and knowing that she can do what she wants really as the time to strike is now (just like China in many ways) yet she is bound to make this fortune by traditional Chinese ways. I felt that by the time November came around people may be a bit China-ed out because of the Olympics etc and barring any severe international ' incident' at the Games, that China would just disappear out of the media for a while. So I put this one in along with Bingai by Feng Yan and Jia Zhangke's 24 City as little nudge. The games are over, but things in China are never going to be the same and this is imperative to the world really. The excess and the unimaginable change within China has prepared the grounds for important and some very anti-establishment art to take place. What comes next now that the games are over is the most vital element of this change. Oh and if you ever get the chance to meet the director Weijun Chen say hello to the fellow. He's the nicest guy you are ever likely to meet.