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!
Director: Harris Fishman /
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
KB: It's a very different side of
HC: Hard. Broadcasting tastes in the
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
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 (