What a Wonderful World: Documentary Is Alive and Well -- For Now

The vibe at the Sheffield Doc Fest is simply fantastic. The city itself welcomes filmmakers, commissioners, composers and producers from all over the world, and gives back warmth and appreciation for their work. There were so many films I wanted to see, so many panels I wanted to attend, it was difficult to choose. Having worked at many festivals -- from working as a programmer and founder to working in hospitality -- in my younger years, I appreciate the hard work of the festival team and the many volunteers. Special mention must be made to the festival director, Heather Croall, and programmer Hussein Currimbhoy, as they brought together such a diverse array of humanity and fine works of film, and created one hell of a good time. This year at Sheffield was special in so many ways. Over just a few days, the people, the exchanges, the films, the emotions, the politics and the wonderful backdrop of the city, all came together to create an unforgettable experience. Here is just a bit of what those days provided...

I.-"Yes, Documentaries Matter" and the BBC's Nick Fraser -- If you are not already aware, Mr. Fraser, is the Editor of Storyville, one of the best venues for documentary films on television today. Mr. Fraser is also someone who deeply loves documentary films to such a degree that this year he came out with a book entitled, Why Documentaries Matter. I suggest that anyone who appreciates documentaries, and is concerned about their future, read this rather brief but important declaration of not only a passion for documentary, but a belief that the future of documentary film is, in fact, an investment in the future of civilization itself. Some people may find Nick Fraser opinionated -- even maddening (as some of those in the audience of his lively and infuriating discussion with AA Gill and a riled up audience of what the two called mostly Marxist filmmakers in Fraser's point of view will attest, but it was also good fun) -- but no one could ever accuse the man of not deeply loving documentaries, and understanding how vital they are to our understanding of our world.

He is concerned that there is not enough funding for making documentaries. He is concerned that the documentary filmmakers are simply too poor for the most part, and that the very fact that they can hardly survive, is affecting the work itself. He believes we should support cinema and that subsidies must help to do this, but he also warns of the extremes that have undermined documentaries' strength through the direct influence of state propaganda. He quotes J.G. Ballard and the great poet Robert Lowell's works in their undying love for the truth. And that truth, like the horrors we do not see but feel deeply in documentaries such as Shoah and The Sorrow and the Pity, is more important today than it has been for decades. Fascism and racism and anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere are on the rise. Fraser's own study of the French Front National's Le Pen personality cult and frightening popularity underlines this. Each year when I listen to Nick Fraser, I am reminded of the humanity and even heart that the documentary end of filmmaking must continue to encourage. There is truth in the poetry of the factual image.

II. Documentary Films Can Give a Second Life to People, Events, Things We Need to Know About and Have Forgotten -- The opening night film, Searching for Sugar Man by the Swedish filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul, exemplifies this. This film was just amazing, not only because the story of the musician, Sixto Rodriguez, was so incredible, but also because we are surprised to realize that so many lives -- in fact an entire part of the population living during Apartheid in South Africa -- found the humanity of the lyrics of this musician and man so moving and authentic that they became theme songs for their struggle for truth and equality. Yet no one in the United States -- where he lived -- knew who this person was. I won't give away the ending, as that would destroy some of the magic of the film, but let's just say that the opening night party celebrating this film and the musician Rodriguez was one of the best I have attended at any festival. The soundtrack to the documentary will be available after the film opens in the United Kingdom on July 27th. I cannot stop singing the song, "Crucify Your Mind" since I saw this film... it is simply one of the best songs I have ever heard. And the lyrics are still, over forty years later, amazingly powerful:

Was it a huntsman or a player

That made you pay the cost

That now assumes relaxed positions

And prostitutes your loss?

Were you tortured by your own thirst

In those pleasures that you seek

That made you Tom the curious

That makes you James the weak?

And you claim you got something going

Something you call unique

But I've seen your self-pity showing

And the tears rolled down your cheeks.

Soon you know I'll leave you

And I'll never look behind

'Cos I was born for the purpose

That crucifies your mind.

So con, convince your mirror

As you've always done before

Giving substance to shadows

Giving substance ever more.

And you assume you got something to offer

Secrets shiny and new

But how much of you is repetition

That you didn't whisper to him too

III. Documentaries are a Mixture of Truth and Art - Artists remind us that it is the art itself that should be the focus. I was reminded of this during the Question and Answer session after the screening of Mark Lombardi -- Death-defying Acts of Art and Conspiracy by the German artist, Mareike Wegener. An artist making a documentary about an artist makes sense. I felt I had seen the works of Lombardi before, and as so much of his research -- which becomes the political, financial and social maps of our times -- is linked to Houston and Texas -- where I come from -- it also felt eerily familiar and rang more true than I care to admit. Some will argue that his intricate conspiracy-laden linking of world events and international fraud, are just that. But the FBI obviously did not think so, as not long after Lombardi's "suicide" they showed up at the Whitney in New York and contacted the gallery that represents his work to take a look at his creative mapping of the links between the Bush family, Osama Bin Laden, various Saudi interests and a whole lot of good ole boys. The artist was obviously on to something. And if you grew up in Texas around the good ole boys, you would realize that Lombardi the artist's "paranoia" was, as the poet Allen Ginsberg said, "a more subtle form of reality." Here is the trailer. Go see it!

IV. We Are Legion: The Story of the Hackivists, a documentary by Brian Knappenberger

I will firstly admit that I am a huge supporter of most of what Anonymous has been doing. I fully support the transparency of Wikileaks. I believe that if a country or an organization cannot operate in such an honest and straightforward way, a way in which democracy and its citizens support, it deserves to be exposed for what it is. And what it is, is frightening and far-from-true democracy and far from truth itself. I grew up around a lot of computer geeks, and felt at home with them from high school through to the present day. I know a lot more mathematicians, physicists and computer hackers than perhaps your average person, but that is because they are often funny and smart and eccentric. But most of the ones I know and care for are also seriously pro-democracy and extremely honest people. Some of them are involved with political movements but most are existing somewhere that I will call peaceful Anarchy planet. They are about free software and free internet and sharing. They have hilariously bizarre senses of humor. They are both inside and outside the establishment more than people realize. Seriously intelligent people with a great deal of integrity, as well as much of the population, support them. They are Legion. They are Anonymous. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect Us. Some call it an anarchic digitized global brain. I called it ultimate freedom and justice in a world where there is very little of this left.

The control-obsessed society of hyper-observation has given rise to a deep need for many of us to express our natural state of freedom of choice and expression which, because of the control states in which we live, must be expressed Anonymously. This documentary lifts the lid on some of the earliest players, pranksters and brains behind the movement. And it is a movement that is growing and has brothers and sisters in the Arab Spring, in Putin's state-controlled media apparatus and inside of many many organizations and media concerns. Anonymous is everywhere and this is why it will help to bring back democracy to places where there is now a void, and will build democracy in places which need to know it.

As one person said, to mess with Anonymous is like putting your penis in a beehive... and who would want to do that?!

In conclusion, I will refer to Nick Fraser's inclusion of the words of the late American poet, Robert Lowell in Fraser's Why Documentaries Matter, as they express the profound, need we say spiritual, inclination of the human soul to know truth -- be it in love, the reality of the world around us, or even in our own souls -- and to be able to participate in the act of describing it:

"Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun's illumination
Stealing like the tide across a map
To his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
Warned by that to give
Each figure in the photograph
His living name".

Visit the Sheffield Doc/Fest 2012 at: www.sheffdocfest.com
Visit Vivian Norris' site and docs: www.vigilante-vnm.com
and on Twitter: vivigive