Britdoc 06

By Hannah Patterson

37-uses-for-a-dead-sheep-ben-harper-1.jpg37 Uses for a Dead Sheep, 2006

Viewing contemporary world documentaries in the Gothic environs of Keble College’s made for a surreal experience at this year’s inaugural Britdoc festival, but with some of the most intriguing films focused on issues of identity and place, such divergence of content and context seemed entirely appropriate.

In no film was the significance of ‘place’ more controversially rendered than The Bridge, a documentary about people committing suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the most popular US destination for ‘jumpers’. Filmed over a year and featuring shots of people climbing over the barrier and leaping to their death, director Eric Steel’s methods and intentions have been called into question. He has been criticised for misleading the Bridge authorities about the nature of his project, also for neglecting to tell his interviewees – the friends and relatives of the people who died – that he had footage of their suicides. Faced with these ethical questions from the festival audience, Steel spoke very persuasively for his reasons for secrecy, mainly that he never wanted to encourage anyone to commit suicide ‘for’ the camera. He also pointed out that the film crew had managed to save several lives by alerting the police.

Debates aside, the film is extremely poignant and sensitively handled (bar one mawkish song). Carefully shot to present the bridge in all its varying moods, Steel shows its architectural splendour and tourist appeal, whilst simultaneously conveying its haunting, compelling presence to hint at a darker side. The interviews too are moving, particular from a boy that managed to survive his fall, which very few do.

Ben Hopkins’ 37 Uses for a Dead Sheep, deserved winner of the British Competition, also explored ‘place’, dramatising the journey in exile of the Pamir Kighiz tribe from central Asia. From 1895 to the present, the tribe has fled conflict: communism in the Soviet Union, Maoist China, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For 27 years, they have lived in East Turkey, facing all the problems inherent in a modern diasporic lifestyle. Reconstructing scenes of their ancestor’s past battles and skirmishes, with members of the tribe playing the characters, the tone of Hopkins film is beautifully judged. Shot in a variety of cinematic styles – often reminiscent of a Guy Maddin film – and making full use of folk songs, such filmmaking really elevates what could otherwise have been a dry anthropological study, exploring the tension between tradition and modernity through humour. Hopkins’ own presence in the film as he attempts to communicate in their language, shoot their past and learn about the 37 real uses for a dead sheep is often playful, sometimes affectionate and always respectful.

37-uses-for-a-dead-sheep-ben-harper-2.jpg37 Uses for a Dead Sheep, 2006

Adapting the documentary form to most revealingly portray its subject also worked extremely well for The War Tapes, winner of the International Competition. Director Deborah Scranton and producers Robert May and Steve James wanted to shine a light on the experience of war and chose to place cameras in the hands of soldiers on duty in Iraq. The result focuses on three – Sergeant Steve Pink, a carpenter, Sergeant Zack Bazzi, a student, and Specialist Mike Moriarty – during their year’s deployment. For much of the film, during the footage shot by the soldiers themselves in Iraq, I actually felt like I was watching a montage of familiar war films; one voice-over, for instance, recalls the soldiers’ questioning in The Thin Red Line. Refreshingly, the film is never didactic, leaving us to make up our own mind about events unfolding onscreen. The soldiers’ confused, often contradictory, attitudes to the war and America’s involvement is unusually complex. Neither hard-line right nor left, these men defy easy categorisation. They are patriots for sure, but it doesn’t prevent them from questioning their government’s motives.

Aside from the horror of warfare in Iraq – and it is horrible and we are witness to – the lasting psychological damage on the three men is suggested through interviews with wives, girlfriends and family back home; proved after their homecoming as they try to reintegrate in to communities. Also winner the award for Best Documentary at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, The War Tapes, is a film about Iraq – and all wars – that really deserves a wide release.

Of interest for potential filmmakers, a new documentary film fund was announced at Britdoc. Supported by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, it will support documentaries that highlight important contemporary social or political issues by offering up to £35,000. This amount will be match funded by the Channel 4 British Documentary Film Foundation, taking the total potential amount available to £70,000. The aim is to encourage filmmakers to produce documentaries that have the power to impact on political agendas and social justice. Hopefully this kind of funding in our country will ensure the continued quality and diversity of future Britdocs.

Hannah Patterson is a London-based writer, editor and filmmaker.