A morning at Sheffield Doc/Fest 2018
Arriving in Sheffield at gone midnight for the first time after a trip from London on the Megabus is, I think, enough to legitimately fatigue most film reviewers.
And yet I still felt an unshakeable sense of failure when I arrived slightly after 10am at the Showroom Cinema the next morning (Saturday 9th June), arriving slightly late for the UK Premiere of Turtle Rock.
My sense of being lazy was compounded by the subjects in Chinese director Xiao Xiao’s documentary which captures the daily life of the people living in the remote Chinese village of Turtle Rock.
The village takes its name from a rock formation shaped like a turtle, and legend has it that a turtle-like being had once tried to turn itself into a god before being struck by lightning. It’s shattered body now lies at the entrance to the village.
For almost a century now Turtle Rock has been home just seven families with four surnames, who originally fled from war and now continue to live a primitive existence without mod cons.
Xiao Xiao was very weak when he was born, and was sent to the village by his parents who thought that the guardian gods at Turtle Rock might be able to protect Xiao Xiao and keep him alive.
As he grew up there, the small community in the village is like family to Xiao Xiao and his film manages to present their lives without any awkwardness or sense of being staged.
He’s done an excellent job of capturing a village where life is defined by activity, struggle, contributing to the community.
A running motif through the film is the camera shadowing a man who ceaselessly ferries things through the jungle on his back (a table, an enormous burlap sack). In one shot we get in so close to him we can hear how terribly laboured his breath is, and we assume perhaps he’ll collapse or just stop, but he continues. We never see where he’s taking these things, perhaps that’s not the point.
This is what is referred to as Asian values, sometimes attributed to the teachings of Confucius, made into reality by harsh economic reality: enduring hardship, being productive, arriving at film festivals at 9 o’clock on the dot in accordance with the programme.
It’s what we’re told by older generations that England was like at some point, a hub of active citizens contributing furiously to the booming economy and earning their properties through honest industry (and having more fun than us while doing it).
While historians may disagree about whether such an England ever did exist (it was before social media after all so we’ll never really know), we were told by Xiao Xiao, who appeared in person for a Q&A after his film, that the village of Turtle Rock is itself diminishing and most such villages in rural China are set to disappear.
The younger generation like Xiao Xiao, who went to study film in Beijing, are being increasingly drawn to the bright lights of the big city. Although some of them have returned to Turtle Rock and helped to improve the villages infrastructure, they aren’t intending to stay.
The film is shot in black and white to reflect this, a comment on the way the village is receding into just a memory for those who once lived there.
Turtle Rock had coloured my view of myself and my fellow festival goers.
The image of the Chinese villager toiling under his burlap sack lay heavy on my mind while watching the cinema’s audience shuffle out of the screening, blinking at the light, staggering under the weight of their lanyards and collapsing into chairs in the cinema bar.
I acknowledged my own fatigue after having only watched part of a single film and resolved that I must proceed with unflagging vitality for the rest of the day.
So I marched ten minutes down the road, following the official festival route as marked in orange on my map, into The Light cinema in Sheffield’s shopping centre, The Moor.
On arriving I quickly found myself arriving late, once again, for the UK premiere of The Trial, which chronicles the events leading to the impeachment of Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female president.
My first thoughts centred around how I had managed to be completely unaware of the facts the film centred on. From the footage it was clear this had happened very recently (it was in 2016) and would have been a major news story.
It’s not something I’d admit in a job interview but I’ll happily state for posterity that the sum total of what I know about Brazilian politics is zero.
What I didn’t realise until I started watching The Trial is that my desire to learn more is also completely absent.
This was a difficult fact to confront and the implications of it were quite substantial when I considered I had already arrived late to the film and caused some disruption while looking for a seat, and I now found myself at the seat closest to the wall with no convenient route to escape without once again troubling the people I had passed on the way in and in the process admitting to everyone in the room that I wasn’t especially interested in Brazilian politics.
It was a bind to be in, but I saw an opportunity when someone in the first row made their exit, leading to a small trickle of other people who respectfully bowed out and I followed in their wake.
Laila at the Bridge
I retreated to the Showroom Cinema, which had four screenings on at any one time, so it seemed sensible to simply remain there rather than tearing across Sheffield to attend the various other cinemas hosting screenings for the festival.
This decision was rewarded when I entered the UK premiere of Laila at the Bridge, a immediately engaging film which stars Laila Haidari, a self-styled and actual “badass” who is a former heroin addict that now helps others to get clean in Kabul, where addicts live in miserable squalor under a bridge.
Each day Laila, a child-marriage survivor, pulls new bodies from under the bridge, some of them will be the people she has been working to keep clean who have relapsed.
Each day she tries to convince Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics to provide her with some funding, but there seems to be a rot of corruption at the heart of officialdom and she is forced to battle on alone with mounting debt, the threat of assassination, and little hope for the future.
The documentary makers and husband and wife duo Elissa and Glisten Mirzaei shot constantly over three years. Their film speaks to their fearlessness, coming from Los Angeles and entering a situation where they were pursued across Kabul by a crooked cop and made late night trips to the bridge to bring food for an addict who pleaded with them for help.
Their bravery is most clearly shown in a scene where they film a mother who creates a syrup with heroin in it to give to her infant daughter. The child screams and resists being fed the drug but the mother, hopelessly addicted herself, persists until her baby is sedated.
For the American filmmakers, their every instinct must have been to intervene and stop this abuse, for their own peace of mind rather than really in the belief it would change anything. Instead they let it happen before their eyes so they could bring it before our eyes.
Elissa Mirzaei, who attended the screening for a Q&A afterwards, said: “I just felt like, this is reality, I am going to capture this”.
Elissa went on to say that her time in Afghanistan had not left her with any sense of a possible solution to the problems there, but she said: “We all bear collective responsibility for the situation in Afghanistan today”.
And with that, it was time for lunch.