Our favourite moments from Doc Fest 2023
We had the incredible opportunity to attend Sheffield Doc Fest 2023 last week. It’s one of our favourite events of the year and, as always, it was an inspiring and grounding experience. Let’s relive some of the highlights, shall we?
This year’s festival was packed with moving stories from a global slate of filmmakers and thought-provoking conversations with industry experts. It’s wonderful to see our documentary community pushing the boundaries and hear about how we can support each other’s well-being.
We will spend the next few weeks exploring where and how we can make a positive difference. In the meantime, we’d like you to join us in revisiting some of our favourite films and conversations.
You’ll soon be able to watch many of these documentaries on streaming platforms or in cinemas. If you can, catch them on the big screen and support your local independent cinema.
The Good Fight Club
Set in an MMA training gym in South London, The Good Fight Club is a new observational documentary series for Sky. We were given a preview of the first episode, and it certainly engaged my love for mixed martial arts!
The documentary is produced by Century TV and directed by Jack Retellack. Jack has trained at the gym for several years, gaining a unique perspective that encouraged him to embark on this project. He turns the camera to the young fighters, and we hear how the sport has shaped their lives.
We learn of fighters who have overcome eating disorders, depression, loneliness and bullying. The main character is deaf fighter Thomas Paull, who smashes every obstacle. We also get to know their charismatic coach, who has a huge personality and fatherly love for his team.
It was great to see the documentary challenge lazy assumptions about mixed martial arts (that “it’s for aggressive people”, etcetera, etcetera). Throughout the screening and the Q&A, it was also clear that the DocFest, Century TV and Sky teams take their duty of care seriously. There were BSL translators on hand to ensure that Thomas and anyone hard of hearing was always included in the conversation.
The Deepest Breath
To say The Deepest Breath was gripping doesn’t do it justice – it took my breath away (no joke). I was moved by Alessia’s heart-stopping story and her determination to break freediving records. Seeing her swim so deep without any equipment to keep her breathing was humbling.
The story comes to life when, along the way, Alessia meets safety diver Stephen Keenan. We see two souls who have fallen in love with the same sport, now fall for each other. Helpless, we watch them embracing the risks their passion demands. We then follow their journey toward Zecchini’s ultimate achievement, diving under the arch of Dahab’s Blue Hole. Filmmaker Laura McGann takes you all the way to the end and then back again – not quite in one breath, but very close.
Tokio Uber Blues
My favourite documentary of the festival, Tokio Uber Blues follows up-and-coming director Taku Aoyagi. Taku lives with his family on the outskirts of Tokyo. After losing his job as a taxi driver during the pandemic, he struggles to pay his loans and bills. So, he follows a friend’s suggestion: he would move to Tokyo and work as an Uber Eats driver, hoping to earn enough to return home and support his family and himself.
We follow Taku on this turbulent journey, supported only by his motivation and the little help of his friends and familiar faces from school. He even befriends other Uber drivers to learn tips on how to earn more. Surprisingly, his work gains momentum; 5-hour shifts become 11-plus shifts. But despite working hard to move out of his friends’ flats and stay out of the street, he spends much of his wages on food, bike maintenance and band-aid comforts. Taku keeps going but eventually accepts reality and gets back on his feet to keep his pledge.
I loved the film because it was unexpectedly honest about the hardships of people below the poverty line. It talked about class hierarchy from a whole new perspective and showed how, for some, Covid meant business as usual, while for others life was turbulent, like they were trapped in the capitalist game.
The D-Word: Why disability inclusion doesn’t have to be difficult (Panel)
Ramon Pascual Sanchez
Moderated by Channel 4 reporter Jordan Jarett-Bryar, this panel brought together broadcast commissioners, content executives, and presenters to discuss the importance of inclusion: what has been done and what’s still to happen. Besides the points discussed, the setup around the talk itself was refreshing. I appreciated seeing that at the beginning, all the participants introduced themselves visually, stating both who they are and how they looked. This needs to happen more in public talks!
It was good to hear that industry executives are committed to ensuring inclusion for people with visible and invisible disabilities. The part of the discussion I remember most strongly was about the need for inclusion, not only in front of the camera but behind the scenes too, and the need for accessibility expenses to be reflected in budgets. Disabled voices need to be heard and represented authentically, and resources must be available to make that happen. The conversation made me reflect on how embracing inclusion is also about moving away from the idea that an accessible and diverse TV is a ‘waste of money’ to making this pledge a core part of productions’ investments.
Speakers: Caroline O’Neill (Assistant Commissioner for Daytime, BBC), Ian Katz (Chief Content Officer, Channel 4), Kate Phillips (Director of Unscripted, BBC), Richard Watsham (Chief Creative Officer, UKTV and Global Director of Acquisition, BBC Studios and UKTV)
Maestra follows five women as they prepare for and participate in an international competition for female conductors. It was a wonderfully warm and hopeful film – the first documentary I watched after arriving in Sheffield!
I loved that it captures the authentic environments and the challenges the conductors face on their journey to and through the competition. Seeing their passion, excitement, joy and surprises in action was incredible. It got me thinking about how we pursue the things that matter to us and how the support we have around us influences the choices we make in life.
Much Ado About Dying
I suspected this film would be a tear-jerker, and I’m a sucker for emotional documentaries. So, I decided to spend the second day of the festival to watch a documentary I knew little about. After all, aren’t the unexpected stories the ones that move us the most?
Filmmaker Simon Chambers has to put his life in India on hold when he receives desperate calls to return to London. His sudden departure is to look after his uncle David, a bohemian gay retired actor. When it emerges that he will be caring for David for far longer than planned, Simon begins to film their daily, often absurd, interactions. The backdrop? David’s frail health and poor living conditions juxtaposed against his unwavering spirit.
As Chambers uncovers the reality of caring for an ageing relative outside the conventional family structure, he shares his guilt and helplessness with inspiring self-compassion. In the process, he reveals powerful moments from his relationship with David as they grow closer, drift apart, and finally reconcile (or so it seemed to me).
I was as taken by the film as I was by the Q&A session afterwards. It was fascinating to hear Simon’s post-screening reflections, and I found the following quote especially thought-provoking: “Films about people dying tend to be either incredibly violent or too passive, but David does something much more involving that reflects back on us and makes us think about our own mortality.
This emotional documentary by Madeline Galvin captures the heart-warming stories of North Koreans trying to break free from oppression. The director interweaves their stories with those of a dedicated South Korean pastor, Seungeun, who selflessly spends his life helping North Koreans on their journey to freedom.
Combining childhood memories with the history of this oppressive nation, the film shows candid and undercover footage of life in North Korea, including some heartbreaking public executions and the extreme efforts made to escape to a better place. I felt tense and anxious as I witnessed the fear and stress that comes with the threat of being caught. Solitary confinement, torture and internment are just some consequences of breaking the law in the DPRK.
Overall, the film is a gripping and essential must-see for how well it captures the dangers of fleeing North Korea while highlighting the urgent reasons for taking such a daring step.
Total Trust is a shocking portrayal of growing surveillance and totalitarianism in China told through the lives of two families and a journalist affected. On the one hand, it highlights the worrying practices that already restrict people’s freedom of expression, rights, and moevement. On the other, it shines a light on the rise of “digital” avenues of social control, which would take the invasion of privacy and freedom to new levels. Among these are cameras that scan for emotions and stress levels to alert employers of “deviant” behaviour. Another sinister practice, the Social Credit is built to determine an individual’s trustworthiness based on their daily actions.
A short Q&A followed the film, where producer Knut Jäger shared how he is hopeful—for the first time in his career—that the film will be illegally distributed in China, so people will see the extent of the problem. Knut also distributed postcards in support of journalist Wang Jianbing, who was arrested trying to leave China after exposing human rights violations and covering the #MeToo movement.
The Takeover & Incident
The Takeover is a gripping short documentary directed by Anders Hammer. The film captures the tumultuous events surrounding the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan. It does it through a series of interviews with courageous women protesting for their rights to education and freedom, painting a nuanced portrait of their struggles. At the same time, it offers a contrasting perspective, by also following a group of women who support the Taliban regime and exploring the complexities of their beliefs.
Bill Morrison’s Incident is an intense short that explores a tragic shooting that took place in broad daylight in Chicago in 2018. A superb collage of footage from street cameras and police body cams, the film transported me into reality in its most brutal form. Through its visual storytelling, Incident forced me to confront the stark consequences of police violence.
Watching these films in sequence, I also particularly appreciated how both filmmakers effectively use the brevity of the format to streamline storytelling and convey different but equally powerful messages.