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Zoo Tales: Exploring “Ways of Seeing” at Sheffield Doc/Fest
18th June 2019 By Dola Agunbiade

A powerful form of storytelling, documentary filmmaking brings past events into the present, and raises questions about the future. It provokes thought, creates dialogue and challenges presumptions, giving insight into diverse human experiences and taking hearts, souls and minds in return. This was my experience at this year’s Sheffield Documentary Festival.

As the 4th largest city in the UK, Sheffield was a major steel manufacturer until steel’s decline in the 1980’s. Since then, the city has become a cultural hotspot, known for its rich contribution to the Arts and the Film industry. Home to the Sheffield Doc/Fest, an international documentary festival that attracts filmmakers, key industry speakers, cinephiles and emerging talent, Sheffield inspires a warm, creative and revolutionary space that’s a far cry from its steely past.

A festival for the ages, it’s regarded as one of the best screened and visited festivals for newcomers and veterans. Illustrious, inclusive and international, this year Sheffield Doc/Fest used linear and experiential platforms as a tool to break boundaries, stereotypes and normative storytelling ideologies. This year's theme Ways of Seeing” introduced groundbreaking VR and AR pieces and instalments that focused on gender, identity and climate change, subjects that add depth to everyday conversations and films alike.

Powerful, emotive films such as Diego Maradona by Asif Kapadia, Midnight Family by Luke Lorentzen, For Sama by Waad al-Kateab and Edward Watts, One Child Nation by Nanfu Wang and Mike Wallace is here by Avi Belkin were some of the headliners. These films centered on human resilience, truth and suffering, mostly brought on by individual or governmental choices, which emphasises the impact of decisions on human lives.

However the films couldn’t steal the entire show as the “Alternate Realities” instalments was a crowd attraction. Almost always booked out, this year’s selections were divided into two main categories: ‘subconscious’ and ‘converging’ sensibilities. The ‘subconscious sensibilities’ were interactive installations about the stories of the other and the self, giving viewers an awareness on the perception of those two forms. The ‘converging sensibilities’ were visual stories in VR that explored a variety of perspectives on climate change, mind and body, social injustice and arts and design, giving viewers compassion, understanding and clarity on these subject matters.

Each film and VR/AR narrative played a part in engaging and provoking thought amongst viewers. It connected hearts and minds together during screenings as viewers laughed, smiled and, in some cases, cried along with the characters. Evoking these reactions from viewers could almost validate the high tension and frustrations felt by the creators during the filmmaking process.

In this year’s lineup, the filmmakers and the characters on screen were often one and the same, embodying a dual personality to achieve the desired on-screen effect. The filmmakers behind the scenes formed a close and trusting bond with the characters being portrayed, waiting patiently for the walls to collapse, and to ultimately capture the real narrative.

As filmmakers or emerging talent, it’s an aspiration to document true narratives that change minds, raise awareness and inspire lives. It could be the reason why it’s often suggested to watch films for a creative spark or inspiration. It begs the question, what are you watching and why? Is watching films a necessary learning tool for future filmmakers and if so, what are the right films to watch? This year’s lineup was an example of what filmmakers, corporate or indie, can do to create captivating narratives with interesting characters.

The most compelling documentaries provoke thoughts, challenge perceptions, generate discussion and spark actions. Insight and narrative are everything in documentary making and have a strong effect on audiences, just like this year’s festival had on me.

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