Senses of Cinema/Issue 95: Sheffield Documentary Fest amid Global Pandemic – Part 1

27th Sheffield Doc Film Festival

Senses of Cinema/Issue 95: Sheffield Documentary Fest amid Global Pandemic – Part 1

We republish an article published in the 95th issue of ‘Senses of Cinema’, a quarterly online film magazine founded in 1999 by filmmaker Bill Mousoulis and based in Melbourne, Australia. This article was writtne by Sofie Cato Maas, a Rotterdam-born and currently London-based film student and critic. In this article she shares the experiences of the 27th edition of Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, the UK’s largest documentary festival, with a theme ‘Sense of Cinema’ while a global pandemic has almost become too hard to grasp


Cinema is one of those rare forms of art where the relation and tension between aesthetics and ideology, past and present, and formalism and realism, come forward. In such times when the lived reality seems to surpass fiction, hence becoming too hard to grasp, this duality between harmony and dissonance that cinema embodies can offer the spectator a way to relate to whatever it is they live through. Now that most film festivals have had to cancel their upcoming editions or reshape them online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the self-reflexive questions that has been raised by this new reality, is what cinema can offer the spectator in a time of crisis. How does cinema and the realities that we are presented with on screen, fit within the kind of uncertainty that we live through? Cinema has always been a way for me to comprehend feelings I do not fully understand. Where words seem incompetently inadequate, cinema manages to grasp those incomplete thoughts and indescribable fears and desires that roam the unconsciousness, through its synthesis and interdependence of images, sounds, and words – a medium perfect for grasping our ambiguous relation with the real. That this is one of cinema’s unique qualities was also palpable in this year’s program of Sheffield Doc/Fest.

The 27th edition of the UK’s largest documentary festival, the first year under the leadership of Doclisboa’s former director Cíntia Gil and her new artistic team, took place on an online film platform called DocPlayer. The whole program presented on this platform, of which I can only highlight a small section here, is firmly rooted in both historical and contemporary actuality and closely interwoven into the conflicts and contradictions that we are faced with now, thus manifesting cinema both as consolation and a radical platform for change.

There are several main themes that become visible and weave through all the strands, yet they all relate to one concept that has suddenly become of greater importance than before the pandemic: namely the landscape and how it represents change, history, memory and, above all, displacement. The Ghosts & Apparitions section occupies a unique position by offering an inventive context surrounding contemporary new documentary cinema, while simultaneously creating parallels between the present and the past. This strand forms an investigation into cinema’s representation of history and its ability to alter it alongside memory and the spectators’ vision of reality. Cinema’s visual flexibility makes the invisible visible as it forces its spectators to look at reality in a different way.

Take Nick Jordan’s Concrete Forms of Resistance, in which the deteriorating state of the massive concrete structures of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer in Tripoli, Lebanon, stand central as a metaphor of societal change. After the Lebanese civil war, most buildings in Tripoli had been destroyed – which was seen as an opportunity to build expensive luxury flats in its place, and ultimately meant that only those with money could afford architecture. Jordan predominantly focuses on the relationship between sound and image, making use of voice-overs only, while letting the camera float past the architectural structures. By doing so, the concrete framework, that is still standing in the middle of one of the most expensive neighbourhoods as an abandoned and decaying skeleton, becomes a ghost of a time in which the practise of architecture was closely linked to social questions – to improve living conditions for those in need. The ungainly cement complex thus represents a reflection of resistance and destruction alike born of war.

The idea of the landscape that stands as an echo of the past, reminds me of something that Linda Williams said, namely that “there can be historical depth to the notion of truth – not the depth of unearthing a coherent and unitary past but the depth of the past’s reverberation with the present.”1 This idea that we carry our history with us, and that the landscape acts as a messenger of the past – that history leaves its mark and stays visible all around us – informs multiple films in this section. As in Emma Charles’ and Ben Evans James’ On a Clear Day You Can See the Revolution from Here. Set in Kazakhstan, at the crossroads between the massive cultures of Russia and China, the camera passes through a landscape of forgotten histories and traditions of a people that have always had to adapt to retain their national identity. And it is through the landscape’s juxtaposition between nature, urban architecture that is both reminiscent of times long gone by and modernity, and industry terrain, that the film manages to portray the national reconstruction of a post-Soviet Kazakhstan that gained independence from the USSR in 1991.

Another strand, Into the World, featured various depictions of the world and asked how different political and environmental conditions force the filmmakers to evaluate their place in society. Here the landscape predominantly embodies trauma and memory. Truth in relation to history and memory and its representation in cinema has always been problematic, but in relation to the documentary as a mimetic or referential mode, the issue takes on further complexity. History and memory are closely related and perhaps even synonymous to a certain extent, as history is predominantly comprised of memory because we carry our personal history with us at all times in the form of memories. Do we only assume history is true and thus actually took place, when it has been written down or when there are visible remnants left? Both ideas are disputable, as sometimes history solely consists of memories – when there are no documents or written books that register an event, or visible remnants left, and history is partly left to the imagination instead of memory.

This forms one of the struggles of Kazimiera Gerech, the Polish grandmother whose history is portrayed by her grandson Jonathan Kołodziej Durand in Memory is our Homeland. Together with her family and a large segment of the Polish population, they lost their home and all their belongings when they were displaced to labour camps in Siberia after the USSR, together with Nazi Germany, invaded Poland in 1939. At the end of WWII, after having been dislocated from Siberia to Iran, India and East-Africa, these by this time nationless Polish refugees realised they would never be able to return to Poland as the country stayed under control of the USSR. As Kazimiera and other Polish women explain in front of the camera, perhaps the only thing worse than having to speak about and remember their past of pain and displacement, is that this history has now been nearly forgotten. The repressed past of these forgotten Polish refugees surfaces through the framework of the documentary that retraces the journey of the grandmother, and the relation between her, sitting in front of the camera, and her grandson, behind it.