Senses of Cinema/Issue 95: Sheffield Documentary Fest amid Global Pandemic – Part 2

Senses of Cinema-Sheffield Film Festival

Senses of Cinema/Issue 95: Sheffield Documentary Fest amid Global Pandemic – Part 2

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


Another strong woman fighting to change the way we think about the reality that we are living in stands at the forefront of the Las Abejas of Actea, a collective dedicated to the struggle for the survival of the indigenous communities in the south of Mexico. In Monica Wise Robles’ Lupita que retiemble la tierra, the spectator is introduced to Lupita, one of the few survivors of the Tzotzil Maya massacre in 1997, when the Mexican army took up an offensive against the peaceful Tzotzil community that ended in the deaths of 45 women, men and children. To this day, the community continues to live in fear of their safety and forced displacement, as the land on which they live is taken away – however, united they fight back. In Lupita the past of the trauma of the massacre and displacement is reincarnated in the present, as her continuation of resistance as one of the few women at the very forefront of this struggle against the army and the Mexican government seems to enable change.

In relation to forgotten histories, a personal favourite of the festival is Agustina Comedi’s short Playback. Ensayo de una despedida about the Kalas group, formed after the fall of the dictatorship in Argentina in the 1980s. A short period of relative freedom allowed a group of transgender women and drag queens to form the collective, of which to this day only La Delphi remains. As is well known, the AIDS crisis hit the queer community disproportionately and devastatingly hard and claimed the lives of many young people, among them Kalas’ member La Gallega. In order to deal with the loss of their friend, the other members fantasised about various alternative endings to the life of La Gallega that are explored and constructed via the camera in this video message from the past. Shot entirely on video, this at the time still relatively new medium proved to have the ability to transmit an alternative discourse to the ideology presented by the government. In the search for artistic means to express and voice their identity and sexuality, their discontent, their fear and their aspirations for a more open and accepting society, their bodies, dresses and songs – their very existence – became a form of protest. In this context Adam Golub’s Aconchego da tua Mãe (Your Mother’s Comfort), from the Rebellions section, about the Brazilian trans-activist Indianara Siqueira, also becomes of special importance – and equally in relation to the notion of displacement as the shelter for trans sex workers Siqueira runs is threatened to be evicted.

Sheffield Film Fest: From the documentary Aconchego da tua Mãe (Your Mother’s Comfort

Sheffield Film Fest: From the documentary Aconchego da tua Mãe (Your Mother’s Comfort

The festival also created special focuses dedicated to the work of three pioneering directors: the legendary anti-colonial activist and poet Sarah Maldoror, Lynne Sachs and Simplice Herman Ganou. As a tribute to Maldoror, who sadly recently passed away due to the COVID-19 virus, the festival will show her celebrated short Monangambée (1969), and other programming, later this year in cinemas, as part of the Into the World strand.

Both Sachs and Ganou are directors that use cinema to investigate the complicated relationship between the camera and the human body – going beyond the human body as an articulation of ideas and concepts. With the video lecture My Body, Your Body, Our Bodies: Somatic Cinema at Home and in the World, Sachs created an online journey through her work to explore the way in which the human body features in her cinema, addressing gender, sex, race and generational differences. In it, Sachs guides us through the versatility of her body of work, returning mostly to the question of to what extent it is possible – or should it be possible – to explore yourself (as a film/documentary maker) in your film in relation to whatever the subject of the film you are making is. The lecture interrogates what it means for the camera to analyse the human body and what it means that the body that is in power when filming, the filmmaker’s, is entirely invisible.

Ganou does something similar in his delicately constructed works portraying human beings by establishing the camera primarily as a way to connect with those around him. His new short film L’Inconnu (The Unknown) shows how estranged people have become in an increasingly individualised society, yet simultaneously that there is kindness to be found in random encounters. Ganou walks through Winterthur in an attempt to make contact in a city that is still unknown and lonely to him – yet he is predominantly ignored or avoided in the streets when he greets people. In his film, the power relation between bodies is reversed: his presence and visibility as filmmaker now in front of the camera make him more vulnerable. And it is this vulnerability that marks his cinema, that is always filled with curiosity of the other, the unknown.

From the documentary L’Inconnu (The Unknown)'

From the documentary L’Inconnu (The Unknown)’

Paradoxically, now that the pandemic has stopped all of us in our tracks and halted our lives, the crisis has also allowed for a time of reflection and radicalism. The recent worldwide wave of Black Lives Matter protests in support of racial justice and against the disproportionate police violence that the black (LGBTQIA+) community faces, shows how desperately change is needed and how deep racism, hatred and fear of the other still rest in the deepest foundations of our societies. Because of the pandemic, there is no other way to turn and society is being forced to look at its damaging and painful desire to ignore fundamental problems. That cinema stands as a reminder of the fact that history is full of examples of this flight and disregard of responsibility during supposed peacetime, and the disastrous consequences that follow from this collective looking-away, as is also shown in Gosia Juszczak’s Stolen Fish.

From the documentary 'Stolen Fish'

27th Sheffield Film Festival: from the film ‘Stolen Fish’

The short film offers insight into the exploitation of Africa by China and the West and portrays the vicious cycle that allows it to continue. In Gambia, a country relying predominantly on the sea, a Chinese fish factory was opened as a part of Xi Jinping’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative. The factory led to a rise in the price of fish, created a shortage of fish in the sea and pushed local fishermen into poverty. The film lays bare the mechanics that show that this cycle of inequality is directly supported by the inhumane system that was designed to profit those in power, with absolutely no regard for the ecological and social consequences of their exploitation. With capitalism as the engine of this cycle, most people directly affected by it are forced to leave their hometown for Europe, where they are then condemned for their very arrival.

Film festivals are ultimately an act of confirmation – a confirmation of our will to reshape traditional ideals, enhance the experience of cinema, shape new forms of art, revisit old debates that should not be forgotten and, above all, encounter new ideas. Now that the COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of the ability to physically come together, festivals around the world face the daunting task of reinventing themselves in a hostile environment out of necessity. Despite my efforts to abstain from any toe-curling sentimentality, I find it heartbreaking to have watched all these films on the miniscule screen of my laptop instead of on the cinematic screens that they deserve. An online festival version is not in any way a substitute for the experience of an actual film festival and of being part of its community, but somehow Sheffield has quickly managed to reshape itself as one of the most inventive festivals in a time in which there is a great need of radicalism, a platform that offers an alternative in a time of crisis.

In spite of the gloomy and desperate situation that we find ourselves in now, this festival edition might offer a glimpse of hope for the near future. After all, it is a festival in which its purpose has been reimagined under extreme circumstances. In Martina Mestrovic’s and Tanja Vujasinovic’s beautifully animated portrait of the Croatian sculpture Marija Ujevic Macka je uvijek zenska (A Cat is Always Female), Marija’s calm voice reassuringly tells the spectator that life is ultimately movement and that “the idea of paradise is somehow connected to what we’re offered. But we have to go out and look for what we want.” Cinema is a way to express and reflect (unconscious) thoughts and emotions, the things we would like to change and the things we should do better. As Christian Metz believed that cinema never becomes an actual mirror, but rather a glass through which the spectator looks at the other, this festival program becomes a glass through which all the indirect and invisible relations that exist between communities worldwide become visible. A glass through which it becomes evident that, in the words of Lupita, a world that can hold many worlds, is indeed possible.