Sheffield’s DocFest, one of the world’s largest documentary festivals, returned in June this year with a wide-ranging and diverse offering of films to suit all interests. From the political organising of trans women in Argentina and underground rap battles in Lebanon to the racist weaponisation of hormonal birth control in the USA (and beyond), DocFest had it all covered. So, here are seven of my top picks to watch out for from the festival for 2022.
Mostly set in her own home of New York City, this home-video style documentary follows Rebeca ‘Beba’ Huntt – who is also the film’s director – as she explores her Afro-Latina roots. She challenges herself to have conversations with her family on societal and intergenerational trauma in order to break the cycle of her ancestors. In the film, Beba says, “I’m watching the curses of my family slowly kill us. So, I’m going to war… And there will be casualties.”
Throughout the film, we watch Beba lead these conversations with her relatives, including difficult and uncomfortable discussions with her mother about race and her experience raising Black children. As Beba dives deep into her cultural and familial history, she allows the audience to watch her exploration of these relationships, no matter the unease of the situation. There’s a particularly powerful scene where the film is looking at the wider racial and political unease in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, and Beba is sat in a room of white fellow university students discussing race and politics. She becomes visibly upset and angry, leaving the room, accusing the students of pandering to respectability politics. This is a documentary that perfectly encapsulates how the personal is always political.
You can find out more about Beba here.
Beneath The Surface
Directed by Alexander Irvine-Cox, Beneath The Surface is an investigative documentary that looks into the systemic racism and abuse of the Indigenous Sámi people in Tysfjord, a northern region of Norway. First reported on in 2014, the film follows years of work by journalists uncovering and exposing the generations of abuse, suffering and state negligence of a community who’ve been fighting to have their voices and experiences heard, supported by a mass of evidence. Over the course of Beneath The Surface, we watch as many from the Sámi community come together to take the Norwegian government to court over the systemic racism and state neglect that they’ve experienced for years, with the aim of creating real change for future generations.
Beneath The Surface is an honest and emotional look into the violence endured by Indigenous communities. It shows the sense of unrivalled power in a community that’s proud of its culture and heritage – one that is willing to come together to fight for who they are and the injustices that they have been subjected to.
You can find out more about Beneath The Surface here.
And Still I Sing
Against the backdrop of a politically turbulent Afghanistan, And Still I Sing is a glimpse behind the scenes of TV singing competition Afghan Star and the show’s first two female frontrunners in 2019: Zahra Elham and Sadiqa Madadgar. The two women are trained by Aryana Sayeed – one of Afghanistan’s best known singers and also an outspoken activist on women’s rights – as their dreams of being a singer finally are within reach.
Directed by Fazila Amiri, the film unfolds as Elham and Madadgar pursue their singing dreams, yet face misogynistic discrimination and abuse along the way, including being unable to rent an apartment without the consent of a male relative. And when the Taliban begin their return to power, how the women and their singing careers adapt and change. And Still I Sing is a documentary that sheds light on what it’s like to be a woman in Afghanistan today, especially after the US withdrawal in 2021, and what happens to the hopes and dreams of women under Taliban rule.
You can find out more about And Still I Sing here.
Our Bodies Are Your Battlefields
As transphobia continues to engulf many feminist movements, this film explores the fight for women’s and trans rights in Argentina in the face of patriarchal violence and oppression. Directed by Isabelle Solas, Our Bodies Are Your Battlefields shines a much-needed light on the lives of trans women, like Violeta and Claudia, the work they’re doing to improve the lives of trans people and the many obstacles they face. In one scene, we see Claudia fight her way into a women’s rights demonstration to speak on inclusivity in feminism whilst being punched and kicked by other feminists, but bravely continues in her mission to take the stage in order to address the crowd.
With trans people being murdered around the world in increasing numbers, Our Bodies Are Your Battlefields is a strong reminder that the lives of trans people are in a constant threat of danger, and yet they continue to pave the way in feminist movements.
You can find out more about Our Bodies Are Your Battlefields here.
Directed by Jay Jammal and filmed over several years from 2015, El Arena explores the underground hip-hop and rap scene in Beirut, Lebanon, and how The Arena – an annual music event – and its battles were established and grew into something bigger than the organisers ever thought it would be in the region.
Set against the backdrop of a deteriorating economy and growing political unrest, El Arena looks into how the rap battles became more heated and political over time, reflecting the discontent and protests of the nation, but also the difficulties the organisers faced in putting the event together. This film uses music and culture to explore wider political issues in Lebanon, including the 2020 port explosion, and really drives home how music can be such a vital tool to engage, disrupt and protest.
The Business of Birth Control
The Business of Birth Control is an unflinchingly honest look into the economy and politics of hormonal birth control that doesn’t shy away from peering into the biological and societal effects these drugs are having on women’s bodies. Directed by Abby Epstein, the film looks beyond the freedom of choice the contraceptive pill has given to many women. Instead, it turns to the disturbing history behind this choice, including its legacy of racism and eugenics and the continued weaponisation of the pill against people of colour.
The film includes very moving and harrowing accounts from bereaved families who have lost children to hormonal birth control and their fight, alongside reproductive justice groups, against the pharmaceutical companies to ensure no other person dies from these drugs.
You can find out more about The Business of Birth Control here.
8 Bar – The Evolution of Grime
Told from the inside, Ewen Spencer’s 8 Bar – The Evolution Of Grime is a deep dive into the world of grime music and a fascinating look at how this genre exploded onto the scene and grew to not only influence the music industry but popular culture too. The likes of Dizzee Rascal, Kano, Lethal Bizzle and Ashley Walters appear in the film, detailing the birth and growth of their genre of music, with stories of underground raves, producing their own vinyls, and their communities setting up their own shops to sell grime music. But it also includes stories of protests, institutional racism and the state continuing to criminalise grime, right up to the present.
8 Bar isn’t just a film about a one genre of music or particular group of artists, but the huge and wide-reaching cultural impact that grime music and Black British artists have had in this country and beyond.
You can find out more about 8 Bar here.
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