June 2021 saw the return of Sheffield Doc Fest in an exciting hybrid capacity, with a dizzying array of film screenings, events and workshops taking place at various sites including Site Gallery, S1 Artspace, Abbeydale Picturehouse, Hallam Performance Lab and digitally on the festival’s Online Exhibitions Platform. This year the festival’s Arts Programme, formerly known as Alternate Realities, shifted from its usual focus on VR to an expansive programme of moving image works by over thirty artists from around the world, curated through open-call submissions and three major commissions.
The group exhibition Here In This Room, which was mostly shown in situ, was conceived by curator Herb Shellenberger during the 2020 lockdown and is informed by how the sixteen artists relate to domestic space. Each film depicts or reimagines home and domestic labour routines, inviting viewers to consider inhabited space in new and surprising ways. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the installation at Site Gallery; Charlotte Jarvis’s newly commissioned work ‘In Posse’ (2021) sat at the centre, its triangular table-like structure laden with candles that glowed softly in the quiet darkness of the space, among half-opened fruit, sheets of paper and vials of glowing liquid, with a mound of nuts strewn across it. Documenting the artist’s quest to make semen from ‘female’ cells (as seen in the vials), the work seeks to disrupt patriarchal notions of creativity, using the Ancient Greek festival of Thesmophoria (a women-only event) as a symbol for this act of disruption. Small screens embedded in the table allowed the viewer to watch the work while wearing headphones. Though the installation spoke to the work’s notions of collectivity (built upon through a rich workshop programme), it was in slight discord with the individualised experience of sitting and staring down at your own screen. However, this worked well in relation to the often tongue-in-cheek tone of the film, which shifts between deeply collaborative work to the critique of the ‘lone genius’ and creator.
Displayed in the same space were the compelling works by Basir Mahmood and Heesoo Kwon, both of whom are concerned with interrupting the patriarchal gaze. Mahmood’s ‘Sunsets, everyday’ (2020) emerged out of his research into the ethics of creating images that depict domestic violence, especially in the context the pandemic when reported cases have risen dramatically. The film refuses to fetishise women’s bodies as sites for brutalisation, eschewing scenes of interpersonal violence in favour of the minute, everyday repetitions of abuse. Mahmood’s camera focuses on men’s faces as they go about their daily routines in public, as they talk to each other and work together. A recurring clip shows a man mopping a linoleum floor, with the mop passing across the screen over and over. These are spliced with clips showing a woman’s fragmented body – the back of her neck, her arms and feet hitting the carpet repeatedly, her body twisting sharply. As the film unfolded I felt a quiet, menacing dread. Its emphasis is not on the violence itself, which is unseen yet implied, but on the callous ease with which everyday abuse happens behind closed doors. Outside of the nightmarish domestic space, public life continues uninterrupted.
Heesoo Kwon’s film and photographic installation ‘탈피를 위한 의식 / A Ritual for Metamorphosis’ (2019) is a humorous and powerful intervention into the artist’s childhood. Unaware of the patriarchal structures that shaped the rituals of her childhood, Kwon sought to derail them retroactively by splicing a 3D nude avatar into clips of home videos. In one instance, the avatar dances and grinds while standing in the middle of the dinner table as the family sits to eat; in another it coils through the house in the shape of a serpent. The avatar dances to the repetitive sound of traditional ironing sticks, used to signal the invisible labour of the women in Kwon’s family. The camera pans across a family portrait, lingering on each of the women’s faces, the image blurring and distorting as it arrives at the men. In the gallery space, Kwon chose to display only portraits of the women in her family. Blown up to large scale, the photographs showed them standing on a beach or sitting on a sofa, with inserted avatars posing comically or embracing the family members. The work explores the empowering and therapeutic process of redefining traumatic scenes from our past and the healing realisation that we are now at liberty to protect ourselves from old wounds and, of course, to freely dance naked on the table.
Daïchi Saïto’s thirty-minute long ‘Earthearthearth’ (2021) was projected on 35mm film at the Showroom Cinema (incredible to see after being away from the big screen for over a year). The film shows the Chilean Andes in wildly psychedelic, radioactive colours, accompanied by Jason Sharp’s enveloping soundtrack of heartbeats, droning and circular-breathing saxophone. Shot on 16mm and entirely hand-processed with techniques such as bipacking and solarisation, the film was scaled up to 35mm for the screening, making for captivating textures and movement. Saïto invites us to witness the landscape from another perspective; two shots of the mountains are overlaid, shimmering like bodies coming together and dancing apart. The intimacy of skin touching skin, alluding to our changed relationship with the environment and the blurring of boundaries between human and non-human.
The online exhibition Right On Time, curated by Soukaina Aboulaoula, presented a collective, open-ended exploration of non-linear temporalities. I was transfixed by Zara Zandieh’s urgent and powerful work ‘Octavia’s Visions’ (2021), which was inspired by African American writer Octavia E. Butler’s Parable novel series. The work is a commentary on the intersecting issues of racism, colonialism and the ecological crisis, weaving Butler’s voice together with images of burning forests, fascist mobs, melting ice and scenes from the gay liberation movement alongside a restaging of the recent toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston. Zandieh’s work resists the colonial and patriarchal notions of linear time, using a visual language that draws from multiple reference points and time frames to express a ‘queer utopian imaginary’, where she envisions all beings thriving. Scenes showing Butler writing out a manifesto that urges viewers into action are interwoven with clips of archival material (including activist Sylvia Rivera’s incendiary ‘Y’all Better Quiet Down’ speech from the 1973 Gay Pride Rally in New York); scripted scenes with imagined voices of stolen artifacts calling for repatriation; and young, queer, Black and Indigenous activists announcing that ‘Change is no longer coming, it is here’. At its climax, the film urges viewers to ‘tell stories, craft visions’, an assertion that ties in with one of the overarching aims of this year’s festival: to explore the radical possibilities of documentary, experimental and artist film in order to disrupt old, malignant narratives.
Sheffield DocFest ran from 4-13 June 2021. Documentation of the Arts Programme can be found at arts.sheffdocfest.com where you can also view the artworks On Time by Gian Spina and Still Life Moving by Geraldine Snell, plus digital Talks, and Meet the Artist videos.
Jessica Piette is a writer and curator with research interests in feminism and ecology, currently based in the West Midlands.