Blog: Refugee Crisis Films at Sheffield Doc Festival 2017

I arrived in Sheffield later than anticipated due to boarding the wrong train in Doncaster… By the time I got to the home of Doc Fest the sun was shining and the festival was in full swing.

After picking up my press pass and free swag bag (great design this year) and consulting the programme, two things quickly became apparent. Firstly, there were no refugee-related films (that I knew of) scheduled to screen today. And secondly, my film viewing and reviewing would incrementally increase over the next 3 days. Tomorrow I have 2 feature films to watch (‘Mr Gay Syria’ and ‘69 Minutes of 89 Days’) and on Monday I have a whopping 3 features (‘Stranger in Paradise’, ‘City of Ghosts’ and ‘Radio Kobani’) and 2 Virtual Reality experiences (‘Future Aleppo’ and ‘Death Tolls Experience’). Its as if the schedule was intentionally designed to offer me an increasingly challenging crash course. Like some kind of refugee-related-documentary film blogging version of ‘Donkey Kong’.

After sketching out my festival game plan, I headed to the box office to make my bookings. To my surprise all it took was a few clicks and a scan of my lanyard pass. No ticket print outs. No fiddling with emails on my phone. Just a piece of plastic around my neck. We truly are living in the future.

For my first screening I followed the strong recommendation of my gracious Sheffield host and old friend who is an academic researcher in Palestine. Ghost Hunting, directed by Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni, is a fascinating and innovative exploration of trauma. When he was 18, Andoni was incarcerated in Moskobiya, an infamous Israeli interrogation centre. 30 years on he has made a documentary in which he brings together a group of other former inmates to build a replica of the prison, based on their sense memories (because for the most part they were blindfolded while they were incarcerated). When the set is built he casts a professional actor (also a former inmate) as himself and the other ex prisoners as Israeli guards, and gets them all to re-enact their experiences from Moskobiya, often taking part himself. The aim is to relive and reshape these traumatic memories so as to understand them better and come to terms with them. This makes for an incredibly potent, provocative and emotionally cathartic experience for the players on-screen and for the audience.

Often it isn’t clear whether you are watching a fictional re-enactment or a ‘real’ scene between the director and his company. I was particularly moved by a scene in which one of the players opens up for the first time about his brother who committed suicide in the prison while he was there. The next day he comes to Andoni visibly lifted. He tells the director about how after his confession, he spent the rest of the day playing with his young daughter, liberated from his terrible memory and survivor’s guilt. The film doesn’t offer much in the way of conventional plot and structure. Instead it conveys a very human emotional journey. It brought to mind Joshua Oppenheimer’s astonishing but gruelling ‘The Act of Killing’. But rather than watching perpetrators of violence realise the appalling nature of their actions through re-enactment, here we see subjects of oppression use role play to reconcile their suffering – trauma therapy through the medium of cinema.

After the film I drifted around in contemplation under the late afternoon sun and happened upon an outdoor screening of a series of short films. As I settled into a deckchair I quickly realised I was watching a film that had slipped through my nets. The short doc appeared to involve an Australian trauma therapist (apparently a theme for the day) working with asylum seekers on a tropical island. Scanning the credits, I learned that the Guardian produced short was titled ‘The Island’ and that it would screen again in the city square on Monday afternoon. So that’s now 3 feature films, 2 VR experiences and 1 short film for me to review on Day 3. Talk about a steep learning curve.

Thanks for reading.

Thomas Laurance