Sheffield Doc/Fest: War crimes, pop stars and skaters

By Ian Youngs
Arts reporter, BBC News


The rise and fall of a 1980s pop band, the tragic story of two skateboarding champions and an unfinished Alfred Hitchcock film about World War II concentration camps.

These are the subjects of a few of the 130 documentaries that will be screened at Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the world's leading factual film-making festivals, which begins on Saturday.

Two years ago, Sheffield Doc/Fest hosted the UK premiere of Searching for Sugar Man, which went on to win the Oscar for best documentary. Last year, it screened The Act of Killing, which won a Bafta and was named the best film of 2013 by The Guardian.

The festival's director of programming Hussain Currimbhoy has picked five films that are being screened at this year's event and could go on to make waves around the world.

Night Will Fall

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionAlfred Hitchcock was an advisor on the original film - but it was never finished

In 1945, Allied forces in Germany documented the horrors they found in Nazi concentration camps.

Granada TV founder Sidney Bernstein, who was making films for the Allied Forces at the time, decided to turn the footage into a documentary to leave the German public in no doubt about what had happened.

He enlisted Alfred Hitchcock, who acted as an advisor, and approached Billy Wilder to direct it. But the film was never completed.

Now, director and producer Andre Singer - who produced The Act of Killing - has made Night Will Fall, documenting the attempts to make that film.

"What I've seen is incredible," Mr Currimbhoy says of Night Will Fall. "Because the ethics of documentaries are always in question, this film is great because it shows that footage can be used in different ways. It can be for a story, for propaganda, for politics or for pure cinema."

All This Mayhem

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionTas Pappas (left) will be at the festival to discuss his life

In the mid-1990s, Australian brothers Tas and Ben Pappas were ranked as the first and second best skateboarders in the world.

But in 1999, Ben was caught smuggling cocaine. Eight years later, he murdered his girlfriend before taking his own life. Tas spent time in jail for drug smuggling and assaulting his wife.

"Success completely messed them up," Mr Currimbhoy says. "It's not the usual story of squeaky clean, nice, chummy skaters that you see in the US. These guys were punk skaters. They were using the streets in a whole different way."

Now Tas is out of jail, has apparently turned his life around and is skating again while working as an abseiling window cleaner. He is travelling to Sheffield for the screening.

All This Mayhem has been directed by Eddie Martin and produced by James Gay-Rees, who also produced Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop and F1 documentary Senna.

"This will do well in cinemas," Mr Currimbhoy says. "I saw it and I was hooked straight away. It's so well told and the characters are amazing."

Soul Boys of the Western World

image captionSpandau Ballet had 10 UK top 10 singles in their 1980s heyday

Spandau Ballet rose from London's new romantic Blitz club in the 1970s to become one of the world's biggest pop groups of the 1980s.

But they then descended into acrimony and legal battles in the 1990s.

This documentary uses archive footage to tell the story of their rise and fall.

"It feels good, it's about young working-class guys who put together a band on a whim and then world domination ensues," Mr Currimbhoy says. "You're always submerged in that era of the '80s and the '90s, which looks so weird to us now.

"It really works as a film about what music can do and how success can change you. It's going to do very big things, I think."

Beautiful Noise

image copyrightSheffield DocFest
image captionBeautiful Noise raised $85,000 (£50,000) through a crowd-funding campaign

Meanwhile, as Spandau Ballet were prancing on stadium stages, bands like The Cocteau Twins, The Jesus and Mary Chain and My Bloody Valentine were creating a loud, eerie and, indeed, beautiful noise on the alternative circuit.

This film, which has been an eight-year labour of love for director Eric Green, examines that scene through interviews with band members and those they influenced.

Mr Green made it after raising $85,000 (£50,000) on fan-funding website Kickstarter.

"It's a bit scrappy, this film," Mr Currimbhoy explains. "It's exactly my generation - late 30s, early 40s, underachieving males, that was their moment. That was when life was good.

"That music is very emotionally attached to people of my generation. It's a small film but it has potential to be quite big."

Attacking the Devil

image captionHarold Evans was the Sunday Times editor who covered the thalidomide scandal

The drug thalidomide was licensed in the 1950s to help expectant mothers deal with morning sickness. But by the early '60s, it became clear that it caused serious birth defects.

The film's full title is Attacking The Devil: Harold Evans and the Last Nazi War Crime.

As editor of the Sunday Times, Mr Evans campaigned for compensation for the victims in the 1970s before fighting a legal injunction to stop the paper revealing the drug's developers had not gone through the proper testing procedures.

The last part of the title refers to the story about how the drug was first developed by the Germans in World War II to counter the effects of sarin gas poisoning.

Mr Currimbhoy says: "It's long, it's brand new, it twists and turns, it's beautifully made, it's edge of your seat drama but also talks about the power of the media and how pharmaceutical companies are screwing us, and the crime of complacency."

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