Sheffield Doc/Fest Kicks Off With ‘The Insufferable Groo’ & Maya Rudolph-Produced ‘Shirkers’

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The Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the largest non-fiction festivals in the world, kicked off this weekend with around 200 films as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. The festival is launching the world premiere of films such as Jack Black-associated The Insufferable Groo, the European premiere of Neon-acquired Three Identical Strangers and UK premieres of Pedro Almodóvar-exec produced The Silence of Others and Maya Rudolph-produced Shirkers.

The event, which runs June 7 to 12 and is somewhat similar to the Sundance Film Festival, is both a publicly facing festival with a sizeable industry angle, with broadcasters and filmmakers debating the future of the form and highlighting the latest high-profile projects.

Former Discovery commissioner Liz McIntyre, who is Chief Executive and Festival Director at Sheffield Doc/Fest, highlighted the opening night film Sean McAllister’s A Northern Soul, which follows underdog Steve, a factory worker by day and hip hop performer by night, and Claudia Priscilla and Kiko Goifman’s Tranny Fag, which is centered around black trans pop star Linn da Quebrada. “When Doc/Fest was born, the world was changing forever, the 90s ushering in a remarkable, dynamic era of new power and influence. Doc/Fest was at the forefront of telling those stories of opportunity as well as those of unrest,” she said. “2018 is ushering in a period of reflection about the power we each hold or lack, broadening perceptions and ways to tell stories.”

The festival has been chaired by Alex Graham, founder of Warner Bros-backed UK production company Wall to Wall, who now runs BBC Worldwide-backed Patrick Melrose producer Two Cities Television, since 2011. Graham said Yorkshire had taken a leading role in British cultural life, with Sheffield bidding to host some of the relocated Channel 4, but also highlighted its global reach. “We’re proud of our roots, but we’re also outward looking,” he said.

He emphasized films including Marco Prosperio’s The Man Who Stole Banksy, which follows a controversial mural stolen from the West Bank barrier and put up for sale at a Beverly Hills auction house and receives its European premiere at the festival, and Mark Cousins’ The Eyes of Orson Welles, giving a different look at a key figure of world cinema. Cousins, who worked with Tilda Swinton on documentary Cinema Is Everywhere, is giving a keynote address at the event and also held a Q&A for his latest film, which is being sold by Dogwoof. “[Orson Welles] was a character propelled by excess. A propulsion in him that I find compelling,” he said.

One of the most intriguing films at the festival is Scott Christopherson-directed The Insufferable Groo, which follows Utah writer-director Stephen Groo, who has made nearly 200 low-budget movies in just two decades, as he attempts to encourage Jack Black to become involved in a remake of his 2004 human/elf fantasy drama The Unexpected Race.

The team behind Sandi Tan’s Shirkers, which was acquired worldwide earlier this year by Netflix, is also at Sheffield. The film tells of Tan’s 1992 cult classic Shirkers, about the world of ‘zines, and the theft of the 16mm footage by the filmmakers’ enigmatic American collaborator Georges Cardona, who disappeared. More than two decades later, Tan, now a novelist in L.A., returns to the country of her youth and to the memories of a man who both enabled and thwarted her dreams. And she returns to the original film itself, revived in a way she never could have imagined. “I found the boxes of these tapes and I had no choice but to make this film. This entire film is a dialogue with someone who isn’t there,” she said.

Raw-produced Three Identical Strangers, which is directed by Tim Wardle, had its European premiere following its launch at Sundance. The doc tells the story of three identical triplets, complete strangers raised in entirely different New York households, who managed to discover each other, decades after they had been separated at birth. “There is a lot of shame attached to the people involved in the study… so there is probably still a lot more to come out,” said Wardle.

Cartel Land director Matthew Heineman launched Showtime’s narcotic doc The Trade at the festival, and gave a BAFTA Masterclass. He said it was “his job to put a human face” on his stories and added that the best piece of advice he received was “if you end with the story you started with, you haven’t been listening”.

The festival continues through Tuesday with the likes of S-Town creator Brian Reed and SBTV founder Jamal Edwards, alongside execs from National Geographic and Discovery as well as a raft of British broadcasters including the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Viacom’s Channel 5.

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