What does space smell like? Sheffield Doc/Fest Roundup Day 3 & 4

First things first: the films.

“Smell is like a road” – Lucie Tremblay (Producer). Promotional still from The Empire of Scents (2015).

Day 3 of Sheffield Doc/Fest for this intrepid archaeologist kicked off at 10am with the UK premier of The Empire of Scents by Canadian director Kim Nguyen. An audio/visual journey into smell? Is that even a thing? Well, here it is, and somehow it works – and surprisingly well. The Empire of Scents is a essay-like journey into the world of smell and its vital role in synesthesia (the mingling of the senses, memory and emotion in human experience). How does smell work, why does it matter and what would life be like without it? The story of smell is told through the weaving together of the personal passions and experiences of various olfactory experts, including perfumers, a chefs, truffle hunters, saffron harvesters, an astronaut, a botanist, an Alzheimer patient and a tea ceremony master.

This journey is a gentle one, humorous and affectionate, with lots of small, unexpected hooks, twists and turns along the way. Most affecting is the story of a young woman who, having survived a car accident but suffering brain damage, found she could no longer smell. Gone was her sense of taste, her awareness and enjoyment of her environment, and even her memories of loved ones. Can she ever recover her sense of smell? Also, what does space smell like? Can the smell of a truffle also unlock its sound? Do flowers fall in love with each other through scent? Do humans? And is the secret ingredient of perfume really whale vomit? Personally I would have also liked to know if it’s true that archaeologists who specialise in coprolite analysis really can smell the health of said poop’s owner – but maybe that was a little to much on the nose for the filmmakers. Get along to The Empire of Scents when it arrives at your local cinema: this is a bouquet of stories worth savouring (and if you’re in the US you might even get to scratch and sniff your way to an answer at the films premier later this year).

“I’ve been dreading this for a rather long time” – Parvez Sharma (Director). Promotional still from A Sinner in Mecca (2015).

I also had the privilege of attending the European premier of A Sinner in Mecca by Indian/US filmmaker Parvez Sharma. Shot primarily on iPhone (there’s some b-camera, animation and archival to plug the narrative gaps), Sharma tells his own personal story of how he made the dangerous Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. Over two million pilgrims make this journey every year – the largest annual gathering of people in the world, including the elderly, the frail and families with children – so how can it be dangerous? Especially when there’s a Starbucks within shouting distance of the Kaaba? Well, in Sharma’s case the danger is very real and very personal: Sharma is an openly gay documentary filmmaker who has been publicly labelled an infidel (for his last film A Jihad for Love) and who now lives with his husband in New York. Both filming within the Hajj sites and homosexuality are strictly forbidden in Saudi Arabia, the latter punishable by death, as testified by a friend and witness of such an execution in the opening minutes of the film. And yet Sharma must go on the Hajj in order to fulfill his spiritual duties as a Muslim: “I am now faced with a crisis of faith, I need to prove that I can be a good Muslim and be gay”. That conflict makes this is a dangerous spiritual journey as well – is Sharma’s faith strong enough to survive the disapproval of his family, the personal test of his character and the modern political conditions literally dictating his movements?

By filming chiefly on an iPhone not only do we share Sharma’s journey on an extremely intimate level but the filming itself is allowed to be gritty, raw and human. There are few polished crane shots of crowds circling within The Sacred Mosque as you’ll see on slicker films, instead we are down in the scrum, on the ground amid the crush and debris of millions cramming their way through the physically and mentally arduous rituals of the Hajj.

This is a terrific film and one that will no doubt be discussed and debated in film schools for years to come, throwing up questions of ethics (how do you get a release form signed when you’re shooting under cover?), reflexivity and impact (like The Look of Silence discussed in the last post, A Sinner in Mecca is banned in the country of origin, and so is being distributed in Saudi Arabia non-commercially by DVD and digital download through grassroots channels). The most powerful moment I experienced in seeing this film was during the Q&A when a young Muslim woman up the front of the cinema burst into tears thanking Sharma for the film – no-one else in the room was so affected. Her words drove home to me that the Western reception of this film is going to be very much secondary in importance to its Muslim reception (even though the commercial success may be the opposite) and I look forward to reading how it is received by Muslim communities and critics around the world. Stay tuned for more on A Sinner in Mecca.

Speed Sisters Promotional Still
“What are we supposed to do, stop living?” Speed Sisters (2015) promotional still.

On Day 4 of Doc/Fest I attended the European premiers of Speed Sisters, a romp of a film with a great soundtrack about Palestine’s (and the Arab world’s) first all-female speed racing team, directed by Lebanese/Canadian filmmaker Amber Fares; and How to Change the World by Jerry Rothwell, an archival/talking heads film about the origins of Greenpeace. Unexpectedly, according to Rothwell during the Q&A, the latter film was not instigated by the NGO, but brought to a rough cut stage before the key figures were invited to be interviewed (therefore, and refreshingly, it’s not really an institutional/ized film). Now, this blog entry’s getting a bit long, so suffice it to say that if either of these show up at your local cinema, or more likely on your Netflix, then you should definitely check them out, they’re both humorous, moving, and enjoyable viewing and nice examples of thoughtful but bold storytelling with a social justice edge.

And now to business!

I attended quite a few panels on commissioning and multi-platforms, but I’m just going to talk about one particular panel today:

“It’s better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.” Jezza Neumann [far right] (Filmmaker, True Vision Production). Screen capture from Meet The Natives (Channel 4). Very bad iPhone photo of the panel, courtesy K. Rogers.
The most interesting panel I attended over these two days was definitely ‘Imperialism of Inquiry: How Fair is Our Foreign Filming’. This panel dealt more with the current affairs/journalism end of documentary filmmaking for television, made for white, western and predominantly UK audiences. It started off with a discussion on the importance of ethics in investigative foreign filmmaking, and in particular addressed informed consent (what happens when you loose control of your participant’s image to unscrupulous internet trolls or advertisers, an inevitability in digital broadcasting) and differing censorship standards (eg. UK documentaries cannot legally film or broadcast the testimony of UK child rape victims, but they can do so of African child rape victims – so which country’s broadcaster’s code/legislation is more ethical?). When do your duties to your participants, local crew and fixers end? Certainly not come final cut, nor post-broadcast, but the consensus was: as long as necessary, even if that means years of litigation battles and individual or community sponsorship. Hence the importance of having the support of a production company, broadcaster or distributor with a sturdy legal department, and having someone checking over your shoulder to dot your i’s and cross your t’s before release. Also important, as pointed out by Jezza Neumann, was being prepared to change your story as conditions on the ground dictates.

But what is “fairness” really?

I’m not even sure if fairness is a good word. To me fairness implies equal treatment rather than duty of care – and maybe that works for some forms of journalism, but this is documentary storytelling. I’m not sure if all participants should be treated fairly. Or who should be the one to decide what is fair (directors? commissioners? producers? legislators? participants? the audience?). Just as there’s a power discrepancy in life, so to is there in filmmaking (although the power usually rests in the hands of the filmmaker until release). For example, if Sharma’s film was “fair,” there would have to be interviews – or at least attempts at interviews – with the Saudi Royal family, clerics, police and executioners – to hear their side of the story – putting Sharma’s life directly at risk. Is that truth? Is that really fair? Is that really the story that needs to be told? Are there exceptions or special cases? Should we be aiming for fairness on an individual person-by-person basis, or on a larger, meta-story basis?

Which brings me to the matter of representation. Strangely, no one seemed to acknowledge the fact that this whole discussion was being held by a mostly British, mostly white panel of filmmakers and commissioners, to a mostly white audience in the UK (no Skyping in to Sheffield?). So no surprises that there seemed to be many questions unasked and unanswered.

Fortunately there was one voice that cut through the others: Nigerian director Femi Odugbemi (DVWORX) seemed to be a late addition to the panel (he was not listed in the programme) and he raised the question of why UK broadcasters insist on sending white British presenters and crews to cover stories instead of employing experienced local filmmakers who are already on the ground. He also shared his frustration that foreign filmmakers insist on filming the worst and the poorest scenes in Nigeria – one of the slums in Lagos even has a fixed filming permit fee, thus making filming revenue part of the local economy. In Odugbemi’s personal case, although he works in Nollywood as a director, producer and festival chair, when he is employed by European crews (including one BBC story) he has been reduced to being a fixer and driver, and excluded from seeing the treatment, seeing the final cut of the film, and even told to keep his opinions to himself. The rest of the panel were fairly shocked by Odugbemi’s account – some even implied that that’s not meant to be case – kind of discounting his perspective. But aren’t documentarians supposed to be expert listeners? Personally I would have preferred a whole panel of filmmakers from Odugbemi’s position – then perhaps we could really get the low down on ‘How Fair is Our Foreign Filming.’

At one stage it was mentioned that the job of a documentary filmmaker is to give your participants the chance to use their own voice, not to give your voice to their problems – but I don’t think that’s possible unless your participants are co-directing, producing, and really owning the production. But then, what would that mean for the authorial value of documentary? Again, is this a case of different rules for different subjects materials? If we want equality in filmmaking, to address the power discrepancies between commissioners, producers, filmmakers, participants, and audiences perhaps we have to be more than “fair”.

More on Sheffield Doc/Fest in the next post, and I realise this post has been light on archaeology – but I’ll bring it home soon!

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