2016 is a year of far-reaching decisions. Some to be made by the people, some not. The EU referendum. The American elections. The future of public broadcasting.
Twitter, debates and advertising campaigns – including the toe-curlin, ‘Chillin, Meetin, Tourin, #Votin’ – urge us to vote for their cause. Or just to vote at all.
Because which of us will usher in world-busting change by doing nothing? In Edmund Burke’s words, ‘that only thing necessary for the triumph of evil’…
In our opening night film, Where to Invade Next, Michael Moore juxtaposes scenes of crowds protesting with an image of an empty street: the silent majority.
Many of us rage at news bulletins, then switch off. Many of us are bystanders to events rather than intervening, though we know intellectually that small acts can make a big difference. Moore’s clarion call is for us to join him in challenging any status quo. He uses the powerful tool of documentary for this: film, like no other art form, has the power to incite change and to speak to many.
Over the next six days, we will have the privilege to immerse ourselves in the work and the worlds of some of the boldest, most creative and most courageous filmmakers of our time. We will witness them risking their safety and potentially their lives to tell stories of the disenfranchised.
Hooligan Sparrow director Nanfu Wang, for example, who cannot return to China following the exposure of a sex abuse scandal: ‘You can kill me but you can’t kill the truth’.
Or City 40 director Samira Goetschel, who smuggled equipment into Ozersk, an unmarked city in Russia, to film those inhabitants who dare to expose its nuclear secrets.
In order to create such powerful documentaries, filmmakers will immerse themselves wholly in the lives of others. In Sonita, teenage Afghan refugee Sonita Alizadeh escapes enforced marriage and rages against the Iranian system to become a rapper, despite it being illegal for women to sing in public.
The strong bond that director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami forms with her protagonist allows us to experience Sonita wrestling with stark personal choices in the most visceral, palpable way.
Ghaem Maghami faces her own dilemmas during filming, as she is drawn into Sonita’s world, weighing up whether to intervene in her gamechanging subject’s life.
Coming away from a documentary inspired to think or act differently is exhilarating. In Unlocking the Cage, DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus follow animal rights lawyer Steven Wise in his unprecedented quest to break down the legal wall that separates chimpanzees from humans.
Madonna’s Blonde Ambition troupe created social change through dance, scandalising the establishment with their brilliant and outrageous sex-and-religion routines, as they pushed to express themselves differently. Twenty-five years on, we’re able – at least in some countries – to take those strong gay role models for granted, and in Ester Gould and Reijer Zwaan’s Strike a Pose, we hear the sometimes funny, sometimes bittersweet stories of those original LGBT innovators.
And new forms of storytelling create new ways of seeing.
In DocFest’s Alternate Realities programme, virtual reality projects challenge the status quo of traditional narrative, and provoke a powerful sense of presence and empathy.
Francesca Panetta and Lindsay Poulton invite us to experience incarceration in 6 x 9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement, and there is the first ever VR companion piece to a feature film, Notes on Blindness: Into Darkness, from Arnaud Colinart, David Coujard and Mike Brett.
It takes us into John Hull’s extraordinary and uplifting ‘world beyond sight’, changing how we experience the world.
Doc/Fest empowers filmmakers of all kinds, and we tackle the big questions that influence decision making: who is telling the stories, how are audiences watching, and who has the funds?
And in Marketplace we bring together creatives and decision makers for business.
Crucially, we’re a forum for new voices and established world class filmmakers, to be inspired by each other’s work and inspire change.
I’m very much looking forward to welcoming you to Sheffield today.
Liz McIntyre is chair of Sheffield Doc/Fest