10 powerful new documentaries you need to watch
From the anarchist lineage of punk in Australia to transgender rights in Singapore, we picked the best from Sheffield DocFest.
At the 2022 edition of Sheffield DocFest — a festival that acts as a launchpad for the buzziest documentaries of the year — real world events loomed large. The festival kicked off just as Roe v. Wade was overturned in the US, radical pride marchers and striking workers took to the streets, and the ever escalating violence against the people of Ukraine continued.
There was a galvanising sense of urgency at this year’s festival, and much of the programme reflected recent social, political and cultural unrest, with archive films and on-the-ground docs exploring everything from the anarchist lineage of punk and transgender rights in Singapore, to the ongoing threat of the climate crisis and reproductive justice. Here are some of our highlights from this year’s festival.
It’s not often that earplugs are handed out in the cinema, but if anyone warrants cranking the speakers up to eleven, it’s David Bowie. Moonage Daydream is the first authorised documentary by the Bowie estate and a glorious, maximalist, musical experience. Cutting together rare archival footage, frenzied concert scenes and revealing interviews — as well as Bowie’s experimental paintings, stage work and filmmaking — director Brett Morgan presents a dreamy odyssey of the otherworldly pop star’s life.
One Day in Ukraine
Completed in less than four months — a feat of filmmaking that demonstrates the urgency of its subject matter — One Day in Ukraine was shot by no less than 12 cinematographers, who form part of the Ukrainian documentary collective Babylon’13. Since 2013, the collective has been recording, archiving and self-distributing films about social unrest in Ukraine; their work becoming increasingly necessary during the 2022 Russian invasion. Following a cast of citizens — once models, politicians and polar scientists, and now volunteers on the frontlines of war — One Day in Ukraine is a testimony to the power of documentary storytelling.
Exploring the life and work of Lyra McKee, who was tragically murdered in Derry on the 21st anniversary of the Good Friday Peace Agreement, Alison Millar’s documentary is a moving testimony to the loss of the 29-year-old journalist. Using Lyra’s own voice recordings from her dictaphone, field notes and her friends’ accounts, Lyra cuts through how her death became political fodder, to tell the story of a passionate investigative reporter — as well as the modern Northern Ireland she came of age in.
8 Bar – The Evolution of Grime
From its homemade origins in London council estates to its controversial absorption into the mainstream, grime has become the soundtrack of a generation. Interviews with the genre’s original pioneers tell the underground story of grime; a history of racial injustice, economic austerity and reactionary politics over the last three decades in Britain. 8 Bar is an explosive musical journey, starting in the margins and ending in the centre of culture, as the documentary explores the impact of London grime on contemporary music, the art world and fashion.
Singapore’s rich queer history is continually under threat from conservative politicians and urban development. In Quen Wong’s directorial debut, she explores her own journey as a trans woman, as well as the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore. From stories from the glory days of the city’s Bugis Street — once a renowned haven for trans people — to more recent discrimination by Singapore’s education system, Some Women is a moving, personal testimony of the country’s trans community across three generations.
The Oil Machine
Crude oil — the liquid gold that goes into just about everything we touch — is choking the planet with plastic and spills. Emma Davie’s documentary tells the story of oil in the North Sea: how it came to power the UK’s public and economic infrastructure, and how pressure from climate activists and scientists is exposing the devastating impact of the industry. With talking head interviews from rig workers, young school strikers and climate legislators, The Oil Machine is an important conversation starter about how we need to break our addiction to oil.
The Business of Birth Control
The infuriating history of reproductive healthcare in the US told in The Business of Birth Control couldn’t be more timely. Recent revelations have found that hormonal birth control — once a symbol of women’s liberation with troubling origins in eugenics and racism — is having a devastating impact on many patients’ mental and physical health. With interviews from doctors, sexual health campaigners and families who have lost loved ones, The Business of Birth Control is a revealing and powerful cry for reproductive justice.
Age of Rage – The Australian Punk Revolution
Punk’s arrival in 1980s Australia was a ticking time bomb for the country’s conservative politicians, corrupt cops and disaffected youth. Age of Rage chronicles Australia’s recent cultural and social history through the country’s punk bands, squatting communities and riot grrrl feminists. Playful, loud and confrontational, Jennifer Ross’s documentary champions music’s evergreen purpose: to hold a mirror up to the times in which it’s played.
ALL MAN: The International Male Story
Gene Burkard, a closeted gay man and army veteran, founded the fashion catalogue International Male in the 1970s. Over three decades, this mail-order fashion catalogue documented America’s changing attitudes towards masculinity, fashion and beauty, and gendered expectations for both gay and straight men at the end of the 20th century. Narrated with flair by Matt Bomer and featuring interviews with designers, readers and the models themselves, ALL MAN is a playful and moving exploration of modern manhood, from the stuffy business suits of the 60s, to the liberating neon mesh of the 90s.
The Fire Within: Requiem for Katia and Maurice Krafft
No DocFest would be complete without an appearance from the legendary documentarian Werner Herzog. His latest film is the story of volcanologists-turned-filmmakers Katia and Maurice Krafft. The French couple perished while studying Japan’s Mount Unzen, the end of two long careers as scientists who were increasingly becoming artists, passionately documenting the communities that lived in the shadows of volcanoes. Narrated by Werner’s instantly recognisable voice, The Fire Within uses the Krafft’s archival footage to tell their tale — one of creative passion, self-destructive ambition and tragic loss.