The first full day of Sheffield’s doc fest included world premiers of Magali Pettier’s portrait of farming in North Yorkshire Addicted To Sheep, Brian Hill’s noir-thriller documentary about a man who confessed to over 30 murders in Sweden The Confessions of Thomas Quick and an EU premier of Landfill Harmonic following the fortunes of a Paraguayan orchestra with instruments made from rubbish dump materials. I’ll be catching up with some of these later in the week, instead my first day at the festival featured the EU premier of Claude Lanzmann: Spectres Of The Shoah and the UK premier of Match Me! How To Find Love In Modern Times.

Claude Lanzmann: Spectres Of The Shoah

Claude Lanzmann’s nine and half hour documentary, Shoah, is widely regarded as the most important Holocaust documentary ever made. It also ranks second in Sight & Sound Magazine’s critic-chosen list of the greatest documentaries of all time. In Shoah, Lanzmann eschews archive footage and, instead, focuses on probing interviews with both perpetrators and survivors. In order to make Shoah, Jonathan Rosenbaum describes:

“[Lanzmann] had to rethink what cinema could be. His 550-minute examination of the Jewish Holocaust falls within the documentary tradition of investigative journalism, but what he does with that form is so confrontational and relentless that it demands to be described in philosophical/spiritual terms rather than simply cinematically.”

Now, in Claude Lanzmann: Spectres Of The Shoah and thirty years on from Shoah’s original release, Adam Benzine interviews Lanzmann about his experience making the film.

“Benzine’s film explores the transformation in Lanzmann, taking in moments of resignation, delirium and bereavement”

It opens with the remarks of Lanzmann’s friends and contemporaries. One says, ‘he used to be a friend of mine, he no longer is. He’s a megalomaniac’ before going on to describe Shoah, not as a masterpiece of film but a ‘masterpiece of character’. Benzine’s film explores the transformation in Lanzmann, taking in moments of resignation, delirium and bereavement, yet its limited forty minute run time never allows for a fully fledged investigation of character. Lanzmann’s time in the French resistance, his relationship with Simone de Beauvoir and friendship with Jean-Paul Sartre are mentioned but rarely probed. Instead, Benzine creates a detailed and sharp examination of the making of Shoah from its inception to searching for and convincing participants, and developing undercover cameras.

“The result is a fascinating insight into the dedication and personal toll required to make Shoah.”

Lanzmann sat for a week with Benzine and the result is a fascinating insight into the dedication and personal toll required to make Shoah (which consumed twelve years of Lanzmann’s life and two hundred hours of footage). Lanzmann explains how he struck upon the documentary’s key theme and openly describes the techniques he used to encourage survivors to speak about their experiences on camera. Although Lanzmann describes these methods as ‘not saddistic’ but ‘brotherly’, it’s hard to forget the anguish of Abraham Bomba, a barber made to cut the hair of women and children in the gas chambers, as Lanzmann pulls the story from him.

Later, Benzine uses Lanzmann’s own tactics on the director himself, encouraging him to describe an undercover mishap that led to a vicious attack on both Lanzmann and his assistant, leaving Lanzmann hospitalised for a month. Here Benzine supplements his film with unseen footage from Shoah: an interview with a Nazi perpetrator which dissolves into accusations and threats made about Lanzmann’s undercover filming.

In speaking with Benzine, Lanzmann’s describes Shoah not as a film about survivors but a film about death. This single statement provides crucial insight into the likely psychological impact of working Shoah for such an extended period, five years of which were spent re-watching footage during the editing process. If there is one criticism of Benzine’s film it is that this discussion is all too brief.

Match Me! How To Find Love In Modern Times

When singleton Johanna says of the the Matchmaking Festival ‘it confronted me with the idea of love and really made me look at it’, she might as well have been talking about Lia Jaspers aims for her film, Match Me! How To Find Love In Modern Times. It follows three people looking for love using unorthodox methods from Irish gurus, to yogis, to an alternative dating agency.

 
Jaspers finds three very different characters to explore. Johanna falls in love ‘like lightening’ and is a firm believer in romance; Sampsa’s relationships move very quickly and he has rarely been single; while Sarah has ‘never needed a man’. Now aged twenty-seven and ready to start a family, Sarah ‘didn’t feel capable of choosing’ and seeks an arranged marriage at a yogi matchmaking retreat.

Both Sarah and Sampsa’s experiences with alternative dating emphasise the importance of matches from within. Sampsa’s uncomfortable, blindfolded encounters and rule-breaking themed dates shun surface judgements and encourage partners to explore deeper connections. Meanwhile Johanna, after a brief stint with an Irish guru, finds love using more traditional methods. While each scenario is interesting in its own right, it’s in the contrast between these individual experiences that the film’s deeper meaning can be found.

What Jaspers’ film lacks in its neglect of the gurus and matchmakers themselves (who deserve much more screen time during the film’s 95 minutes), it makes up for in its steady examination of the singletons’ subsequent relationships. Jasper is committed to revealing the complexity of love from superficial attraction and sexual energies to the differences between the way we see ourselves and the way we are perceived by others. The personalities of the film’s participants shine through but it’s the development of Sarah’s arranged relationship, which grapples with small conflicts, the need for compromise and ‘working on yourself’ that sinks its teeth deepest into the intricacies of making a relationship work.

 
 

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You can find all of my posts on Sheffield Doc Fest 2015 here.

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