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The Wales International Documentary Festival 2017: A Film Critic’s Diary

Film Inquiry writer Julia Smith had a chance to check out the Wales International Documentary Festival; here is an account of her experiences.

The Wales International Documentary Festival 2017: A Film Critic's Diary

Another year and it was another chance to see if the organisers of the little known Wales International Documentary Festival could make a winner of this small town event. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed by last year’s first festival. There was a lack of organisation, I feel the audiences weren’t what they could have been (I was the only person in a few of the feature film screenings), but ultimately I watched a lot of very good films. One, Clare Sturges’ My Brief Eternity (review and film here), still stands out to me as one of the best films of 2016.

It was all change this year, with less feature films, but with more workshops. There were more student showcases but films clashed, and a number of technical issues also meant that I saw even less films than I could have. The shorts weren’t sandwiched between features, which I prefer, but they at least got more attention in devoted short and micro-short packages. This year’s The Wales International Documentary Festival did include an outdoor screen where micro-docs and the films of local students were shown in full view of the passing public, which was a great addition. However, while I felt some things had been greatly improved, when it came to the films themselves I left disappointed.

Day 1: Pathways

I have to admit, the Wales International Documentary Festival was much better organised this year. I was hesitant, after reading the programme, which suffered from the same lack of information as the year before. However, everything ran pretty smoothly. The careers fair was up and running on time and I was pretty impressed with the enthusiasm of the people there, who were happy to talk to me about their jobs.

I had assumed that the careers fair had been set up with students in mind but I have to say, it was quite the opposite. I talked to a group of production staff from ITV trying to drum up interest in broadcast journalism, two people from the Royal Television Society who invited me to put my name down for future events they were holding, I even got to have a long talk about post-production with a guy called Rhys from Hoot Studios (who had worked on the aforementioned My Brief Eternity).

The Wales International Documentary Festival 2017: A Film Critic's Diary

My Brief Eternity (2015) – source: Brightest Films

It’s difficult to explain how surprising this all was. I know about all the studios popping up in Cardiff, but these are the Welsh valleys; people don’t usually care to discuss such things as film production. So it goes without saying that I was blown away by the It’s My Shout scheme, whose whole pitch is that they invite, literally, anybody to make a film.

They have the budget for about ten shorts a year and they invite newbies and film aficionados alike to submit scripts, apply for acting jobs, crew jobs, and they’ll train you to do that job. Age or experience is not an issue (although their website indicates it’s a scheme for ‘young people’), and they try to include as many people as possible on their productions – you can find out more about them on their website.

Bob – and a chat with filmmaker Chris Lloyd

I left the careers fair for the sunny outdoors, where there was a Sony screen showcasing micro-shorts and student’s films for the duration of the Wales International Documentary Festival . The blessing of such a decision, to show films outside, is that it put the films in the way of the passing public, inviting the locals into the festival. The films were far-reaching and covered a variety of subjects. One that stood out to me was a student film; Bob, about the filmmaker’s father and his fascination with the town of his birth. I made a note of the filmmaker’s name (Chris Lloyd) and as it so happened we had a mutual friend on Facebook and had spoken in the past, so I caught up with him later on and discussed the making of the film.

I asked Lloyd about how much of a challenge it was trying to get into film in the Welsh valleys; “Being from these places, making films is something that we think other people do… We tend to settle into some job we hate and find ourselves working there until we die because no opportunities came looking for us”. Lloyd himself got into filmmaking when he was working at such a job and begin playing with an old family camera. He made Bob when his mother was sick with cancer, making the film and the local fame that followed a chance for the family to escape the difficult time they were going through..

Bob was released just a few months after Lloyd’s father passed away, with his mother dying shortly afterwards. I asked how he feels now, when he watches the film back. The first time he watched it after his father’s death; “I didn’t feel sad as I anticipated. It was a nice comfort blanket for me, and still is.” We talked about Bob’s idea of preservation, and whether Lloyd is carrying on his father’s passion to preserve the past; “I have about two hours worth of excess footage when filming with him that I keep on a hard drive and not looked at since. That is a way of preservation for me and I kind of kid myself a bit with that footage. He’s somewhat still alive in there because there’s a lot of things I have undoubtedly forgotten about.”

Lloyd plans on making a longer film in the future, for his niece, so she can see what her grandparents were like. “I feel so fortunate to work on a format that captures people, their stories and their lives. Within the duration of a film, a person is alive. We can see them and hear their voices. There is no expiry date on that.” You can watch Bob via Lloyd‘s YouTube channel here.

Mentia and The Long Goodbye

That afternoon I watched what were also some of my favourite shorts of the Wales International Documentary Festival: Mentia and The Long Goodbye, which both dealt with the subject of dementia. Mentia dealt with the issue head-on, the camera fixed on a gentleman as he was bathed, fed, and then left to face the camera, unable to speak. The pain of this was driven home by The Long Goodbye, where a man discussed his relationship with his wife, who was suffering with dementia. These films began a precedent for this festival; which focussed keenly on films about disability or illness. The Engraver was also a lovely surprise in this package. About a man who was a metal engraver, it was simple, but engaging and visually impressive.

Later that day I saw a package of international shorts. But to be honest, three of the four skipped through my memory, only one remained; Thunder. A Dutch film about two best friends and rollercoaster aficianados, Thunder’s subjects, Phil and Pascal, are endearing innocents but also incredibly passionate, which makes for an interesting story. I can see that the film would have made an excellent feature documentary, but as it is it is still delight. Thunder shows that documentaries don’t have to be dramatic or be about incredibly important subjects to make sense and be entertaining. It was definitely a stand-out film in this year’s festival.

It was to the Wales International Documentary Festival’s credit that last year the films ran seamlessly. Unfortunately, this year did not run so smoothly. Filmmakers had left it till the last minute to send their theatrical screeners, and a problem with formats and files caused a great headache for those tasked with screening the films. So, for the first time in the festival, some films were cancelled, two features: The Patriarch’s Room and An Eye For An Eye, meaning that the few films that were on at the festival shrank even further. In their stead was a package of international shorts (also to be shown on Friday).

Mum, Me & The House and Niofar

Mum, Me & The House is a sweet portrait of a man and his mother’s relationship. Told partly through documentary footage, partly through video footage recorded as they were fixing up the mother’s French home, the film tells the story of the mother’s decline due to cancer. It uncritically documents the mother’s use of complementary therapies while her son looks on, and in doing so shines a light on the deep understanding they had. While it’s a type and subject of documentary I have seen many times before, it was made well, albeit I don’t believe it had a point to drive home.

The Wales International Documentary Festival 2017: A Film Critic's Diary

Thunder (2016) – source: 3LAB

Niofar I didn’t care for, a very beautiful film, but to me it just looked like a Benetton ad and I could see no point to it. Ernest, about a senior farmer, I was much more impressed with. About the decay of farming as the generation that holds it down begins to retire, it asks questions about loneliness and how we measure our use. Sand Men also struck a chord with me; a film about the Romanian immigrants who carve sand dogs on the streets of the UK, in order to raise money for their families back home. However, it’s lack of head-on engagement with the subjects meant I never felt fully engaged with the men.

That night’s feature (The Wales International Documentary Festival  likes to put on Welsh features in order to draw in the locals and make the festival relevant) was The King & Dai, a film about Porthcawl’s famous Elvis convention. The film is very funny and quirky, and I really appreciated seeing the Welsh sense of humour (mine) on screen. Disagreements between the town’s former mayor, one of the convention’s previous organisers and the festival’s founder make for memorable scenes. Although, part of me wanted a bit more, more of what these men were about, and more about how the convention had impacted on the town.

I later chatted to the director, David Barnes, as I wondered at the bias the film may have; the Wales International Documentary Festival’s founder is an associate producer and Barnes himself appears to provoke some of the action within the film. Barnes pointed out that the festival’s founder was only a producer because of the access he granted the production team, and that much of the action was instigated by the town’s former mayor. Which I can appreciate, however, I still do want to know more about the background of the film (unfortunately time wouldn’t allow us to delve further). This all being said, I can’t knock the great entertainment value of The King & Dai.

Day 2: Diversity & Equality

Day two began with a ‘sofa talk’ (which is exactly what it is says on the box) with filmmaker Carys Lewis interviewing playwright Kaite O’Reilly on the subject of disability representation. They were later joined by Catrin Griffiths, who works in disability representation at the BBC. The conversation was interesting, but much of what O’Reilly relayed I felt I’d heard or thought before. The idea that disability could be (and maybe should be) incidental to the plot of characters. That a character could have cerebral palsy or hearing loss etc. but that it would be background noise to the character and the real issues facing them.

I understand O’Reilly’s frustration, as seeing representations on screen where the disabled are constantly consumed by their illness or disability is ridiculous. O’Reilly herself is disabled but is also a successful playwright. However, most representations on screen ignore the natural complexity of humans and would have the disabled represented as sad but inspirational. O’Reilly refers to this as “inspirational porn for the non-disabled”, a kind of “disabled superhuman” representation meant to inspire the able-bodied. It’s something which she iterates has sprung up since the London Paralympics of 2012.

Positive disabled representations

There are many problems related to getting more disabled people into production and also more positive disabled representations on screen. Even when there is training provided it is not in accessible buildings, and in the training sessions themselves people’s disabilities aren’t considered (O’Reilly referred to a hearing impaired dancer who was too far away from the music to feel the bass, and hence didn’t know when to start the dance). Ultimately, when it comes to film content, she says that it’s getting boring, that people want to keep discussing why someone is disabled and how this impacts on their life. I couldn’t agree more, why not let’s have some disabled characters who are complex and realistic, characters who are successful lawyers, who fall in love, and who go and find themselves in Italy. Disabled people don’t spend their days consumed by thoughts about their disabilities; films need to stop thinking that this is the case.

Catrin Griffiths added to the conversation with news of the BBC’s changing plan for representation. Mainstream news is now monitored to make sure stories are covered, and jobs are ring-fenced to make sure the corporation is hiring more staff with disabilities so as to better represent this group. The corporation also intends to make 50% of its workforce female by the year 2020, and Griffiths invited us to read up on the BBC’s new initiatives. Which all sounds very good, but when you’re sitting in an audience which is at least 95% female, and most of them industry professionals, this did feel like she was preaching to the choir.

Overall the discussion was interesting but, as I find with most discussions around representation in and on film, people talk a lot about what ‘should be done’ but little concrete work is done. Albeit the BBC are trying. Following this discussion, I attended a workshop led by the founder of the Iris Prize Festival Berwyn Rowlands, who discussed film distribution and the festival circuit. To be honest, I would have preferred to have heard him discuss more about LGBT representation, as it was the information about applying for festivals was interesting but I didn’t feel I learnt anything new.

Two Worlds and Let Women Choose

Later in the afternoon I watched my first feature of the day, Two Worlds. About a young Polish girl, the film looked at how she dealt with life as the daughter of deaf parents. The film continued the festival’s themes, and indeed the day’s subject, of disability and representation. However, while the film was interesting, and it showed the pressures the young girl was under and the confidence she had in dealing with the world, it never confronted the important questions. How did she feel, managing and ultimately protecting her parents? And how did her parents feel about the extra pressures they had to put on her?

The Wales International Documentary Festival 2017: A Film Critic's Diary

Two Worlds (2015) – source: Metro Films

My only other film viewing of that day was Let Women Choose, a film about abortion rights in Ecuador. It was a film I felt was important to watch and I stuck with it through a long waiting period, after technical problems put off the screening for almost two hours. The film itself was okay, I felt there were important stories in there, but I felt the message was mixed. The film seemed to indicate that women should have the right to an abortion but then many women in the documentary (and the filmmaker later confirmed this) were happy to have children when they were young.

The most important point of the story was how sexual assault, especially within families, is covered up in this area of the world. However, it never related the documentary’s central issue of abortion back to the problem of sexual assault. I also spotted a number of issues with the film, as it appeared many scenes had been staged or planned. But it was actually a lot worse than this. As the filmmaker, Xiana Yago, was asked questions after the film, it came out that the doctor who was the central focus of the documentary was actually an actress, re-doing scenes the filmmaker (also a doctor) had originally experienced.

The filmmaker brushed off any further questions she could probably see I had, saying she’d studied screenwriting, so the fictional element made sense. A lot of the audience seemed to agree with this. Well, I don’t, and I don’t care how much of a film is based on fact, reenacting but then claiming it as documentary does not a documentary make. I learnt much more that day from representatives of Cardiff’s Abortion Rights Group. Two lovely ladies were happy to discuss social ideas and political reforms around abortion. Like much of the festival, where films failed, the reality of speaking with people about what they do for a living really inspired me.

Day 3: Going Global

Day three began with a panel discussion about making documentaries and distributing them globally. The panel had some interesting things to say about how to increase the universal appeal of a documentary, and about how everyone had a good story in them. However, I felt like there was a lot of talk and not much practical advice on how to plan, produce, or distribute a documentary. There were workshops afterwards that I did not attend, so I hope there was better advice for those who attended.

Later on, I attended the package for the International Student Prize. Sofia’s Eyes was something I didn’t really understand, I believe it was about the loss of a grandfather and how this would affect his granddaughter but I can’t be sure. Overwhelming Majority looked at self-harm, however, it was overly produced and I felt it didn’t examine the story (of a very real woman) as well as it could have. Spiked, a short about a young woman’s experience of being drugged and raped was startling, and well made. However, part of me felt that the documentary had been made as an educational piece and didn’t go far enough into understanding the impact on the victim’s life.

How Are You?a film about mental illness, was more striking. People talked about their experiences with their illnesses, and while he didn’t quite go deep enough, it dealt with the issue head-on and emphasised how important it is to ask and listen to people talk about their mental health. However, all three of these films left me with one uncomfortable feeling; that real, complex issues, were being used to shock and impress. It felt exploitative and in some cases patronising, like the filmmakers imagined none of us knew such things existed. Still, I appreciate the bravery of the students in taking on such serious subjects.

Land of the Father and Gardeners of the Forest

Land Of The Father was better, a Welsh short about the decay of dairy farming. By focussing on one farm the film really drives home what is a worrying issue; how the drop in milk prices is leading to the financial ruin of many farms and families. It really is a pressing problem, and in engaging with a family and exploring their worries the film shines a stark light on it. I feel it could have gone further, but what it does explain and reveal is important nonetheless. Similarly Charles H. Price, about a mechanic, deals with dying practices in a modern age. And while it doesn’t go into detail it is, at least, a very endearing portrait of an interesting man.

Without a doubt, though, my favourite of the International Student Shorts was Gardeners Of The Forest. About the elephants of Laos, the film looks at their use in the logging industry and how they are now being saved by centres who are, by turns, caring or exploitative. Some of the footage in the film is absolutely shocking, but I do feel it is important that it is included, and ultimately it brings to life what is a desperate situation. My only problem with this film is the graphics used, apart from this I thought it was absolutely superb.

The Wales International Documentary Festival 2017: A Film Critic's Diary

Gardeners Of The Forest (2015) – source: Dodge College of Film and Media Arts

Unfortunately, through a mix up about screens I found myself in the wrong place, or perhaps the right one when you come to think of it. I walked into the beginning of an International Shorts package and the film; The Big Boys Playground. A brilliant and wonderfully shot short film about a couple of rock climbers and their attempts to traverse a number of challenging rock faces, The Big Boys Playground is an intriguing delight. I later met with the filmmaker Guillaume Lion, a modest and affable Belgian man who was an absolute delight. The Big Boys Playground will be appearing in its own review on Film Inquiry soon.

This was followed by Amer: An Arabian Legend, a film about a successful race horse. It put me in mind of Louise Osmond’s Dark Horse, but while it was very interesting I felt I never really understood the importance of Amer to the racehorse community. Not to say the film didn’t try, I just felt the point was lost on me. Y Gors, a short about a Welsh peat bog, was kind of intriguing. Peat bogs are known for the history that can be culled from their depths, and also their place in folklore. But I felt the film floundered, as it couldn’t choose a point on which to focus.

Everything the Light Touches and a chat with filmmaker Ellen Evans

Because of previously mentioned mix-ups I managed to meet the filmmaker Ellen Evans but ultimately miss her short film; Everything The Light Touches. I later met Evans again and she was kind enough to send me a screener of her film. And it was, without a doubt, my favourite film of the Wales International Documentary Festival . About an Elvis impersonator who lives in the Welsh valleys, the film deals head on with its subject in a way so many others films at the festival hadn’t. I loved it, so much so that the film will be appearing in its own review on the Film Inquiry site.

I did happen to see another short; Far East. However, it didn’t really make an impression. I understood how it was attempting to convey the preoccupation with American culture, but it was over-stylised and I think missed its mark. Later that night I saw the feature; FC Roma, a film about a Czech football team who suffer the prejudice heaped on Romani people. The film is sweet and endearing and you feel for the men involved. However, because it documents but never attempts to understand the feelings of the men, it is interesting but only okay as documentaries go.

Awards Night

The awards that night, admittedly, were a little disappointing. Especially so as awards given out by the RTS were for films not actually shown in the Wales International Documentary Festival, so there were clips for nominated films which seemed so interesting, but which I’ll never be able to see. The Best International Student Short went to Land Of My Father, while Best International Short went to Far EastSwim Team (a film I hadn’t been able to see, because of technical problems with Let Women Choose) walked away with Best Cinematography and a Special Mention.

Two Worlds ultimately walked away with Best Feature and also the award for Best Sound, which to be honest I felt was a really obvious choice, as the film was all about its sound. The Best Of Welsh went to The King & Dai, while Best Editing went to Let Women Choose. I have no idea why an award for editing went to this film, what with it being staged I feel like any compliment paid to its editing is null and void. When you stage a documentary you are working on a different playing field and, as far as I’m concerned, you have the upper hand.

In The End…

I felt disappointed with there not being more films at this year’s Wales International Documentary Festival. That being said, I feel the Wales International Documentary Festival did more to engage with the community. I also feel like I got a lot out of it. Instead of sitting alone in a cinema I talked more to the organisers, the filmmakers, fellow festival-goers.

It’s so easy to stay inside your own world and your own head when you watch and write about film. Feeling like part of a community, and one especially keen on documentary, focussed my mind on people. People’s stories and the stories of the people they in turn film. Watching a film is a wonderful, but solitary experience; sharing stories and sharing films might just be better.

What are your experiences at film festivals?

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

I love film, more than people probably, and I will watch pretty much anything. Seriously, anything! I have a postgraduate education in film & have spent an exceptionally long time trying to get inside the film industry. I'm a big believer in treating every film the same, and bringing something new to the film theory table, giving reasons for every argument made. You'll find that I'm an empathetic and fun sort of reviewer, at least, I like to think so. If I'm not watching films I'm doing exceptionally nerdy stuff, like watching documentaries about the history of medicine and collecting photos of old post boxes.

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