It’s been a weird year, and my experience with 2020’s digital Sheffield Doc/Fest has been unusual. My engagement with the material has been somewhat at an arm’s length, without the opportunity for live participation and networking sessions. Nevertheless, the festival team did a remarkable job of consistently holding virtual Q&A sessions and panels on key issues within the documentary industry.

The festival has not quite wrapped up, as it prepares for a series of weekends in Autumn, wherein the different strands of programming will be spotlighted. I’m not entirely sure I’ll be able to attend any due to professional and geographical limitations but I will try my best, at least to have a glimpse of what film festivals post-lockdown may look like. 

Before that, though, I want to state that there were some real gems on the Doc/Player and, to wrap up my coverage, I want to highlight two films that I think deserve greater attention as they continue their festival cycle and hopefully open wide some time soon.

Please Hold the Line (Pavel Cuzuioc)

Please Hold the Line is a stimulating film about essential workers. It’s a film about cable technicians: the unsung heroes who have saved us during the lockdown, before there was a pandemic, and will continue to do so for the rest of time. For those of us who were fortunate to simply shield ourselves in our homes – if our televisions and internet lines went down, how would we have indulged in everything from Tiger King to Lovecraft Country?

Please Hold the Line (2020) – source: Sheffield Doc/Fest

Pavel Cuzuioc’s film is a wonderfully contextless exercise. Following technicians in Moldavia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine, the documentary is less interested in peering into the lives of the employees than it is into simply staring at them whilst they work, fixing the camera at still angles to observe the technicians and their customers, piecing each scenario together nicely to create a coherent and compelling portrait of these workers.

There is plenty of room to explore the lives of European cable technicians – how many hours they work, how well they’re being paid, what’s their domesticity like – and I would love to see the traditional version of this film too, in which context and anecdotes are provided through the usual talking-head format. But, evidently, there’s great value in simply observing them on the job.

Interaction with customers is unique every time, to varying measures of entertainment and introspection. There’s a gently humorous scenario of a woman mistaking the word “input” with “inbutt”, causing her friend and the technician to ceaselessly laugh as they restore her TV. On the other hand, an immigrant woman speaks of somebody exploiting her internet connection and using vile racism to threaten her about paying the costs to maintain it.

Please Hold the Line (2020) – source: Sheffield Doc/Fest

Some customers are generous, offering tea and biscuits and indulging in conversations about philosophy and humanity. Not everybody wants to – or has the capacity to – make the technicians stick around after they’ve done their job, but there’s always a connection formed. There has to be because these people are a lifeline for us. The throughline of this lovely documentary is humankind’s indelible entanglement with communication technologies. Please Hold the Line is a delicate appreciation of such key work.

The Viewing Booth (Ra’anan Alexandrowicz)

“How, in your opinion, are we to prevent war?” Virginia Woolf was asked in a letter. It’s a question that lingers in the mind of Ra’anan Alexandrowicz too, a Jerusalem-born filmmaker who has long sought to interrogate the position of Israeli military occupation in the decades-long conflict with Palestine. For Mr. Alexandrowicz, it begins with questioning the notion of “we”, as he invites a group of students with an interest in Israel to participate in a viewing experiment.

Seven students are invited to take part in a session where they are filmed watching 40 videos of the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Of seven invited students, the film is focused on just one. Alexandrowicz is most intrigued by Maia’s response, a staunch supporter of Israel, her mother’s homeland, who provides the best foundation for him to examine empathy, bias, and a willingness to listen to the other perspective.

The Viewing Booth (2019) – source: Sheffield Doc/Fest

It’s impossible to view this film from a neutral perspective. Almost all of us have a stance on the Occupation, no matter how casual it may be. The filmmaker doesn’t discuss his stance with his subjects but he makes it an open secret that he’s open to dialogue with the Arabs. This is clear in his filmmaking history too, with films such as The Inner Tour and The Law in These Parts, where it’s open that he doesn’t strive to preach to the choir, even pulling in Israeli military officials for the latter film.

In fact, that’s precisely why he chose to make the film all about Maia’s sessions – he feels it’s not particularly necessary to show videos of Palestinians being attacked or approached by the IDF to those who already sympathise with the Palestinians. Maia‘s responses are more challenging, and listening to her question every aspect of the video raises a ton of compelling debates around filmmaking: propaganda, reality, if truth and ambiguity exist in a paradox, and what we tend to focus on when watching videos.

There could be a video of a father checking on his children after their house was inspected by the IDF and she will ask the need for why the father is recording his children in their emotionally broken state. A certain logo preceding some of the videos tells her that there’s an agenda to the footage, that the full story isn’t being shown. Her responses speak loudly to the unshakable nature of beliefs instilled in people since they were children, and what exactly it would take to open up new avenues to empathy.

The Viewing Booth (2019) – source: Sheffield Doc/Fest

Visually, the film is largely a close-up of Maia reacting to the videos, intercut with the short videos assigned to her. The armchair psychologist inside of us comes out as we observe her, perhaps sensing an evolution or even a numbed progression to her expressions. In her discussions with the director, we fleetingly hear them spar over certain responses, but ultimately she’s left alone to view the videos in her booth, That’s until the director invites her back several months later to react to her own reactions, a session of self-assessment and greater discussion with the filmmaker, leading to a final conversation that completes the thematic exploration.

The Viewing Booth feels so important in a time where the same video could be watched by many yet everyone will have their own truth attached to it, no matter the starkness of the footage. A very recent example is the saga of teenager Kyle Rittenhouse, who is facing homicide charges for killing two protesters. This film is a microcosm of the turbulent discourse on social media whenever a harrowing video clip goes viral. If it can’t provide answers on how we can improve the quality of discourse, at the very least it reminds us that we HAVE to if we want to move forward.

Did you catch anything on Sheffield Doc/Fest’s online Selects platform? Will you be attending the Autumn weekends programme in the city? Let us know in the comments below!

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