Sheffield's documentary festival: Reflections in a dark mirror

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

If you can't afford a ticket to ride around the world, there is another way. You can tour the craters of Baghdad, the swelling skylines of China, and the mud villages of Senegal from a cinema seat at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival.

There, over the past week, I have been staring – through celluloid glasses – into the eyes of people scattered across the earth. Even the best print journalists cannot give you the immediacy of a great documentary: of feeling you are walking through the shrieking metal factories in China that manufacture almost everything you own in the film 24 City, or trudging through the vast sink-estates where the British ghettoise the poor in Sighthill Stories.

But the films that riveted me most were the stories of people embarked on their own epic journeys – from country to city, from exile to home, from Africa on capsizing boats to the shores of Europe. The most devastating is the film Life After the Fall, which takes us home with an Iraqi exile – then makes us watch as the home is burnt down. Kasim Abid fled Saddam's goons in 1974, and returned three decades later after the Anglo-American invasion. At first, this is a family reunion film. He embraces the brothers and sisters he has not seen in so long to find that war and sanctions have "turned their hair grey". They explain how the secret police came looking for him, and they were terrified they would pay for his exile. But now they are all filled with "a dreadful sense of hope": Saddam is gone, democracy beckons.

And then the lights go out, and the petrol runs dry, and the tanks keep rolling, and the suicide bombs begin. Kasim and his family stand frozen. "Is this supposed to make Iraqis support them?" Kasim asks, staring on TV at the jigsaw of body parts after a bombing. His camera stays distant, peering at the chaos in long shots, as if paralysed. But the optimism takes a long time to die. The house a few doors away from his sister is blown up by a mysterious package. His niece is in a car that is stopped by gunmen, and one of the passengers is shot. Kasim's coffee is blown out of his hand as he sits at home. They don't talk about it much. They try to continue with normal family life.

After all the headlines, after all the impossible-sounding statistics – a million dead, four million forced from their homes – we finally see what this war has been like for ordinary Iraqis. You are driving to work and you get stuck in traffic – and shooting begins all around you. What do you do? Your child wants to go to school in a country where the sky is scarred black with bomb smoke. What do you do? The US soldiers – glimpsed briefly, peering from tanks – seem like surreal extras from another movie set, stumbling into the streets of Baghdad by mistake.

Slowly, the pools of hope and optimism curdle. The camera pans across acres of rubble as Kasim says: "This is American reconstruction." His nieces – smart, determined young women – find themselves imprisoned in their homes by Islamist militias. "No one has the right to force me to cover my head," one of them says, in despairing anger, before adding: "We might as well be dead, so what's the point of living?" Through it all, the streets of Baghdad have a surreal beauty, with their concrete brutalism and dust storms and groaning rubble.

The war blasts deeper and deeper into the family's life – and then, one day, a gang wearing balaclavas enters the grocery shop run by Kasim's brother Ali. They put a gun to his head as his young son watches, and bundle him into a car. The family waits – one day, two days, seven days. There is no ransom demand. They know Ali had long ago converted to becoming a Sunni, and all over Baghdad, the rival religious sects are slaughtering each other. The family squeezes into the overflowing morgue – and Ali is there. In the chaos, the morgue loses the body. They never get to bury him.

Life After the Fall is a heart-breaking film because it is a heartbroken film. Just before she flees her country, Kasim's sister Ilham sits stunned and says to camera: "After the fall, we would sit on our balcony and talk about the future of Iraq. We had high hopes. My husband used to say – Dubai, the Gulf [states] will be nothing compared to Iraq... But in the end everything failed. We didn't benefit at all. The country didn't get better or rebuilt, it just got destroyed some more."

The Czech film-maker Miloslav Novak has been on a very different journey: to find a creature we are killing. The Mediterranean monk seal is Europe's most endangered species. After 14 million years dappling in our seas, there are fewer than 500 left in the wild, and none in captivity. These odd, wriggling, blubber creatures, with arms like men and snouts like pigs, are about to pass from history. In most wildlife films, the camera is a god, swirling anywhere the wildlife swirls. Not here. In Peace With Seals, Novak has made a wildlife film about his inability to find any wildlife. He trawls Europe trying to find the seals. He tries to lure them with large plastic replicas of female seals, the amphibian equivalent to sex dolls. He interviews elderly seal hunters. But he only ever gets fleeting glimpses of the creatures themselves – and then the seals are gone.

The film becomes a meditation on the great ecological die-off we are living through – and causing. The seals are a seal on our fate, too, he believes. He quotes one of my favourite novels, Karel Capek's The War With the Newts, where humans and amphibians go to war. If this is a war, we have won. Wildlife has lost. And we will pay for our victory. The film ends with a hellish image. In the 1950s, a seal was captured in Sardinia and brought to Rome, where it was made to live in a fountain. Novak imagines the animal flapping in concrete while photographers burst flashes in its face and a crowd of tourists roared its approval. This is what the world looks like now, on a grand scale.

The seals are not the only beings dying in the seas around Europe. The film Barcelona or Die opens in a tiny village in Senegal whose poverty-starved young people dream of sailing to Europe. Every day, tiny, rickety boats stuffed with people set off. Some make it to the Canary Islands and on to their dream city, Barcelona. But many only reach "barca": the afterlife in their language. The few who return tell of how their boats capsized, they watched family members drown and had to drink sea water.

And why? Why do they come? The African village is coming to Europe because Europe has come to their shores – and destroyed their livelihoods. "There's nothing in the sea any more," explains one fisherman. "There was a time when the sea was good, and there were lots of fish... The [huge, industrial European] trawlers put an end to that. It's not right. It's not right that they came here from Europe and took everything. What's left for us?" One of Peter Mandelson's last acts before leaving the European Commission was to try to extend Europe's "right" to Africa's fish. The film ends with hundreds more desperate young people setting off in half-broken boats, to skivvy or to drown.

What do you learn if you watch dozens of movies from every continent in one concentrated burst in the dark? I kept thinking of Salman Rushdie's definition of globalisation: "Everywhere is part of everywhere else now." These stories about Iraq and the shores of the Mediterranean and Senegal are stories that lead directly back to us. Next year, see the world at the Sheffield International Documentary festival – and you will see your own actions staring right back at you.



You can buy the film 'Life After the Fall' at www.lifeafterthefall.com

Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
exhibition Gillian Orr traces the movement from Bram Stoker to Kate Bush
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone