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
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there