Music films at Sheffield Doc/Fest

Miriam Makeba in 1955

Sheffield Doc/Fest, Sheffield’s annual documentary festival, is currently underway, with screenings, workshops, masterclasses and other events that cover all aspects of documentary film. There’s a strong strand of music films this year, with documentaries on A Tribe Called Quest, an Australian school orchestra and a Stockton-on-Tees record shop among the many on offer. We’ve picked three standout films that are screening this week in Sheffield.


Mama Africa

The music and life story of South African singer Miriam Makeba are rich material for any filmmaker, and Finnish director Mika Kaurismäki (brother of Aki Kaurismäki, and director of Brazilian music documentary Moro No Brasil) steps back and allows both to unfold over the course of this warm, subtly composed documentary, which has its UK premiere at the Doc Fest. Makeba, who died in 2008, had an extraordinary career: exiled from South Africa after appearing in Come Back, Africa, a 1959 anti-apartheid documentary, she became a star in the US, only to be ostracized again after marrying civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael in 1968. The couple travelled widely in Africa, settling in Guinea, and Makeba was able to return to her home country only in 1990. Kaurismäki’s selection of archive footage is superb, tracing Makeba’s growth as both a musician and an activist – and a global celebrity – over the years, with interviews with family members and musical collaborators that give the impression of a quietly formidable character.

Screening times and venues here.


Nyman in Progress

Translating a composer’s working process into an engaging film can’t be the easiest task, but Michael Nyman’s career as a soundtrack composer and, more recently, as film and video artist, means that director Silvia Beck has a lot of visual material to work with. At 80 minutes long and with plenty of interviews and live footage of the Michael Nyman band, Nyman in Progress is perhaps most suitable for fans of the composer, and for those with some background knowledge of the minimalist music with which he’s associated; however, more autobiographical interviews also shed light on the composer’s early life and family history. Nyman’s soundtrack music, while some of his best known work, isn’t the focus of this film, but the sections on it are interesting: director Volker Schlöndorff, whose 1996 film Der Unhold was scored by Nyman, talks about how film music can extend the director’s vision, and explains how Nyman’s music in particular adds new layers of meaning to the moving image.

Screening times and venues here.


Cigarettes and Songs (Cigarety a Pesnicky)

This unusual Slovakian film documents a project set up by ethnographer and Slovak folk music expert Jana Belišovà in which a group of Roma singers work with three non-Roma musicians on reinterpretations of traditional songs. The recording sessions take place in a church, with some footage shot in the villages the singers come from. What’s striking about the film is that it is not a sentimental story of music ‘uniting’ disparate people: the camera doesn’t shy away from the awkwardness of the grouping, and there are sometimes crossed wires on all sides. This has the effect of making the moments of musical and personal congruence very moving, with some intense performances that are carefully recorded and shot. Frequent cigarette breaks pepper the sessions; these are occasions for spontaneous singing and the sharing of stories that hint at the everyday hardship and poverty faced by the Roma without dwelling voyeuristically upon their plight.

Screening times and venues here.


Sheffield Doc/Fest runs until 12 June. As well as numerous screenings, there is also a panel discussion on 10 June specifically on how to use music and sound in documentary filmmaking.

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