Over the past 25 years, Sheffield Doc/Fest – the annual documentary festival in the heart of the North – has been nurturing emerging filmmakers.
This year was no exception: the 2018 festival was diverse and challenging, bringing together documentary features from across the globe. The eclectic programme was underpinned by the radical politics that are characteristic of the city (there was even room for tours with the new mayor, Green Party member and millennial Majid Majid.)
Naturally, the festival included a wealth of LGBTQ+ cinema. In particular, there were plenty of features exploring the lives of queer women, which is a refreshing departure from the white, cis, gay male protagonists of the queer canon. From the favelas of São Paulo, the upper echelons of Swedish pop, Christian drag shows in the American South, and the bustling lesbian stripper scene of the 90s, Sheffield Doc/Fest assembled an impressive lineup of LGBTQ+ films that disrupted the status quo.
Leilah Weinraub’s feature explores the African-American strip club, Shakedown, which provided a queer haven for bisexual and lesbian women in the 90s and 00s. Exotic dancers Egypt and Mahogany reflect on their performances and the significance of the club in forming their sexual identities.
Watching the film is an intoxicating experience – Weinraub encouraged the audience to enjoy the premiere with a vodka or three – and emulates the extravagance, the monotony, the explicitness of LGBTQ+ nightlife.
The dancers are painted as comic characters, but they are given the opportunity to speak seriously about their art. Backstage footage provides an insight into their vicious sense of humour and home videos provide a sobering contrast to the pulsating nightclub.
Ultimately, Shakedown is a film about how queer spaces are built – and how they are destroyed. As ‘safe spaces’ continue to dominate media discussions about LGBTQ+ lives, Weinraub’s film injects an intoxicating sense of fun into the debate.
Scandinavian pop artists are slowly making their way into the mainstream: Sigrid is making waves at festivals across the UK, and artists such as Alma, MØ, and Tove Lo are gaining more recognition.
Silvana is taking Sweden’s rap scene by storm. This documentary follows her rise to fame and relationship with fellow artist Beatrice Eli, whose pop songs are speaking to a new generation of queer youth.
The directors are primarily concerned with Silvana’s radical politics. She’s an outspoken feminist and anti-racist, whose songs defiantly challenge the patriarchy. “A brutal climate needs a brutal kick from below,” she says in between footage of her gigs which, strangely, often take place in theme parks.
The audience doesn’t gain an understanding of the prejudices that Silvana is working against, nor do we understand her character: the self is hidden beneath layers upon layers of persona. What shines through instead is the power that her music holds for disaffected LGBTQ+ youth.
São Paulo artist Linn da Quebrada lays everything bare in this outrageous and hilarious documentary of her life and work. Linn is a black trans pop star and artist from the favelas of Brazil, whose songs are a direct challenge to society’s aggressive dominance of masculinity over femininity.
Her performances are electric, exploring nuanced discussions of gender through vulgar language and imagery. Her offstage presence on camera is equally outrageous. We are invited into conversations with family and friends, some of which are scripted, as the barrier between reality and fiction hangs in the balance.
Through her battle with testicular cancer, we see the fragility of the body as her naked limbs and genitalia are exposed. Onstage, her body is a political weapon, an assertion of her queer identity that refuses to adhere to stable identity categories.
Tranny Fag is an outspoken statement by Linn da Quebrada about the instability of the body and the elusiveness of gender. It’s was one of the highlights of this year’s festival.
Sheffield Doc/Fest ran from 7-12th June. Find out more here: https://sheffdocfest.com
Words by Liam Taft