With the shock results of our recent general election in the UK the role of politics at a local level to get people motivated and involved is in focus. We travelled to Sheffield DocFest, a champion of the independent filmmaker, last month to find this mood exhibited in many of the films on offer; films from all over the world reflecting the growing anger of people who have had enough of the ruling elite’s flimsy excuses for taking away their freedoms.

Jaha Dukureh grew up in the ultra conservative Serahuli tribe in Gambia, like 100% of the other women of that tribe she experienced female genital mutilation (FGM) at the age of just 2 weeks old; sent to the US at 15 for an arranged marriage she realised the extent of what had been done to her. After being awakened by the Guardian newspaper’s campaign against FGM she decided it was time for her to take action in America. In 2013, aged just 24, she started Safe Hands for Girls which led her back home to The Gambia. Jaha’s Promise documents her return to a homeland where everything from tradition to religion are used as excuses for the continuing practice.

Her grass roots movement to tackle the on-going misconceptions about why FGM was still taking place puts her at loggerheads with the most senior Imam in the country and even the president himself. A harrowing but victorious and uplifting film shows her standing up to the powers that be and refusing to take no for an answer. Proving herself to be a real diplomat this is an example of one person saying ‘no more’, she still campaigns today to educate at a local level for real and lasting change.

The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson is a real-life crime story where anti-violence activist Victoria Cruz, a transgender woman, starts her own investigation into the death in 1992 of Marsha P. Johnson, a heroine of the Stonewall years who was found drowned in the Hudson River. Police never properly investigated her death at the time, and Victoria, amongst others, is convinced that Marsha was a victim of murder.

Through archival footage and interviews director David France reveals the history of the activism of the gay and transgender community from the 70s onwards. The police and the politicians of the day at best ignored and at worst were openly hostile towards these communities. It was up to the LGBT people themselves to march and organise to bring about change. Sadly transgender women are still the most likely group to suffer violence; we were shown the case of Islan Nettles who in 2013 aged just 21 was beaten to death by a young man when he realised she was transgender.  The film offers no satisfying conclusion for Victoria but this fight isn’t over and this movement is shown in the film as being as necessary today as it was decades ago.

Another on-going protest movement is the focal point for storyteller Sabaah Folayan, and artist Damon Davis’s film about civil rights. In 2014 our televisions were alight with images of the Ferguson riots, which took place in Missouri after the police shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. What we didn’t see was the whole picture; Whose Streets tells the story of the local people involved in the Ferguson protests highlighting police brutality and racism. With images of protesters hands raised in the air being tear gassed in state sanctioned violence this is a truly shocking documentary. The protestors refuse to give up or allow the media and the police to tell a one sided story; what started as a remonstration about one incident grows into a forceful group of activists taking on the establishment at great risk to themselves. This film shows the power of social media and how it was used to organise the groups of protestors but also to reveal the actions of the police to the world.  

City of Ghosts, Matt Heineman’s’ film about the Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) group of underground protestors against ISIS, similarly features the power of the internet and social media to get a story out. With covert filming and blog posts this group of men and women risked, and sometimes lost, their lives to encourage worldwide outrage and action against what was happening in Raqqa but hidden from us all. It’s a distressing portrait of a city under siege but there is hope as long as small pockets of resistance exist.

Finally, sociologist-turned-filmmaker Rupert Russell’s philosophical contemplation of democracy around the world in Freedom For The Wolf neatly brings together from the periphery what we have all recently been suspecting; that democracy has been uncoupled from freedom.

Using talking heads from academics, protestors and politicians along with archive footage and animation we see stories from Tunisia, Japan and of course the US. He explores what freedom means to different people and how this can lead to false and illiberal democracies. This is most highlighted in China in 2014 where students started a massive occupation in protest at the so-called democracy they were being offered. The powerful imagery of whole streets covered in tents and enthusiastic youth making rallying speeches is inspiring.

It is a sobering message about how we can be so sedated by things like economic freedom that we don’t notice when the real freedoms are taken away from us; which leads to the rise of the lord of consumerism Donald Trump coinciding with the fall of democracies around the world. The story coming out of India is the most disturbing; showing how a democracy based on lies and nationalism has state sanctioned riots, which encourages hatred towards all non-Hindus. This is a road Rupert suggests that the UK and the US could very easily follow.

Rupert pointed out that ‘what’s in our favour is that a lot of the elites are not the brightest tools in the box’ and their chronic laziness and incompetence combined with the younger generation utilising the Internet and social media to share information and organise is our best hope.

In recent weeks opposition protestors in Russia have been sentenced to jail time, the on-going anti-government demonstrations in Venezuela show no sign of ending soon and have been marred by police using tear gas and rubber bullets on the public. These films are timely and important documents in response to ‘the increasingly thin reasons that we are given for our freedoms being taken away.’ Documentaries have always played an important part in revealing unpleasant truths to the world and when democracy is so under threat from all sides they are crucial clarion calls to action.

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About 

Katy Vans grew up watching a lot of late night films at a very young age; along with giving her nightmares she also developed a love of Spaghetti Westerns and Stanley Kubrick. With a background in acting, writing, film making and journalism she describes herself as an undisciplinary artist/word thief.