Sheffield’s diverse line-up of the world’s best films

Filmmaker Michelle Heighway filming Yorkshire eccentric Jake Jonathan Zebedee Mangle-Wurzel
Filmmaker Michelle Heighway filming Yorkshire eccentric Jake Jonathan Zebedee Mangle-Wurzel
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Sheffield Doc/Fest comes of age this week with an eclectic programme of films and guests. Film Critic Tony Earnshaw picks out a few gems.

Sheffield meets Bhutan meets South Africa in the 21st edition of Sheffield International Documentary Festival which gets underway tomorrow.

Jarvis Cocker and his fellow Pulpmates will be in the city for the premiere of Pulp: A Film About Life, Death & Supermarkets, which focuses equally on the band and the city that forged it.

Thomas Balmes’ Happiness documents the effect of television on a small village in Bhutan and asks what emotions the inhabitants will experience as a remote corner of the world engages with the phenomenon of TV. The film will be screened in a cave in the Peak District.

At the same time Miners Shot Down will play at the Showroom Cinema. The title says it all: in August 2012 South African police gunned down 34 miners engaged in a wildcat strike.

These three very different films sum up the diverse nature and attitude of an event that has grown to become the largest and most influential festival of its kind in the UK.

And Doc/Fest’s impact, appeal and influence continues to grow. This year it will screen 150 new short, medium and feature-length documentaries over six days to an audience of 3,000 delegates. In addition there are retrospectives dedicated to French director Agnes Varda, the late Canadian editor/director Peter Wintonick and Roger Graef, the producer/director renowned for his hard-hitting fly-on-the-wall films on the police. Graef appears on June 11. Other guests include Sir Harold Evans, John Pilger, Brian Eno, Grayson Perry and Jon Snow.

One of the highlights of the packed programme is Mr Somebody?, the culmination of a six-year dream by Yorkshire filmmaker and photographer Michelle Heighway to document the life of a highly unusual man.

By her own admission Heighway stalked her prey before she caught it. The prey was Jake Jonathon Zebedee Mangle-Wurzel, one of the last – and arguably the greatest – of Yorkshire’s eccentrics. And tomorrow, after a six-year struggle, her documentary Mr Somebody? will receive its world premiere at Doc/Fest.

Heighway was a schoolgirl when she first became aware of wild-eyed, wild-bearded, bandana-wearing Mangle-Wurzel who lived in a ramshackle house near Salendine Nook in Huddersfield. Six years ago she happened across him again as she travelled home. Daydreaming, she took a wrong turn that was to change her life. She followed him – he was hard to miss as he drove a car with a toilet on its roof – and persuaded him to be the focus of her film.

To pursue her dream she increased her mortgage by £10,000 and poured the money into the film. When the money ran out she continued editing it on a computer in her bedroom.

Now, following funding from the Film Clinic at the National Film & Television School, the 59-minute documentary has been finished, pared down from 60 hours of footage shot between 2008 and 2014.

“A lot of filmmakers have been to see Jake before but that didn’t put me off,” says the 33-year-old. “I wanted to find out things that he had never shared with anyone else.”

Heighway quizzed Mangle-Wurzel on his depression, his marriage breakdown, his animals and his home – part museum, part junkyard, which was gutted by fire in 2010. Mangle-Wurzel, now 76, still lives on the site.

“It probably took me two months to get into his house – for him to trust me. Then it took years to document his life. It was really exciting to connect with this man. I was amazed by his sense of difference. He was not trying to be different; he just was.

“His house was filled with newspapers dating back 30 years. Many of them were about him. You couldn’t see the carpet. He slept on a nest of newspapers. On the walls were images of himself and his past. It was remarkable.”

Heighway discovered that her “star” was quite different to the man she had anticipated or perceived. She was present when the local authority ordered him to strip away the decorative junk that had marked out his land and property. It was, she recalls, an intensely emotional moment for a man whose eccentricity is matched by creativity.

“He lives in a caravan next to the house, which is a shell. All his belongings are still in the house but he feels safe there, so he stays. It’s an Aladdin’s cave – an array of unusual things. He gets quite emotional about it all.”

Mr Somebody? screens at Doc/Fest tomorrow at 10.45am and on June 12 at 3.30pm. Heighway and Mangle-Wurzel will take part in a Q&A following tomorrow’s premiere.