Death becomes documentary festival

Aldeburgh Documentary Festival, Aldeburgh Cinema, November 27-29, 2008 Death featured in two of the four sessions which comprised Aldeburgh's utterly brilliant 14th Documentary Festival.

Aldeburgh Documentary Festival, Aldeburgh Cinema, November 27-29, 2008

Death featured in two of the four sessions which comprised Aldeburgh's utterly brilliant 14th Documentary Festival. Stephen Fry gave an achingly witty performance but also managed to talk frankly about his fortunately abandoned suicide attempt, a manifestation of the bipolar disorder which was the subject of one of his documentaries. He also dealt with the stigma of AIDS (he has had an HIV test and it was negative), his appearance in the BBC Who do you think you are?' series through which he discovered hard evidence of the fact that several members of his family had died in the holocaust. On a more cheerful note, he screened the interview he did with a venerable rich American lady whom he came across while driving a black taxi across the USA. She felt that the Kennedys displayed their nouveau riche origins by dressing up to the nines for Jackie's wedding to JFK. Old money Americans like herself dressed down for the occasion. Craig Brown, once again, demonstrated his penetrating and consummate skills as an interviewer but it was a member of the audience who got Stephen Fry to state that he would definitely never accept an invitation to participate in Strictly Come Dancing.

The theme of death was again touched upon by Melvyn Bragg who showed us a very moving interview with Dennis Potter when Potter knew he was mortally ill and in fact came to the studio by ambulance. He died a few days after the interview. We also saw a very tricky interview with the almost nullisyllabic Harold Pinter, the master of pregnant silences. Not so silent was the conversation with Barbara Cartland in all her glory. She had insisted that Melvyn Bragg interview her in a dinner jacket.

Jon Ronson was the focal point of the first of the festival sessions. A journalist who specialises in extremists, he showed how he used a laid-back, self effacing, terribly low-key and patient interviewing technique to expose the quirkiness of such people (no Paxman punches here). Ronson's documentary taught us a lot about David Icke who believes that the world is run by nasty scheming lizards.


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Much more direct in his approach was Dan Cruikshank, the architect whose preoccupation with preservation was examined by Humphrey Burton. Cruikshank showed us how he discovered that the stones from a triumphal Arch which embellished the entrance to Euston station until the 1960s found their way into someone's walled garden or into the reinforced shores of a canal somewhere in East London. Cruikshank felt that the Arch should be reassembled at Euston (imagine the years of traffic chaos) and he seemed to liken the dismantling of the Arch to the destruction of the giant buddhas in Afghanistan, the subject of another illuminating documentary. We were also shown the stunning and neglected antiquities in Iraq, and Saddam Hussein's attempt to glorify himself by the garish rebuilding of ancient monuments. More soothing were the clips of the architecture of Durham cathedral.

But one thing was missing from this documentary festival - and that was the all-American standing ovation. Craig Brown should have had one. It is entirely through his contacts and efforts that this Festival enriches the life of Aldeburgh and East Anglia. And he should share this standing ovation with the cinema staff who manage the public and the advanced audiovisual technology so very professionally and enthusiastically.

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Frank Loeffler

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