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This Is England: Sheffield Doc/Fest Holds Forth as Northern UK Destination

By Patricia Aufderheide

Since Heather Croall came from the Australian festival world to run Sheffield Doc/Fest a couple of years ago, it has increasingly become a magnet for across-the-pond visitors, in spite of the schlep factor out of London (two-and-a-half hours by train) and its scheduling proximity to the behemoth of documentary festivals, IDFA. That's partly because of Croall's relentless focus on cutting-edge practices, whether it's green filmmaking or video gaming. It's partly to do with the "Meet Market," where producers can meet funders and commissioning editors from all over. But still, the great majority of visitors to Sheffield are UK producers, with a sprinkling of folks from the Continent, looking to see current work--mostly television-oriented in the end--and push forward more of their own.

British producers Marc and Nick Francis (Black Gold), for instance, came to deal about their upcoming project, China in Africa. "We spent the entire time in the Meet Market," Nick said. "We never saw a film." Ed Barreveld, a Canadian producer, had no such luck; he hadn't made his hookups for the Meet Market in advance and found himself frozen out. "The festival's well run, and I'm enjoying the films," he said. "But it costs money, and I'm getting less of a business advantage out of it than I had thought." American producers Ariana Gerstein and Monteith McCollum, whose lovely and thought-provoking story of the rise of commercial milk production in the US, Milk in the Land, showed in the festival, weren't even trying to make business connections. "We don't even know how to do that," said Gerstein. "We're enjoying ourselves, though."

Programming ranged from the grandly traditional to the wild and sketchy. The English Surgeon, a BBC Storyville production by Geoffrey Smith, is a handsome, elegant and moving portrait of an English brain surgeon who regularly offers pro bono services with a doctor in Ukraine, where medical services are minimal. The film engages viewers with the doctors' ethical choices, public health challenges and cross-cultural adventures. Jamie King's Steal This Film II, on the other hand, is a raw, jerky rant against copyright restrictions; safely within the law as a project propelled by the rival doc festival BritDoc, it's the sequel to an in-your-face collage film that garnered millions of Internet downloads.

One of the festival's treasures was the retrospective of Japanese activist filmmaker Noriaki Tsuchimoto, the maker of the internationally renowned Minimata films in the 1970s, who continues to make socially-engaged work. Cinema Is about Documenting Lives, by Toshi Fujiwara, is a combination biography-filmography also shown at the fest. Awkwardly told, the work still provides a valuable service in showcasing internationally the life work of this documentary legend.

Panels, especially the Digidocs strand, were often packed; European audience members who were trying to get used to the downsizing of public service television were hungry for tips to survive the digital transition. Americans including Sandi DuBowski (there with Parvez Sharma for Jihad for Love), Ruiyan Xu of public TV series P.O.V.  and Claire Aguilar of ITVS shared insights from the scrappy, wired world of the US documentary filmmaker.

The festival also featured the intersection between digital entertainment and documentary. Showcasing the output of an earlier "Crossover" workshop, the Cross Platform Pitch demonstrated projects generated over a 24-hour period. Projects ranged from a combination TV show and museum display to an electronically-linked scavenger hunt in public parks to a reality show that lets viewers spy on family members' e-mails. The National Film Board of Canada co-sponsored an award for $10,500 (CAD), which was given to a group that will create a Web- and mobile media-based project on global sex trafficking.

The international online group D-word also held a "F2F" meeting, which attracted about 15 members, many of them from the US.

Pat Aufderheide is director of the Center for Social Media at American University.