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Five Days That Shook the Docs: Sheffield Revels in New Summertime Slot

By Carol Nahra

To get a sense of just how intensive and comprehensive the Sheffield Doc/Fest has become, take a look at a single time slot.

At 5:00 p.m. on Friday, right in the middle of the five-day festival, you had your choice of no fewer than 13 options of where to turn your attention. You could be in a hub of the Sheffield Hallam University student union, taking a critical look at the inevitably complicated relationship between filmmakers and charities when they partner to make films. In a former chapel up the road, you could witness that same relationship up close, in the Wellcome Trust Broadcast Development Award Pitch, where awards of up to £10,000 were granted for science-based program ideas. Or you could be at Sheffield's famous Crucible Theatre, watching a panel of experts debate about how risk aversion is killing creativity in the UK television industry. At another historic theater next door, you could be discussing how small indies can get noticed in the age of the super indie. Or in Sheffield's grand Town Hall, you could be witnessing a nail-biting, hypothetical scenario involving rights development.

Of course, you could eschew all of the intensive debates and simply enjoy the festival for its stunning film program. And at 5:00 p.m., six films screened simultaneously, all in the presence of their respective filmmakers. Three had their world premieres at Sheffield: Emily James' Just Do it, an insider perspective of a year in the lives of climate campaigners; At Night I Fly, Michel Wenzer's meditative look at maximum-security inmates engaged in a writing program; and Dominic Allan's Calvet, about a Central American artist's dark past. In addition to those six features (and a number of shorts that preceded them), you could attend 10 x 10, a popular filmmaking workshop run by the Documentary Filmmakers Group, in which filmmakers screen 10 minutes of a work-in-progress and receive 10 minutes of feedback.


From Emily James' Just Do It.



Having written the festival's film program, I had seen most of the offerings prior to opening day.  At Doc/Fest I spent a lot of time sneaking into the backs of cinemas to listen in on Q & As for some of my favorite films. My own 5:oo p.m. Friday choice was watching BBC Storyville editor Nick Fraser discuss the engrossing and memorable Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer. Director Alex Gibney related to delegates how the film had grossed $1.4 million on US VOD alone prior to the theatrical release.

For hundreds of decision-makers and broadcasters, though, their answer to the choice of 13 events at 5:00 pm on Friday was "None of the Above." They were, after all, attending the Doc/Fest MeetMarket, which places filmmakers in one-to-one meetings with mentors, decision-makers and advocates; some projects had dozens of meetings during the two-day event. The MeetMarket has proven to be hugely popular by bypassing the often humiliating drama of the public pitch in favor of tailored match-making; this year, 64 projects from over 20 countries were selected from 486 applications.


In the 15 years I've been attending Doc/Fest (In addition to writing the film catalogue, I serve on the Advisory Committee.), I've seen it grow from a toddler to an adult very much in its prime. As it has spilled over from the intimate setting of the Sheffield Showroom to venues throughout the city, it has evolved from an event centered almost exclusively on the UK television industry to a celebration of documentaries across media and boundaries. Its change in focus is most evident in two related areas: the new media revolution, and the opening up of new platforms for distribution.

Anyone wanting a crash course in how media innovations are changing the documentary form could spend five intensive days exploring the subject at Doc/Fest, which tellingly now bills itself as "The UK's most important documentary and digital media festival." The festival's annual Crossover Summit on Wednesday gets the transmedia ball rolling; this year's summit focused on  how to commission for convergence across platforms, and how to transform the audience from passive viewers to active participants. These themes echoed throughout the festival: On Saturday I saw a truly remarkable demonstration by photojournalist Danfung Dennis (whose debut feature, Hell and Back Again,  had its EU premiere at Doc/Fest). He modeled the technology he has developed behind an online project, also at Doc/Fest, called Condition One, in which, using a laptop, viewers can manipulate their view of a documentary scene (in this case, in a volatile war setting) some 210 degrees. It really seemed like a glimpse into the near future; it was just one of many such glimpses at the festival.

The other major theme was the exploration of distribution and funding pathways outside of the UK television commissioning structure. Saturday saw a Crowdfunding Day, examining the hottest new funding trend of soliciting friends, acquaintances and interested bystanders online. While it might seem a desperate move for many who balk at the notion of holding out a virtual cap in hand, the success of some crowdfunding efforts was in very much in evidence at Doc/Fest, with a clutch of the festival's films, including Just Do It and Sound It Out, having gone the crowdfunding route.

Despite its steady gaze into the future, Doc/Fest still heralds the documentary old guard. This year's most celebrated guest was none other than Albert Maysles, who clearly enjoyed receiving a a lifetime achievement award, giving a master class and participating in a Grey Gardens parade to a new outdoor screening venue. Other doc veterans in attendance included Steve James (who took the Grand Jury Prize for his riveting redemption film The Interrupters); Nick Broomfield, who received The Sheffield Inspiration award; Molly Dineen; and Morgan Spurlock.


Albert Maysles (left) with Sheffield Doc/Fest Director Heather Croall. Photo: Jacqui Bellamy



If there's a criticism to make about the festival, it's sometimes too much of a good thing. With so many concurrent sessions, films and networking events, some events were sparsely attended, most notably film screenings. A shame, because the film program this year was undeniably a triumph, with festival circuit heavy-hitters such as Position Among the Stars and Bombay Beach running alongside many lower profile but equally powerful films such as Brian Mason's dance biopic Life in Movement. Putting together one of the festival's strongest programs in its history was no small triumph for programmer Hussain Currimbhoy, who also managed to do it in seven months, as the festival moved from November to its new June slot.

The 2012 Sheffield Doc/Fest will run from June 13 through 17.

Carol Nahra is an American documentary producer, writer and media studies lecturer based in London.