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Navigating Sheffield DocFest 2024: Rain or Shine

By Janay Boulos

Doors open into a crowded ballroom with round tables, a sign for the Sheffield DocFest “MeetMarket” marks the event on the door.
Sheffield DocFest’s MeetMarket. Image credit: Anh Do. Courtesy of Sheffield DocFest.

“Pace yourself! It’s a marathon, not a race.” I know it’s a cliche, but I couldn’t find better words to explain my experience at Sheffield DocFest 2024. It’s a journey that demands endurance, strategic planning, and a balance between managing expectations and seizing opportunities. You shouldn’t expect too much from it, yet you should be prepared to embrace the unexpected. 

One of the leading documentary festivals, DocFest is a whirlwind of events—talks, panels, networking drinks, and parties until 2:00 a.m., then starting again at 9:00 a.m. the next morning. These events are where connections are made, ideas are exchanged, and sometimes, future collaborations are born. DocFest takes place in Sheffield, a vibrant city in South Yorkshire, UK, known for its rich industrial heritage, green spaces, and thriving cultural scene, despite being smaller in scale compared to London. I attended the festival to take meetings and network as I am currently producing two feature documentaries—but also to reconnect with friends and contacts I only see at industry events.

It was empowering to see a section of the festival dedicated to Palestinian films and Palestinian filmmakers. On Saturday, I attended the Palestinian delegation presentation, and it was a tearful event. As a Lebanese filmmaker, journalist, and first of all, a Lebanese citizen, the Palestinian struggle is not far from ours—we’re connected. In Lebanon, we’re witnessing towns in the south getting bombed daily and the threat of the war extending to the rest of my country. Giving a platform for the voices of these filmmakers, most of them suffering from having to live in exile, trying to find someone to listen to them and to their story, is a powerful statement on the work of the Palestinian Film Institute and on Sheffield DocFest for providing the space. These filmmakers want to let the world hear their stories, like all of us attending the festival with a film and a story close to us that we want the world to hear.

Two women stand on either side of a man, all smiling widely. The sign behind them is for Sheffield DocFest 2024.
L to R: Waad Al-Kateab, Abd Alkader Habak, Janay Boulos. Courtesy of Janay Boulos

Navigating the Project Market

At the MeetMarket, filmmakers of 50 documentary projects at various stages of production underwent two days of pitching in one-to-one meetings, all with the same hope of securing funding, finding sales agents, getting commissioned, and meeting festival representatives. Also attending the festival were another 100 or more filmmakers looking for the same thing without the festival’s official matchmaking. I was one of them. For me, the key to setting up meetings is to first check the industry delegation list on the website, which is downloadable in an Excel format that makes it easier to narrow it down and navigate. And then reach out to people by email after you’ve made sure that they are suitable for your projects. 

I’d rather be one of those aspiring filmmakers than one of those so-called “decision makers.” How do you decide which project you come on board, when all of the stories are valid and important, all represent suffering, and come from the heart of local voices and filmmakers who want to create change and have the world hear them? For why else are we making these films but to express an injustice, a passion, a sorrow, and a joy we carry so dearly? And that’s why being one in thousands of aspiring filmmakers in the world is never a competition, but rather a community of storytellers who fight to keep talking, sharing, carrying legacies, and portraying stories. When we stop doing that, the world forgets, and history is written based on the strongest narrative. Therefore, we are all writing and making history. 

After Meetings, Go to Drinks Receptions

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned from previous festivals is that networking at the various drinks receptions is crucial. Building a network at Sheffield DocFest requires a proactive approach. Emailing people beforehand might be disheartening, as no one really replies. But don’t get discouraged if you don’t receive immediate responses. Everyone at the festival is busy, juggling packed agendas. Sometimes luck plays a part, too—you might find yourself queuing for the bathroom with a person you’ve emailed to no avail. That happened to me. And I ended up sharing a bathroom visit, getting a drink, and having that meeting I thought would never happen.

And what is a better place to talk or a nicer setting in which to share stories than a rainy and windy June day, huddling underneath umbrellas at the networking drinks? Typical English weather graced us at Sheffield this DocFest, but the chatter was louder than the raindrops and thunder. People chatted, drank, laughed, and told stories about films they watched and those they want to make. The camaraderie among attendees is heartwarming. It’s a place where industry friends reconnect. Sometimes it’s the only place you get to see them throughout the year. The community is supportive and encouraging, making the experience enriching and memorable.

Don’t Forget to Watch Films

Amidst this chaos, finding time to watch documentaries is essential. Watching the selected documentaries as a filmmaker is critical for honing my craft. It’s inspiring and educational, offering insights and perspectives that can shape my storytelling. So, I had to step away from the drinks, and even wake up earlier than expected, to make time to watch the films I booked. On my first day at Sheffield DocFest, I missed a film I had booked, Silent Men, which had its premiere, unfortunately, at the same time as the NatGeo networking drinks. The food and unlimited bar make these probably the most popular drinks at the festival. So to make up for it, and thanks to a dear friend, I woke up at 9:00 a.m. the next day to watch Union. This documentary was eye-opening and made me think of the class struggle that often leads the powerful to repress the voices of the weak to maintain their dominance and control. It is the same in societies where the weak must rise to get their voices heard, even though they are on the right side of history. 

Check Out Panels and Exhibitions

And on the last couple of days, when the industry leaves and it is mostly filmmakers who are left, it’s time to enrich your knowledge. I attended a few panels this year, including the Al Jazeera Documentary breakfast talk; a panel about producing called “Right Money, Right Film”; and finally, the Alternate Realities Summit. I had briefly entered the Alternate Realities Exhibition [co-curated by IDA’s Keisha Knight and Abby Sun with Sheffield DocFest Creative Director Raul Niño Zambrano] where I got to wear a bat’s head mask and look at the world with bat vision (Nocturnal Fugue). I touched some sticky fingers, too (Finger Rub Rug). I did not know that a whole industry is shaping up to focus not only on the traditional visual filmmaking experience, but on the sensory one, where people are telling their stories using not just sight but all the senses. 

In the end, Sheffield DocFest isn’t just about the films or the deals—it’s about the people. It’s about the stories we tell and the connections we make that drive compassion, empathy, and all the synonyms that go along with these words. It’s vital to remember that storytelling is our way of planting seeds of hope and resilience. So, here’s to more stories, more connections, and more DocFests—rain or shine!

Janay Boulos is a Lebanese journalist and documentary producer based between her hometown, Byblos, and London. She produces feature and short documentaries from and about the Middle East focusing on social, political, and cultural stories told by voices of those with lived experiences.