The Sheffield Doc/Fest in Sheffield, England just wound up its fifteenth incarnation, yet the air of it feels new, emerging, and in a way, it is. Director Heather Croall took over three years ago and under her leadership, this five-day event is expanding its horizons and gunning to be one of the top international documentary festivals. Croall said, “I feel like this year we really got into gear, our organization is better than ever.” Evidenced by the energy and good will present despite the damp November weather, it is well on its way.
A big announcement came at the start of the festival that the other principal U.K. documentary event BritDoc would be merging with Doc/Fest to form one major British documentary festival. While this year’s BritDoc boasted 1,000 delegates to its summer presentation at Oxford, the mission of the Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation, the organization behind the BritDoc event, to support British documentary and cultivate the filmmakers’ careers will be served by the slate of new activities aimed at complementing their funding program, such as a partnership with the North Carolina-based outreach organization Working Films to create social actions plans around films supported by the foundation.
If the presence of another U.K. festival had presented any competition for sponsor money or filmmaker support, the merging of BritDoc and Sheffield eliminates those issues. Doc/Fest has already appeared to overcome another major obstacle, its unenviable time slot in the international doc fest calendar, taking place right before CPH:Dox in Copenhagen and at the end of the month, the mother of doc fests, International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). It could have worked out that international commissioning editors, festival programmers and press saved their travel for one or both of the later festivals, but instead, they turned out en masse to attend Sheffield’s MeetMarket, screenings and panel discussions.
The MeetMarket is the heart of the event that draws industry executives and filmmakers alike to Sheffield, an almost sleepy hub an hour outside of Manchester and home to Sheffield Hallam University. Much like the Independent Film Week meetings in New York, Sheffield programmers arrange short meetings between selected projects and commissioning editors, mostly from Europe and a smattering from North America.
Said Rajesh Thind, who traveled from his shoot in India to attend, “I had 11 official meetings and 12 unofficial meetings and everyone said ‘yes.'” He received strong interest in “Twelve Acres,” a personal story that follows his journey from his London home to a family-owned plot of land in the Punjabi region to decide once and for all what will happen with land. Other U.S. filmmakers in town to pitch included Jem Cohen (“Late City Final”), DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (“The Collar”) and Paul Devlin (“Superstar Dumb”).
While Devlin and producer Claire Missanelli were pitching their new project, they were also screening “BLAST!,” their newest completed work. The film follows Paul’s brother Dr. Mark Devlin as he attempts to launch a high-altitude balloon that will carry a telescope high into the Earth’s atmosphere to record data that will help scientists determine the age of galaxies. Other films on the slate from the United States included Kimberly Reed‘s “Prodigal Sons” following her journey to reconcile with her adopted brother who happens to be Orson Wells‘ grandson, Jeremiah Zagar‘s “In a Dream,” and Cynthia Lester‘s “My Mother’s Garden.”
There was also a heaping helping of brand new work, with a particular emphasis on films from the United Kingdom. Hannah Rothchild hit a home run with “The Jazz Baroness” about her great aunt Pannonica Rothchild, an heiress who left her home and family in England to befriend jazz great Thelonius Monk. Their enigmatic 30-year relationship is a slice of history from jazz royalty. The festival’s Audience Award went to “The Fallen” by Morgan Mathews, a 3-hour film that delves into the lives of British servicepeople who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Franny Armstrong (“Drowned Out,” “McLibel”) held low-key screenings of her newest, “The Age of Stupid,” a hybrid doc that stars Pete Postlethwaite as a man living in 2055 who looks back at “archival” material from 2007 and wonders why we didn’t address climate change. The film took home one of Sheffield’s few awards, the Grierson Sheffield Green Doc Award. The Awards are named in honor of John Grierson, the Scottish documentarian, who is known along with Robert Flaherty as the fathers of modern documentary. Margaret Brown‘s “The Order of Myths” was awarded the Youth Jury Award and “Seven Sins of England” by Joseph Bullman took home the Innovation Award.
Sheffield showcased a number of animated docs. “Cyanosis” by Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami is the story of street artist Jamshid Aminfar who sells his folksy creations on the streets of Tehran, Iran. The film took home the Best International Student Doc Award. “Megunica” by Lorenzo Fonda follows graffiti artist Blu as he and his friends paint across Latin America. “Molotov Alva and His Search for the Creator: A Second Life Odyssey” by Douglas Gayeton follows Gayeton’s avatar in video dispatches from the virtual world of Second Life. It has been picked up by HBO.
The festival opened with another HBO-acquired film, “Thriller in Manila” by John Dower. The inspiring and insightful film delves into the personal dynamics behind the three-fight rivalry between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1975. While Ali remains one of the most revered figures in sports, Frazier lives a quiet life in Philadelphia running a boxing gym. He was the first fighter to ever beat Ali, and Dower’s film illustrates Ali’s less-than-graceful reaction to that fact in the lead up to their two follow-up fights.
Besides the screenings and industry meetings, there were a host of masterclasses with the likes of James Marsh (“Man on Wire”), Nick Broomfield (“Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam”) and DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (“The Return of the War Room”). Panels covered topics from “Theatrical Documentaries R.I.P.?” to James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins’ “The Clearance Culture and the Future of Film.” The festival is a must for anyone wishing to break into the British documentary industry and the event is poised to continue on as a major stop on the documentary festival circuit.