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Exploring Factual Film and TV at Sheffield’s International Doc Fest

Exploring Factual Film and TV at Sheffield's International Doc Fest

Just a couple of hours north of London by train is Sheffield, an industrial town in Yorkshire known for spawning such musicians as Jarvis Cocker from Pulp, bands like ABC and Cabaret Voltaire, and even Def Leppard. Eva Woods’ documentary about the music from the city, “Made in Sheffield”, screened a few years back at a local festival that has made quite a name for itself as the leading British showcase for international TV and film docs. Anchored at the bustling Showroom Cinema, featuring 4 screens, a cafe and bar, is the venue’s Sheffield International Documentary Festival, which concluded its weeklong run on Sunday.

More than 600 delegates from what is called the ‘factual’ film and TV business in the UK converged upon Sheffield for the 12th annual edition, joining a mix of locals who have increasingly embraced this South Yorkshire festival that screened more than 75 films in its week-long run. Participants in the conference’s many sessions included commissioning editors, producers, filmmakers and others. Even aspiring doc-makers traveled to Sheffield from throughout the U.K., hoping to establish a career in factual film and TV.

Asked how the festival has changed over the course of recent editions, fest programmer Sirkka Moeller explained, “Throughout the last few years, the festival has been able to attract more international commissioning editors and festival representatives who want to find out about the documentary landscape in the UK.”

The festival’s board chair Steve Hewlett talking with BBC’s Mark Thompson. Photo by Eugene Hernandez/indieWIRE

The state of factual programming in the UK and the changing face of documentary, amidst recent budget cuts and the changing face of TV entertainment programs, was a hot topic on Friday evening during the festival when a large crowd of delegates gathered to witness an interview of new BBC director general Mark Thompson by doc director and festival board chair Steve Hewlett. In a discussion that included a presentation of clips from an array of notable doc programs and productions, Thompson said that he is “excited about the ways the genre is morphing and changing,” but expressed concern about “when it gets too far away from social document.”

Citing the sort of programs we call ‘Reality TV’ in this country, Thompson seemed both enthusiastic about the potential for factual TV programming developed with a natural sense of drama and generally optimistic about the future. Citing the work of self-described “bad boy of English documentary” Nicholas Barker (“Unmade Beds”) on the BBC show “Signs of the Times” as inspiring a new era of factual programming such as “Changing Rooms” and “Ground Force” (for the American equivalent, think “Trading Spaces” or “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition”), Thompson’s talk included mentions of everything from “Touching the Void” to “Wifeswap.”

“Documentary is quite good at putting on the clothes of other genres,” explained Thompson, “But (we) still want a genre that is true to itself — it takes a lot of will power to say ‘that’s enough, let’s try something else.”

Programming was a mix of new British films and selections from the festival circuit, so it was easy to witness the debut of a film like Peter Gordon’s “Asylum” about three families who relocated from Afghanistan to Britain, Mark Daniels’ “Enemy Image” about the changing face of TV coverage of wars, and Brian Hill’s “Songbirds,” a doc musical about women in prison. New films showed alongside the first British screenings of such films as Raymond Depardon’s “10th District Court: Moments of Trials,” Jeff Feuerzeig’s “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” and Ellen Perry’s “The Fall of Fujimori,” not to mention such movies as “Mad Hot Ballroom,” and “Rize.”

Exploring the changing face of documentary remains a primary goal of Sheffield’s organizers, whether that is British work or international films. “We have continued our efforts to make the festival more relevant to international documentary makers while at the same time keeping it interesting for the British documentary industry,” said Moeller, regarding the festival. “The festival was started by UK filmmakers who wanted to create an event where they would be able to network, be inspired and share the tricks of the trade.”

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