One of the underlying factors in the ongoing success of the Sheffield International Documentary Festival is that it is simply a very good time. If you manage to make it up to Sheffield once, you’re probably going to carve out time again. It’s a chance to come and focus on documentary filmmaking for one week a year. It’s more about the craft than the business. It’s not the place to come if you want to shamelessly plug your latest film; it’s not even the place to come to gain earth-shattering insights into the documentary genre. But it is the place to come to meet a wide range of people in the industry, indulge in good conversations and more than a bit of gossip, and watch some wonderful documentaries.
The week begins sleepily with screenings on Monday and Tuesday. Younger delegates arrive for Wednesday’s ‘Newcomers Day’ and Thursday’s ‘First Cuts’; on Friday the festival swells dramatically as the “real job” folk make their way up from London.
In an effort to live up to the International in its title, a theme of Sheffield this year was films about the world. But as documentary in the UK is inescapably intertwined with the business of television, the international theme centred upon British television’s internal politics. In a series of sessions called ‘Big World’, Small Screen speakers alternatively bemoaned the declining number of serious documentaries on international subjects or denied that a decline is taking place.
The former category included panellists like journalist Feargal Keane, who attacked the agenda of commissioned international films as “hideously skewed in favour of bizarre, dramatic and the bang bang.” The latter included television executives such as Channel 4’s Head of Docs Peter Dale, who promised that next year a third of his documentary series output would be filmed abroad. He said that while current affairs are responsible for providing context and analysis, the documentaries should be “seeing how people live in a very unmediated and observed way.”
Perhaps the best example of Dale’s vision of international observational documentaries was to be found in the festival’s ‘First Cuts’ strand of documentaries from UK-film-school first time directors. In The Jahalin, Israeli Talya Ezrahi travels to the West Bank to meet a Bedouin family living in the desert hills surrounding her hometown of Jerusalem. After occupying the open land for hundreds of years, the family is struggling in vain against the encroaching Jewish settlement to avoid being relocated next to Jerusalem’s largest rubbish dump. The 29-minute film is powerful and heartbreaking; screened at 9.30 am on Thursday, it drew few delegates outside of the film school circuit. In all, seven of First Cuts’ films had international themes.
An inadvertent international subtext at Sheffield is often the vast differences between British and American perspectives. This year’s special guest filmmaker, Frederick Wiseman, in conversation with Guardian film critic Derek Malcolm, left the audience marvelling at the ease with which he gains access to people and institutions. Wiseman said “for reasons that I still don’t understand at least in America, the presence of a camera and a tape recorder has never been a problem in terms of getting material.” This provoked the comment from one delegate that “America sounds like a documentarian’s paradise.”
From the perspective of the mostly UK-based audience, Wiseman’s assertions seemed unbelievable. But the docusoap explosion in the UK, has greatly increased the general public’s media savvy. The US is a different story: it’s a very, very big country, and observational filmmaking and the docusoap trend have barely penetrated television, leaving most Americans naïve about the potential downfalls of becoming subjects of a film.
Of course for many British filmmakers, America is a documentarian’s paradise – just look at the number of easy Aren’t-Americans-Weird docs showing regularly on British television. But Americans are best at showing their own eccentricities, as the Sheffield festival showcases each year. Leading the pack this year was Just, Melvin, James Ronald Whitney’s harrowing account of the devastating effects of incest in his family. On the frothier side was Bounce: Behind the Velvet Rope, Steven Cantor’s amusing look at New York nightclub bouncers who take themselves way too seriously, and Live Nude Girls UNITE!, Vicy Funari and Julia Query’s quirky film about the struggle to unionise a stripping club.
As usual with good festivals, the most difficult problems you’re likely to face in Sheffield are choosing what to go to and worrying that you’re missing something better next door.