The 12th Sheffield documentary festival proved as attractive as ever for the 600 delegates in attendance

Richard Kilborn
Richard Kilborn is an Honorary Professor in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities at the University of Stirling

As well as providing plenty of opportunities to debate and celebrate the genre, the festival also showcased a wide selection of thought-provoking, entertaining documentaries ranging from Marilyn Agrelo’s Mad Hot Ballroom to Mark Wexler’s Tell Them Who You Are.

SIDF has always been quite business and industry-focussed and this year was no exception. A series of sessions under the label “The Sharp End” gave delegates nuts-and-bolts advice on issues such as commissioning, co-production and distribution.  Likewise the “Newcomers Day” provided a chance for those seeking to make a career in documentary to get tips from seasoned campaigners about the practicalities of filmmaking. A little later in the week, in a very well-attended session, delegates also heard more about the new opportunities for filmmakers emerging out of developments in broadband technology, developments which may enable them to escape the broadcasters’ stranglehold.

BBC on the Hot Seat

For many festival visitors the highlights of the week came in a series of sessions featuring some big names from both the world of broadcasting and that of documentary production. This year one of most talked-about events was the interview with Peter Kosminsky, best known for his work as a TV drama-documentary director. Interviewed by Thomas Sutcliffe, Kosminsky reflected on the challenges of producing ‘factually-based dramas’, including his recent film The Government Inspector about the death of Dr David Kelly and Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. There was some irony in the fact that the Kosminsky interview, together with the screening of the film, should follow an earlier interview with Mark Thompson, the new Director-General of the BBC, the institution that had come under some scrutiny in The Government Inspector. In his keynote speech Thompson knew that he faced a potentially hostile audience, given that the BBC had recently announced 50% cuts in their documentary department. He therefore spent most of his allotted time in demonstrating his personal attachment to various landmark documentaries. These were mostly drawn from the last decade, but he started off -perhaps controversially- with Peter Watkins’ harrowing drama-doc The War Game (1965), the work that the BBC had banned for twenty years on the grounds that it was too horrifying for the broadcast medium. Responding to questions from the floor after his address, Thompson sought to mollify those who expressed anxieties, post-Hutton, that the BBC might retreat to politically safe territory, with the stern enjoinder Test us! Test us!, though there were clearly many in the audience who did not share the DG’s optimism.

Storytelling and the Future of Docs

For many delegates, I suspect, the most rewarding sessions were those in which experienced film and programme makers talked about the craft involved in ‘putting reality together’. Robert Thirkell, series editor of the highly successful “Jamie’s School Dinners”, reflected on the importance of storytelling in documentary, whilst in a parallel session Norma Percy, together with members of her production team, provided some highly illuminating commentary on the making of Elusive Peace, the sequel to their earlier much acclaimed series The War, Israel and the Arabs (1998).

The War, Israel and the Arabs (1998).

As at most documentary festivals nowadays, there was the usual discussion about documentary’s future, especially the threats posed by lightweight reality and factual formats colonising more and more space in prime-time schedules. These concerns surfaced several times during the festival. In the aptly named “I’m a Celebrity…Get Me in a Documentary”, panellists discussed how the currency of documentary was being potentially devalued by the almost mandatory presence of a celebrity presenter. Likewise in the lively, well-attended session “The Rise of the Cinema Documentary”, panellists argued that getting a cinema commission could only be achieved if one was able to match a number of commercially-determined requirements relating to subject matter and treatment.

The Up Series

Mindful of the difficulty that ‘traditional’ documentaries have sometimes had in getting through to a large, appreciative audience, it is gratifying to report that one of the final sessions in Sheffield went a considerable way to disproving the belief that documentary is a Cinderella genre. Channel 4’s recent ‘The 50 Best Documentaries of All Times’ had already voted in as number 1 documentary Michael Apted’s series of programmes 7-Up, 14-Up, 21-Up, etc.

This is the series in which Apted returns every seven years to film a group of individuals who he had first started interviewing as children back in 1962. Apted has always claimed that the Up Series has been at the “centre of his creative life” -which might sound strange given that in the meantime he has become an A-list Hollywood director of feature films (including a clutch of James Bond movies). The Up Series has also given rise to a number of international offspring and Apted was joined on the platform by Jemma Jupp, producer of “Born in the USSR: 21 Up”. Together they reflected on the consequences of such long-term involvement in the lives of subject participants and how, as time goes by, the documentarist inevitably becomes an element of the story being told. Apted in particular was extremely frank about how some of his participants had become increasingly ambivalent about their involvement in what had for them become a life-shaping experience (with all the attendant pros and cons). The audience at this session were well aware that this type of longitudinal study-especially the regular need for subjects to prepare themselves for yet another intrusion into their lives-raised questions that went to the heart of the documentary enterprise. The session was, thus, a fitting climax to a festival that shows every sign of rivalling the longevity of the Up Series!

 


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