Sheffield’s Doc/Fest is like Mecca for British doc filmmakers, compelled to make the pilgrimage for four days of networking and film screenings. Aspiring documentary filmmaker and BAFTA Youth Board member Jacob Harbord reports from last month's event.
Good stories over social issues
Within an hour of arriving on the first day, I found myself sharing a pew with scores of industry insiders as we listened to commissioning editors from all corners of the globe pass on their vision for documentary’s future and explain what they’re looking to buy. Virtually all agreed that the emotional impact of a film was what they were most excited by, that only feelings can convey the hard facts properly, and that good stories were preferred over social issue films. The potential of user-generated content and web projects were also hot topics, with the possibility of collating masses of material into multi-perspectival mosaics emerging as a particular point of interest. Each commissioner was keen to welcome informal pitches as they toured the festival, hence Sheffield’s unparalleled reputation for business opportunities, but there were pleas for bathrooms and late-night bars to remain pitch-free zones.
Networking: Fun, not awkward
Outside the lavatories, Doc/Fest provides one of the best networking environments available. Unlike the nightmarish awkwardness of an explicit networking event, meeting-and-greeting at Sheffield is heaps of fun. The most rewarding contacts I made were done so informally, mostly by talking to the people randomly sat next to me during screenings or by mingling with big-wigs at the festival parties. I spoke to directors, producers, writers, students, and the heads of international broadcasters and, if nothing else, the physical closeness of the festival alone ensures you’ll meet some exciting people. However, the crowds of Sheffield offer far more than mere career-minded socialising, and seeing so many people who actually star in the documentaries being screened was as surprising as it was exciting. Where else in the UK can you watch a film about the wisdom of the Kogi tribe, only to see a Kogi priest wandering through the street hours later?
BAFTA were at Doc/Fest too, with a line-up of events that included: Michael Apted, legendary director of the 7 Up series; Nick Fraser, the executive producer of BBC Storyville; director Penny Woolcock, whose films From The Sea To The Land Beyond and One Mile Away premiered at this year’s festival; Carol Morley, the exceptionally talented and innovative director behind Dreams Of A Life; and Dan Rees, Doug Allan and Elizabeth White from the ground-breaking Frozen Planet team. Alongside longer interviews on the challenges and successes of their careers, we asked each to give their best advice to those starting-off in documentary film. While Michael Apted encouraged us to take advantage of new technology and Nick Fraser urged us to develop rat-like cunning, time-and-again we heard that new talent needed one quality above all others: perseverance. Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance.
Perseverance, Perseverance, Perseverance
Without perseverance, astounding documentaries like One Mile Away and 5 Broken Cameras would never have made it to the big screen. One Mile Away, Penny Woolcock’s new documentary about the efforts of two young men from Birmingham’s inner-city trying to broker a cease-fire between their warring gangs, certainly wasn’t an easy film to make. The frustrations faced by Woolcock as negotiations repeatedly faltered and failed over many long months were obvious. Yet, by persevering, Woolcock emerged with a powerful and uplifting piece on the fortitude required to overcome seemingly impossible difficulties. 5 Broken Cameras depicts the daily struggles of Emad Burnat as he records the relentless cycle of protest and oppression being played out on the Israel-Palestine border. By persevering in his commitment to documenting injustice, even losing one camera to a bullet aimed at his head, Burnat and Guy Davidi created a film that will outrage you like no other. While most of us won’t enter warzones or gang-lands with our cameras, we can all appreciate that sheer dogged determination is an essential ingredient in the greatest works of documentary cinema.
Of course, remaining resolute in the face of adversity is easier said than done. Doc/Fest, by showcasing the year’s best documentaries, will surely inspire even the most jaded documentarian to approach the world with a heightened passion and curiosity. After a weekend in Sheffield, I returned home bolstered in my resolve to keep striving towards my dream of becoming a director and feeling a bit wiser about what it takes to get there.
Keep an eye on Guru for video highlights of BAFTA's Doc/Fest events. In the meantime, check out our Documentary + Factual area