I’ve been working for Sheffield International Documentary Festival for 7 months. I’ve now seen the Festival from both sides; as a member of the press and a member of the hard-woking team behind the scenes. Alongside a varied and ambitious film programme, there are also talks, sessions, debates and interviews and the ever-growing virtual realities programme which boasts a diverse selection of experiences from walking on Mars to living in the Calais jungle. Here are just some of my personal highlights:
This year there was a delightful mix of comical treats and hard-hitting emotional documentaries filling up the film programme. My favourites included the hilariously cringey Wiener which follows the unsuccessful New York Mayoral campaign of Anthony Wiener whose sexting scandals awkwardly get in the way of his reputation, relationships – leaving you joyfully squirming on behalf of all involved. Ahead of this year’s Wimbledon, which starts today, there was the captivating Serena which followed the triumphs and struggles of the remarkable Serena Williams as she attempts to complete a calendar grand slam. There was also the tragic Born to be Free an activist film following in the footsteps of Blackfish and looking at the mistreatment of captured beluga whales and the oddly sinister and surreal Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru which gives us full access to a controversial conference held by America’s most successful motivational speaker and the individuals who pay $5,000 to attend for 6 days.
This year Doc/Fest welcomed David Attenborough, something the Festival has been aiming to make happen for over a decade. A full house welcomed him to Sheffield’s Crucible theatre and a large crowd gathered in the square outside the venue to view the interview on the outdoor screen. It was a monumental moment for the Festival and one that made the hairs on the back of the necks of all involved stand up. Joanna Lumley also attended for a conversation about her life and career which was as fabulous as hoped and surprisingly moving. It was a treat to discuss her vast career but with a unique focus on her vast documentary portfolio. Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next had its UK premiere as the Festival’s opening night film and he graciously gave two separate Q&As following two screenings, along with a Channel 4 Interview about his full body of work. The Alternate Realities programme welcomed Jessica Brillhart, Principal Filmmaker for VR at Google who spoke passionately, gracing Doc/Fest with her unique expertise in an exciting, transforming new medium.
Aardman Animation have produced their first virtual experience for the BBC in the form of We Wait. It welcomes the viewer onto a smuggler’s boat to join a group of refugees as they attempt to journey from Turkey to Greece. It’s a dazzling and humbling experience. At the other end of the gallery was 6×9 – a claustrophobic experience of solitary confinement. I explored the cell and listening to the testimonies of real inmates who find themselves in such conditions for up to 23 hours a day. Later I found myself on the red planet, mesmerised by its expansive beauty as I drove around exploring the world of Mars 2030. Undoubtedly the highlight of my time in the VR galleries – and probably of the whole 6 days – was watching the angelic Tilda Swinton make her way around the AR programme. In that moment, as Swinton glided flawlessly around the exhibition and my hands went clammy, I realised – I’m very lucky to work for an organisation that displays such badass work that the most awesome of people want to experience. Come and join us at Doc/Fest 2017 – it’s pretty cool.
Thanks for reading and let’s all keep supporting our beloved film industry.