Getting serious in Sheffield

While this year's edition of the Sheffield Doc/Fest brought some lighter moments to the mix via the UK premiere of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and panels delving into factual entertainment, much of the event was dedicated to the ever-evolving business of making and selling docs.
November 8, 2010

It opened with an entertaining film about Joan Rivers but much of the 17th annual Sheffield Doc/Fest was about the serious nuts and bolts of how to get docs of all shapes and sizes made. The UK festival enjoyed its biggest numbers ever, drawing nearly 2,000 delegates to the five-day event, held from Nov.3-7.

In a lively session on Thursday, The Great Doc Debate, Channel 4′s Deputy Head of Docs Simon Dickson and BBC Commissioning Editor for Documentaries Charlotte Moore were grilled by industry journalists. Dickson came under particular fire for Seven Days, the multi-platform series based in Notting Hill which follows characters over the previous week. ‘We’re not afraid of content, but we always try to innovate,’ Dickson said in defense of the eight-part series. It has suffered badly in the ratings, but been staunchly supported by Dickson and series producer Stephen Lambert as a worthwhile experiment, as it has yielded an enormous amount of web traffic.

Indeed, even BBC One Controller Danny Cohen, who used to be a Channel 4 Commissioner, came to Dickson’s defense in Friday’s keynote BBC Interview. ‘Simon got a bit of a hard time with that session,’ said Cohen. ‘He was trying something different. People can be criticized for being safe as well as being criticized when experiments don’t work. Really vibrant channels, whatever they are, find a way of making things seem fresh and new.’

While Cohen was reluctant to speak in detail about his plans for BBC One – he was only appointed three weeks ago – he made it clear that he is hoping to usher in a new generation of factual programming. ‘Across television in 2000-2005 a lot of big genres were found,’ he said. ‘There’s a feeling in the air at the moment that there must be a new turn of the wheel soon, and a new format shape that will lead the way.’ He said that he was on the lookout for a new style of observational documentary series that are endurable and repeatable, and as popular as BBC One’s Traffic Cops.

Inevitably, perhaps, in a festival which brings together an enormous range of filmmakers, there were many conflicting views about the state of television documentary. An animosity bubbled just under the surface of many sessions about the increasing trend in British TV towards factual formats with predictable journeys. It’s a genre which has been hugely popular on both sides of the Atlantic, but has come, many argue, at the expense of observational documentary which can’t be pre-packaged into neat, predictable storylines. ‘We’re at a documentary conference, and I don’t really regard Secret Millionaire as documentary,’ said filmmaker Brian Hill (Songbirds, Climate of Change), during the session Does Poverty on TV Have to be a Spectator Sport?

But it wasn’t all about television at Doc/Fest this year. The examination of the many avenues for getting your films made and distributed was a central theme at this year’s fest. A core of the experts at this year’s MeetMarket, which drew more than 170 decision- makers from 23 countries, were from non-traditional arenas, including third-sector funders. A strand of sessions took on the hot topic of crowd-funding, with many filmmakers keen to emulate the success of Franny Armstrong’s blockbuster environmental doc The Age of Stupid. Armstrong was on hand to elaborate how she not only raised its entire budget independently, and mostly online, but also reached tens of thousands of viewers through private independent screenings and individual downloads.

This was the last Doc/Fest held in the autumn. Starting in 2011, the event moves to June, in a move which should at least offer a bit more sun.

Carol Nahra is a member of the Sheffield Doc/Fest advisory committee.

About The Author