Sheffield hits its stride

Now in its sixth year, the Sheffield International Documentary Festival has established itself as a key event in the calendar for factual film-makers....
December 1, 1999

Now in its sixth year, the Sheffield International Documentary Festival has established itself as a key event in the calendar for factual film-makers.

Away from the free-for-all of program markets, and with most producers resisting the urge to pitch every commissioning editor in sight, the event is a chance for delegates to focus on the ethics and craft of documentary production.

It is also a showcase for some of the most significant pieces of classic and contemporary documentary from around the world.

Roger James, chairman of the Festival for the third and final time, believes Sheffield – under director Kathy Loizou – came of age this year. ‘For the first time, the Festival seemed completely confident. It felt like we could cope with anything – whereas in past years, we were flying by the seat of our pants.’

In terms of content, James welcomed the increased number of Masterclasses. ‘People appreciated the chance to see Errol Morris (Fast, Cheap and Out of Control), Jennifer Fox (An American Love Story) and Phil Agland (Shanghai Vice) taking about their craft. We didn’t have so many people pontificating about big issues.’

James also highlights the increased interest from the general public who bought more tickets than ever for the Festival’s numerous cinema screenings. ‘Box office was up 50% on last year – which is very pleasing. You have to remember that when Sheffield was launched, there was a real fear that the documentary genre was on the verge of extinction in the U.K.’

In reality, factual TV on British Television has boomed – though with it has come inevitable angst about whether observational films (so-called docusoaps) deserve to be classified as documentary. James’ opinion is that it is ‘better to be producing factual television than not to be working at all.’

That said, the increased prominence of factual television on British television has been ‘a shock’ for many documentary traditionalists, argues James. ‘We used to be scheduled on the fringes and now we are learning about the uncomfortable pressures that come with being in the spotlight.’

James, who now runs an indie company called Siguy Films, should know. This time last year he was a senior commissioning executive at Carlton Television – defending his integrity in the face of The Guardian newspaper’s allegations of faked evidence in award-winning film The Connection.

While this year’s festival was running, another respected production company, Ray Fitzwalter Associates, was also defending its corner against Guardian allegations that the use of undercover reporters and dramatic reconstructions in Channel 4′s Guns on the Street misled viewers.

On October 27, three days after the Festival ended, U.K. regulator the Independent Television Commission decided there was ‘insufficient evidence’ that viewers had been misled. But the issue is clearly a live one. In a debate involving Lion TV’s Nick Catliff and Granada’s Ian McBride, Sheffield delegates came down overwhelmingly in favor of strict regulation of veracity in documentary-making.

In another session called Reality Bites, Channel 4 director of program Tim Gardam, playing devil’s advocate, told a session at Sheffield that his favorite all-time documentary was a wartime propaganda film called Fires Were Started which is in fact a dramatic reconstruction of the fire brigade’s activities during the London blitz. He then went onto to praise the recent C4 drama-documentary Tina Goes Shopping.

According to Gardam, a key issue facing today’s factual production business is to ensure films ‘are clearly labeled and have clarity of intent. We have just expanded our factual guidelines at Channel 4 to deal with such concerns.’

Despite Sheffield’s laudable efforts to present an international line-up of films, there was a general view that British documentary-makers have become more insular. In a coproduction workshop involving Canal+’s Andrew Solomon, TV2 Denmark’s Mette Hoffman Meyer and La Sept/ARTE’s Christoph Jorg, the opinion was forcefully expressed that Brits are not open to collaboration with Europeans.

Insularity was also picked up as an editorial theme by Gardam who singled out Divorce: Iranian Style as one of his channel’s most significant recent factual films.

‘Now is a tough time for international subjects like this. (Divorce) was a subtitled feature length film which ran at 9pm and got 1.5 million viewers. It overturned stereotypes and set a challenge to producers pitching documentaries.’

Gardam’s comments echoed other criticisms about the volume of foreign coverage on UK screens. A new report from the Campaign for Quality Television has shown that foreign coverage in current affairs is in decline – with BBC2 virtually alone in tackling contemporary overseas topics. Ironically Channel 4, along with ITV, came in for particular criticism.

At Sheffield, in a session called Friend or Foe, the subject came up again when the ITC’s head of factual Stephen Perkins also complained of low levels of international and investigative journalism.

Part of the explanation for this neglect is the lack of time allotted to tackling difficult time-consuming subjects. Critics at Sheffield also complained of broadcasters’ growing obsession with strands which concentrate on narrowly-defined domestic subject matter – with the notable exception of Nick Fraser’s acclaimed Storyville strand on BBC2.

However Olivia Lichtenstein, who runs the BBC’s Inside Story strand, claims that her producers are given time to tackle tough subjects. ‘The best documentaries need time to allow the story to develop – but we can’t afford to do that all the time. We tend to tell producers to make one film in 2-3 weeks then spend longer on another.’

One of the high points of the festival was a one to one interview with one of the UK’s leading young observational film-makers, Molly Dineen. James said ‘we were aware that we had been talking to a lot of middle-aged men in the last 2-3 years – so it was interesting to get a fresh perspective.’

Dineen’s major credits include In the Company of Men, The Ark, Angel and a recent film for Channel 4 about the ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell. She is now making a film about the UK’s second Parliamentary chamber – The House of Lords.

The Halliwell film was a departure for Dineen who has not worked with celebrities before. ‘I was sick of institutions and PR departments all trying to prevent me from getting access. So I was attracted by the idea of an individual who wanted to be filmed – but fantastically naive about the battle of egos that ensued.’

Ironically, Dineen is facing the usual access problems in her efforts to get under the skin of the House of Lords. She seems to be reaching the conclusion that ‘my technique, which is based on building trust with the subject, works better with anonymous people. It is harder for me to achieve that with high profile subjects who always fight my style of filmmaking.’

Dineen’s concerns about access have been echoed by other filmmakers who believe that the recent flood of docusoaps in primetime has changed the dynamics of the factual market.

‘Docusoaps are hugely popular but I think they have queered the pitch for people like me because they are stylistically quite similar to what I do,’ says Dineen. ‘Subjects are more insecure. I know that I’m not going try and stitch them up – but they don’t necessarily appreciate that.’

Although James is standing down as chairman of SIDF, he will continue to play a role on the board of directors. He expects Sheffield to flourish because ‘as an industry, we are more fragmented than ever. It is important to have a place where academics, UK TV executives and film-makers from overseas traditions can come together to discuss issues and craft.’

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