Letter from London (Sheffield): Doc/Fest

For many years the Sheffield International Documentary Festival was an enjoyable but rather intimate affair, made up of a few hundred delegates who made the journey north from London to review the state of British documentary. In Carol Nahra's report on this year's event, she notes how Heather Croall has taken the fest from one which is international by name to one that is international by reputation.
November 9, 2009

In the early days of Sheffield’s annual documentary event, although International was in its title, it referred more to the geography of the film program than to the background of its delegates. All that changed with the arrival of Heather Croall, who came from Australia’s International Documentary Conference to take the reins. Her transformation of the festival began with its title – it is now the Sheffield Doc/Fest – and continued by shaping the fest into a not-to-miss event on the international documentary circuit. Last week more than 1600 delegates journeyed to Sheffield from around the world for its 16th edition to participate in a breathtaking range of industry events.

Many came for the two-day MeetMarket session, which pairs 60 carefully chosen doc projects (more than 600 were submitted) with a range of buyers, commissioning editors and distributors in private meetings, set up like speed dating events. As all meetings are agreed upon beforehand, it cuts out the stress of pitching to completely uninterested parties. In its fourth year, the growing popularity of the MeetMarket was evident, as it was attended by 142 buyers from 17 countries.

Five films previously pitched in the MeetMarket were in the festival’s program this year, including D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’ Kings of Pastry, for which the esteemed filmmakers traveled again to Sheffield for its world premiere.

In addition to the frenzy of the MeetMarket, Sheffield now houses a range of pitching competitions for emerging filmmakers. The longest-running pitch session is the Channel 4 Sheffield pitch for a half-hour ‘First Cut’ Commission, awarded this year to Lucy Bennett for her project One Under. But runners-up don’t necessarily walk away empty-handed; last year five of the six projects pitched ended up making ‘First Cut’ films for Channel 4. A new pitch session which seems promising is this year’s first Wellcome Trust pitch, which awarded three of the six science-related projects awards of £10k.

Having long eschewed handing out awards, Sheffield now has a range of them, and yesterday the festival culminated in an award ceremony hosted by Roger Graef and A.J. Schnack. A surprising but deserving winner of the Sheffield Green award was Henry Singer’s The Blood of the Rose, which had its world premiere at Doc/Fest. The BBC feature film investigates the murder of filmmaker turned conservationist Joan Root on Lake Naivasha in Kenya, and in doing so weaves a tale that highlights the complexities of an environmental movement at fundamental odds with industrial ‘progress’ and the need for Africans to make a living off of their native land.

For a complete list of winners go to // Carol Nahra is a member of the Sheffield Doc/Fest advisory committee.

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