Sheffield ’16: Liz McIntyre’s “Alternate” realities for Doc/Fest

Liz McIntyre, newly stationed CEO and director of Sheffield Doc/Fest, tells realscreen about putting the film program and "Alternate Realities" at the center of the 22-year-old UK festival, and introducing an On-Screen Factual Talent Market and new VR commission.
June 10, 2016

As Sheffield Doc/Fest kicks off today (June 10), Liz McIntyre, newly stationed CEO and director, tells realscreen about putting the film program and “Alternate Realities” center stage, while introducing a host of new initiatives. The festival runs until Wednesday (June 15). 

The last two years may have been something of a transitional period for Sheffield Doc/Fest, but if the 2016 edition’s high-profile book-ends, vibrant interactive summit and on-screen talent initiative is any indication, the 22-year-old UK festival still has evolution as a priority.

Ushering in a new chapter is former Discovery Networks International exec Elizabeth McIntyre, who was named last April as successor to long-time CEO and director Heather Croall, who stepped down from the festival in January 2015. McIntyre’s long history with the festival has included exec producing the popular commissioning panels, serving on the advisory committee and chairing the University of Sheffield’s ‘Meet the Academics’ session.

As such, McIntyre – who began her role in September – likens the task of taking the festival reins to “coming home, rather than being the new girl on the block,” though that’s not to say there hasn’t been a learning curve.

“[Doc/Fest] is a very much loved, treasured festival that has a very distinct character, and one changes the character and heart of a festival at one’s peril,” she says, adding that her first order of business was a major listening exercise with UK and global delegates on what worked and what needed changing.

vr installation at the site gallery

VR installation at the Site Gallery

Using the feedback and dialogues, McIntyre outlined a strategic vision that now puts the film program and Alternate Realities Summit (formerly the Crossover Market) at the center of Doc/Fest, bolstered by related talks and sessions featuring key talent. Then, to “complete the cycle of inspiration” is flagship pitching event the MeetMarket, which has been the starting point for such docs as Jerry Rothwell and Reuben Atlas’ Sour Grapes and this year features 65 projects.

McIntyre wants attendees to think of Sheffield as “a festival that is an enabler.”

“To me, what Sheffield has is the ability to bring new talent to the table and link new talent with established decision makers, and this is part of the creative life cycle,” she explains. “We are a forum for that and we create the mechanisms for that.”

Geography also has something to do with Doc/Fest’s success, says McIntyre. Though Sheffield is England’s third largest metropolitan authority, the fest takes place in the small downtown core, and all venues are easily accessible on foot.

This year, with virtual reality (VR) beginning to open purse-strings in the commissioning world – albeit slowly – all eyes are on a bustling Alternate Realities program. Sheffield’s Millennium Gallery will present 14 immersive media experiences while the Site Gallery and The Space is to feature 12 VR docs.

Presenters at the day-long Summit on Sunday (June 12) include Google VR’s principal filmmaker Jessica Brillhart and USC Shoah Foundation executive director Stephen Smith, who will speak on New Dimensions in Testimony, a natural language software that lets audiences participate in a realistic conversation with a recorded image, using complex algorithms.

“This is a new way that the new generation can understand past history,” says McIntyre. “It’s astonishing to think that in the future, students can ask a recording – a person who has recorded their testimony – about their experience, and that image responds in real time.”

Also new this year is a £5,000 (US$7,075) VR doc commission that was opened to international artists. The selected project – Darren Emerson’s Invisible, on the dehumanization of migrants held in detention in the UK – will be displayed alongside other VR installations at the festival.

Mark Atkin, curator of Alternate Realities, said the Arts Council England-funded commission was devised in response to a dearth of specific funds for the burgeoning field, as well as “no clear route to funding” for those with good ideas for VR docs. The projects submitted were assessed by a panel of documentary producers and art gallery curators.

mark atkin

Mark Atkin

“There was a better-than-anticipated response, which shows that even small pots of money such as we were able to offer are desperately needed by the creative community,” says Atkin over email.

Meanwhile, another new addition is the On-Screen Factual Talent Market, a pilot program that looks to connect factual and specialist factual experts with producers and commissioners looking for new and diverse talent.

That event – which received more than 70 applications – will find a selected crop of 18 individuals taking part in a “speed-date format” with decision makers who each have five minutes to discuss potential projects.

Referencing her listening exercise, McIntyre says there was “such a hunger” for new on-screen talent, and particularly for TV broadcasters.

“One of the most important things was quality of application and on-screen presence, and also the opportunity to celebrate diversity, whether it be anything from gender through to culture or ethnic background – to make sure we strive to celebrate diversity,” she says.

Elsewhere, invading Sheffield for the first time in 18 years is filmmaker Michael Moore, who is opening Doc/Fest at City Hall with the Dogwoof-distributed Where to Invade Next, which will be transmitted simultaneously to 112 cinemas nationwide. Closing the festival is Only Lovers Left Alive actor Tilda Swinton, who will present The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger - her second directorial effort after 2008′s The New Ten Commandments -with co-director Bartek Dziadosz.

The fest, in total, will screen 160 films, including 27 world premieres, as well as 15 international, 19 European and 52 UK premieres. Some of the new docs bowing include Richie Mehta’s India in a Day, Jean Carper’s Monster in the Mind: The Convenient Un-truth about Alzheimer’s, and James Bluemel’s Exodus: Breaking Into Europe (working title).

Sheffield will also welcome HBO Documentary Films president Sheila Nevins, who is receiving the fest’s inaugural Creative Leadership Award, as well as David Attenborough, who will make his first appearance at Doc/Fest to talk about his career and the fate of the TV and media industries. Other speakers include documentarian Louis Theroux, Unlocking the Cage helmer Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker and doc maker Joanna Lumley.

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