The first time I went to Sheffield Doc/Fest, in 2011, I was a total novice in the world of documentary making. I was a TV news reporter making a switch to factual programmes and although I’d made current affairs half hours, this was another world. This year I went to the festival as a journalist, going to seminars and watching films; getting an overview of the whole festival. But I was also taking an interest with my other hat on, as a freelance producer at an independent production company.
Arriving on Sunday, I kicked off by listening to a session entitled Imperialism or Inquiry: how fair is our foreign filming? This was of particular relevance to my recent work at Clover Films, a small independent that specialises in making current affairs programmes and documentaries in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Kenya. The debate was about how crews treat those they work with abroad; whether the contributors even get the chance to see the film they have participated in; whether there is any future benefit to these communities or whether their treatment by TV companies is on the fringes of exploitation. Femi Odugbemi from iREPRESENT, a documentary film forum in Lagos, catalogued some of the worst practices among film crews and producers. On the other side, filmmakers on the panel defended the way they had acted with communities they’d worked with abroad and listed some positive spin-offs, as did Siobhan Sinnerton, commissioner and former producer of, Unreported World on Channel 4.
Several seminars later it was time for a film. I’d already been offered a press ticket for that evening’s screening of A Sinner in Mecca by Parvez Sharma, which was just as well as the best known films can be sold out before you get to the ticket office (TIP: go there first after check in to try to get tickets for films you are dying to see). The film was a fascinating insight into Mecca – a place you are not allowed to film! (more below).
This year I went to a couple of meetings with Tracey Doran Carter, the head of production at Clover, about a film we are making in Pakistan. It was a fascinating experience. The film was of course discussed, but other projects can also be brought up if relevant.
Next, I went to the Specialist Factual panel where the subject was whether gimmicks and showmanship were becoming too important at the expense of facts and learning. A couple of commissioners and execs I’d worked with were involved in the panel chaired by Emma Read from Emporium Productions with Martin Davidson BBC; Siobhan Mullholland, Sky; Hamish Mykura, NatGeo; and David Glover, Channel 4. It was an interesting debate.
The documentary commissioning panel with Nick Mirsky (Channel 4) Celia Taylor( Sky) and Jo Clinton Davis (ITV) touched on a similar theme – are commissioners too interested in grabbing tabloid headlines, dismissing important subjects as too worthy? It’s always worth seeing what the commissioners choose to showcase with programme clips during these sessions. You see what you missed watching (and missed pitching!) and where the channel is at – or wants to be at.
I really enjoyed Making Waves, Courting Controversy with Jon Snow talking about trying out drugs in a TV experiment (he did not enjoy the experience and although many were laughing at the effects on him in the film, I found his confusion, discomfort – and honesty afterwards – really moving). Mexican filmmaker Teresa Camou Guerrero was also on the panel – talking about Sunu, her film about indigenous farmers forced to use genetically modified maize seeds and their fight to keep their native seeds. It was equally fascinating to see another side of Mexican life that was not focused on the violent crime perpetuated by the drugs cartels.
Perhaps the most passionate debate I went to was Re-framing Climate Change with representatives and scientists from the Open University and British Antarctic Survey along with Cassian Harrison from BBC4 and David Glover from Channel 4. The scientists want to see more on Climate Change on the box, they say the message which affects everyone on the planet is still not getting across. The filmmakers in to audience wanted to make films on the subject and the commissioners seemed to want to broadcast them – but they are waiting for the right project, done in a new way. Cassian Harrison admitted he had been in talks with a producer in the audience for months over a fantastic project following a community living in a completely eco way (I am massively over simplifying here). But he felt it was too expensive for BBC4. Should we be crowd-funding or increasing the licence fee? Should Channel 4 and BBC 4 co-produce? Who knows, but the session ending with many saying they hoped some how the project would eventually be made somehow!
I saw far too few films but enjoyed all of them. After releasing his film A Jihad for Love, exploring Islam and homosexuality, Parvez Sharma was publicly labelled an infidel. But he was unwilling to give up his faith. In his latest film, A Sinner in Mecca, Parvez asks “ Is there a place in Islam for sinners like me?” Leaving his husband behind in New York, he journeys to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, to find the answer. He undertakes the Hajj pilgrimage, considered the greatest accomplishment within Islam. With filming forbidden and homosexuality punishable by death, he films surreptitiously on his iPhone. He follows thousands of pilgrims through garbage-filled streets to the holiest of sites, the Kaaba, which was especially fascinating for those of us who will never visit.
I also watched the controversial India’s Daughter by Leslee Udwin about the rape and murder of Jyoti Singh who was attacked on a Delhi bus. Her death sparked mass protests in India, with many sick of the oppressive subjugation of women and the acceptance of crimes committed against them. The film includes interviews with some of the rapists and a lawyer who says he would kill his own daughter if she disgraced the family by being raped. While these elements hit the headlines and caused much controversy (the film was banned in India) for me it is the interviews with Jyoti’s grieving parents that had the most impact and will remain with me. The film sparked an angry debate even amongst the normally polite audience at Sheffield, with complaints the film did not accurately portray the women’s movement in India or their role in the protests. However, it is about much more than this and really should be seen.
My favourite film though was probably Pepe Mujica – Lessons from the Flowerbed following a former guerrilla who fought against the regime in Uruguay and was imprisoned and in 2010 became president of the country. Admittedly a large part of the film’s charm is Pepe Mujica himself, an inspiring and charismatic man who refuses to live in the presidential palace and allows the filmmaker incredible access to his work and his home life. He has to be everyone’s dream grandfather. It’s a delightful documentary that is well worth tracking down. And now with the summer ahead, I hope to catch up with many more films on Videotheque – the online facility open to all Doc/Fest pass-holders until 10th September 2015.