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The drama of DocFest

From the Chinese delegation pulling out, to ‘dead’ musician Rodriguez playing the opening night gig, it’s been a dramatic Sheffied DocFest this year

Alex Graham summed it up best in what gets my vote as Sheffield’s top tweet so far: “Interesting experience being a TV producer at #xosummit - bit like being a farrier in 1850 attending a conference about railways.”

The comment from the DocFest chair and Wall to Wall chief about the festival’s mulitplatform event highlights the innovative nature of the festival, whether it’s the films, the sessions or notably, the people who come. An eclectic bunch to say the least, they range from the hot, young and experimental to the cool, senior and maverick.

There’s even a Corrie actor here with his film, Like a Moth to a Flame, about an X Factor reject. What they share is a tendency towards rebellion. It makes for exciting films, engaging panels and unguarded conversation in the bar.

It’s this refusal to self-edit (of course, there’s the odd exception) that distinguishes this event from Edinburgh. It’s creative not corporate - and, inclusive and affordable, it’s less Soho House, more working man’s club.

The affable Aussie and enviously energetic festival director Heather Croall has clearly stamped her mark on the event and achieved her goal of turning this from a Whinge Fest into an out and out celebration.

She also told the Chinese delegation where to get off when they suggested the Chinese government would like her to remove Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry from the festival, not wishing to see the work of this outspoken domestic critic publicised.  Croall says she’s disappointed given that this was set to be the largest number of Chinese doc commissioners to come together in one place.

“It seemed like a bizarre idea that the editorial independence of the festival could be compromised by a delegation, but that would be the end of the festival. Without freedom of expression there is no documentary. That’s absolutely at the heart of the festival.”

She points to the fact that of the 3,000 entries for the festival each year, around 1,000 are activist films.

“We’re not showing Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry because it’s an activist film but because it’s a brilliant film, really well-structured and well-made.

“We saw it at Sundance and fought for months to get it. We weren’t going to get rid of it.”

She adds: “The Chinese are welcome any time, but not if they want to have  influence over the films.”

In any case, it was a pretty pointless exercise, given that there were other films in the festival equally if not more likely to cause offence, including High Tech, Low Life about a Chinese blogger who’s shut down.

And there’s a growing sense that if it’s cutting edge creativity you’re looking for, this is the place to be.

That was very much in evidence at its digital media segment,  the Crossover Summit, which, apart from leaving Alex Graham scratching his head, showcased some of the best in interactivity.

Particularly impressive was The Colony Experiment created by New York’s Campfire for season 2 of Discovery’s reality series The Colony. In terms of its creative, multilayered, highly personalised content, (in short, it pulls in your Facebook friends who then each play a personal role in a faux documentary about the Apocalypse)I’ve certainly seen very little like it, at least in the UK.

However, an impressive UK project is The Space, a new on-demand digital arts service developed by the Arts Council in partnership with the BBC.

Still in the experimental stages, it has seen everything from hip hop festivals broadcast globally from Sadler’s Wells, to Penny Woolcock’s beautiful film From the Sea to the Land Beyond. Click here for my highlights so far.

 

 

 

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