(Image: Alex Cooke at Doc/Fest office during her 1st year as the festival's film programmer)
When I was invited to become the Chair of Sheffield Doc/Fest Board of Trustees four months ago, I was deeply honoured, but I could never have imagined the circumstances that we now all find ourselves in.
The death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minnesota police, and the deaths of so many Black people who have died in similar circumstances, not just in the US, but here too, yet again give urgency to the need for each of us to speak out, to stand up to racism in all its forms, and to take action, even in the midst of the appalling COVID–19 catastrophe.
At a time when society is increasingly polarised, in an era of fake news and disinformation, when Public Service Broadcasting is coming under more and more pressure, when injustice and inequality demand us all not only to be better but to follow through with meaningful action, Sheffield Doc/Fest, in my view, provides a hugely important opportunity to bring people together, to allow us all an invaluable opportunity to reflect upon these challenging times, and crucially a significant opportunity to work towards positive change.
This year, as the Festival team tried to finalise their programme, the COVID–19 pandemic spread throughout Europe, to America and beyond. Uncertainty took hold, plans were shelved, dreams were dashed and strategies had to be re-imagined. The team, under the impressive leadership of its new Festival Director Cíntia Gil, was determined to honour the filmmakers, the sponsors and you the audience. And as you will see from the team’s statement following the death of George Floyd, the Festival will provide a platform to encourage our industry to play its part in addressing racial injustice.
I want to give a special thank you to the whole team for their extraordinary dedication in bringing you this year’s changed event under very difficult circumstances and to all the Trustees who rallied round to help keep the Festival on track, as well as the extended family of industry advisors who have continued to produce talks and sessions. And an equally enormous thank you to all our sponsors and business partners who have shown real patience and commitment to us in these difficult times; we are truly grateful. And I would like to thank my predecessor Alex Graham for nine years of dedicated service. I also want to thank the filmmakers and artists for trusting us with their work this year even when the circumstances are far from ideal. Even if we can’t all be in the same room, bar or coffee shop right now, I hope you still engage with them, make new friends, debate their work and allow yourself the time to reflect on the lives of others.
On a personal note, Sheffield Doc/Fest has been deeply formative for me, and a fixture in my calendar for the last twenty- five years. In 1994, while working as a journalist, I was asked to report on a new documentary festival in Sheffield. Back then I knew no-one who worked in documentaries. For two days, during that very first Festival, I sat in small cinemas watching films like The War Room, Crisis and The Troubles We’ve Seen. I listened to Marcel Ophuls, D.A.Pennebaker, Rikki Leacock, The Maysles and Robert Drew sharing their battle stories, triumphs and ideals. My mind was blown, I met like-minded people, I was hooked, and Sheffield Doc/Fest changed the course of my life.
I immersed myself in documentaries, watching and reading everything I could. A year later I made my first film and wrote an MA thesis on Documentary in Cinema. I wanted to understand why some documentaries found their home in the cinema, and others on TV; documentaries were then rarely shown in cinemas here. During the course of the research I interviewed British and American filmmakers, producers and distributors, among them Michael Moore, Errol Morris, Michael Apted, Steve James, Terry Zwigoff, Nick Fraser, Jane Balfour, Sandy Lieberson and Will Clarke. I studied films including Hoop Dreams, Unzipped, Roger & Me, and Crumb and pulled together volumes of box of office data to try to understand what pulled audiences into the cinema to see documentaries and what didn’t.
When the first programmer for the Festival left, Jane Balfour, a distinguished distributor of documentaries and member of the Advisory Board, asked if I would like my name put forward. And from 1997 to 2001, I became the sole film programmer of the festival. It was for me a dream job. I was fortunate enough to be able to facilitate filmmakers, artists and journalists from all over the world to celebrate and discuss their work, to move people, to share stories, and to generate passionate, unfliinching debate. And I was able to bring new work and voices to new audiences – people working in the industry and the general public. It was a real privilege.
So it is with great satisfaction that I see how far the Festival has grown since my time in the trenches. It has embraced all forms of non- fiction storytelling; it has grown its audiences immeasurably; and it has been able to host a world class list of headline documentary-makers.
Many of us have suffered enormous losses these past few months and have faced real anxieties about the future. Many of us are angry and heart-broken by the racism that is so prevalent in society. I hope that we can continue to find real comfort and support in the community that this Festival affords us.
Chair of the Board of Trustees