The woman who ‘transformed’ Sheffield’s annual Doc/Fest into an internationally-renowned landmark on the city’s calendar has stepped down after nine years at the helm.
Heather Croall has been the director of Sheffield’s documentary film festival since 2006, and in that time has overseen the growth of the event from just 2,500 attending to more than 29,000 members of the public and industry experts every year.
Heather is heading to Australia to direct the Adelaide Fringe Festival and be reunited with her family, who live Down Under.
During nine hugely successful festivals, Heather has transformed the event into one of the most well-known in the city.
“Ever since the news was announced I have just had so many messages from all over the world about how Sheffield Doc/Fest impacted on their life,” she said.
“One thing I wanted to do was make a festival that makes a difference.
“I wanted to bring all my contacts to Sheffield but also made sure they met each other. For that we created the Meet Market, which is a platform for filmmakers to meet the investors and commissioners of their films.
“We wanted to make sure it was creative, never just stale and about business.
“The Meet Market created tens of millions of pounds of yield and a lot of amazing films were born.”
Searching For Sugar Man was one film which came from The Meet Market and went on to win an Oscar for best documentary feature.
The film, written and directed by Malik Bendjelloul, details the efforts of two Cape Town fans in the late 1990s to fine out whether the rumoured death of American musician Sixto Rodriguez was true, and if not, what became of him.
Tragically, Benjelloul committed suicide a year after the Oscar win.
“It’s deeply moving that we were part of that film, and obviously the maker of that film is no longer with us,” Heather added.
“A lot of documentaries that have gone on win Oscars, have been shown in cinemas and have been on TV, and they were made and set up in Sheffield.
“I think that’s what I’m most proud of. Helping filmmakers navigate that complicated sea by matchmaking them.”
But it’s not just traditional filmmaking, but risk-taking, which has been the mark of Heather’s time in the hot seat.
“We were never scared to take a risk. We always tried to do digital, innovative storytelling that uses new platforms, like online, tablets and Oculus Rift. Any new platform that people were working on. A lot of people were suspicious, but now that’s coming into its own.
“The Big Melt is the story of the century of steel in Sheffield. That’s one thing I’m most proud of.
“We turned it into something everyone wanted to see. Jarvis Cocker came onto the project and he was brilliant, he came to everything with such passion.
“He invited 52 musicians to play who had never even met each other before on the night. We had no idea if it was going to work.
“It was a ridiculous risk, but it worked, and it was an unforgettable night.”
But why Sheffield?
“It was difficult, because there are a lot of festivals in the world, people would say ‘why would we come to Sheffield, we’re going to go to some beach somewhere’. But once they came they never stopped coming. They loved the joie de vivre we were bringing to it. One person said to me ‘if you are in documentary, you are in Sheffield, and if you’re not in Sheffield, you’re not in documentary’.
“We just created something that people wanted to be at. We might have failed, but we took the risk and it worked.”
It is with a heavy heart that Heather moves on – but there is the possibility of a new relationship between Sheffield and Adelaide in future.
“Working as the Director at Sheffield Doc/Fest has been some of the most exciting, challenging and rewarding years of my career. I’m enormously proud of what we have built in Sheffield since I arrived almost a decade ago.
“I love the event so much and adore the city and the team, so it has been an extremely difficult decision for me to leave Sheffield, but I could not resist the chance to move home with my family and take up the role of Director of the Adelaide Fringe Festival – an organisation I worked with all through the 1990s – and of course I am delighted to return to my family and be reunited with my children.
“Sheffield will be forever in my heart and I have every faith in the amazing team to take Sheffield Doc/Fest to its next level.
“I’m excited that the festival I’m going to is one which covers all art forms – film, theatre, music. And I’m interested to see how we can create a relationship between Sheffield and Adelaide. They are both very similar size and both very creative.”
Doc/Fest has already kicked off a search for Heather’s successor and how her ‘legacy’ can be built on for the future of the event.
Doc/Fest chairman Alex Graham said: “Heather will be an incredibly difficult act to follow.
“In less than a decade she transformed Sheffield Doc/Fest into one of the leading film festivals in the world and she leaves a fantastic legacy on which we can build.”