Doc/Fest director fights to keep live cinema screenings in Sheffield: ‘I'm not prepared to give up’
At this time of year the team behind Sheffield Doc/Fest would normally be reflecting on a packed week of events and parties, having screened scores of documentaries for 30,000 people from dozens of countries, benefiting the local economy to the tune of nearly £2.5 million.
But, as with nearly all aspects of daily life, the coronavirus pandemic has spelled disaster for film festivals that rely on the ability to unite audiences with minimal restrictions.
Of the 'big five' international cinema gatherings, Cannes has picked an official selection despite having cancelled its physical festival, Sundance and Berlin managed to take place before the Covid-19 outbreak worsened, while Venice and Toronto are still slated to go ahead despite the global health emergency.
Doc/Fest, the UK's largest documentary festival, is attempting to strike a balance for its 27th edition – films will not be shown in competition, but for the first time in its history it has launched its programme online. Instead of the traditional six-day celebration, activities will happen over six months, through a mix of virtual screenings, talks and 'weekenders' at city venues that organisers hope will be possible in October and November.
This year's festival line-up encompasses 115 films from 50 countries; highlights include the premiere of Ben Anthony’s Keith Haring: Street Art Boy, about the artist and LGBT+ activist whose graffiti-like paintings made him famous, as well as acclaimed director Lynne Ramsay's documentary study of the French portrait photographer Brigitte Lacombe.
And it's the first Doc/Fest overseen by incoming director Cíntia Gil, who moved to Sheffield last year from Portugal, where she grew up and had led the Doclisboa festival since 2012. When we speak over the phone she's back in her home country, however, as the lockdown necessitated a swift return to look after her family.
"I'm planning to go back to Sheffield in August," she says. "It's been challenging and a little bit sad, I must say, to be away. I miss it."
Gil and her colleagues have had to adapt to a new way of working together remotely.
"We've never closed a programme from home," she says. "It was a collective process, but it's completely different being done on Zoom or Skype."
It helped that Doc/Fest had stuck to its common strategy of not finalising its film selection until a late stage, a tactic that ensures it shows the freshest documentaries.
"Our programme was not complete, although we did have quite a lot of films invited and committed," Gil says.
"Some of our financial commitments were not closed yet, so we could take some steps back. That's why we could change the plans as much as we did, and extend the programme into the fall and try to guarantee physical screenings. If we'd had the festival almost in place the only thing we could have done was go 100 per cent online, which is something we really didn't want to do. We wanted to have a collective moment with the audience and, hopefully, some filmmakers."
The ‘pitching forums’ – where filmmakers bid for funding and support from broadcasters and studios – have already happened in virtual form, but the risk of completely losing the connection with Sheffield by holding a wholly digital festival was just too great, she explains.
"It's not just the name, the soul of the city is in the festival. We take that seriously. We would also lose our very important work with students, local communities and the opportunity to support cinemas in Sheffield."
And, she says, the buzz of a live screening can't be replicated.
"There are so many films out there that did not have visibility because of this pandemic. The screenings we will have in the fall will not be close to the number we would have during the festival, but that doesn't mean we could just let go of them. For me personally, as an incoming festival director, it's crucial to go through that process of finally presenting films and meeting the people of Sheffield in cinemas."
Gil studied at the Lisbon Theatre and Film School and holds a degree in philosophy from the University of Porto. At Doc/Fest she succeeds former Discovery Networks International commissioner Elizabeth McIntyre, who left in 2018 and whose position was filled on an interim basis by deputy director Melanie Iredale.
"I was quite amazed by the size of Sheffield and the welcoming spirit," Gil says of her first Doc/Fest visit in 2019. "People were friendly and warm – it was different to the usual cliches, I felt at home somehow. It's an amazingly lively festival full of people coming together, debates and talks, and a place where a lot of opportunities for producers and filmmakers happen. You can feel that energy."
She says her team will need to 'fight' to keep Doc/Fest alive as a physical entity.
"Even if we have to change some things, or rethink how we do it, I think we need to keep that as a core goal for us. I'm not prepared to give up on that. This is a transitional year. We needed to find a solution very quickly, but when we start planning for 2021 we will very consciously look for solutions to hold the festival in Sheffield."
Nevertheless, Gil is unsure whether film festivals can truly 'go back to normal'.
"It depends on so many things. My thinking is film festivals need to focus on their social and cultural mission. That mission is not just during the days when they take place, it should be something to hold on to for the whole year. That will be interesting, because everyone will be forced to think about that. In Doc/Fest, we are very clear that we need to support films from local communities, and the local economy. We are generously supported by the city of Sheffield - we need to give back, not just with cultural experiences and participation projects, but financially."
The impact of coronavirus on the world's movie industry has been 'massive', Gil admits. The production of many films has been shut down, with a question mark hanging over whether the right shooting conditions will ever be achievable again, but some creatives have managed to adapt.
"We will show a very beautiful five-minute film in our weekenders in Sheffield that was done from home; the film-maker was locked down in Paris and did a short film from her window. I'm sure that very interesting work will come in the next one or two years that will be inspired by, or even done, under the lockdown."
Portugal has a rich film tradition and a vibrant new generation of cinema talent is on the rise there, Gil says.
"But it is a tradition that was built on very little support from the state. We have a film institute, and a public broadcaster, but the budget for cinema is incomparably less than, for example, in the UK. We have a lot of films that are produced with no budget, just a group of friends, and they are incredible. We had a film that won the jury prize in one of the competitions in Cannes, a feature film, that cost €80,000. So many don't even have that."
Gil is aware of Portuguese film workers left with 'nothing to survive on' because of the pandemic. "They have just lost 100 per cent of their income and have no access to support - no social security, no emergency funds, nothing. This doesn't mean the UK is in a better situation, but this is the reality I know and why it's important for me to remember those who have it harder."
Film festivals, she believes, could be central to the sector's post-Covid recovery.
"The challenge now is to make sure no-one feels excluded. We face the danger of losing diversity, of having people just quitting making films. That cannot happen."
Visit https://sheffdocfest.com/ for full details of how to watch the 2020 programme.