We supported Grahame Reid, Film Programmer at Macrobert Arts Centre, to attend Sheffield Doc/Fest this June. It proved an inspiring experience...
Earlier this year I was asked by our Artistic Director, Julie Ellen, what I thought was needed to continue the growth and development of film here at Macrobert Arts Centre. For me, the answer was simple. It had to have its own moment in our multi-arts programme. Film is the one constant in our year-round programme with screenings every day (Christmas Day and New Year’s excluded). Yet, in amongst a packed live arts programme, it rarely (if ever) is the focus of what we do, and we both agreed that had to change. The question was “what would that moment be?”.
The natural fit for our organisation is documentary. Stirling has strong links to documentary pioneer John Grierson and is based on the campus of the University of Stirling which has strong theory and practical based courses in documentary film. With this in mind, it was time to do some research, see what was already out there and what could possibly work for us.
“If you’re going to steal, steal from the best” – Martha Graham
I was looking to embrace as much of the festival as possible, cherry pick what would work for us, as well as identify what was beyond our reach (for the moment)...
Ok, so maybe steal is a harsh word but the sentiment is there. I was off to Sheffield Doc/Fest to take in as much as I could: screenings, talks and discussions, networking, venues, scheduling and volunteers. I was looking to embrace as much of the festival as possible, cherry pick what would work for us, as well as identify what was beyond our reach (for the moment), seek advice and make contacts with the end goal of bringing something unique to Stirling, and Scotland as a whole.
Now, I have been to Sheffield before for the ICO’s Screening Days but this time there was something different. Awash in a sea of bright orange lanyards from the moment I stepped off the train, the city was buzzing; Sheffield was ‘alive’. After picking up my delegate pass, and checking in at my hotel (taking in some of Sheffield’s absolutely fantastic graffiti art along the way), it was straight off to the Scottish Delegation Reception at the beautiful Botanical Winter Gardens - so far the venues were off to a flying start. Speaking to some of the delegates at the event, it soon became clear that not all those in attendance were, first and foremost, film enthusiasts. In fact, one of the best contacts I made on the evening was Omar, a biologist specialising in dementia research – a great contact considering our programme of dementia friendly screenings and performances, as well as having a dementia studies department within walking distance on campus. I was soon speaking to a variety of delegates, sounding them out about our plans and search for advice. This continued throughout my time at Sheffield Doc/Fest. I even found out that Scott Donaldson, Creative Scotland’s Head of Film Education, used to hold a similar post to mine at Macrobert Arts Centre and too had wanted to pursue a similar idea!
I, of course, watch a plethora of films ranging from average (those of which shall remain nameless) to absolutely outstanding. A film in the latter category came from first time filmmaker Nanfu Wang, whose Hooligan Sparrow starts out looking to document the work of Chinese gender activist Ye Haiyan but soon becomes a portrait of cover-up, government corruption and harassment. The fact that Wang was even able to make it out of China with the footage (and that struggle is documented), is tantamount to the tenacity of the director. An eye-opening documentary and a fantastic piece of filmmaking.
As well as Sheffield’s Showroom Cinema, there were a variety of venues used, pop-up and permanent. Two large, all weather screens were set up at different points in the city and free to all. A wonderful idea to encourage locals, not specifically attending the festival, to mix with us ‘invaders’ making the whole community feel involved. There was also something slightly intriguing in watching unannounced documentarian Michael Moore tentatively amble up the rickety stairs of the Library Theatre, an intimate space somewhat of a cross between a traditional theatre and a school hall with a stage. This is not meant as a slight, it was a great space for the screening I saw there.
With 160 screenings, over 300 speakers across post-show speakers, talks and Q&As as well as interactive media and, of course, the festival awards, no single blog post could ever do Sheffield Doc/Fest justice. What I will say is I came away from the event truly inspired for the task ahead of us all Macrobert Arts Centre and if we do (steal) borrow, we will be (stealing) borrowing from the best.