Opinions aplenty at Sheffield TV fest

Documentary pitches makes for lively event

LONDON — These days TV gabfests tend to be inhibited affairs policed by spin doctors and manipulated to appease corporate priorities.

Not so Blighty’s Sheffield Documentary Festival, where filmmakers make a point of unnerving their bosses.

“There is a sense of desperation around TV at the moment because audiences are indifferent,” explained “The Power of Nightmares” writer-director Adam Curtis during a keynote address. “The BBC is consistently dull. …The people who run TV don’t have confidence any longer.”

Strictly speaking, Sheffield is more than a talking shop. It hosts a full screening program, kicked off this year by the European preem of “Joy Division,” the music doc unveiled at the Toronto Film Festival.

Sheffield, which wrapped Nov. 11, was a freewheeling affair, where programs, and not media policy or industry politics, held center stage.

Yes, business was conducted but at the margins in the so-called MeetMarket. Here, around 400 meetings were held involving producers, directors, commissioners, distributors and financers.

The idea was to take out some of the stress normally involved in pitching. Prior to the fest commissioners were sent an online pitch, discussed at Sheffield in a face-to-face encounter lasting a maximum of 20 minutes.

It remains to be seen how many new docs emerge as a result of this TV equivalent of speed dating, but despite the inevitable moans from filmmakers complaining about the lack of money to be had, the mood at Sheffield was mainly upbeat.

Channel 4 doc topper Angus McQueen best summed up the vibe: “I’ve been coming to Sheffield for a few years and we’re always in crisis and it’s always good thing.”

Organizers of the event, the 14th such gathering, claimed a record number of delegates — in excess of 1,200, quite a few traveling to the former world capital of the steel industry from across the Atlantic and further around the globe.

“I’m very pleased to say that we’ve got delegates here from Australia,” said festival chair Steve Hewlett. “By some margin, it is the biggest ever Sheffield.”

He added: “Britain is a global center for documentary and factual programming, but the nature of the business has changed. Producers can now hold rights to their own films, but funding them has become more difficult than ever.”

Given the recent uproar in Blighty over fake docs, much of the talking focused on how far helmers were prepared to go in order to find the truth.

In one session, two teams of filmmakers spoke for and against the motion “All Documentaries Are a Lie — and That’s the Truth.” In fact, this debate was conducted in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion as the panelists regularly refreshed themselves with beer and wine.

A more sober debate was held on that great British media obsession, the BBC.

In this respect, the news was less encouraging as session chair and media commentator Mark Lawson insisted there were fewer slots than ever for docs on British TV, and the fashion for formatted shows looked set to continue.

Most depressing of all was the verdict from British TV documentarian Molly Dineen, who said she would no longer take an idea for a film to the Corp. “I am out of the BBC. I don’t know who you go it,” she observed.

This debate will continue, and the Sheffield Doc/Fest looks set to provide the ideal forum for many years of discussion.

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