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Croall takes Sheffield to a new level

British fest celebrates creativity and independence

Few films sum up the can-do ethos of the Sheffield Intl. Documentary Festival better than “The English Surgeon,” the award-winning pic about a Brit neurosurgeon working in makeshift conditions in the Ukraine.

The film, helmed by Geoffrey Smith, was pitched at Doc/Fest — as the event likes to call itself — in 2005 where it successfully raised coin from the U.S., U.K. and mainland Europe.

A year later, “The English Surgeon” preemed at Sheffield, followed by a workshop on how the project was funded.

“One of my aims since taking over the festival has been to make the event as integrated as possible and to have three legs — finance, screenings and panel discussions,” explains festival director Heather Croall, an Australian documentary producer.

Most attendees agree that since Croall was recruited three years ago by Doc/Fest chairman and U.K. TV vet Steve Hewlett,the five-day, 15-year-old shindig has raised its game.

Doc/Fest, expected to attract around 1,200 delegates from 40 or so countries, opens Nov. 5 with a screening of John Dower’s “Thriller in Manila,” one of 30-odd preems.

Other highlights are master classes with docmaking team D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hedges; Nick Broomfield; and Michael Palin, the former “Monty Python” star now feted for his BBC travelogues.

Fest also features an interview with Brit documentarian Molly Dineen and a session spotlighting Channel 4’s new head of docs, Hamish Mykura, who some are speculating might run a British web in the future.

“Sheffield used to have this reputation of being a rather fusty, miserable affair,” opines Anthony Wall, editor of BBC arts strand “Arena” and a noted director in his own right.

“Arena’s” films are shown regularly at Sheffield. Last year, Wall provided a sneak preview of the series’ keenly anticipated film on controversial record producer Phil Spector.

“One of the great things about Sheffield is that it isn’t corporate. The emphasis remains on creative endeavor,” adds Wall. “It’s a place where filmmakers want to be.

“It’s a very democratic event, fun and modern without being in your face. Sheffield is a great city to hold a film festival. The geography of the place is easy to navigate, and the hotels and bars are great.”

In fact, Doc/Fest has played a part in the regeneration of this once-mighty blue-collar city, formerly famed for heavy industry. Today, Sheffield likes to plug its green credentials, yet remains a manufacturer of steel, and the quality of its cutlery is without peer.

Much of the festival’s after-hours socializing occurs in Sheffield’s historic buildings such as its City Hall, where some of the world’s best-known documentarians down their pints alongside wannabe helmers. Screenings are held late into the night.

“The great thing about Sheffield is that it’s actually a genuine festival because it celebrates the documentary,” observes John Archer, joint head of Glasgow-based Hopscotch Films.

He adds: “It attracts a good range of international commissioners. If you want to pitch an idea, Sheffield is ideal.”

In accord with this, the organizers have introduced the MeetMarket, a kind of speed dating service for documakers in need of a financial fix.

In fact, the beauty of these meetings is that they take place after both parties have made contact online — that way a producer of history films avoids trying to sell his idea to an exec who buys only factual entertainment.

“It’s important that we don’t mismatch,” says Croall.

Keen to retain Doc/Fest’s cozy, boutique vibe, Croall claims the event has gotten as big as it needs to be.

“We want the VIPs and the other delegates to be together in the same rooms as much as possible, so I have a ceiling of 1,300 participants,” she explains.

If this sounds like wishful thinking in these financially hard-pressed times, Croall claims the credit crunch has yet to impact Doc/Fest.

This may be because, compared with other comparable confabs, Sheffield is cheap — £188 ($329) for early-bird delegates and $376 for the rest.

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