Sheffield DocFest Head of Industry on the ‘Plurality of Themes, Subjects, Approaches and Creative Styles’

Sheffield Industry Boss on 'Plurality of
Courtesy of John Erik Taylor

For the second year running, Sheffield DocFest’s flagship pitching forum MeetMarket is taking place virtually. That’s not holding back the number of projects applying: MeetMarket has had more than 550 applications this year. From these, MeetMarket has selected 55 projects, which will have the chance to present to more than 300 international funders, broadcasters, distributors, festival programmers and exhibitors.

They will be seeking to follow in the footsteps of high-profile documentaries that have previously come through MeetMarket while looking for funding or partners, including Malik Bendjelloul’s “Searching for Sugarman,” Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” and Nanfu Wang’s “One Child Nation.”

Sheffield DocFest head of industry Patrick Hurley says there were concerns about the number and nature of projects that might apply this year, given the background of the pandemic. Would the wheels still be turning on projects preparing to pitch? Would they qualitatively be different because of travel bans and restrictions? Would they all be about the pandemic itself?

As it is, Hurley reckons that only 1% were actually about the pandemic, and points to a “plurality of themes, subjects, approaches and creative styles” that have come to the fore this year.

This year’s selection also fits with MeetMarket’s ambition of showcasing international stories. The slate comprises 31 countries of production/co-production – from Argentina, through to the Czech Republic, France, India, South Africa, to the U.S. and Zimbabwe.

There’s potentially headline grabbing projects such as Danish director Niels Borchert Holm’s focus on corruption in the global soccer industry “A Game of Secrets,” a Werner Herzog biopic directed by Thomas von Steinaecker and co-produced by André Singer, and the latest doc by “The Black Power Mixtape” director Göran Hugo Olsson, titled “Israel and Palestine on Swedish TV 1959-1989.”

Elsewhere, Usayd Younis and Cassie Quarless’ “Malcolm” tells the story of Malcolm Shabazz, the grandson of Malcolm X, who was found murdered in Mexico in 2013. Younis and Quarless’ debut film “Generation Revolution” launched at DocFest back in 2016.

There are personal projects too, such as Chloe Abrahams’ debut feature “It Didn’t Start With You,” which sees Abrahams explore through uncompromising home videos and intimate video diaries the lasting impact of a shared trauma that runs through three generations of her family.

“A Syrian Love Story” director Sean McAllister, whose film “A Northern Soul” opened the 2018 DocFest, is also in MeetMarket with “The Last Tour of Yemen.”

Among U.S. projects, there’s Alex Morelli’s death row documentary “A Good Bad Guy,” which is exec produced by Sierra Pettengill, the producer of “Cutie and the Boxer” and “The Reagan Show.” Marnie Ellen Hertzler’s “Eternity One” blurs fact and fable in focusing on a sinking island in the Chesapeake Bay.

The MeetMarket is just one element of DocFest’s Marketplace program, which also includes the U.K. Broadcast Production Talent Market, the Art Talent Market, industry talks and different pitch opportunities.

Among the talks, “Beyond Story: A Conversation for the Industry,” supported by Union Docs, brings together scholars, filmmakers and commissioners to discuss and examine why story has become today’s pre-eminent mode for documentary and what gets lost when storied structures prevail.

Hurley says a session like this is a way of ensuring that there is an ongoing conversation with the industry about less conventional documentary formats.

Meanwhile, the Whickers Pitch will see five emerging directors from around the world pitch their non-fiction projects to a panel of industry judges with an opportunity to win an impressive £80,000 ($114,000) funding award to make their first feature-length documentary.

DocFest also has a partnership with Chicken & Egg Pictures on the (Egg)celerator Lab program, focused on identifying and supporting nonfiction directors working on their first or second feature-length documentary. It brings together ten projects, with a special focus on self-identifying women and gender nonconforming directors, and sees them pitch their projects to a panel of international decision makers and industry representatives.