Not – Make Believe: Sheffield DocFest shines


by Molly Williams, SHU journalism student

Never mind Parklife, Download and the Isle of Wight festival, or even Glastonbury. Sheffield Doc/Fest was the place to be to kick off the summer festival season


I had just finished my first year as a journalism undergraduate at Sheffield Hallam University when I was offered a delegate pass to Doc/Fest. I was elated and began my immersion into the world of documentary film-making.

The opening night certainly set the tone for an eventful week ahead. After being bombarded by Biblical rains I made it to Sheffield City Hall where a fire evacuation had turned Barker’s Pool into a sea of umbrellas.

Thousands of people were waiting in the rain for an extra hour to see Michael Moore’s UK premiere of Where to Invade Next. It seemed Sheffield was next on his list.

As chair of the festival Alex Graham jokingly said: “He’s an incendiary film-maker but we weren’t really expecting fire and flash floods. We’re now keeping our eyes peeled for a plague of locusts.”

It was worth the ordeal and as my first doc at my first Doc/Fest it was a pretty special introduction to a spectacular festival. Moore is a polemic American film-maker and according to Rolling Stone magazine one of America’s top 100 most influential people.where to invade next screen

His film Fahrenheit 9/11 is the top grossing documentary of all time. Where to Invade Next was funny, subversive and refreshingly solution-focussed and if it was a flavour of what’s to come I was hooked.

For the next six days I was completely absorbed by the documentary world. From 10am to 10pm every day I watched ground breaking non-fiction movies, listened to talks by icons of the industry like Sir David Attenborough and Ken Loach and met loads of new people.

I felt like I was in a Doc/Fest bubble. People could even watch movies on the outdoor screens in Tudor Square and Howard Street as they walked between events.

Just a day after watching Where to Invade Next I found myself sitting just a couple of rows back from Moore himself watching the brilliant Don’t Look Back about Bob Dylan.

Bumping into celebrities like Sir David, Michael Moore, Ken Loach, Louis Theroux and Reggie Yates soon became the norm. Fellow course mates Kieran Gohil and James Crossan even managed to bag a selfie with Professor Green.

There were opportunities galore to make contacts. But the idea of networking was a complete mystery to me and a bit daunting. But when I was in the moment and remembered joint course leader David Clarke’s advice to be friendly and introduce myself it really worked out well.

I met people from all sorts of backgrounds in the documentary industry and picked up lots of great tips.

One contact I made was with a film-maker who was sat on the floor waiting for a music documentary. That one was easy. As soon as we got on the subject of music we were talking for hours.

tudor square
One of the open-air DocFest screens in Tudor Square, Sheffield

The talks and Q&A sessions were really interesting, illuminating and inspiring. One nugget of wisdom that struck me was Michael Moore’s analogy of fear and ignorance in the public.

“Fear comes from ignorance” he said as the penny dropped in the Crucible. “When your four-year-old child is afraid of the monster in the closet what do you do? You open the closet door and switch the light on.”

There was a profound pause before he added “and they will probably ask you to leave the light on.”

This was echoed by Lord Puttnam at the Future of the BBC talk with regard to the looming EU referendum. I can see how it applies to many situations, including even my own fears of networking, that doesn’t seem so scary after a bit of practise.

I also thought there’s a lot to take away from that about the power and influence of journalists across the media. Journalists, as Moore suggests, can shine a light on reality and be a powerful means to disclose truth and dispel fear, and that has motivated me to want to pursue journalism even more.

For the whole week Sheffield was awash with documentaries. I managed to fit in about 12 with lots of talks and other events.saturday tickets

If I had to choose two favourites to recommend out of the 12 they’d be the awesome and magical Monterey Pop, a beautiful documentary about the 1967 San Francisco music festival (I had a huge smile on my face the entire time watching this!), and the poignant Jim: The James Foley Story.

James’ story is told through very moving interviews with his family, friends and fellow journalists who were held hostage with him. It is also a sobering reminder of the bravery and sacrifice some journalists make for freedom of expression.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable and invaluable experience as a Doc/Fest delegate in 2016. It will continue to inspire me in the future on the journalism course and further. A huge thank you to Sheffield Hallam journalism team and to the organisers of Sheffield Doc/Fest for giving me this fantastic opportunity!