Increasingly it seems film festivals have to be about more than just the films. That isn’t to say they’re becoming carnivalesque in their additional gimmicks, from live music to crazy events involving roller skating or a mix of debate and boxing; but there is a lot of that stuff going on, too. Film festivals have to be about the experience of watching films, because today there are so many options for seeing the stuff they’re programming, eventually.
And lately there are even ways to see festival films outside of a festival during the festival, from crowdfunder reward streams to special theatrical showings around the U.S. Not all the selected films go on to have distribution, but those that don’t aren’t the ones attracting audiences to festivals anyway. There has to be a reason for people to attend in order to see those smaller works, and simply having larger works they already want to see isn’t enough.
The best means of getting us there is quite plain and probably obvious: present the films well and develop a strong sense of community in which those films can be enjoyed collectively and discussed. Sheffield Doc/Fest has that appeal down pat, which is important as the event garners more competition from London’s Open City Docs Fest, also held in June, and Sundance London, which takes place in April, not to mention the theatrical, television and Netflix releases of many of its own films.
In addition to some new favorites, I saw docs this week I didn’t care for, and I saw docs I’d already seen, and almost always there was still something worthwhile involved. It’s a place where you can appreciate the enjoyment others are having with a film you’re not into, because you have a sense of who these docuphiles are and why they’re there. And afterward you can have a great time arguing against and then hearing their case.
While at Sheffield I was constantly reminded of their screener library, where I could watch this or that film that I missed or couldn’t fit into my schedule. But there was no way I traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to stream documentaries alone on a computer. Especially because I live in a city where we don’t get a lot of nonfiction films in theaters, I was strictly set on viewing stuff on a big screen and with an audience. (And as it turned out, the two instances when I turned out to need the screener library for my coverage, their system was down and so my time was wasted.)
As I noted in an earlier dispatch, this is a place where it seems as if everyone is equal. That’s somewhat surprising given that it’s an event with a heavy industry presence, with the film market going on alongside the festival program. It’s a big fest that feels like a small fest, where you easily keep running into the same folks every day and where parties are accessible to all (with a festival pass, that is) and where certain must-attend screenings are indeed attended by just about everyone, as if it were an obligation.
One example of the last case came with the closing night selection, the world premiere of Kim Longinotto’s Love Is All: 100 Years of Love & Courtship. The compilation doc, which was produced by Sheffield Festival Director Heather Croall, was shown under a tent on a lawn at Chatworth House (seen above, it’s a location familiar to fans of Barry Lyndon and the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice). And it drew bus and carloads of festgoers into the countryside for extraordinary views and an overall experience that was greater than the film alone.
Love Is All is really just a feature-length supercut of romantic film clips, mostly from BFI’s archives and featuring an electrifying soundtrack by Richard Hawley that helps move the montage along. It’s probably not something I’d recommend by itself, but it’s something I’d recommend under all the circumstances and something I’d have hated to miss. It was like we were all part of one of those outdoor camping parties in Citizen Kane that everyone caravans to. Only we had fish and chips to eat instead of a giant roasted pig.
Whether we believe that was the optimal way to see that film is subjective (additionally, this occurring on my wedding anniversary and my wife being across the world and I’m watching scenes of lovers and weddings was fitting yet lonely). Many loved it, others preferred to stroll around the grounds outside the tent while it played. Like the screenings in the cave (see my first dispatch), the location adds something memorable to the experience while also providing some distraction.
Back in town, I kept hearing about a smaller, more common festival movie experience. People around Sheffield, including certain prominent film historians, were abuzz about a feature by Amir Amirani titled We Are Many, which is about the worldwide anti-war protest on February 15, 2003. One person told me there were three moments of applause throughout the screening he attended. Everyone else was at least mentioning it being a real crowd pleaser.
Having missed the theatrical showings, I made We Are Many one of the few films I had to catch up on later via screener. Obviously it wasn’t the same. It’s a fine documentary, rather conventional, but after all the raves it was underwhelming, and most of that is likely due to my not seeing it with a crowd. Docs don’t have to be cinematic to be theatrically necessary, as a film like this proves. More often than fiction, save for maybe comedy and horror, nonfiction films are best seen in a theater (or cave or stately English country home) for the group experience.
As I leave Sheffield and remember all the reasons that I look forward to returning, including the special field trip screening events and the communal theatrical viewings and the in-depth Q&As (which could be longer, though as I noted in a prior dispatch that at least here you just walk out and continue the discussion at the bar or next party) and the fascinating panels (some of which I can hear in the Sheffield’s podcast but are still better in person) and the way you can just be walking through town and be caught up in ongoing outdoor screening, even in the rain and, most importantly, the likeminded doc fans and pros, I must make one last point where Doc/Fest can improve: cell phones use during screenings were out of hand in my experience this week. That should be an easy fix, at least.
For a list of winners of the 2014 Sheffield Doc/Fest, visit the festival’s website here.