The post-pandemic festival: Identity, crisis, and curation at Sheffield DocFest 2022
Sheffield DocFest, the UK’s largest documentary festival, returned this year for its first predominantly in-person edition following two years of pared back, online, and hybrid editions in 2020 and 2021. Returning in June 2022 as a six-day event comparable in size and scale to the 2019 festival, this year’s edition was framed in part as a celebration of the chance to return to collective, in-person experiences ‘post-pandemic’. But as the recent demise of Edinburgh International Film Festival makes clear, the crises precipitated by Covid-19 are far from over. Furthermore, Brexit and the war in Ukraine set the political framework of the 2022 festival edition, with different levels of impact on foreign participation and the shape of the program.
In addition to these external crises, DocFest has also weathered significant internal turbulence in recent years, including a number of high-profile departures from the festival’s creative team, and questions about its central mission, ethos, and identity. This review will consider the programming practices and the curatorial identity of the 2022 edition of Sheffield DocFest in the light of these crises. In doing so we reflect on how a festival’s identity is shaped by both internal and external forces and offer some brief insights into the nature of the ‘post-pandemic’ moment for film festivals and film exhibition.
A chance to reconnect, and turn the page
In February 2022 all remaining Covid-19 restrictions in the UK were lifted, enabling public events to go ahead without any legal requirements for organisers to reduce a venue’s capacity, or for audiences to wear masks or maintain social distancing, allowing them to be in close proximity and share space with other people once again. As studies of festival audiences have demonstrated, it is this physical proximity to others – and the feeling of being part of a shared community that this engenders – that is one of the principal pleasures of festival culture. DocFest’s team understandably embraced the opportunities afforded by this ‘return to normal’ this year, and while much of the film programme was also available to watch online, the emphasis was squarely on the wealth of in-person screenings, encounters, events, and activities on offer. Reflecting this emphasis, the tagline for this year’s edition, which featured prominently in the festival’s promotional materials, was ‘ReConnect with Documentary’.
As well as attempting to mark a clean break from the disruption caused by the pandemic, it is likely that the current festival team were also keen to position this year’s edition as something of a fresh start given the internal turmoil and controversy the festival has experienced in recent years. Several high-profile changes to the creative team have taken place, including the departure of the festival’s former director of film programming Luke Moody in 2019. His successor, former DocLisboa director Cíntia Gil, also left in 2021 after just two years in charge, followed by the dismissal of her team of programmers. Both of these departures were accompanied by fractious public exchanges between outgoing staff and the festival’s board, centred partly around what has been presented as two competing visions for DocFest: one in which the festival’s priority is to be a space to celebrate the artistry, creativity, experimentalism, and internationalism of the documentary form, and another in which it is a space more focused on the business of documentary production, with a particular emphasis on content destined for broadcast television.
These tensions are related to the organisational model of the festival, a charity in which a board of trustees is responsible ‘for controlling the work, management and administration of the charity on behalf of its beneficiaries’. Chaired since 2020 by former Sheffield DocFest curator Alexandra Cooke, the board of trustees includes representatives of key agents in the documentary industry, such as broadcasters, public institutions and, more recently, streaming platforms.This board is responsible for choosing the artistic director, and their clash with curatorial visions has been a recurrent issue in the festival’s recent history. As Marijke de Valck has noted, such tensions between film ‘as art’ and the ‘business of film’ are a perennial point of discussion and critique, though this debate has played out particularly publicly around DocFest. This year’s edition therefore represented an opportunity for the current festival team to set out their own understanding of the festival’s vision, mission, and curatorial identity. And while it was clear that creativity, collaboration, and exchange remain central to this, it was also clear that the festival embraced the business of documentary with a renewed vigour.
Business as usual?
With Covid-19 restrictions lifted, the festival was also able to bring back the informal encounters and in-person gatherings that are key for creating professional partnerships in a field where personal trust and commitment are the basis for the survival of collaborative projects. These encounters included an extensive array of pitching sessions, talks, and networking events which gathered together key representatives of the UK documentary industry and international streaming platforms, distributors, and filmmakers.
One of these key representatives was BFI Doc Society, which distributes the British Film Institute’s funds for documentaries, and who represented the most independent strand of the industry players. Doc Society offered free consultancies to filmmakers and participated in several talks. Notably, questions of resilience in the face of crisis were widely discussed in these sessions, which addressed the ‘importance of models of funding that support sustainable local initiatives and peer learning’ and mental health in the film industry.
On the other side of the industry spectrum we found major UK broadcasters, including BBC, Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky Documentaries, UKTV, and ITV, all of whom participated in dedicated talks as well as ‘Meet the Commissioners’ sessions. Representatives with strong connections to television maintain a heavy presence at the festival, but the fact that broadcasters have been reducing their investment in documentary in recent years is a major concern for the feature-length documentary scene. The potential privatisation of British public broadcaster Channel 4 only compounds this long-term problem further. Potentially stepping in to fill this gap were big international players such as Amazon Studios (which secured a representative amongst the newly appointed members of DocFest’s board of trustees); Warner Bros. Discovery; Paramount+ factual (which started airing in the UK in June 2022); and National Geographic, who all offered their own presentations and lavish promotional events, providing guidelines to filmmakers hoping to collaborate with them and securing visibility of their productions during the festival.
Additionally, documentary professionals also have to face the steady implementation of new legislative frameworks brought about by another external crisis: Brexit. But while the pandemic was acutely felt within the festival discourse, Brexit was virtually absent – though there were notably fewer European delegates than in previous years. The effects of Brexit in co-production and distribution are still to be seen (although, according to the BFI, UK-EU agreements will keep pre-Brexit rules of co-production and inclusion of UK productions in distribution quotas on EU screens.) On the other hand, we can perceive a tendency towards a closer cooperation with US partners and professionals, both on the part of the festival (in the board of trustees) and documentary institutions (such as Doc Society). This may be more about broader trends around the increasing dominance of big multinational conglomerates rather than a direct effect of Brexit, though further research is certainly needed to identify the effects of UK-US partnerships on the reconfiguration of international dynamics of documentary distribution within and beyond the UK.
Identity, crisis, and curation
The industry programme has always been a core part of DocFest’s identity and its mission, though it is perhaps the film programme where the aforementioned questions of the balance between ‘film as art’ and ‘film as business’ within its curatorial vision play out most clearly. When Stewart joined the festival as interim CEO for this year’s edition she addressed these questions directly, pointedly signalling a renewed emphasis on films with more ‘broad appeal’, alongside space for investigative journalism and emerging filmmakers. In the festival catalogue presentation, the new head of programming Raul Niño Zambrano, who has been appointed the new director of the festival for the 2023 edition, laid out a similarly omnivorous approach, noting that ‘[t]he films we have chosen span the full spectrum of documentary production, from investigative journalism to experimental/hybrid works – and everything in between’.
There was certainly an impressive breadth of titles on offer across the 135 films in the screening programme, where the catalogue distinguished between the two main competitive sections (International Competition and International First Feature Competition), plus six thematic strands (Debates; Journeys; Memories; People & Community; Rebellions; and Rhythms) and a strand dedicated to short film compilations. But it is also true that by not setting out a clearer vision of the kind of documentary culture it hopes to champion, the festival risked losing a certain curatorial clarity and consistency.
This lack of clarity was further compounded by discrepancies between the ways in which the programme was presented in person and online. For instance, the thematic labels seemed to work better for online audiences (who accessed films directly through the website) than in-person audiences for whom there was no differentiation by sections in the festival schedule or at cinema venues. Navigating the program on-site demanded continuous revisions of the catalogue and website, where last year’s information – without a date – was still displayed, further contributing to the confusion.The issue was not the wide variety of topics and styles per se, but rather the difficulty for audiences to identify which kinds of documentary were to be found in each section of the program. For example, UK productions – including the audience award A Bunch of Amateurs (Kim Hopkins) – were scattered through different strands, after the UK Competition (introduced by Gil’s team in 2021) was cut from the program this year.
In the opening ceremony Stewart noted that the festival program was put together in record time. The turbulence within the festival staff (which, as noted above, is partly related to the festival’s organisational model) likely contributed to this situation, leaving only a relatively short time frame for the incoming creative team to curate this year’s edition. The decision to bring on board Asif Kapadia as guest curator, the first time DocFest has done this, was therefore no doubt partly motivated by necessity. This year’s edition notably also featured two other strands curated in collaboration with external partners. The first offered a special program on Ukraine, presented as a collaboration with Docudays UA festival and the Ukraine Season of Culture, and the second, ‘Co-Creation: Changing Our World’, focused on immersive and interactive works and was curated in partnership with Katerina Cizek from MIT’s Open Documentary Lab.
Kapadia’s contribution was presented under the title ‘A Documentary Journey with Asif Kapadia’, and featured a special selection of diverse and eclectic films reflecting his own idiosyncratic influences and featuring a wide range of different genres and styles. As a filmmaker who makes formally ambitious and inventive works that tackle big, mainstream subjects destined for commercial as well as critical success, Kapadia’s own documentary work perfectly illustrates the festival’s emphasis on mass appeal as much as ‘artistic films with stylistic ambition’. He is also a regular at DocFest and – in line with the broader ambition of this year’s edition to recapture a kind of ‘pre-pandemic’ spirit – it is perhaps significant that his film Diego Maradona opened the last fully in-person edition of the festival in 2019.
The second special focus, on Ukrainian works, provided a counterbalance to mainstream media discourses about the war in Ukraine (which have been the focus of so much of the UK’s news media since February 2022). The festival offered a platform for alternative representations of the materiality of war as a lived experience, as well as a look at other aspects of Ukrainian life and society rarely addressed in media discourse. International competition candidate One Day in Ukraine, which was shot only three months before the festival, was perhaps the highest profile of these. Additionally, a group of Ukrainian films made in previous years and selected for the official competition of Docudays UA was presented in solidarity with the cancelled festival. Other Ukrainian productions were included within different program strands and sections, including works-in-progress presented in pitching sessions, such as Nice Ladies (Mariia Pnomarova).
Many of the Ukranian films in the programme were thematically focused on issues of resistance and resilience in the face of crisis. These themes were also present in other works in the festival, several of which focused on the struggle of indigenous and traditional communities defending their land against its environmental destruction for industrial farming (The Territory), tourism (Delikado), transport infrastructure (When the Mountain Rumbles), and energy (Fawley, which received the award for best short). Questions of identity politics – including issues of gender equality, racial justice, and the representation of marginalised communities – were also widely present in the program, following wider public discussions that gained international visibility during the pandemic. Among films focused on gender dynamics we found Garçonnières (Céline Pernet), an exploration of contemporary Swiss masculinities, and the first-person account of a young Afro-latina, Beba (Rebeca Huntt). This latter film also addresses Black identity struggles, which resonated in other films in the program, such as 8 Bar – the Evolution of Grime (Ewen Spencer, Aleksandra Bilic, David Upshal), Dear Jackie (Henri Pardo), and This is National Wake (Mirisssa Neff), to name but a few.
Finally, the third special focus ‘Co-Creation: Changing Our World’ served as a bridge between the main film program and ‘Alternate Realities’ (the festival’s immersive and interactive strand) and was responding to the festival’s aim ‘[t]o forge stronger connections between these two strands’. To help achieve this aim the festival invited Cizek to work in collaboration with Niño Zambrano and Francesca Panetta. Cizek is a leading practitioner and theorist of immersive documentaries and artistic director of the Co-Creation Studio at MIT Open Documentary Lab, and the strand featured archive works presented alongside ‘suggested pairings’ drawn from the new works in the Alternate Realities strand. This created an interesting dialogue between diverse titles and sections in the programme, and it displayed a curatorial vision, clarity, and consistency that was less visible in other parts of the program.
Since its inception in 1994, Sheffield DocFest has grown to become a major market for documentary film in the UK. The size of its industry program attests to this, and this year’s post-pandemic edition suggests that the Covid-19 crisis has not stopped major industry players from remaining in the documentary business. Meanwhile, the steady shift towards new viewing models gets stronger, with global platforms gaining further visibility and power in this marketplace. While former DocFest director of programming Luke Moody referred to streaming platforms as the threat to the old-fashioned broadcasters who limited his curatorial freedom, the 2022 festival edition shows that streamers are being fully embraced by the industry (especially as new funders). And the incorporation of major streaming companies into the board of trustees of the festival provides a further signal that its industrial priorities are likely to remain for the foreseeable future.
As for the broader pandemic lessons for film festivals, it is clear that some practices have remained and are likely to continue, while others have been discarded. In the case of DocFest, the hybrid model of online streaming of films in the program has been maintained, offering the possibility of reaching wider audiences. But it is clear that when delivering both an online and in-person version of the festival simultaneously, the curation of physical spaces in relation to the program should not be overlooked, and attention needs to be paid to ensuring that curatorial practices based on thematic strands have as much visibility in person as they do online.
The experience of the pandemic also showed that the emulation of industry pitches and encounters can work in the online space, but the enthusiasm with which delegates embraced this year’s return to normal demonstrates that the impact of physical encounters should not be underestimated. With DocFest committed to a model exclusively in-person in this area for 2022, this may have felt like a step back for filmmakers with limited access to travel due to different reasons (such as caring responsibilities, disabilities, coming from distant territories, lack of funding, or availability), but at the same time it clearly adds value to the festival experience as an exclusive opportunity for film business. Social skills to get to know new professionals at informal gatherings needed some training after the pandemic, but professionals showed their will to re-connect because, at the end of the day, documentary business will always be a social business.
Aida Vallejo works at University of the Basque Country UPV/EHU and is an IASH fellow at University of Edinburgh.
Andy Moore is a Lecturer in the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at the University of Edinburgh, where he teaches on the MSc in Film, Exhibition and Curation and leads a course on Documentary Aesthetics. Prior to taking up his post at Edinburgh he was the Senior Programmer at Showroom Workstation, a four-screen independent cinema in the heart of Sheffield.
Research for this work has been funded by the Department of Education of the Basque Government (Ikermugikortasuna: MV_2021_1_0010).
Bradshaw, N. ‘“The chimney needs sweeping”: Luke Moody on the end of his tenure programming Sheffield Doc/Fest’, Sight & Sound, 16 July 2019: https://www2.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/comment/festivals/sheffield-doc-fest-2019-film-programme-latin-american-outreach-luke-moody-resignation.
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Dickson, L. ‘Ah! Other Bodies! Embodied Spaces, Pleasures and Practices at Glasgow Film Festival’, Participations, Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, 12, 1, 2015: 703-724.
Halligan, F. ‘Comment: Edinburgh’s collapse shows why a long-term strategy is vital – and no festival is safe’, Screen Daily, 2022: https://www.screendaily.com/comment/comment-edinburghs-collapse-shows-why-a-long-term-strategy-is-vital-and-no-festival-is-safe/5175735.article.
Hayes, D. ‘Competing visions: Inside the crisis at Sheffield DocFest “This board has no knowledge of the documentary scene today”’, Sheffield Tribune, 11 September 2021: https://www.sheffieldtribune.co.uk/p/competing-visions-inside-the-crisis.
Parfitt, O. ‘Sheffield Doc/Fest programming team criticises board following Cintia Gil departure’, Screen Daily, 2021: https://www.screendaily.com/news/sheffield-doc/fest-programming-team-criticises-board-following-cintia-gil-departure/5162811.article.
Presence, S., Spicer, A., Quigley, A., Green, E. Keeping it real: Towards a documentary film policy for the UK. Bristol: AHRC, 2020: https://uwe-repository.worktribe.com/output/9098799.
Ravidran, M. ‘Entire Programming Team at U.K.’s Sheffield Doc/Fest is Outsted, as Commercial and Artistic Values Clash’, Variety, 2021: https://variety.com/2021/film/global/sheffield-doc-fest-cintia-gil-programmers-quit-1235050539/.
Sheffield DocFest 2022, Festival Guide. Sheffield: Sheffield DocFest.
Tabbara, M. ‘Clare Stewart, interim CEO of Sheffield DocFest, explains how she is building a five-year strategy’, Screen Daily, 2022: https://www.screendaily.com/features/clare-stewart-interim-ceo-of-sheffield-docfest-explains-how-she-is-building-a-five-year-strategy/5166987.article.
Xu, M. and Reijnders, S. ‘Getting close to the media world? On the attraction of encountering film industry professionals at Shanghai International Film Festival’, Participations, Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, 15, 1, 2018: 84-104.
 Halligan 2020
 Dickson 2015; Xu & Reijinders 2018.
 Interim CEO Clare Stewart explained the thinking behind this tagline in her introduction to the festival guide: ‘When we started shaping this year’s Festival, the imperative to reconnect was high on everyone’s agenda – filmmakers and artists were keen to be back in cinemas and galleries, with people appreciating their work in real life; industry delegates were eager to take meetings and do pitching sessions face-to-face; and the Sheffield DocFest team were craving the energy and reward that comes with bringing community together.’ (DocFest 2022)
 Manori 2021.
 See: https://register-of-charities.charitycommission.gov.uk/charity-search/-/charity-details/5136433/trustees (accessed on 28 October 2022)
 Former Sheffield DocFest programmer and executive of Renegade Pictures, where she produced, among others, Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, and The Yes Men Fix the World. See: https://realscreen.com/2020/06/02/alex-cooke-returns-to-sheffield-docfest-as-board-chair/ (accessed on 28 October 2022)
 The previous chair was Alex Graham, who remained in the post for nine years. New trustees for the 2022 edition were announced in August 2021 on the festival website: ‘Our newly appointed trustees are Fozia Khan, Creative Executive at Amazon Studios, Daniel Gordon, BAFTA-winning Producer/Director, Jennifer Kimber, Head of Policy and Strategy at ScreenSkills, Gali Gold, Head of Cinema at the Barbican Centre and Beejal- Maya Patel, commissioning editor at BBC Documentaries. They were appointed following an open call for applications.’ See: https://sheffdocfest.com/news/announcing-our-2022-dates-and-our-new-trustees (accessed on 28 October 2022)
 When Moody resigned he was quoted in a bracingly forthright interview with Sight and Sound magazine in which he criticised the dominance of British factual television departments on the festival’s board. He described them as coming from a ‘dinosaur’ tradition, and lambasted them for not embracing a vision of documentary that was, in his view, more diverse and internationally focused (Bradshaw 2019). Gil’s decision to leave was described by the festival as ‘a result of artistic differences over the present and future direction of the Festival with the Board of Trustees’. Her departure was followed by an open letter written by the outgoing members of the programming team who were in place during her tenure and published in the film industry trade journal Screen. It was titled ‘What is a film festival even for?’, and in it they strongly criticised the circumstances surrounding their own departure, expressed solidarity for Gil, and echoed Moody’s analysis regarding the identity of the festival (Parfitt 2021).
 de Valck 2020, p. 127.
 BFI Doc Society presented the session ‘Beyond the Centres of Power’ while the BFI’s Mia Bays hosted a session titled ‘Bullying & Harassment in the Industry’ with guest speakers who are spearheading mental health support initiatives in response to widespread bullying and harassment in the film and television industry. The discussion brought together other independent voices of the UK documentary industry: We Are Parable, Film & TV Charity, and Film in Mind (led by Rebecca Day, a producer and therapist specialising in the specific challenges for documentarists’ exposure to traumatic and stressful situations).
 See Presence et al. 2020, pp. 11-12
 Privatisation was announced in April, but the final decision will depend on the future direction of the UK government following the political turmoil of 2022.
 Fozia Khan, creative executive at Amazon Studios. See Hayes 2021.
 In terms of industry delegates, most professionals attending Sheffield came from the UK, with delegations from the UK regions and nations (Scotland, Cornwall, Northern Ireland, Wales) plus Ireland, but there was a timid presence of EU companies such as Autlook Filmsales (Austria) or France Televisions. The British Council funded a European Delegation of professionals coming from Italy, Spain, France, and Romania in order to foster collaborations and partnerships. The Northern Norway Delegation was the only European one to fund their own delegates.
 See BFI Q&A guide ‘Working with the UK after EU exit: Answering questions from the screen sectors’. https://www.bfi.org.uk/strategy-policy/policy-statements/working-with-uk-after-eu-exit-answering-questions-from-screen-sectors#coproduce
 Originally Britdocs, the organisation was born in Bristol (UK), but today it has two offices in London and New York.
 ‘Some of our European colleagues in this arena have been leaning more heavily to artistic films with stylistic ambition. That’s still very much the kind of film that will be welcome in our programming context, but we also have space to move into other kinds of documentary films, some with more broad appeal, some that are pushing more into the investigative journalist space, and those that are also rougher around the edges and potentially finding it difficult to land a festival platform.’ (Tabbara 2022)
 This sense of a festival sitting somewhat awkwardly between the digital and the physical was also reflected in the fact that the festival maintained a digital system to manage Q&A sessions. Audience members were directed to follow a link to an online platform where they could write their questions, which were then read out by the moderator. Far from facilitating ‘re-connection’ though, this often created a stilted and disconnected atmosphere, and we were present at several Q&As where audiences (and moderators) expressed their frustration with the system and chose to bypass it altogether with questions voiced in person in the room.
 Co-organised by the British Council and Ukrainian Institute.
 The film project started as a look at a microcosm of old-ladies in a cheerleader group with the flavour of Easter European tradition of humour in documentary, to then turn into a war drama of emigration and uncertainty, serving as a metaphor of the fate of Ukrainian citizens.
 Notably the representation of women and Black communities in the film industry, after the launch of Collectif 50/50’s campaign in Cannes 2018 and the global spread of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
 Other films on gender issues included in the program are the feminist verité portrait of an Indian train for women in Ladies Only (Rebana Liz John) or the experimental video letters shared between two female filmmakers in Swing and Sway (Fernanda Pessoa and Chica Barbosa, 2022).
 He argued that British factual TV representatives ‘[a]re from a tradition that is a dinosaur – the likes of Netflix, Amazon, HBO and Hulu are far more progressive and will take their audiences’. (Bradshaw 2019).
 While the market and industry events provided several opportunities to meet key agents in person, the festival did not provide a list of industry delegates’ contact information in a spreadsheet format, making the opportunity for newcomers to make the most of the event quite time consuming. Moreover, the list of delegates and activities from the previous editions still appeared on the website without a date, leading industry delegates to confusion when trying to organise their agendas.