[Morgan Spurlock kicked off this year's Sheffield Doc/Fest last night with the Opening Night screening of POM WONDERFUL PRESENTS THE GREATEST MOVIE EVER SOLD. Photo by Michelle Heighway from the Sheffield Doc/Fest Flickr page.]
With the inaugural summer edition of Sheffield Doc/Fest now up and running, it's past time to run an interview that we did in the last couple of weeks with Sheffield's Head Programmer Hussain Currimbhoy.
We were curious about how the switch to summer changed his programming process (particularly since he just did this last November) and asked him to tip off some titles from this year's programme.
We just arrived in the UK and are about to head up to Sheffield (once our bag catches up with us). We'll have more about this year's festival in the coming days.
All these wonderful things: First, I want to ask you about the the logistics of changing to June and how it affected your programming practices. Were there films that you saw for November but you told the filmmakers, we want to hold off on showing this until June? And how important were festivals like Sundance or SXSW in terms of putting potential films on your radar?
Hussain Currimbhoy: There were some titles I was eye-balling, stalking if you will, starting from around June 2010. But I knew they would not be ready for November. Because of the new time slot there were a lot of unknowns from a programming point of view. Since I began in 2007 the film submissions season gradually received more and more submissions. We are used to receiving 1200-1500 unsolicited submissions a year and I figured, OK, we might get half of that since we have less time, it's over the Christmas holidays, and despite making plenty of noise about it, some sources might not know we moved to June.
So what happened? We still got well over 1200 films! I admit it was rather... absorbing to get through that many films with the previewers with much less time. But we managed to get some beauties out of the submissions.
Indeed the Sundance and SXSW programmes were vital and ultimately a particularly rich well for us because we could access the films quickly and were able to capitalise on the media buzz and distributor interest the festivals raised for their films. Instant classics like BEATS, RHYMES, LIFE; THE INTERRUPTERS, HELL AND BACK AGAIN, BECOMING CHAZ – these were films I fell in love immediately and I remember just grinning like an idiot all day and feeling over the moon when I confirmed them for Doc/Fest. I also nabbed some glorious docs from Berllinale like BOMBAY BEACH and MAMA AFRICA. Hot Docs and Tribeca Film Festival were also very important to the programming pools.
Securing the films from filmmakers I look up to made me feel like the move to June was working. It felt good and it felt right, you know? It was like asking a really hot girl out, thinking there was little chance she would say yes, then – cut to: having dinner with the really hot girl and feeling like you da man!. As we got bigger, vital and powerful films I realised that this mad move to June was not so mad. it would clearly expand the profile and enhance relevance of Doc/Fest, not just in the UK but internationally. As a programmer what excited me was realising that the possibilities of programming choices seemed fresher, manifold and just more interesting. It was actually invigorating to investigate new veins for films.
ATWT: What's been the best thing about the move so far and has the short window between November's fest and next month's fest been the biggest challenge?
HC: The Doc/Fest team discussed the move to June quite some time before we announced it, so we were all mentally prepared – that is the most important thing when one embarks on an endeavour like this! The mental energy was there, but the body was saying: dude, read a book, please! It was hard to find the energy to start viewing so soon as the festival can knock it out of you for weeks after ward. That was perhaps the hardest thing for me - going straight back into vewing after November. I opened submissions right after the festival and found myself glued to the screen(s) while reassessing what filmmakers schedules were. I was on annual leave too in December, that really didn’t help the work load!
The best thing is that different kinds of decision-makers, buyers, programmers, press, etc. can now attend. People who have always wanted to come but have not been able to because of the winter schedule can finally make it. And this brings a new life blood to the festival and keeps the festival fresh. We have so many returning delegates year after year – and for some this is their only documentary festival - and its just more productive to be meeting new people. it also means that while many new documentaries are launched in the US, they can plan their UK release around Doc/Fest. It makes me even more entwined with the UK documentary scene and that, ultimately, is what we exist for.
ATWT: One thing that I'm always impressed by is the attention the festival gets from London/national press. Was that always the case and what are they saying about the move to summer?
HC: Since Heather took over in 2006 there has been a very strategic effort to build more profile with the press. In the last few years its really been an explosion of interest in the festival from all sorts of media and bloggers, not just in the UK but internationally. The change has come for a lot of reasons. Some can be accounted to change in programming strategies – we are focusing on bigger films, higher profile filmmakers, while keeping attention on the UK industry, plus not having a strict premiere policy. But mostly because of the radical change in the festival structure to include a market that is useful and attractive, and a strong, relevant digital component.
There are so many questions about new media, its funding intricacies as well as the changing models for traditional docs, co-productions and their ramifications on the doc world (and audiences). Doc/Fest is where smart media start to pick up on trends that are happening on the ground. The festival is fresh, its not intellectual or staid. But what happens atDoc/F est is realistic and accessible. The move to june is a big step, but the media have been positive and have been using words like ‘influential’ in relation to Doc/Fest. I do like that word. Say it with me: ‘influential’...
ATWT: Can you preview your competition line-ups? And what are some of the things you take into consideration when thinking about what to put in competition?
HC: Our juries are tough cookies. They know their stuff and they are chosen because they are brave! So I try to simply give them the best films we can. For the Green Doc Award we focus on environmental issues of course, but Innovation is a great one to programme for because you are free to interpret what ‘innovation’ means. Story? The further out the window it is the better. An innovtation highlight is Ulrike and Eamon Complian which is an installation from Vienaale in the programme. It's a walk-though, living experience that incorporates vérité sensibilities. We have SENNA up for the Innovation Award because of how it was made: all archive, gleaned from the internet at first, then pieced together, gradually trimming down the decades of footage to distal the essence of an icon. The temptation for SENNA to cut to the present time would have been huge, but it's a strong enough film to stick to its guns and its integrity and in turn this rewards the audience by keeping the integrity of SENNA intact.
For Special Award, it's really hard. All the films have an emotional attachment to me. Every film has a story that I have to revisit every time I start writing about it or re-viewing it. You want to highlight films that may not have had enough attention in festivals or in cinemas. That’s an instinct. Indeed some juries don’t award films that have had too much attention out there in the world. Of course, the special jury selection needs balance from region, nationality, gender of filmmakers, first time and established filmmakers, as well as styles and approaches to filmmaking. They don’t have to be brand new films, but I like putting up films that that jury may not have seen – like GUN FIGHT by Barbara Kopple. The awards selection are a mini-programme in themselves. You should be able to view them all and come away with an informed insight into the state of documentary and a sensation for the over all programming. Ultimately I want to make it has hard as possible for the jury to decide on a winner! I want them to talk it over and really find out why a thorn from a film has stuck in their hearts.
ATWT: Finally, any hidden gems that you want to call special attention to?
HC: Oh baby – so glad you asked this one. For world premieres, I’m crazy about WE ARE POETS. Local filmmaker, just came in a blind submission and boom! I’m hooked. Been banging on about this film like a mad preacher on judgement day. Do not miss AT NIGHT I FLY either - people will go mental once it screens I’m sure. Rehabilitation in prisons through music and art never looked so sexy. Its not exactly a hidden gem, but the Ozwald Boateng doc is brilliant. I think people will love this one – and not just because Boateng himself is coming to the screening. (Shit did I just announce that? Oops. ;) )
WITHOUT GORKY is a film I wouldn’t normally go for, but its a beautiful family study that takes you by surprise. Check out the Terry Pratchett doc about his investigation into euthanasia. Even if you don’t know the books he’s written (like me) you will love the honesty of his investigation. the Mani Kaul classic SIDDESHWARI DEVI is a pearl to behold – its so rarely screened in the UK and its something I’m trying very hard to get restored actually. Wish me luck.
I also love the Albert Maysles films – the retrospective we are doing are of films that are still so fresh and incisive after all these years. RESURRECT DEAD, love at first sight. GUN FIGHT, forgettaboutit. I love this one. Does not get the audience or the profile it deserves. But all that is going to change come June 8th!