“What the hell am I doing here?”
That was my first thought when I rocked up at the Showroom Workstation to cover Doc/Fest, the international documentary festival based in the heart of Sheffield. I rocked up bright and early on Wednesday morning, got my press pass and the obligatory (and very cool looking) bag full of free stuff… and then realised I had no idea how to cover a documentary festival.
All the gear and no idea, that’s me. Except I didn’t have the gear; either – everyone else seemed to be typing on MacBooks or jabbing away at iPads. All I had was a pen and a battered old notebook. I didn’t even have Twitter on my phone, for God’s sake.
And all the other journalists – the real ones – seemed to know each other. Everyone was kissing cheeks and exchanging small talk like they were members of some Masonic lodge whose weird handshake I hadn’t quite figured out yet. “Didn’t I run into you in Prague?” I genuinely heard someone shout across a crowded room.
Ah well. No sense cowering in a corner, I figured. Might as well get stuck in.
First job: look at the programme, which was a bit like presenting a starving man with an all-you-can-eat buffet. When you’re given everything at once, there’s a good chance you’ll try and take everything and make yourself ill. As far as I could see, the only logical way forward was to try and see everything I could that looked even remotely interesting.
A look into the making of Quadrophenia? Sounds great. An analysis of Nicolas Sarkozy’s greatest political cock-ups? Count me in. The story of Paul, the psychic octopus from the 2010 World Cup? Hell to the yes. Once I realised the only way I’d see it all was if I somehow managed to find a Time Turner, however, I scribbled down a hasty schedule and, like that, my Doc/Fest experience began.
And boy, what an experience it was.
As somebody whose knowledge of documentary didn’t really extend that far beyond the works of Michael Moore or An Inconvenient Truth, this was one hell of an opportunity. Names like Brian Knappenberger, Eugene Jarecki and Christy Garland are now pretty firmly on my list. Not every films was great – in fact some of them bordered on downright awful – but the vast majority of them were thought-provoking, emotional pieces of cinema. I was moved to laughter and tears, and a lot of the time I was made to feel downright angry.
And as cheesy as it sounds, it was a great chance to broaden my horizons; before Doc/Fest, I had no idea about the hacktivist movement, or the problems of the war on drugs in the US, or the plight of indigenous populations in South America; now I am, if not an expert, at least able to bullshit confidently on a whole range of subjects next time I find myself at a dinner party. Thanks to the film Searching for Sugar Man (which was without doubt one of the highlights of the festival) I bought myself a new album – listen to Cold Fact by Rodriguez; it’s bloody brilliant.
But there was far more to the documentary festival than just the films; there were also some brilliant sessions featuring some influential names and faces in the industry. Well, I assume they’re influential; otherwise they wouldn’t have been invited to speak. But they were all informative and interesting – a panel of editors gave a great insight into a part of the process which I knew bugger-all about, and I even had my interpretation of Voltaire’s Candide thrown in my face by AA Gill and Nick Fraser. They were both completely wrong but hey, at least now I have a story to tell.
Still, in contrast to the stuffy old men it was nice to see that Doc/Fest truly embracing modern technology – Twitter feeds were projected all over the walls and a giant screen on Howard Street was showing free films all day long. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t (I can recall one particularly disastrous attempt to use Skype during a session), and sometimes it was downright bizarre. Saturday evening saw me pointing a laser pointer at the screen along with fifty other people trying to blow up a pixelated spaceship. I felt like a cross between Mark Kermode and Doctor Who.
Another interesting point; I’ve now been living in Sheffield for ten months, but I’ve seen more of it in the past five days than I have since I moved here in September. And my God, is it one hell of a city. Full of nooks and crannies, with beautiful old buildings tucked in right beside new ones, like the Lyceum and Crucible theatres standing side by side, or the Downton Abbey-esque grandeur of the Town Hall, or the classic feel of the Showroom, one of those cinemas that people simply don’t make anymore.
In fact, when I think about it, Doc/Fest kind of embodies all the reasons I came to study at the University of Sheffield in the first place. It was exhausting, and it was hard work (long days with little more than coffee and Red Bull to sustain me weren’t uncommon), and it was daunting at first. But it was also an opportunity to meet new people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. It was a chance to do something I never thought I would do, and all the while I was standing in one of the most culturally enriching cities you’ll find in the whole of Great Britain.
Not bad for five days’ work.