Sheffield Doc/Fest 2019: Preview

04 Jun 2019 BY Michael Prescott in Film Features

5 mins

Sheffield Doc/Fest is the king of documentary festivals in the UK calendar and one of the biggest non-fiction film festivals across the world. Taking place in June each year, the festival comprises of over 150 feature-length and short films, as well as talks, workshops, a virtual reality programme and industry meet-ups, plus a free outdoor screen. We'll have our regular round-up of our favourite features for young audiences once we come out the other side of this year's festival, the 26th edition, but in the meantime, here are some of our top recommendations across various strands.

Opening Night

This year's incredibly exciting opening film is the UK premiere of Diego Maradona from documentary maestro Asif Kapadia, who can legitimately claim to have changed the genre with his use of archive materials in 2010 with Senna, replicating the feat with Amy five years later. You don't need to love formula one or pop music, or either of the personalities put under the microscope, to love those films, and the same remains true about his bio-doc on soccer's larger-than-life antihero, which recently garnered fantastic reviews in Cannes.

Youth Jury

Every year the festival has a number of Awards categories, voted on by a panel of experts (aside from the Audience Award which is voted for at every screening by the public), and we're always eager to find out those selected as part of the Youth Jury Award, selected by six passionate young people, who will also decide the winning film. This year the entries include two films we've been lucky enough to see already, Romantic Comedy and Jawline.

  • Romantic Comedy is a video essay exploration of the genre through the ages, mainly throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, featuring clips from over 160 titles. With a focus on Hollywood films, this is the romantic comedy viewed through a modern lens, with director Elizabeth Sankey relating her personal experiences of watching the films while growing up through voiceover, aided by young contributors including filmmaker Charlie Lyne and critic Simran Hans to dissect both the positive and negative traits of the genre, looking at topics including problematic male characters, underseen perspectives, critical responses, and more.
  • Jawline is a fascinating insight into the "social media Gold Rush", focusing on a 16 year-old called Austyn who lives in Tennessee and has aspirations of making it big in the online world. Despite a solid, dedicated fan base comprised predominantly of local teenage girls, he must move to Los Angeles and find representation through a specialist agency if he's truly to make a career out of his good looks and bubbly personality. This observational documentary poses interesting discussions around body image, fan culture, and forging your career.

We're also looking forward to seeing the four remaining films up for the Youth Jury Award:

  • Baracoa - a blend of fiction and doc which follows two Cuban boys as they roam through their industrial town in the final days of summer.
  • Los Reyes - the eponymous skatepark in Santiago de Chile is captured through the eyes of two dogs.
  • Seahorse - the remarkable story of a pregnant transgender man amidst a backdrop of hostility within society towards trans people.
  • Searching Eva - a young Italian woman has built an online persona for herself, but who is she really?

All six films will be having their UK premieres at the festival, with Seahorse receiving its European premiere.


The festival has various strands, but one of the most accessible for those unfamiliar with the documentary world is the New/Hits strand. Described as featuring "powerful new masterpieces selected fresh from the best international film festivals", it features a strong lineup of titles which are either in UK cinemas now, coming very soon, or are available on video-on-demand platforms. Highlights include…

Apollo 11 (in cinemas Fri 28 June)
We covered this briefly in our Sundance London preview, and will have lots more to say upon its theatrical release, but make no mistake: this is the documentary of the year so far. Covering the moon landings from launch preparation to quarantine after returning, this entirely archival documentary is a feat of filmmaking and the perfect symbiosis of history, technology and storytelling.

The Brink (in cinemas Fri 12 July)
This fly-on-the-wall documentary follows Steve Bannon's activities over the course of a year or so, between late 2017 and late 2018, charting his post-White House movements. After losing his radio show and being ousted from far-right publication Breitbart, Bannon heads to Europe in an attempt to form a right-wing coalition with controversial figures including the likes of Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen in the run-up to the EU elections.

Hail Satan? (in cinemas Fri 23 Aug)
This bizarre yet enjoyable film tracks the growth of the controversial religious collective The Satanic Temple, a surprisingly progressive outfit who are pro-choice, pro-LGBTQ+ rights, and are primarily made up of individuals who don't fit in elsewhere. Together they argue for the separation of church and state with a series of provocative campaigns.

Also in this strand are titles including:

  • Knock Down the House - following a grassroots movement of Democrats with fresh ideas, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in the run-up to the 2018 congressional elections.
  • XY Chelsea - a look at the life and career of ex-military transgender whistleblower Chelsea Manning whose prison sentence was commuted by Barack Obama.
  • Game of Thrones: The Last Watch - Jeanie Finlay (who also directs Seahorse, above) secretly filmed this behind-the-scenes documentary which looks at the production process of the hit show's final season.

Elsewhere in the programme there's a whole host of topics and themes to explore, from refugees and war-torn countries in a number of films, including Ai Weiwei's The Rest… youth protests and the current political climate in Brazil in Your Turn… data exploitation via the testimonies of those involved in the Cambridge Analytica scandal in The Great Hack… the downfall of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein in Untouchable… and the examination of human rights abuses in China in Sundance Grand Jury award winner One Child Nation.

For the full programme, screening times and further information about the festival, visit the Sheffield Doc/Fest website.

Michael Prescott

Michael Prescott, Curation Coordinator

Michael has an MA in Film Studies with Screenwriting from Sheffield Hallam University. He has previously worked at the British Council and on the BFI Film Academy, and has volunteered at organisations including Sheffield Doc/Fest and Cinema for All.

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