Sheffield International Documentary Festival: Best of the Fest

22 Jun 2016

7 mins

Sheffield Doc/Fest, now in its 24th year, is the UK's annual celebration of documentary film, bringing together filmmakers, journalists, and film and television distributors to Sheffield to watch films, make deals, participate in talks and masterclasses, and explore the boundaries of the genre. 

Trends over the previous few years have seen a steep increase in the number of crowdfunded documentaries, emphasising grassroots support over top-down funding, highlighting topics that strongly resonate with audiences and supporters. Virtual Reality (VR) and its ability to harness stories and engage participants in new ways is also changing the face of the documentary landscape.

The Into Film Programming Team spent a few days in Sheffield seeking out documentaries that feature stories likely to engage our young audience, challenge their perceptions, and broaden their understanding of the world. Here are our top picks, which are slated to appear in cinemas in the coming months:


Chosen by Kirsten Geekie, Film Programming Manager (Recommended for audiences aged 14+)

Well deserving of the festival's Grand Jury Award for excellence in style, substance and approach to documentary filmmaking - and one of the most affecting films I caught at the festival - is Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson. A filmmaker for 25 years, working with some of the best documentary directors, Johnson revisits the footage that has affected her most throughout her career in a beautiful and thought-provoking film collage. 

Capturing moments from around the world, she has edited together scenes, interviews and outtakes that get to the heart of her experiences over the years, even allowing us to overhear her reactions to what her camera is observing. From a Brooklyn boxing ring; a Bosnian farm; a Nigerian midwife; Guantanamo Bay; and an American women's clinic; to her own children playing, or her mother suffering from Alzheimers, no narration is needed, as Jonson allows the images and diegetic sound to speak for themselves. 

Revealing the degree to which a camera can be a witness into worlds unknown, a document of social issues, or simply a personal memory bank, along with the ethics a filmmaker tousles with when particular events unfold in front of them, this is a fascinating and deeply engaging account of why film - and in particular, documentary - is such an important medium to celebrate. 

Where to Invade Next

Chosen by Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer (Recommended for audiences aged 14+)

Popular American documentary-maker Michael Moore takes a more gentle and positive approach to the social issues of the United States by proposing changes cherry-picked from various countries around the world. From Italy's 8 weeks of paid holiday, Finland's education policy banning homework, through to Iceland's improved gender balance in positions of power, Moore discovers much to improve the quality of the American Dream. In his typically disingenuous manner, Moore sets about 'invading' to the beguiled amusement of his hosts, who are more than happy to concede their policies to him. A politics of social welfare, rather than self-advancement is pioneered here, coached in comic observations.

Life: Animated

Chosen by Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer (Recommended for audiences aged 14+)

Based on a book written by his father Ron, this documentary explores the extraordinary effect of Disney films on the personal and social development of young autistic man Owen. Interviewed at a turning point in his life, as he is just about to move away from home and into his first apartment, the film investigates how Owen's identification with Disney stories has helped him through difficult periods in his life, and how the situations presented in the films help him make sense of his observations of real life. Not only aiding his own personal development, Owen's affinity for Disney also wins him social success, as he sets up a film club for other students in his school.

Seed: The Untold Story

Chosen by Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer (Recommended for audiences aged 11+)

This thought-provoking documentary, which won the festival's Environmental award, begins with the startling statistic that during the 20th century 94% of the world's seed and vegetable varieties were wiped out. Interviewing a range of characters for whom seed is a major concern, from eccentric seed hoarders to charismatic explorers keen to discover the next major food source, this documentary reveals the importance of this humble yet potent life force. 

Seed is in many countries the centre of bitter lawsuits between large corporations keen to create a monopoly with their genetically modified 'frankenseeds', and poor farming communities whose traditional methods of farming are being swallowed up. A great film for debate around the ethics of 'patenting life' and raising awareness of the need to sustainably feed our growing population.


Chosen by Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer (Recommended for audiences aged 14+)

Sonita (pictured above) is a determined young Afghan rapper living as a refugee in Iran, who finds her dreams compromised when her family decide to arrange an unwanted marriage for her back in the homeland that she fled. This documentary is not only offers an intimate insight into a delicate situation that exposes the differences in women's rights between Iran and Afghanistan, but is also interesting to consider in terms of the role of the filmmaker. When director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami finds herself compelled to intervene in Sonita's dilemma, the film takes a radically different turn, with consequences for everybody involved. Winner of the Youth Jury award, this is a complex portrait of a vibrant emerging artist.


Chosen by Elinor Walpole, Film Programmer (Recommended for audiences aged 7+)

The ancient city of Istanbul is explored through the eyes of its cats, hundreds of which live on the streets, enjoying a special relationship with the local residents and business owners. Considered bringers of peace, these mysterious creatures are appreciated by those that appoint themselves their guardians, feeding them regularly and making sure they stay out of trouble. A charming and lovingly shot insight into a unique culture of harmony between man and beast.

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