The day before our 2019 festival programme is revealed, we caught up with Interim Director Melanie Iredale to chat about her Doc/Fest journey, Doc/Fest 2019 and Doc/Fests yet to come.
What is it you love about working with documentary film?
For me documentary is where art and humanism meet. I’m most stimulated visually, but driven by human stories – docs give me both.
The thing I love about working for Doc/Fest in particular is that we’re bringing the very best docs to a growing audience, but also help those in the industry get their projects off the ground.
Also, I feel so lucky to get to work with the brilliant people who make up the doc community – my team included, they’re the best.
I need to say I’m SO excited to be unveiling the programme tomorrow. The team have been working so incredibly hard all year on creating this programme, and it will be such a privilege to share it with everyone and see it all online in all its glory. It might just be our best yet.
How long have you been part of the Doc/Fest family?
I’ve been involved since 2010. I was originally brought in as a development consultant, helping to fundraise back when Doc/Fest moved from November to June in the festival calendar, and had half the time to raise the annual budget (we did it!). In 2014, I was appointed as Deputy Director when my predecessor Charlie Phillips left to set up the documentary department at the Guardian, before being promoted to Interim Director of the 2019 edition.
What are the greatest challenges of your job?
Growing the budget and resources in line with the ambitions for the festival. Turning down really good films and projects for the programme because we simply don’t have room for them all. Trying to accept that we can’t do everything.
How do you describe Sheffield Doc/Fest when you meet new people who don’t know the festival?
A bit like a music festival but for documentary films. I try to describe the atmosphere – welcoming, buzzy, celebratory.
Tell us about the tagline for this year: Ways of Seeing?
Having planned this year’s edition to the tune of relentless alerts updating (or not) on somewhat divisive global happenings, we are keen to present a programme which illustrates that, contrary to what the simplistic newsfeeds we all receive suggest, there are always more than two sides to any story.
‘Ways of Seeing’ is about offering multiple views of the world, and multiple perspectives of our part in it. It’s been inspired by John Berger’s television series and book of the same name, and gives a framework to a programme which seeks to give a platform to a spectrum of voices, which together share, shape, and question the stories of our time.
What can festivals like Sheffield Doc/Fest bring to communities?
I hope what Doc/Fest brings audiences is a reflection of their own world and identities, and a window into that of others. We love to use numerous venues across Sheffield city centre, and in turn hope that we produce a festival which the people of Sheffield are proud to host.
What advice would you give to people who dream of starting their own film festival?
I would say start small, and focused. Some of the best film fests that have popped up in recent years are ones that know exactly what they want to show and know exactly who their audience is: there are a few queer film festival that have popped up in recent years that have demonstrated a real sense of identity and purpose from the off. And look after your filmmakers – we’re here to support them and wouldn’t have festivals without them.
What can we expect from Sheffield Doc/Fest in years to come? What are the ambitions?
In a few years time we’ll still be showing the best new documentaries, across all platforms, possibly utilising new technologies. Some of the new voices we’re championing now will be industry veterans, while new, new voices will be coming through. At the moment our priority is to focus on doing what we do better, rather than bigger, in terms of programme, but as always we’re looking to grow our audiences. Each year we bring a few more industry delegates and decisions makers, internationally, and increase the amount of public audiences, from across the UK and beyond, significantly. Particularly important to us is new audiences, and reaching more diverse audiences, including those who rarely engage in cultural events, which we’re achieving through a programme-led approach and a number of access initiatives.
What are you most looking forward to in June?
Getting to finally meet the filmmakers and creatives whose work we’ve invited to present work in the festival, and who we have invited to speak. Poking my head in the door of the MeetMarket and Alternate Realities Talent Market just to feel the buzz of it. And dancing. My love of dancing is a close second to my love of docs, and Doc/Fest parties are second to none.