By Eric Sasono, Film critic

13 June 2016 - 21:56

A picture of the schedule for the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival
Along with other Indonesian delegates, film critic Eric Sasono attended Sheffield Doc Fest in June 2016 with support from British Council Indonesia.  ©

Eric Sasono

In June 2016 I arrived in Sheffield, a town between the Midlands and Yorkshire in the UK, by taking a 40-minute train ride from Nottingham to attend the Sheffield Documentary Film Festival (Sheffield Doc/Fest). This festival is the biggest documentary film festival in the UK and one of the biggest in the world. It has been held every June since 1994, attracts around 20 to 27 thousand people, shows around 160 feature length documentary films and hosts many discussions and forums throughout the festival. This year the festival was opened and attended by the controversial film director Michael Moore’ and his newest film ‘Where to invade next?’.

I was able to attend the festival along with other Indonesian delegates with support from British Council Indonesia. The delegates who came along are well known in the Indonesian documentary film sector; Amanda Marahimin (producer), Suryani Liauw (film festival programmer and producer), and Alia Damaihati (Yogyakarta Documentary Film Festival). Levina Wirawan, British Council Programme Manager, Fajar Utomo and Hanifah from Indonesian Creative Agency (BEKRAF) also attended.

Although the festival officially opened on the evening of 10 June 2016 at the City Hall, activities were already underway in the morning. The festival’s main activities are centred around Showroom Cinema, Sheffield’s independent cinema. The cinema is located near the Sheffield Hallam University, one of the main universities in Sheffield, and only a three-minute walk from the Sheffield train station. 

In terms of location, the festival is irrefutably easy to spot. But the appearance of banners along the roads of Sheffield and gigantic billboards with festival images in the city’s strategic locations made it even merrier and painted the city with the spirit of the festival. What I found most interesting about these banners and billboards was the fact that they displayed the illustrious faces of documentary film players. We can see the face of the celebrated director, Michael Moore and actor Tilda Swinton (who will attend the festival’s closing) alongside new faces in the industry such as Reggie Yates (an emerging name in the documentary film sector through his BBC Three programmes) and Professor Green (a rapper who also presented documentary film programmes for young people on BBC Three).

Watching a film at an open air cinema in Sheffield.
Watching Ken Loach’s film, 'The Spirit of ’45' (2012), at an open air public screening.  ©

Eric Sasono

Film posters showing what films are showing at Sheffield Doc Fest.
Film posters in the ticket hall at the Sheffield Doc Fest. ©

Eric Sasono

It goes without saying, like any other film festivals, or even the film itself, there’s always a need to have big names and noteworthy star that is relatively well known to the public so people can feel a relatable connection to this kind of cultural event. Having said that, the well-known names painted on billboards and banners also signify and imply that documentary film’s personalities and stars are starting to function as public aspiration. 

It's interesting to note that the festival is held in the UK, a country that chooses a documentary film maker, David Attenborough, as a British icon above David Beckham and the Beatles. Documentary films have long been a part of education, awareness and identity building in the UK. Not only the BBC (especially BBC Two and BBC Four) that routinely broadcasts documentary films, but other channels like Channel 4 and ITV also show an abundance of documentary programmes. The three biggest TV channels competed to be a part of Sheffield Doc/Fest, showing that the documentary film world is far from drying up.

In its 23rd edition, Sheffield Doc/Fest presented 29 world premieres, 14 international premieres, and 20 European premieres. The number of premieres is usually an industry standard measurement of how good a festival is, and of course, the other measurement is the attending guests and activities on the side. This year the festival focused on Ken Loach, the British, socialist director, and the late Belgian director Chantal Akerman.

I didn’t do a lot on the first day. Besides watching Ken Loach’s film, 'The Spirit of ’45' (2012) which was an open air public screening (on Beijing Screen on Howard Street), I also managed to see 'Author: The JT LeRoy Story' (Jeff Feuerzig, 2016). Ken Loach’s film tells the story of the rise of Britain as a socially democratic country after WWII, through the nationalisation of organisations, until the country falls under Margaret Thatcher government, who privatised many economic bodies and public services. Meanwhile, JT LeRoy’s film tells the story of the complexity of a pseudonym intertwined with publicity and the world of celebrity. 

I'm looking forward to attending several discussions, including 'Viva La Revolución: Video Activism and Citizen Journalism', which is going to discuss video activism, feature length documentary, and interactive format which is spreading in the UK, Egpyt and Greece. 

Read more stories from Sheffield by Eric Sasono