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What happens at Sheffield DocFest? Our Film & TV Agent Natalie Christopher explains…


Our Film & TV Agent Natalie Christopher breaks down her time at 2023’s Sheffield DocFest. 

Sheffield DocFest

Last week I travelled to Sheffield for the 30th edition of the Sheffield Documentary festival. With so many fantastic films, insightful industry sessions, and socials, I embarked on a jam-packed two-day exploration of the festival’s offerings. Here are the highlights:

Day 1

I arrived in remarkably sunny Sheffield, with streets lined with lime green DocFest banners and flags, and full of eager attendees. With a busy two days ahead, I started my journey checking out the Alternate Realities exhibition at Site Gallery. Highlights included Adam Cole’s Kiss/Crash and Rossella Schillaci’s Surfacing, a 360 Virtual reality documentary exploring the lives of mothers and children living in prison.

Remarkable Documentaries

After lunch, I headed over to the Showroom Cinema to watch Hummingbirds, the directorial debut of Silvia Del Carmen Castaños and Estefanía Contreras, who also feature as the film’s protagonists. The Q&A with producers Jillian Schlesinger and Miguel Drake-McLaughlin provided an insightful look into the unique collaboration they embarked upon with the young talent and directors to bring the project to life. I then caught the UK premiere of Mstyslav Chernov’s 20 Days in Mariupol, a harrowing portrait of the siege of Mariupol, Ukraine, and the winner of this year’s Tim Hetherington award.

Opening Night

After some mingling at the Showroom Cinema with producers and filmmakers, I headed to the opening night event of the festival, the premiere of Paul Sng’s Tish. This premiere was complete with a Q&A with director, Paul Sng; producer, Jennifer Corcoran; and Tish Murtha’s daughter, Ella, facilitated by DocFest Creative Director, Raul Niño Zambrano. We then shifted to Sheffield Cathedral for an opening night reception, which proved a fantastic chance to discuss the day’s screenings and events, and meet with documentary producers, writers, directors, and researchers.

Day 2: Broadcaster Insights

A highlight of Day 2 was attending two of the festival’s brilliant industry talks. The first talk of my day was a talk with key broadcaster commissioners, who each discussed what was working for them, what they’d like to see from producers, and how they like to use talent. This session was a very insightful chance to pick up on key trends across broadcasters, such as a primary focus on British or British-led stories, timely and contemporary stories, history that feels relevant to today’s world, and extraordinary access to unseen worlds. Specific briefs included stories on AI, crime, medicine, as well as iconic stories, uniqueness of approach, and experiments in form. The broadcasters had diverse approaches to using on-screen talent, with many looking for well-established talent looking to feature as ‘protagonists’, some open to breaking through new talent, and some who rarely utilized talent in their programmes.

The second session of the day was with the National Geographic team, who gave a fantastic sample of their current and upcoming slate, and a chance to hear from producers, directors, and talent. They shared their appetite for large-scale stories with fantastic visuals and a ‘balance of head and heart’. They are looking for stories that stand the test of time, whether they are present-tense investigations and discoveries, or contemporary histories with one foot still in the present. The room was quite literally packed to the rafters, and I left with a long list of documentaries I can’t wait to watch.

Second night socials

After getting a chance to grab coffee with documentary producers and mingle in the line to the Women in TV & Film event (the line was out the door!), I headed over to the National Geographic open bar social, where I spent a couple hours chatting with producers from across the industry. This was a great opportunity to meet talented producers and filmmakers, learn about their work, and tell them all about our Northbank clients and the exciting projects they are working on.

I’m looking forward to following up on all the conversations I had last week with contacts old and new, and finding the best opportunities for our clients, whether in front of the camera, behind-the-scenes, or in adaptation.

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