Paying to beg at the Sheffield Doc/Fest

From extortionate ticket prices to networking events for the privileged the UK’s biggest documentary festival excludes many talented filmmakers. This is particularly ironic given the democratic concerns of the form. 

Leah Borromeo
10 June 2016


Image: Jan Dufek. Some rights reserved

As a young editor on Sky News’s foreign desk, I often joked that I “control what you know about the world”. It was only half a joke. Now working at the intersection of journalism, art and documentary, I can see exactly the same powers at play in each house.

As the documentary world gears up for the Sheffield International Documentary Festival this month, just whose voices do you get to hear in that theatre? 

With a full shebang pass for the festival costing an eye-watering £349 and a number of independent documentary filmmakers struggling to get by on benefits, handouts and, in at least one case, less than £8000 a year, getting your butt to the Basel Art Fair of documentaries is a struggle for many of its delegates. 

Director Saeed Taji Farouky says, “I've almost never been able to afford to go to Doc/Fest. If you add the ticket, the train and a place to stay, you’re talking about several hundred pounds. You can see how something as basic as the cost of attendance excludes those with the least resources.”

Sheffield does offer a number of generous discounts through partners like the union BECTU and early bird tickets. And if you just want to watch films and not do all the industry stuff you can just queue up for tickets on the day. 

However, some filmmakers still find this is a stretch too far and a backroom scramble to appear on panels and host workshops for complimentary passes and further discounts is typical - even for the more established.

“There should be provision or a fund for those who are really hard up,” begins Johanna, a director who has premiered films at Sheffield. “Instead, we often pay out of our own pockets because it’s what’s expected. You don’t want to be excluded.” 

Getting your foot in the door 

Exclusion is of great concern to organisers. They even hold panels on ‘diversity’. Liz McIntyre, Sheffield Doc/Fest CEO & Festival Director has said, “I firmly believe that the documentary form, like no other, allows for under represented and diverse voices to tell their brilliant stories in new authentic ways.” She continues to say that it’s “vital” for the festival to present and celebrate diversity.” 

This, to a point, is true. Documentary is a very worthy field. But also not. 

With around 70k film studies students at GCSE, “new and emerging” talent has often had a pretty good hot-housing. Of those films being shown at Sheffield this year a number are made by people who’ve been to  university or film school. 

Just as a good number of professional artists have gone to art school, it can be assumed that documentary makers have had further education and/or have crossed over from another career like journalism. Whether this is conscious or not, it appears the documentary world isn’t as open a playing field as we’d like to presume. Hashtag irony that an art form mostly concerned with the human condition doesn’t have much of a variety of humans in it who didn’t have access to or could afford further education. 

Sheffield and other industry festivals like it are great platforms to immerse yourself in the documentary world and catch up and gossip with old friends. They’re also serious places to land deals and meet future funders and collaborators. To this end, many host networking events like Sheffield’s MeetMarket.

The Meet Market is a bit like speed dating for filmmakers and decision makers - the latter could consist of funding bodies, broadcasters, production companies looking for partners - and filmmakers find themselves on either side of the table at various times in their career. It’s considered an honour to be selected to participate but the irony is that everyone who pitches their project has to have a full pass - which they usually have to pay for. Pay to beg.

Like academia or any other field, it’s normal for the bigger names to receive grace and favour treatment as an incentive to attend. Amid Amidi, editor of CartoonBrew.com - a go-to animation news site - says it’s even the same when you’re dealing with cartoons. “People go to these things to network with decision makers and they need incentives to turn up. That’s how it works.” 

There is a 1996 BBC2 interview with Noam Chomsky by a young looking Andrew Marr. In it, Chomsky suggests that the only reason Marr has the job he has is because he consciously or unconsciously shares the same system of beliefs that perpetuate the power structures at the BBC. It is possible that Marr would never say anything to challenge that power because of that. Marr read this as being accused of self-censoring.

“How can you know I’m self-censoring?” he asks.

Chomsky replies “I’m not saying you’re self-censoring. I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying. But what I’m saying is if you believed something different, you wouldn’t be sitting here today.” 

The intro to that programme has Marr asking the audience whether it’s occurred to them that news and information is propaganda designed to limit how they imagine the world. Or perhaps what you see and accept as fact is actually a relay of events delivered by a certain kind of privilege. 

A global cutback 

It’s not that festival organisers don’t realise this. Smaller festivals typically not only charge admission to their workshops and talks, they don’t pay for speakers to be at those talks (the best that can be managed is a free ticket). There appears to be an inherent disrespect of creative labour couched in “we’re small and independent and can’t afford to pay” so complimentary whatever is usually given in lieu of funds. Filmmakers do everything they can for the hustle. 

Roan, an editor, “I guess they have to keep all those big cheeses sweet because a lot of people are attracted to the festival for the chance to hang around with those people.”

Ultimately, paying to beg is a symptom of a wider, global cutback on the value of the arts to a civil society. It is a systemic de-democratisation of the voices that are heard because the only agents capable of completing projects are those who can afford to make films. The networks you are in aid this affordability as well as your own background. If you factor in that film is an industry where there are over 15 male directors to every female director, the business end could do with a makeover. 

Farouky continues, “We all want to attract and encourage more diversity in filmmaking, but that has to include financial and class diversity, and sadly most festivals don’t consider that. The industry in general rarely considers that.” 

I wrote to Sheffield DocFest asking to speak with a member of staff about this article. They responded with a note that basically said thanks, but we’re too busy. I said I was writing about privilege and voice and just how democratic any creative industry can actually be given the structures in which it has to operate. I'm genuinely trying to understand why the arts are regularly forced into industrialised business models when its participants and purposes are outside the creation of capital. Artists create meaning, and that's not a commodity. 

*  Some names have been changed or omitted at the request of interviewees. Because, yes, they are that scared of being branded a troublemaker. 

Update: it has been brought to our attention that Leah’s questions to Doc/Fest were submitted just a few days before the publication of this article. Given the preparations for the festival were ongoing during that week it is our view that the Sheffield had insufficient time to respond. The issues raised here are, however, a core editorial concern for OurBeeb and we will be publishing further on this area in the future. In particular we would like to hear constructive counter-arguments in the spirit of Charlie Phillips’s response which we published here.  

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