i-Docs at Sheffield Doc/Fest

Here’s some thoughts from the 2012 Sheffield Doc/Fest. I was there for the first two days – when most of the interactive documentary discussions were taking place. I attended the second half of the Crossover Summit on the Wednesday and had a good look round the Crossover Lounge. I also went to the live cinema performance of From the Sea to the Land Beyond on the opening night and to the panel convened by Liz Rosenthal (Power to the Pixel) on financing cross-media on the Thursday morning.

Liz Rosenthal's panel

The Doc/Fest’s core focus remains very much around documentary film, with discussion relating to transmedia primarily starting from this perspective. As such, interdisciplinary engagement with interactive documentary still feels very much like a side show, reinforcing the value of the i-Docs symposia, as a place to focus on this emerging genre in its own right. Also, the interactive work that I saw at Sheffield was based largely around finished products, reminding me of the value of also looking at work in progress and discussing issues as they evolve. Another reason for the ongoing relevance of the i-Docs symposia!

That said, Crossover Lab did a great job in putting together their summit where many important topics were discussed, the Crossover Lounge gave a useful overview of current projects, and Liz Rosenthal’s panel offered invaluable insights into business models behind transmedia production. Lina Srivastasa gave a particularly useful talk on these models as part of this panel, which you can read below:

I am fully aware that the financial realities behind making interactive documentary is something that we have yet to embrace at i-Docs. Sandra and I have always been keen to establish a fruitful dialogue across academic and industry (the boundaries between which are becoming increasingly blurred anyway), so Liz’s panel was highly relevant. We are going to talk further to see where there might be points for collaboration in the future.

The Crossover Lounge contained a range of interactive web-based and multiplatform projects, an installation from wallFour and a range of hot off the press consumer products that are changing the way in which we engage with our media, put together by the BBC Blue Room. For me, the standout project was still Bear 71, the much talked about web-doc about a grizzly bear’s interaction with humans in Banff National Park. I was pleased to see that it won the festival’s Innovation Award, and am in the process of writing a separate post on it around interactive versus interruptive narrative.

Bear 71

I was also pleased to see that the filmmaker Penny Woodcock’s work on ‘From the Sea to the Land Beyond’ won the Inspiration Award – a great collaboration between a filmmaker, the British Film Institute and the band British Sea Power to create a live cinema portrait of Britain’s unique coastline and the role that it plays in our lives. A moving premiere, which evoked strong memories of my own childhood through its archive footage and atmospheric music. There was an interactive piece to accompany the work in the Crossover Lounge, in which participants could select clips from the film to create and share their own personalized digital postcards. It was a simple and well-realized idea, which I liked a lot.

It is impressive how Sheffield. Doc/Fest has grown over the years to become such an internationally significant event. I was external examining a media course at the Cambridge School of Art in Cambridge the day before the festival, where I met one of the its founder members. It was interesting to hear how the Doc/Fest received significant council funding under the labour leader, David Blunkett, at a time when it cost but a few pennies to catch a bus from the centre of Sheffield into the Peak District National Park. Those days are long gone but I’d like to congratulate him for helping to make Doc/Fest what it is today. What to do with i-docs and how to make it financially sustainable remains a big and ongoing question in my mind. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone with both vision and cash to support our endeavours….