‘We love revolution’ | Charlie Phillips

Deputy director of Sheffield Docs Charlie Phillips speaks to TEODOR RELJIC ahead of ‘The Truth of Sheffield’ – an evening of documentary short films taking place at Herbert Ganado Gardens, Floriana tomorrow as part of the Kinemastik Film Festival.

Charlie Phillips
Charlie Phillips

Could you tell us a little bit about how Sheffield Docs got started? What was its initial ‘brief’ back in the day, and how has its changed over the years, if at all?

The festival started in 1993 after a group of documentary luminaries decided the UK should have a documentary festival. We invented documentaries (sort of!) and we do them the best (probably!) so the UK should have an awesome documentary film festival.

They considered various different cities but Sheffield won with its ‘bid’ which was all part of the city regenerating through cultural institutions – so the festival’s delegate centre and main cinema is an old Art Deco car showroom and that was all part of the City’s emergence from post-industrial problems through initiatives like the documentary festival.

For the first decade, the festival was quite UK-oriented and relatively traditional in its take on documentary. There was nothing wrong with that by any means, but it wasn’t a festival that focused itself loads of international delegates or got excited about new forms of documentary or youth-oriented docs.

After 2006 when Heather Croall became Festival Director, we embraced lots of new things – a large marketplace for documentaries to get funded and distributed including our ‘MeetMarket’ pitching initiative, a big interest in cross-platform and interactive documentaries which used online technologies to expand storytelling, an international appeal so that people came to the festival from everywhere, and a commitment to play and fun as well as work through holding excellent parties.

On a related note, how would you say the documentary form itself has evolved over the years, and how did you respond to that? Do you think that the proliferation of phenomena like reality television, citizen journalism, and just the generally relentless documentation of real-life through social media, has contributed to the evolution of the documentary form – either positively or negatively?

We love revolution! And a bit of evolution too. I think we’ve seen a large increase in excitement and viewership for documentary and that’s substantially down to the rise of social networks and online distribution which have given audiences access to documentaries in a way we’ve never seen before. I don’t think it’s down to reality TV, that’s a good thing for getting people interested in real life in its own way, but it’s a different phenomenon to the rise of the documentary I think.

Citizen journalism has definitely been great for raising the profile of the current affairs documentary and creating a political awareness which then leads to amazing longer-form documentaries. Again, it’s a different but very welcome thing. 

What we’re seeing is an overall rise in factual creativity in all its forms on all platforms. We could call it all ‘documentary’ if we like, I don’t really mind, but it’s more interesting to me to celebrate all the multifaceted forms of factual viewing and listening and interacting and see how they all interrelate, and most of all make sure people are watching and consuming them!

That’s the only concern for me – there’s so much good stuff out there, can people find it and wade through to the good stuff, and are they finding a community with which to share it? That’s why festivals are so important!

What kind of overall experience do you aim to create when you’re planning a festival? Particularly in this day and age when the internet is making us lazier and lazier – and more and more reluctant to leave our houses – what kind of things do you prioritise, and ensure that you have as part of the program?

We create a communal mood, it’s so important. We make people work and play together and have human connections, whether it’s a business deal or a dance. 

On a more concrete level, we show good films which will interest both public and industry – we’re quite unusual in that we attract large numbers of both ‘sides’ and so we need to please everyone. The industry want new films, the public want things to inspire them and get them thinking, and that needs to be balanced all across those six days. 

I’m not sure the internet makes us lazier, I actually think it provokes a hunger for watching new and good media!

How did you go about selecting the films you will be showing at the Kinemastik Film Festival? Why do you think these films would be relevant to a festival such as Kinemastik?

I’m so excited to be coming to Kinemastik, and I want to make sure that I give the audience a great experience. These are of course, some of the best from Doc/Fest in our shorts programme which is Oscar-qualified and we select our films from over 700 short film entries, so I promise they are special. Our director of programming, Hussain Currimbhoy, has a very special eye for shorts, which will make the world feel magical and that’s reflected in the programme here.

We screen only films that have something urgent within them, speak about our times and about the way we live. This programme is made up of films by some of the best modern masters of documentary, such as Lucy Walker of the UK and Jay Rosenblat from the USA. But also some of the best new talent around: Laurence Topham, Cristina Picci (Winter was at Venice FF). These are films about feminism and how the idea only gets better as it ages, like its proponents. Films about famous artists like David Hockney – a film that offers a short trip into the mind of a genius, and poetic films about immigration like Xenos and Adrift are inspiring and human by the way they strip back the politics of asylum and emphasise the pain of relocation.  

I hope everyone enjoys them, and look forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts!

The Truth of Sheffield will begin at 21:00. For more information about the Kinemastik Film Festival, and a full programme of events, log on to http://kinemastik.org/home/article/1214/truth-of-sheffield. Click here to read our interview with fellow Kinemastik participant, the documentarian Toby Amies

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