Review: Doc/Fest – Sheffield Documentary Festival 2013

By Helen Swire

This year has seen the 20th anniversary of Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the top three documentary festivals in the world. Over the past five days, over one hundred films have been showcased across the city, some of which are experiencing their global premiere.

Coming to Doc/Fest for the first time, I was initially overwhelmed by the choice of films, however having negotiated with my viewing partner, we established a timetable allowing us to see at least one documentary each day. Knowing the city was certainly helpful, however all relevant timetabling information and maps are provided on the Doc/Fest website.

Price has hardly been an object. Hailing from London, I am used to paying around £9 or £10 for a film ticket – this week however I have seen six documentaries for £18. For the truly passionate viewers, there is also a five-day pass giving access to all the shows for only £40. Meanwhile, several of the films are also screened for free during the week at an outdoor screen.

Practically it is also good value – many pubs and cafes around the city take advantage of the trade provided by the festival by putting on special offers, for example discounted food with tickets, passes or wristbands.

So, a brief run-down of my documentary diary:

Day One: Not Criminally Responsible (Dir: John Kastner): An enlightening, touching and at times surprisingly humorous view of the question of the mental health aspect of criminality and one man’s quest for freedom, atonement and social rehabilitation through the medication of his schizophrenia.

Day Two: A Man Vanishes (Dir: Shôhei Imamura): On the surface this Japanese documentary seeks to investigate the fate of a man who has disappeared without trace – but leaves the audience questioning the difference between reality and fiction, and even the documentary genre itself.

Day Two: Google and the World Brain (Dir: Ben Lewis): A discussion of Google’s ambitious attempts to scan the world’s books and the ensuing debate surrounding copyright laws and freedom of speech.

Day Three: After Tiller (Dir: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson): The thought-provoking film follows the four remaining third-trimester abortion doctors in America after the fifth, George Tiller, was assassinated by pro-life extremists. After Tiller is a compassionate look at the decisions and struggles of the working – and personal – lives of these doctors, who have lost in Tiller both a colleague and a friend.

Day Four: Project Wild Thing (Dir: David Bond): The audience follows the director’s sweet and humorous journey to ‘market’ nature to families, and thus bring children back outside – all while discussing contemporary family life.

Day Five: Electro Moscow (Dir: Elena Tikhonova, Dominik Spritzendorfer): A Russian-language documentary which reveals the fascinating history behind the electronic arts movement in the Soviet Union, showing the innovative techniques used to overcome the lack of musical technology behind the Iron Curtain.

As a recent and as yet unemployed graduate, the cost of travel from London has been more than worthwhile given the value for money of the festival. Over the past few days I have been moved to laughter and tears, debated with other viewers, changed my opinions and had my eyes opened. I have watched social and moral commentaries on nature and technology, thought-provoking films about mental illness and abortion, and philosophical foreign-language films. Michael Palin, Alan Yentob and Jarvis Cocker have given Q & A sessions. Perhaps more importantly, many directors, both new and established, have been given platforms to give their films a wider exposure and have been given the opportunity to broaden public perspective on issues.

At its most expensive, Doc/Fest is still eminently available to the public – and worth every penny both for the viewing public and for the documentary crews who are putting their work out. This year I have seen six films as a first-timer. Next year I’ll definitely be back for more.

More information is available at



One Response to Review: Doc/Fest – Sheffield Documentary Festival 2013

  1. Pingback: Incredible reception for Project Wild Thing at Sheffield Doc/Fest « Greenlions

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