Sheffield Dogfest: How the film festival helped 'reinvent’ the city

image source, Sheffield Hallam University

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Prominent filmmakers attended the first edition of the festival

Sheffield Dogfest, a documentary film festival, was launched almost 30 years ago in a struggling city with no screens after the collapse of its steel industry. Three decades later, the event has grown into one of the largest in the world.

Mrs. Doubtfire and Schindler’s List were soaring at the box office as people settled into their seats at Sheffield’s Odeon 7 theater on the afternoon of March 23, 1994.

But audiences were about to see a film markedly different from recent blockbusters — and one that would begin a very significant chapter in the city’s cultural history.

The screening of Images of Sheffield, a chronological collection of footage of the city found by local documentarian Doug Hindmarsh, will be a first at the inaugural Sheffield International Documentary Festival.

Dogfest, as it was then known, is now in its 30th year and has grown to become one of the largest events of its kind.

Its 2023 edition, which takes place this week, will span 22 venues, including City Hall and the Crucible Theatre. More than 32,000 people are expected to attend an event that boasts 37 world premieres, theatre, live podcast events, industry sessions and talks from actors such as David Harewood and Rose Ayling-Ellis.

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Midge McKenzie, the festival’s first director, and filmmaker Richard Leacock

The first festival, three decades ago, was very simple.

But the renovation of the Art Deco car showroom in the city center was not completed in time, leaving the organizers without screens to show the films. Forced to improvise, they borrowed other spaces, such as university lecture halls, and turned SMEC’s ​​foyer into a makeshift screening room, using bin bags to cover the windows and block the light.

„We screened the works of lighthearted documentary filmmakers in a famous reception area with black bags on the wall and a video projector,” said Colin Bones, former president of SMEC and one of the organizers of the first festival. A planner.

„It was really Bubblegum and Blue Dog. But we had interest, and you have to make things work.”

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The films were shown in a makeshift cinema in the foyer of the Sheffield Media and Exhibition Centre

The festival’s hard-and-ready structure has not stopped it from attracting major talent from the world of documentary cinema, with pioneering American filmmaker Richard Leacock and Oscar-winning French director Marcel Ophuls attending to present their work.

There were a number of archive-based screenings about South Yorkshire and its history, with titles such as Sheffield Gang Wars, Sheffield on Its Metal – focusing on the city’s industry – and Steel City Blues, a short film about Sheffield Wednesday.

image source, Sheffield Hallam University

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The first program of the festival consisted of international films and local documentaries

Sheffield, with no cinemas and in decline following the collapse of its steel industry in the 1980s, did not seem an obvious choice for an international film festival.

But the city had a thriving independent film scene and Sheffield City Council, which saw culture as an important part of its urban regeneration plans, supported the event.

„It was an attempt at a way to create good and satisfying employment in our part of the world, which we saw coming through the media at the time,” Mr Pons said. „In that way I think DocFest really focuses on the efforts of the good people of Sheffield.”

image source, Creative Commons

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The Sheffield Media and Exhibition Centre, now known as the Showroom Cinema, was a key part of the council’s regeneration plans.

According to James Fenwick, senior lecturer in media studies at Sheffield Hallam University, the council saw hosting a festival as „an important means of tackling Sheffield’s image problem” as it sought a new identity for the city. An exhibition on the history of DocFest.

Anna Richards, curator of the fair and a PhD candidate at the university, said Dogfest „came at the right time” for the city „and helped to rediscover Sheffield’s identity”.

The first festival attracted around 2,000 visitors and subsequent editions have cemented its position as a major date in the industry calendar.

But it wasn’t until the 2000s that Dogfest exploded into an event with mainstream popularity.

But this „coupled” with improvements to Sheffield’s infrastructure, such as the building of hotels, which made the festival’s expansion possible.

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At this year’s Wham! Several music documentaries are shown including

Alex Cook, chair of DocFest’s board of trustees, said the festival’s ability to „continually reinvent itself” was key to its success.

„I think it’s about adapting it and thinking about the audience and what our audience is interested in and programming around that,” said Ms. Cook, who was a film programmer for the festival in the 1990s.

DocFest now costs Sheffield £1.4m, according to the council. But its true value to the city may be difficult to quantify.

„It has become a major event in the cultural calendar,” Dr Fenwick said. „Without it there would be a huge hole in Sheffield’s cultural landscape.”

DocFest 2023 runs until June 19. An exhibition on the history of the event is open at the Sheffield Hallam University pop-up shop on Howard Street during the festival.

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