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SHEFFIELD DOC FEST 2020 Marketplace

Patrick Hurley • Director, Marketplace & Talent, Sheffield Doc/Fest

“Independent documentary filmmakers will find ways to create new work amidst this crisis”

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- We chatted to Sheffield Doc/Fest’s director of Marketplace & Talent, Patrick Hurley, to find out about the outcome of the gathering’s industry activities, which have just unspooled online

Patrick Hurley  • Director, Marketplace & Talent, Sheffield Doc/Fest

As Sheffield Doc/Fest announced its selection for this year’s edition, which will feature both digital and (if possible) physical screenings (see the news), its flagship industry initiative shifted the MeetMarket and Alternate Realities Talent Market sections to a digital format, taking place from 8-10 June (see the news). The online event wrapped last week, and we had a chance to chat to Patrick Hurley, Sheffield Doc/Fest’s director of Marketplace & Talent, about the outcome of this first-time experience.

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Cineuropa: How hard was it to organise such a large-scale virtual event?
Patrick Hurley
: I think it’s the most difficult and challenging thing I’ve ever been involved in, but I’m fortunate to work with some amazing colleagues, particularly Manon Euler and Harry Løvstrøm, who form Doc/Fest’s Marketplace & Talent core team, and together, we were constantly innovating and coming up with solutions to the new challenges – for example, how to centrally schedule more than 1,500 meetings for participants across many different time zones. We also had to deal with internal time-zone differences within some of the pitching teams.

We had some wonderfully helpful consultations with the organisers who hosted online markets before ours – namely, Thessaloniki, CPH:FORUM and DocuDays UA. These guys were super-generous with their advice and really embodied a spirit of support and non-competitiveness between documentary festivals. In turn, we are very willing to share our learnings with anyone else who may be planning an online marketplace.

What was the main goal of the virtual marketplace, and what did you change from the physical one?
Our goal didn’t change with the need to go online. We organise a marketplace to champion new work by creative teams from around the world and provide them with a raft of industry connections so that they can choose the best partners to help bring their visions to fruition. We’re thrilled that so much of our activity could continue via virtual means, and we’re glad to play our part in keeping so many connections and conversations happening while other aspects of film production are necessarily on pause.

Do you think that this edition might act as a guideline for the next few marketplaces?
While our Zoom lobby did at times feel like a buzzy market and it was cool to see everyone coming together online, there’s much that can’t be replicated in the virtual space – for example, spontaneous encounters and the collective experience of watching films in the cinema. Our marketplace is nested in a festival, and watching films together in theatres and partying and talking with new people in social contexts is a major aspect of Sheffield Doc/Fest that requires physical attendance. That said, online participation potentially widens access to those for whom travel may be inconvenient, prohibitively costly or off the cards for environmental reasons. There’s much to consider for future editions.

Regarding the MeetMarket projects, did you notice any common trends or hot topics that documentaries are tending to deal with?
Several of this year’s MeetMarket projects explore the macro issue of climate change through a micro focus on localised subjects. For example, three projects from India – Against the Tide by Sarvnik Kaur, Airborne by Shaunak Sen and On the Edge by Anupama Srinivasan – examine the impacts of climate change via documentaries respectively about the indigenous fisher folk of Bombay, the black kites and dragonflies of Delhi, and the incredible moth populations in the dense forests of Northeast India. These films offer audiences absorbing human stories with stunning scenes of people's encounters with the natural world while also provoking us to consider the bigger environmental narratives at play.

As for the Alternate Realities Talent Market, what was the feedback that you received from the teams that were invited, and what do you expect from the talents?
We’ve not had the opportunity to fully debrief with this year’s cohort, but we know from our consultations with alumni from previous markets that the encounters between new-media creatives and the industry are most beneficial when they’re given more time to discuss their skills and technological possibilities, rather than the meeting being all about a single project. When it’s a more open conversation, there tends to be more scope to identify areas for collaboration, as opposed to meetings in our MeetMarket for linear films which are heavily orientated towards a specific pitch. We hope that participants in our Alternate Realities Talent Market will come away with a strong sense of what the funders and exhibitors for new media are looking for, where their work and talents align with industry partners, plus a stack of contacts, not only with the commissioners and curators, etc, but also with their creative colleagues who are also pitching. We know those connections are highly valuable, too.

Do you think that the industry can recover from the crisis brought on by the pandemic?
Of course, the pandemic is hugely disruptive to our industry, and those working closest to production and in a freelance capacity are especially precarious. That said, independent documentary filmmakers are among the most resourceful and determined folks I’ve ever met, often creating highly cinematic feature-length films with very limited resources. Not to say that the status quo is/was fine, but I don’t doubt that filmmakers will find ways to create new work amidst this crisis and that global audiences will remain interested in fresh, contemporary films that respond to the current moment. I think the pandemic has revealed much about the structures and systems that have been governing our lives for a long time, and filmmakers will continue to explore, critique and celebrate the many ways of living in the 21st century. In turn, we will continue to support them.

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