Melanie Iredale, Sheffield Doc/Fest interim director: ‘I take so much from film when I see a part of me represented on screen’

Has Sheffield Doc/Fest assembled its best programme yet?

Tuesday, 21st May 2019, 20:12 pm
Melanie Iredale, interim director of Sheffield Doc/Fest. Picture: Dean Atkins

Melanie Iredale certainly thinks so. The festival's interim director is stirring sugar into her coffee in the Site Gallery cafe the morning after 2019's line-up of more than 180 films was launched, and if she's a little bleary-eyed it's understandable - the previous day involved presentations at the Barbican in London and an evening do at the Winter Garden back home.

"I'm so proud of it, it's awesome," she says. "We've got some big names, it feels really smart and diverse. It feels like a lot of things we were hoping would come off have done. Part of that is sometimes luck, but mostly it's dogged determination - not just mine, the team are amazing."

Melanie Iredale, interim director of Sheffield Doc/Fest. Picture: Dean Atkins

The festival's 26th edition - which has the tagline 'Ways Of Seeing', inspired by John Berger's influential text on how to look at art - promises to be impressive. Next month heavyweights like Werner Herzog, Ai Weiwei and Nick Broomfield will be talking about their latest work - documentaries about Sheffield-born travel writer Bruce Chatwin, the refugee crisis and Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen respectively - while other coups include the UK premiere of Asif Kapadia's Maradona and an early look at Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11, featuring never-before-seen footage of the 1969 voyage to the Moon.

The Alternate Realities strand will offer 28 free, interactive art exhibitions - expect to be given the chance to make a unique perfume or cologne based on personalised algorithms, and to explore artist Charlotte Jarvis' project to create 'female sperm' - while live gigs by Summer Camp, Bo Ningen and Kate Nash continue the Doc/Fest tradition of connecting music and film.

Importantly, the programme comes close to achieving total gender parity; 54 per cent of the films listed for 2019 are either directed or co-directed by women.

"The statistics around particularly female directors - producers isn't as bad - are just so low," says Melanie. "Depending on what source you look at, it hovers between seven and 11 per cent at best in terms of female-directed work. So to have a film programme where it's 54 per cent is really significant. That's through receiving incredible work but it's also a mindful choice. And it's not just the smaller films - 57 per cent of the films in competition are directed or co-directed by women."

Half of the Alternate Realities projects are female-fronted too. "It's such an embryonic form that I think it's really important, as an industry, that we get off on a much better footing than we did with film 100 years ago," Melanie says. "Let's learn from our mistakes with other art forms where women weren't given the tools, resources or acknowledgement for what they made." 

Attitudes towards women in cinema sparked the #MeToo movement when movie mogul Harvey Weinstein faced an avalanche of sexual misconduct allegations from former colleagues. Ursula Macfarlane's documentary Untouchable, about Weinstein's monstrous behaviour, will be screened at Doc/Fest with an accompanying panel discussion - this is part of the new Spotlight strand, intended to showcase 'bigger, hard-hitting, agenda-setting films'.

"Werner Herzog has been top of our list of people to get," says Melanie of the New German Cinema icon, one of Spotlight's eight bookings. "I've been involved since 2010 and we've been trying since then."

Such achievements are a testament to the festival's stature today, she says.

"For a festival that is partly for the industry, it is very open, accessible and welcoming. I think that's a Sheffield thing. Compared to a lot of the industry festivals we go to it's a lot less closed-off and hierarchical."

The Doc/Fest area in Tudor Square - a place for free talks and screenings - has helped enormously.

"We've created a hub that's genuinely in the middle of everything, geographically. It's almost like a microcosm of the festival as a whole. There's no booking, you swan in. Maybe in some cases it'll encourage people to engage with the programme in other venues. If they do, that's great; if they don't, that's cool."

Audience numbers, Melanie says, 'just go up and up'. Doc/Fest, Britain's largest documentary festival, attracts more than 25,000 people annually - in 2018, the economic benefit to Sheffield totalled £1.7 million. 

A vital element is the MeetMarket, an opportunity for attendees to unlock funding for new films; the value of deals struck by delegates last year amounted to £10.5 million.

"Every year we select 90 projects that are in development, production or post-production, and set up 2,000 meetings between them and 300+ decision makers from all over the world - broadcasters, platforms, financiers," says Melanie.

"There are some real success stories of films that have come back to Doc/Fest. We've got three films in the programme this year that have been through past MeetMarkets."

Melanie, 35, joined Doc/Fest in 2010 as development consultant, becoming deputy director in 2014. She stepped up to oversee the 2019 programme when the previous CEO, Liz McIntyre, left after three years last August.

She was raised in East Yorkshire between Scarborough and Bridlington - "I've lived all over Yorkshire, I think I've got a bit of a mongrel Yorkshire accent" - and inherited a love of film from her mother, an enthusiast who reviewed movies for a Hull newspaper.

"She would videotape stuff for me off the TV all the time," says Melanie, who took film studies at university. She worked for the Tyneside Cinema in various roles, then spent more than five years overseeing the Film & Media Arts Festival in Berwick-upon-Tweed on the Scottish border.

"Everything I've done since working in a bar has been specifically film exhibition. For me, the point at which film meets an audience is my area of interest."

Directors and producers, she says, rely on individuals like her. "In a way, they've only made a film for themselves until it gets an opportunity to be shown. I take so much from film when I see a part of me represented on screen. For me, that's the most powerful thing. Documentary does that particularly well, because you know that's a real person."

Melanie, who now lives off Abbeydale Road, praises Sheffield's 'independent vibe' and the fact so many of its cultural institutions - Site, Off The Shelf, Yorkshire Artspace, Museums Sheffield - are run by women.

"It's the most supportive network of people helping each other."

Doc/Fest runs from June 6 to 11. Visit www.sheffdocfest.com for tickets and details.

‘We can all do even better’

A permanent director is being hired to run Doc/Fest from 2020 - but it won't be Melanie Iredale.

"I think it'll be good for Doc/Fest to have a new creative energy coming in to the organisation," she explains. "It's not necessarily about getting bigger, but certainly we can all do even better. There is room to grow our public audiences."

Next year's festival is already being planned 'in a strategic sense'. "But in terms of 'Are we starting to programme?' I'll admit, no. Films-wise, that comes together in the last few months of planning. We're so keen to take the freshest films. That comes together almost frighteningly last minute."

It's a careful balancing act. The Quiet One, Oliver Murray's film about former Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman, was swiftly pulled from the 2019 programme in the wake of protests that centred on Wyman's relationship with his ex-wife Mandy Smith. The couple met when she was 13 and he was 47.

"We cancelled it and we reserve the right to make that decision," says Melanie, who won't comment further.

Clearly, allowing one controversial item to overshadow the rest of the festival would have been deeply regrettable - especially as all eyes are on Sheffield each June.

"A city this size is really engaged and has got a really big homegrown audience, but also it's a festival that people very much travel for as well. It brings people from all over the world to Sheffield. With the profile of the festival being so international, we proudly have 'Sheffield' within our name. Delegates all over the world call it 'Sheffield', they don't call it Doc/Fest."