Star Interview: Sheffield Doc/Fest chief Liz McIntyre – “We’re a Northern success story of global stature”

Sheffield Doc/Fest CEO Liz McIntyre. Picture: Chris Etchells
Sheffield Doc/Fest CEO Liz McIntyre. Picture: Chris Etchells

With a programme of 200 films to organise, whittled down from about 2,000 submissions, no-one would begrudge Liz McIntyre if she occasionally felt overwhelmed by the sheer amount of material at her disposal for the Sheffield Doc/Fest.

But it seems she takes it in her stride.

“What is extraordinary about my job is the privilege of seeing so much,” says Liz, CEO of the festival which returns for its 25th edition on Thursday. “It shows how fertile local, regional, national and international talents are. The joy of then curating that into a wonderful range of the ‘good, bad and the ugly’ in terms of themes is a real joy. We have a record number of world premieres this year – 37. It’s important Sheffield Doc/Fest is on the map as a world-leading festival. We’re proud to be a Northern success story of global stature.”

This isn’t hyperbole; Doc/Fest, a feast of documentaries that champions the art of non-fiction storytelling, has few rivals globally. It brings in more than £1.2 million to Sheffield annually and is the city’s biggest conference, attended by more than 39,000 people.

2018 is Liz’s third year as chief executive and festival director, and the event’s quarter-century has given her occasion to think about the ‘incredible, remarkable’ ways the world has changed since 1994.

“Nelson Mandela had just been elected president of South Africa, Tim Berners-Lee made the World Wide Web free and open to all, Britain was connected to Europe through the Channel Tunnel and officially it was the end of the Cold War. I think that created new, positive powers and influences, as well as those that are disturbing.”

This spectrum includes, she says, figures like US President Donald Trump, the mixed blessings of social networks and the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.

“Within that, Doc/Fest is all about celebrating stories. That’s where you find points of connection and difference. All the moods and characters of human life are there. It’s not all very serious. Although that’s important too.”

Liz is effusive and all smiles; she positively bounces across the room to greet me with a hug, ordering coffee straight away at the city centre hotel where we’ve arranged to meet. She plays me the festival trailer on her laptop, and starts rifling through her notes to pick out highlights.

On Thursday the festival opens at the City Hall with Hull-born director Sean McAllister’s film A Northern Soul, followed by a special preview at the Showroom of McQueen, by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, which uses archival footage and interviews to explore the life of the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

Sheffield’s new Lord Mayor Magid Magid is leading walks around festival sites – “He’s just fantastic,” gushes Liz – while artists Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, known for their Nick Cave movie 20,000 Days on Earth, have created a brand new immersive video installation called DoubleThink.

“There will be two containers in Tudor Square, and you have to pick either ‘hate’ or ‘hope’ and have an experience if you dare,” explains Liz.

Newsreader and journalist Sir Trevor McDonald is making another visit to Doc/Fest for a live interview about his work making crime documentaries for TV, and there are other talks with actor Vicky McClure, transgender model Munroe Bergdorf and motorbike racer Guy Martin.

Performance artist Richard DeDomenici brings an element of absurdity. His show Threads:Redux – at The Leadmill on Saturday – will present a tongue-in-cheek, low-budget remake of Barry Hines’ 1984 drama about a nuclear strike on Sheffield.

And Trafalgar Warehouse is being introduced as a festival venue for the first time, providing a home for the Alternate Realities strand, a celebration of virtual reality, interactive art and gaming.

“When people come here from all over the country, and the world, they are delighted to see the range of incredible architecture and niche buildings we can offer as part of the experience.”

Liz was born in Chester – “I’ve been welcomed across the Pennines” – where she started her working life as a teenager, writing for local newspapers.

She studied English literature at Birmingham University where her love of documentaries intensified. “Who doesn’t love a good story? It’s at the heart of everything. I know it’s a cliché, but there ain’t nowt so strange as truth – my fascination came very much from seeing the real world and those timeless universal values. “

She gained a foothold in broadcasting through work experience at the BBC, and built a career initially as a filmmaker, and then as a commissioner for the Discovery Channel before joining Doc/Fest.

She attended an ordinary comprehensive school, she points out, and never felt a sense of entitlement. “I feel strongly about breaking down barriers to entry.”

Her own development, she says, was aided by the ‘great kindness’ of others. “I feel very strongly about giving back,” Liz states, namechecking key Doc/Fest lieutenants; chief programmer Luke Moody, VR curator Dan Tucker and the head of talks, Nigel Fisher. She is a BAFTA committee member, and sits on the board of Women & Film in Television UK. “I hope I’m a leader that listens just as much as acts.”

Television is a no-nonsense environment, and Discovery is a commercial organisation – which aspects of her old job was she able to bring to Sheffield?

“Inclusion and diversity, and amplifying underheard voices,” she says decisively. “For inspiration, and also for business effectiveness. Why would we not want to hear the fullest range of voices?”

Her CV includes The Lost Children of Berlin, a film she made for Steven Spielberg about the Holocaust. “It was the most astonishing experience. I was lucky enough to meet him; it was an honour to make that film. I was in Berlin and noticed the first bagel shop was reopening after the fall of the wall, and the first Jewish school was reopening after it had been closed in 1942. I realised all of us go to school, all of us have had a childhood - how can we understand the political and historical nature of the Holocaust through the experience of a schoolchild?”

Liz is married to the film editor Chris Wyatt, and is based in Leeds and London. Does she think being Northern instils a person with a certain feel for life?

“I do think that. Being from out of London gives a different perspective. Those Northern flavours are brilliant, and creative, and have a strong definition for this region which I really am proud to champion.”

But she adds: “I’m an internationalist – I like to think of myself, without sounding pretentious, as a citizen of the world because I think it’s really important not to be isolationist.”

She talks of the festival being an ‘open’ venture, and recognises that, given the ubiquity of smartphones, most people are now capable of assembling a documentary of some description.

“In the past, people used to separate the public from the industry. And of course, you could argue you can see two audiences in terms of those who solely want to enjoy films, and those who make films. But there’s this wonderful crossover in the middle; most of us are now DIY content-makers or filmmakers, ranging from my niece and nephew in their bedrooms making little films, right through to someone older.”

This year, in Tudor Square, there will be an area set aside for ‘informal chats, in a relaxed setting at a picnic table’, where industry volunteers – “Basically my mates, or the team’s mates”– will offer advice on how to get work in film and TV.

A community outreach scheme called Door to Doc is also returning, providing ‘a day at the festival for £1 for those who would not otherwise be able to come’.

But is Doc/Fest ‘Sheffield’ enough? Some might expect a strand of films devoted to the city, its culture and heritage, but Liz is unconvinced.

“We champion across all forms of inclusion and diversity, whether that be BAME, geographical, socio-economic, or gender. Included in that mix is the celebration of Sheffield and Northern talents. I think about this carefully all the time. I fear it can be counter-productive if you silo Sheffield filmmakers. It’s a level playing field for all – otherwise it doesn’t help anybody.”

Sheffield Doc/Fest runs from June 7 to 12. Visit www.sheffdocfest.com for details.

‘Disruption creates anxiety and opportunity’

Netflix is a sponsor of Sheffield Doc/Fest – indicating the city has a better relationship with the streaming giant than the venerated Cannes Film Festival.

The entertainment company pulled its entries from Cannes 2018 last month after a change of rules meant Netflix pictures were not eligible for prizes such as the coveted Palme d’Or.

“Festivals can’t ignore the realities of how content is being produced,” says Liz McIntyre, outlining Doc/Fest’s stance.

“We are across the board in terms of the premieres we show for all platforms. One of the messages we want to get over is filmmakers and producers can pitch ideas to decision-makers and funders for a range of platforms and durations of films. That’s part of the business of documentary-making as well as the inspiration of the art form.

“New platforms create opportunity. It’s a very fast-changing media landscape. That disruption sometimes creates anxiety, and sometimes opportunity.”