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Sheffield Docfest – the best place to miss great films

Once a year, I am lucky enough to shake off the office shackles and send myself on a trip up North to Docfest, the UK’s biggest and most well established documentary festival, which this year celebrated its 20th birthday.


Its huge, taking over half of Sheffield’s public venues including the Crucible. The Crucible is the “home of snooker” although my travelling companion was gutted to discover that its day-job is actually being a theatre, not a cathedral dedicated to the cult of the green baize. My revelation that Walter Murch (Apolcalypse Now, The Godfather) would be carrying out a masterclass, there was of little consolation.


My reason for travelling was to make as much as I could of “Science at Sheffield” a series of documentaries, masterclasses, round-table feedback sessions, and opportunities to meet with commissioning editors.

The main Science session was called “Science TV: hitting pay dirt” and featured Kim Shillingham (head of science commissioning for the BBC) and David Glover, who used to be in charge of science at Ch4, although now works on science features and stunts, and has  a rivalry with Kim so intense we actually thought their might be a punch-up.

After a few bouts of sparring, KO of the session went to Kim, who said, (when asked whether the BBC would ever do anything like Channel 4’s infamous “plane crash”), that the BBC had considered doing something similar, but ultimately felt they wouldn’t spend that many years in the planning and millions of pounds on “what amounts to a really great clip on youtube


In the blue corner, David wasn’t down for long before retaliating with a low blow concerning the “stimulating” titles that the BBC have a tendency towards; with aunties “The Truth About Meteors” left smouldering in the flaming tail of Channel 4’s red-top worthy “METEOR STRIKE! FIREBALL FROM SPACE!” (which I like to say in my head in this voice.)

Almost as exciting as Thunderbirds was a new film called Particle Fever, which charted the hunt for the elusive Higgs Bosun from the higgs2opening of the LHC at CERN in Geneva, through the trials and tribulations of a Helium leak which shut it down for 2 months just a few days after it was first switched on, to the ultimate unveiling of their quantum findings. The entire narrative was threaded along a theme of jovial rivalry and friendly contempt between the theoretical and the experimental physicists. It was a beautifully examined documentary which conveyed the human drama and emotion behind the faces of people who even dream in 0’s and 1’s.

Its been made by an American physicist turned film-maker Mark Levinson whom I had the pleasure to meet after the Science TV session (who gave me a Higgs Bosun badge for my bag!).


Sadly a pre-scheduled train meant I couldn’t stay behind for the Q&A after the film, because I was dying to ask why, in all of the story of the search for the Higgs particle, they didn’t include any contribution from the man himself, except to feature his attendance at the unveiling of the results at CERN last year. Nonetheless a film that truly conveys the excitement and drama and emotion that we know are part and parcel of scientific research, but which, so often are obscured from public view.

This was just one of many many amazing films that were screened during Docfest, but sadly, scheduling conflicts meant that I missed many many more of these films than I was able to attend, because I was busy in sessions with commissioning editors, or pitching documentary ideas to development executives. Luckily, Docfest enables online access to the films for delegates for 3 months following the event, so you can expect lots of reviews of great docs to look out for in the coming 12 weeks, so if you like science and you like documentaries, watch this space.





So, what do you think ?