Sheffield Doc/Fest, one of the world’s largest gatherings of the documentary industry, is in turmoil as its entire programming team appears to have been quietly disbanded following the departure of artistic director Cintia Gil last week.
In a moving statement on Friday, the festival’s group of seven programmers – Juliano Gomes, Qila Gill, Carlos Pereira, Christopher Small, Rabz Lansiquot, Soukaina Aboulaoula and Herb Shellenberger – spoke of an ugly clash between the board of directors of the festival and its perspectives of the event, the artistic team and its curatorial vision.
Noting that the entire group has been with the festival since 2019, under former DocsLisboa boss Gil, they claim they were “quietly locked out of our email accounts” days after Gil left, who has been attributed to “artistic differences”. The group also notes that “all traces of our presence at the festival – names, photos, information about our work – have been erased from the website”.
“We received no termination note, no thank you for our work, no acknowledgment that we had played a part in the 2020 and 2021 editions of the festival, both of which took place in a pandemic,” the programmers said. “We wrote to the board and, after receiving lukewarm thanks, we were told we could reapply for our jobs when the positions were advertised again.”
Variety contacted the Sheffield Doc/Fest board but did not receive a comment at press time.
Programmers pointed out that the festival has started announcing passes for the 2022 edition without an artistic team in place, and will soon reopen submissions from filmmakers.
Highlighting a long list of efforts made by the band, under Gil, to diversify the festival and make it more international and inclusive – in essence, providing a platform for emerging talent not represented on the most seasoned and most in view of the documentary world — the Doc/Fest programmers suggest their work has been undermined because of its incongruity with the board’s more commercial tastes.
“The exchange established between artists and curators over the past two years to develop an artistic approach to the different aspects of the festival is now in vain,” reads the press release. “What is the future of Sheffield DocFest’s arts programming? How does it fit into the board’s new vision?
“As programmers, we question the purpose and ethics of festivals run by boards composed primarily of presenters and curators with a vested interest in presenting projects whose distribution future is already predetermined,” continues the press release.
The Doc/Fest Board of Directors includes Chief Alex Cooke, Vice President Brian Woods, Derren Lawford, Helen Scott, Jo Clinton-Davis, Madonna Benjamin, Peter Armstrong, Shirani Sabaratnam, Diana Buckley (Observer for City Council of Sheffield) and Sue Cook (English Observer Arts Council).
The programming team’s public grievances aren’t the first time Doc/Fest has encountered backlash from former staffers.
In July 2019, Luke Moody, the festival’s highly respected programming director, left the event. The former Doc Society executive, who was more of a behind-the-scenes figure, released an indicting statement that shocked the industry, saying he left “out of frustration at pressure to screen broadcast works in the UK which I consider incongruous with the festival core values of internationalism, plurality of voices, celebration and support of new talent and the spirit of youth.
He said the board at the time was “from a tradition that’s a dinosaur – the likes of Netflix, Amazon, HBO and Hulu are much more progressive and will take their audiences.”
Doc/Fest is one of the top festivals in the UK, alongside the BFI London Film Festival, but it’s been plagued by a high turnover of programmers and directors. The festival was overseen by Heather Croall, a beloved sitter of the event, for nine years before handing over the reins to former Discovery Networks International executive Elizabeth McIntyre in 2015. Croall also came out alongside top programmers Charlie Phillips, who joined The Guardian to direct the documentaries. , and Hussain Currimbhoy, who joined Sundance.
The popular McIntyre helped modernize the festival and strengthen its industry lineup, but she also stepped down in 2018. Gil was appointed in 2019. Later that year, however, Doc/Fest was again involved in the controversy when new senior programming recruit Adam Cook quit after just a month in the job following misconduct allegations that surfaced online. Gil then assembled a new team from scratch that withstood two years of pandemic for the festival.
Read the full statement below:
Former Sheffield Doc/Fest programmers: “What’s a film festival for?”
From 2019 to 2021 we worked in the Sheffield DocFest programming team. We all joined the festival while Cíntia Gil ran it as festival director. We are now asking, “What is even a film festival good for?”
Last week, it was announced to the press that Cíntia “left her position” at the festival due to “artistic differences over the current and future direction of the Festival with the board of directors”.
A few days after the press articles were published, we had been silently blocked from our email accounts and all traces of our presence at the festival – names, photos, information about our work – were erased from the website.
We received no notice of termination, no thanks for our work, no acknowledgment that we had played a part in the 2020 and 2021 editions of the festival, both of which took place in a pandemic. We wrote to the board and, after receiving lukewarm thanks, we were told we could reapply for our jobs when the positions were advertised again.
Over the past two years, we have developed – together with Cíntia, associate programmer Agnès Wildenstein and our international consultants Yu Shimizu, Jeremy Chua and Jonathan Ali – a program widely recognized in the world of international cinema. It featured many films from BIPoC, LGBTQ+ and young filmmakers. He championed independent filmmakers who were otherwise entirely cut off from any avenue of funding or distribution. It featured a Black British Cinema retrospective curated – mostly – by Black British artists and filmmakers. It contained two new competitive strands created for independent British cinema. It had a thriving international competition at its center, promoting diverse international cinema in every sense of the word. We hosted the premiere of Questlove’s Summer of Soul and a new film from Mark Cousins, The Story of Looking. The statistics in our public festival report speak for themselves.
Many of the films which premiered in Sheffield have subsequently been selected and screened at other international festivals, continuing the legacy of this programme. Notably, the Sheffield jury chose the miraculous Nũhũ Yãg Mũ Yõg Hãm: This Land Is Our Land! by indigenous Brazilian filmmakers Isael Maxakali and Sueli Maxakali (along with Carolina Canguçu and Roberto Romero) as the main winner, giving artists working without support and even with the active hostility of the Brazilian state a rare focus on the international film scene .
The day after the management’s response to our request for clarification, the festival began advertising passes for the 2022 edition, without an artistic team in place. It will soon reopen submissions from filmmakers. At the same time, he announced a slate of new board members, including new representatives from familiar broadcasters and Amazon Studios.
With all this in mind, we note again that no information has been given publicly about the continuity of the artistic program, nor about the broader artistic vision recently implemented by Cíntia and the artistic team, both for the arts than for film programs. .
The exchange established between artists and curators over the past two years to develop an artistic approach to the different aspects of the festival is now in vain. What future for Sheffield DocFest’s artistic programming? How does it fit into the board’s new vision?
We naturally criticize the reckless course of events and question DocFest’s commitment to properly valuing its workers, whose situation here has gone from precariousness to silent dismissal without a word from management. But more than that, we ask: if these are the ‘differences’ that the Sheffield DocFest board cannot make peace with and productively work with as a basis for building a festival, what is the alternative ? What is the Sheffield DocFest they want to create or return to? What aspects of the board’s vision for the festival did the 2020 and 2021 editions fail to deliver? Why is there no statement to that effect, clarifying for filmmakers the essence of these “differences” before they are again invited to submit their films?
As programmers, we question the raison d’être and ethics of festivals run by boards made up mostly of presenters and curators with a vested interest in presenting projects whose distribution future is already predetermined. We draw inspiration from Luke Moody, the former director of programming, in his own public comments after his resignation from the festival in 2019, in which he noted the intransigence of the Sheffield board.
We are suspicious of institutions that pretend to talk about “diversity” while simultaneously resisting the essential work that needs to be done to address systemic issues of exclusion and injustice in the industry. Film festivals like SheffieldDocFest should be a tool to deconstruct the paths of power that privilege one film, one national cinema, one distribution model, one film movement over another. At its best, festival programming challenges audiences and the industry to think critically and remain open to absorbing perspectives and styles that may be new and unfamiliar.
The “artistic differences” that are the basis of Sheffield DocFest’s transformation here are exactly the kind of differences that a festival must necessarily thrive on.
We are eternally grateful for the opportunity to be part of an artistic team led by Cíntia. We learned from each other and thank her for creating a courageous space to listen and learn. Each of our regular meetings to discuss the program, coming early in the year when the pandemic was at its peak in many of our countries, was an oasis.
Shellenberger with herbs