A Tale of Two Festivals

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London Short Film Festival Director, Philip Ilson on his recent visit to Sheffield Doc/Fest and Hamburg International Short Film Festival.

London Short Film Festival’s Philip Ilson (right) and Chloe Trayner (left) with Sven Schwarz (centre) from the Hamburg Short Film Festival outside the Lichtmess cinema in Hamburg.

Two film festivals – a lot of similarities, but both equally exciting, vibrant, and inspiring. 

At a time when I’m championing the new breed coming through, such as relative newbies including this weekend’s brilliant Open City Docs Fest run out of UCL and Birmingham’s Flatpack, a festival with a passion for all things related to the moving image but with no agenda beyond showcasing great cinema and beyond. But earlier this month I attended two veteran festivals: Sheffield Doc/Fest, at 20 years old and Hamburg International Short Film Festival, at 29 years old. Both are specialist content – Sheffield: Docs, Hamburg: Shorts. Both are very industry focussed and respected by the larger industry with their prestigious awards and are visited by an international contingent of industry figures, from filmmakers to other festival representatives to commissioners. Both are attended by large numbers of delegates, which can sometimes alienate the festival from a public audience, but not the case here. Both have great parties. Both go beyond the cinema screen into live events, music, and live discussion. Both have very bulky festival brochures, with Sheffield at 238 pages and Hamburg at 198 pages. But, and this is one crunch point: Both are ran and programmed by cinema enthusiasts who love film and want to champion it in all its forms. And secondly, both festivals engage with their cities at large. 

Sheffield Doc/Fest in particular has changed a lot in the two years since I last went. I realise it’s always been a vital busy Festival, not least because of its support by the television industry and its fame built on pitching to industry figures looking to commission new work. The buzz around the Showroom Cinema and The Hub opposite has traditionally always been the Festival focus. But this year, on leaving the train station you were met by a Festival hub and Doc/Fest flags flapping in the wind all the way up to the Showroom and beyond into the city itself. The Howard Street open air screen on the main walk up into the city centre was always busy with families, students and others watching Festival highlights and other programmed films. The famous Crucible (which I have some distant childhood late night BBC2 snooker memory!) is a focus for bigger events such as the opening Jarvis Cocker soundtracked The Big Melt and a live performance from British Sea Power alongside From The Sea To The Land. And things are spread out beyond – The Queens Social Club where a special themed Spirit of 45 day included a show from the inspirational Exploding Cinema collective, talks and discussions in the majestic Channing Hall in the city centre, and the infamous party venue the East End Bar now with added visible pavement bbq set up attracting passers by. But this is a small taster; Sheffield was being taken over, and the Festival was visible on all levels, such as food stalls outside the Crucible with their queues of lanyard wearing hungry film folk. But best of all, the films on offer seemed cinematic with a true buzz around them, from The Act of Killing to Pussy Riot A Punk Prayer to Google and the World Brain to Blackfish to Particle Fever. 
Hamburg is a bigger city; not as walkable as Sheffield, so bikes were needed to dash from venue to venue. In fact, the Festival, given its size and reputation actually remained away from the city centre with its thronging tourists around the port and the old rathaus square. Hamburg Short Film Festival engages with what may be called the hipster part of town, around deserted industrial complexes and old European cinemas. The Festival club took over a large old semi-derelict complex away from the tackiness of the Reeperbahn; filmmakers were sitting on woodpiles or old battered sofas dotted around, and enjoyed the visual and musical spectacle of DJ Yoda or a night of Spanish trash cinema and punk rock! One of the Festival highlights is The Wall is a Screen, a cinematic walking tour mixing film with psychogeography and city exploring as portable projector and p.a. are set up to show relevant films onto the side of buildings, before the crowd move on to the next location. (The Wall is a Screen premiered in London last week at Open City, as they took doc lovers on a tour around the UCL campus.) I was in Hamburg with LSFF Festival Assistant Chloe Trayner, where we were presenting a programme of British short films in the fantastically atmospheric Lichtmess cinema. But you could also take in Urban Industrial Warfare, Gory Excess in the Boiler Room, Avant Garde Between Advertising Films and Eye Music, Living Environments Between Spirituality and Pop Culture (which was a programme of Sami films from the Arctic Circle), and the infamous Three Minute Quickie. 

I think what makes both festivals special is the passion by which they’re ran; everyone working on both seem genuinely excited by the programmes on offer, privileged and excited to tell you what to see. The festival staff completely understand the concept of what we could call expanded cinema, as the cinematic images bleed from the screens and into the surrounding infrastructure and the people themselves as they buzz and chat with excitement of what they’ve seen and what they’re going to see. Those audiences are a real yardstick; both Sheffield and Hamburg were awash with those lanyard wearing hordes dashing from screen to venue to festival bar and club. And they all looked happy to be part of something. It’s proof that older festivals don’t have to be irrelevant workhorses living on reputation only; both documentaries and short films are vital cinema right now, and these festivals have dragged them kicking and screaming into a 21st century cross-media world. Both are also an inspiration for the London Short Film Festival, how we can take it forward as a hopefully world class film festival, while remaining true to a passionate and personal love of all things cinema and moving image related.