We welcome you to Sheffield DocFest 2021






When author Kazuo Ishiguro gave his Nobel Lecture in 2017, he made the following observation: “Stories can entertain, sometimes teach or argue a point. But for me the essential thing is that they communicate feelings – that they appeal to what we share as human beings across our borders and divides. There are large glamorous industries around stories: the book industry, the movie industry, the television industry, the theatre industry. But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: “This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”

After the seismic year that we have all experienced his quote resonates with me more than ever.  As I review the range of documentary stories that the Festival Director, Cíntia Gil and the whole festival team have curated for the 2021 Sheffield DocFest, I am pleasantly reminded of how special this documentary genre is, and of how, as Ishiguro says of stories, they can connect people. The films and art pieces presented this year are refreshingly wide-ranging in form, tone, viewpoint, authorship, style and substance. 

Thank you, as ever, to the filmmakers and artists who are trusting us with their work. Thank you to all our sponsors and partners; your unwavering loyalty and support is deeply appreciated.  Thank you to all the trustees who have given their precious time to the festival year-round.  Thank you to the extended family of industry advisors who have continued to produce talks and sessions. And enormous thanks to Cíntia Gil, and all the festival staff, consultants, freelancers, and volunteers who have brought you this event despite facing enormous challenges as a result of the pandemic. 

Some festival audiences will be able to enjoy events and screenings in Sheffield itself, and some will be able to attend a number of cinema screenings in cities nationally as we try to bring the festival to you. Others will be able to join us from far and wide online; a more globally democratic participation, perhaps? 

Beyond the films and artworks, we hope the market will create opportunities for future work and support stories yet to be told, and that some newly launched initiatives will accelerate and spotlight new voices. As ever, we hope to be a forum for debates that matter.

So, I hope that DocFest goes some way to making us stronger again as a community, when isolation, disruption and loss have been such on-going themes.

And no matter how you ‘fest’, I hope you feel welcome, I hope you meet new people who may become friends for life, and I hope you gain creative energy to propel you forward for your next projects and collaborations. But mostly I hope you enjoy the work, are moved by it, and feel and understand what all these special storytellers are trying to tell us. 

— Alex Cooke

Chair of The Board of Trustees, Sheffield International Documentary Festival 2021


When my father died 
of a heartbreak
he told me to never give up
on this city for no first love
kills with a dagger.

– Amina Atiq, ‘Backbencher’


June 2021. More than a year has passed since going to the cinema ceased being an ordinary habit. Since we were no longer able to come together in this way, to build a sense of community, to celebrate the art of filmmaking, to discuss the world and our lives, and to resist individualistic forms of cultural and social life. More than a year has passed since we were invaded by fear, loss, and isolation. And yet, so many people have, collectively, fought for what needs to be fought for: a better future, through justice, truth, equality, and respect for everyone. Community is not about the norms we impose on ourselves: it is about our capacity to think and act for the sake of those whose names we do not know. It is about our capacity to not give up on our humanity, even though it so often breaks our hearts.

Sheffield DocFest comes from this energy. It is built by a team of people who passionately believe that sharing films and art with everyone else is a way of working toward a better city, and a better world. It comes from the tradition of a city that has always been there for those who wanted to be welcomed. Sheffield DocFest celebrates film and arts by honouring this spirit, and creating a collective space that is both relevant and generous to those who want to be a part of it, whether in Sheffield, online, or throughout the country. 

This year’s festival can be lived through like a story: one that starts with the energy and empowerment depicted in Summer of Soul by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and takes us to the intimacy and generosity of Mark Cousins’ The Story of Looking. The first film portrays a collective event and movement that gave more air to breathe, hope, and a sense of belonging to those who were so often forgotten or shut-out. The second, meanwhile, emerges from isolation, from a deeply personal space, and calls for togetherness through the capacity we all have to open our eyes and hearts to new images, and to the new possibilities of emotional discovery therein. These two moments encapsulate what we have tried to build in our film programmes.

This year, we have also organised the festival programme in a way that clarifies its position towards both its public and industry audience and attendees. We want to simultaneously support and nourish talent, and those who work in the film industry, while giving our audiences a rich and varied artistic programme. We also want to strengthen our bonds with our Sheffield audiences, and with our city, by opening opportunities for different forms of engagement with the festival. 

Outside of DocFest’s two-week run, we will continue to offer a variable, year-round programme in Sheffield, because we believe that film and arts should help everyone to feel connected, heard, and – hopefully – liberated, beyond a festival’s lifespan. This year, we are also carrying the energy and spirit of Sheffield to different parts of the UK, by bringing DocFest to cinemas nationwide: by doing this, we can share the programme with everyone who wants to engage with it, while simultaneously helping venues to rebuild audiences and reconnect with a community of film-lovers.

Once again, we have worked with extraordinary partners and sponsors who have supported this festival in times of unprecedented uncertainty. We thank you not just in our names, but in the name of culture. In order to resist the haunting threads of injustice and violence, and of authoritarianism and a lack of transparency, we need support in the creation of spaces where people can be invited to think together. This is a process of building democracy, and participation; it is about providing scrutiny, and empowering critique. Thank you for your care.

I would like to dedicate this edition to its team: a group of dedicated people – some with long histories with Sheffield DocFest, others newcomers – who have not only built this festival but have supported each other during hard times. I am in awe of your strength and passion, and deeply thankful. 

Finally, I would like to thank Amina Atiq, a British-Yemeni poet who I have discovered in one of the films in this programme (thank you, always, for films and what they bring to us) and who has inspired these words. I hope her writing can resonate with all those who are fighting for community: never give up on this city. 

— Cíntia Gil, Festival Director


Join us in Sheffield, online and in cinemas across the UK for our 28th edition Sheffield DocFest 2021. Explore our programme.

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