Facts speak for themselves

With documentaries making waves, Sheffield's dedicated festival seizes its moment
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The Independent Culture

With documentaries accounting for two of the major box-office hits of the year - Michael Moore's polemical Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morgan Spurlock's experimental McDonald's binge, Super Size Me - it would seem that cinema-goers are currently crazy about the form. The Sheffield Inter-national Documentary Festival got there ahead of them: now in its 11th year, it is the biggest festival of its kind in the UK.

With documentaries accounting for two of the major box-office hits of the year - Michael Moore's polemical Fahrenheit 9/11 and Morgan Spurlock's experimental McDonald's binge, Super Size Me - it would seem that cinema-goers are currently crazy about the form. The Sheffield Inter-national Documentary Festival got there ahead of them: now in its 11th year, it is the biggest festival of its kind in the UK.

This year, it will screen 80 documentaries from around the world, chosen from 800 submissions. "We watch every single one of them," says Brent Woods, the festival director. With a full-time programmer and a team of helpers, he spends two months of every year sifting through the entries. There are usually one or two surprises: "One year, a film-maker accidentally taped over the film he was submitting with Trainspotting," Woods says. "He was mortified."

Woods and his team must also travel to other major documentary festivals around the globe, including Amsterdam, Toronto and Marseilles. "You quickly hear the buzz surround-ing new films," Woods says.

Highlights this year will include The Yes Men, about two New York anti-globalisation pranksters; Riding Giants, about the history of big-wave surfing; Ramones, End of the Century, a homage to the US punk-rockers; Mondovino, an insider's guide to the wine industry; and Jesus, You Know, a portrayal of six believers and their relationship with God.

There is also the UK premiere of Tintin and I, which combines archive material and animation with an interview with Hergé, the creator of the intrepid boy reporter, and the world premiere of Liberace of Baghdad, by Sean McAllister - "one of the hottest UK documentary makers around," claims Woods - about an Iraqi pianist who tries to flee Baghdad with his instrument.

In a bid to promote up-and-coming talent, 12 of the films are by students; this year, one student film-maker will be awarded the Jerwood First Cuts Documentary Award of £3,500. There are also documentary masterclasses and inspirational guest speakers. "In the past, we had Michael Moore, just before he did Bowling For Columbine, and Errol Morris, who won the Academy Award this year for best documentary with The Fog of War," Woods says. Joan Churchill ( Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer) and Nicholas Philibert ( Etre et Avoir) will be the documentary-makers sharing their experiences with audiences this year.

To what does Woods attribute the current enthusiasm for the genre? "This year, political documentaries are popular, perhaps because, in the US, there isn't a lot of room for other voices on mainstream media to get a political message across. For years, documentaries would hardly get a look-in at cinemas beyond the festivals. That is changing. Some say it is just a trend, but we will see."

Sheffield International Documentary Festival, The Showroom, Sheffield ( www.sheffield2004.com), 8-14 November

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