Lockdown lessons: Sheffield Doc/Fest director Cíntia Gil on defending the collective experience of cinema

The incoming director of the UK’s leading documentary film festival – now live with a limited and reconfigured digital event, with live events to follow in the autumn – reminds us what is at stake for cinema under lockdown and as we emerge.

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Cíntia Gil

Founded in 1994, Sheffield Doc/Fest is now the UK’s largest documentary film festival, hosting film screenings and premieres, talks, a busy marketplace and development focus, plus its own awards. Portugal-born Cíntia Gil took up her role as Director late last year having previously headed the DocLisboa film festival since 2012.

Update (11 June 2020): this interview was published on 5 June but has been updated with expanded answers now that Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects is live.

How has your working life changed over the past few weeks?

We are working from home, trying to keep a sense of normality under these circumstances. Of course, this sense of confinement is challenging. But it also makes us think about how we want to move further; how we want to rebuild ourselves and move forward.

Doc/Fest’s team is made of incredibly generous and committed people who are working very hard to deliver the best activities possible, and to serve those who trust us – the filmmakers, producers, partners, our audiences, and the city of Sheffield, which has supported us incredibly from day one.

What is the impact of Covid-19 on your organisation right now?

The whole world is devastated, and not just by covid. Somehow, the extreme inequalities are very obvious to everyone now, but also the failure of institutions and countries: look at Brazil, on its way to a dictatorship, with a true genocide happening; Hungary, with people’s civic rights being removed with the excuse of the virus; the explosion of social protest of Black Lives Matter, calling out for the dismantling of a structurally racist police system, and a deep change in our societies. Covid is maybe just one element of a profound world transformation that may open the space for true revolutions. Look at the footage of George Floyd’s memorial: I am sure the world will not be the same after CNN transmitting for such a long time such a collective meditation on injustice and the need for a real change.

In this context, every organisation will be affected, and we are no different. Filmmakers can’t shoot, artists don’t know when and how they will be able to return to work, producers, distributors, exhibitors and other film festivals are dealing with extreme hardship. We are porous organisations: no festival exists without films, art works, and the people who make them.

However, most of our public and private partners, funders and sponsors have stayed with us and supported us in an incredible way, giving us the necessary trust and confidence to think about our best means of action. Of course, not knowing when and how this crisis will develop, we needed to think about the model in which we exist and how we can cope with the limitations on coming together in closed cinemas. This is a conversation we want to be a part of, and it’s a subject we all need to engage. Cinema is a collective experience that, since its beginnings, has maintained a social, political and aesthetic resonance that we need to value and nourish. The question is how we can keep that principle in mind and respond to its direct threats in a way that respects the films and their audiences.

Has the lockdown forced you into more creative ways of thinking?

The nature of our job is to be creative, and actually creativity is a human quality of great power, resistance and reach. I would not say crises make us creative: that’s been said to cover up real violence and cloud the question of people’s well-being. 

Every crisis makes us understand our priorities in a different way, to focus on what’s essential, and that’s what we’ve done. We have given our minds to thinking what Doc/Fest is, what is it that we will stand for in any circumstance; what it is we want to say and do when our freedoms and actions are limited. How can we be celebrating film and artistic freedom under a massive confinement, and with our human brothers and sisters suffering all around us?

Well, that’s what our creativity has to work for; and as long as we celebrate cinema as a universal place where we can come together with our sadnesses, our fears and our desires and our angers, we can carry on this work.

What are your plans for this year’s event?

We would never merely reproduce Doc/Fest online: we don’t believe that’s the best way to defend the values we want to stand for. We resist the idea that an online presence is more democratic – it’s not. The digital, its proliferation and consumerist prerogatives, is a confused world where inequality, differences in access and social codes are very much affirmed. Access is not about an easy click or a marketing campaign – it is about context; about building bridges and creating opportunities for everyone to feel welcome. This is also why we will not hold competitions this year, and we relinquished our premiere requirements for our selected films.

That said, we decided to have a smaller programme which will utilise some online elements to present some films, talks, panels and other content, and we will hold a good part of our Marketplace & Talent programme digitally. We will also partner with some online platforms that will present some tightly curated programmes. Experimenting with these elements could open up certain aspects of the festival that may otherwise be localised and invite further participation in the kinds of questions we work to raise. It also allows us to give films some visibility, whenever their makers see it as a useful one, and to create possibilities for their future work – we know how film festivals, rightly or not, have an influence on the funding of future work.

In the autumn – hopefully from September onwards – we will programme Doc/Fest weekenders in Sheffield, one weekend per month, with films from our Film Programme strands: Into the World, Rebellions, Rhyme & Rhythm, Ghosts & Apparitions and our Retrospective. Along with these screenings we will also have an Alternate Realities Salon (with a small number of works), our Exchange programme, and some talks and panels. Of course, we are not one hundred per cent sure that all of this will happen, and we will host online iterations of these events if needed. But we will do our best to give our audiences and the filmmakers some collective moments that we know will make a difference.

Where do you see yourselves in a year’s time?

In a year’s time we will be watching and showing films and art works in any way possible, and always with total respect for them, exercising the clear notion that we only exist because of and for them. We will be welcoming our audiences, engaging with them in every way we can, and we will have our eyes and our sensibilities wide open to the world as it stands. Doc/Fest will always find its best possible standing, because it is defined by its passion for cinema and interest in what’s around us.

How do you think Covid-19 will affect the wider film industry? Do you see any positives?

I don’t want to be negative but… no. I cannot find any positives in a crisis that kills people – but this is not the only form of crisis we face, as I said earlier. Racism kills people, political irresponsibility kills people, economic inequality kills people, as do all kinds of violence propagated against the most fragile. 

The film industry will be extremely affected, in ways that we are only starting to grasp. Businesses will be closed, films will not see the light of day, and even the creative freedoms to create them will be affected. Cinema is a collective art that requires a physical proximity. What kind of consequences will come from not being able to film a demonstration or two people kissing one other?

This is a massive blow but, of course, amazing works of art will come from it. Artists always have the capacity to translate the world into something more intelligent and open; likewise every film festival, every physical event with a group of people coming together, will be a special experience and not just a given.

It’s important to say that countries are dealing with this in different ways, however. The UK – through the BFI, Arts Council and other organisations – with immediate concern and worked to protect the industry and guarantee both its survival and its future.

It is different in Portugal, where I come from. Although the general policies of our government concerning this pandemic were quite admirable in many ways, cultural policy has proven to endanger a whole sector, leaving thousands of talented and hard-working people with literally no money to pay their rent or buy food.

Unfortunately, and I hope this is only pessimism, the film industry will be affected in terms of diversity: the privileged will stay above water, the others will struggle. This will have an impact on what stories will be told and how they will be told. This is why film festivals and other independent artistic organisations are so important right now: to stand by everyone and identify those who need to be heard.

Top lockdown watch:

The Cinemateca Portuguesa is running a beautiful programme online, streaming films but also publishing texts exploring and exposing the challenges that the current situation poses to the nature of a Film Museum. 

On BFI Player, the last film of a master filmmaker who made confinement films when no one really knew what that meant: the late Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie (2015). Akerman might now smile at our obsession with our own confinement, when history is so sculpted by it.

And the Institute of Contemporary Arts has been publishing beautiful lists of readings, viewings and listenings that have proven both inspiring and provocative. 

But as I am in a lockdown with my child, I have actually been watching a lot of Jerry Lewis, Tim Burton, and films I loved as a kid – Gremlins (1984) is definitely a great comment on everything we are going through!

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