Read about the highlights of our trainees' time at Doc/Fest this June

The DocLab trainees headed to Sheffield Doc/Fest to attend industry talks, meet with talent developers to practise their pitches and network with industry executives. They also managed to catch some great docs while they were there!

DocLab 2019 participants at Birmingham Sheffield DocFest

DocLab Birmingham 2019 participants at The Grierson Trust drinks reception, Winter Garden, Sheffield Doc/Fest


Looking back, the most nerve-wracking experience of Sheffield Doc/Fest was probably The Grierson Trust Social Drinks. It gave me a bit of deja vu from the opening night, only this time the event’s focus was us as young “talent of the future”. I did not expect to feel nervous. We had just given our individual documentary pitches a few hours before (something I, surprisingly, found a lot easier!), so I strongly remember the shift in my mood from calm/satisfied to overwhelmed/under-prepared!

Even though it was a humbling thing to have that kind of acknowledgement from people in the industry, there was pressure to act especially interesting and/or employable, something I think every human struggles to view themselves as from time to time. Up until this point in the festival, we had been able to fly under the radar a little bit and primarily observe other peoples’ careers whereas this time, the attention was on us. Many things are running through your mind in these moments and it is intimidating.

As the night went on, conversations were truly flowing left, right and centre! Even though all the trainees are hugely supportive of one another, there was competitiveness in the air about who would have the best networking ability and why. I realized that there is so much random awkwardness involved in these early encounters, and the best any of us can do is speak with passion. I had a great conversation with a producer on a documentary of theirs currently in the works on a topic I felt personally close to. So despite initial nerves, I walked away from the event feeling a bit more confident about my potential to grow professionally and collaborate.


Imagine you’re from a small Northern town and have had little exposure to the TV industry, then suddenly you are thrust into a five-day festival where there are TV giants sat to your left and talented filmmakers to your right. Add the fact that every room is buzzing with enthusiasm, ideas, and intrigue. There you have a summary: my first Doc/Fest experience.

To briefly touch on my highlights of the festival, I must mention several films: Dive: Rituals in Water, Jawline, UK Shorts (my favourites being Fast Talk and the Circle) and Untouchable. Channel 4 premiered ‘Jade’, and due to their careful handling of sensitive subject matter, coupled with a refreshing, uplifting edit, I found it to be my favourite screening of the event. I’m still wounded that I couldn’t get in to see ‘For Sama’, something I learned, is to use the 5 tickets you get when you register, and book in advance!

I found the panels extremely insightful and beneficial for a first-time attendee like me. I took detailed notes, almost verbatim to what the speakers were saying, as the information was that good. I particularly enjoyed the ‘Commissioning’ panels for Factual Entertainment and Specialist Factual. It was invaluable to hear direct from the people in those important chairs exactly what they wanted on their roster of shows.

It is imperative that I mention the free coffee and vegan cookie/croissants which I indulged in daily from the OATLY stall. Navigating the different buildings whilst deciding which of the many screenings I wanted to attend, I had a moment of reflection where I thought: how annoying is it, that as humans we require food, and sleep? Having a free coffee and shelter from the rain was a welcome chance for a breather, to take a moment and appreciate the great experience which was Doc/Fest!

DocLab 2019 participants at Sheffield Doc/Fest

DocLab Birmingham 2019 at Sheffield Doc/Fest


The five days I spent in Sheffield were as enjoyable as they were intense. I spent almost every moment thinking about documentary film, from watching impressive films like Apollo 11 to casual conversations with other filmmakers. The variety of films on show in Sheffield was astounding and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing films that I would never normally think to watch. Jeanie Finlay’s Seahorse was without a doubt the best film I saw during the festival.

Pitching on the Sunday was a nerve wracking but enjoyable experience. It was great to be able to pitch to members of the industry and receive informative and constructive feedback from professionals. The experience gave me more confidence and the conviction to make my film. On the Monday, I was lucky enough to be selected to take part in Doc/Dinner 2019, an initiative started by Reggie Yates to allow young filmmakers to connect with industry decision makers. It was a great experience and I enjoyed being able to talk to seasoned professionals in a casual environment.

The highlight of the festival for me was listening to Werner Herzog speak about his career and films. As an unapologetic Herzog nerd, to be able to listen to him discuss his process and approach to documentary in person was a dream come true. I also thoroughly enjoyed the screening of his new film ‘Nomad: In the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin’. In particular, his advice to young filmmakers was invaluable and I intend on reading more and bringing criminal energy and initiative to my future projects.


Sheffield Doc Fest was a really interesting and rewarding experience for me. I loved going to the talks and seeing what people in the industry had to say and I definitely learnt a lot from them. The two talks I felt I gained the most from were the talks on commissioning specialist factual and factual entertainment.

The talks gave an insight into what commissioning editors are looking for and what the channels they work for are leaning towards. This combined with having a private session for DocLab with two BBC specialist factual commissioners really made it clear to me how the industry operates and what will and won’t get made.

However, what stuck with me the most was the film ‘Jawline’. I felt a very personal connection to the film as I understood the world that it explored completely. I also felt it was very artistically shot and captured the weird world of fandom, from the creator/influencer type personality to the young girls who watched it all behind a screen. I also enjoyed how the film focused on a young boy trying to become famous and the trials and struggles that come with that and how often these young boys are exploited for the money they bring in. It was also interesting during the Q&A after the film to hear the director’s personal thoughts about the people she had met and how she came to understand them.

Sheffield was a great experience and I learnt so much I wouldn’t have otherwise and I’m very grateful to The Grierson for allowing me the chance to go.


I am a cisgender female. My twin brother, Jamie, is trans - non-binary but masculine presenting, they look male but prefer they/them pronouns. They also have Masters degree in neuroscience, are vegan, get drunk on two pints, and are the silliest person I know. They are honest, loving, and annoying as hell.

At Doc/Fest, I saw their life – or a life close to theirs – on screen for the first time. And it was glorious.

Seahorse is a film about Freddy McConnell, a trans man who decides to give birth to his own son. It is a touching and intimate portrait of parenthood more than anything else but it’s also tour-de-force of honest, domestic, messy representation. I was grasping for a tissue within five minutes because, for the first time in my life, I saw a trans man just…be. Wear cosy slippers. Drink tea. Argue with his mum over shit in the garden. There was no lingering on the struggle, the stigma, the stress of transition. Unconcerned with the past, it is a story told in the present tense. And when so many shows about trans people point and gawk like hawkers at a freak show, or else tell a sob story about how difficult it is and how the pain never goes away, seeing Freddy just be, ordinary and happy, offered a lightness and a hope that I didn’t realise I was craving.

I spoke to Freddy after the screening. I told him how much the film meant to me, and why. He asked how Jamie’s transition was going and laughed when I told him about my family’s arguments. And then, as I was leaving, he offered me a hug. It was a small gesture that meant the world to me.

You don’t realise how important honest representation is until you see it. Like a match in a dark room, it illuminates things you didn’t even know existed; you feel it in your head and your heart and your bones. Seahorse is a beautiful film, made all the more beautiful for what it meant to me to see my brother’s life on screen.


It really was a privilege to get the chance to attend Sheffield Doc/Fest this year with the Grierson DocLab. Being provided with a full festival pass meant myself and the rest of the DocLab group had full access to everything the festival had to offer – documentary screenings, talks, events and socials. We also have access to the Doc/Player, meaning I was able to prioritise attending certain talks and socials over films – resulting in a more rounded and engaging festival experience. My top two highlights were both talks: ‘Breaking the Class Ceiling’ and ‘In Conversation with Werner Herzog’. As ‘working class’ myself, it was interesting to hear thoughts around working class experiences being your ‘U.S.P’ but also something that can make you feel like an outsider of sorts. Alternatively, Herzog’s conversation was incredibly inspiring, creatively. Listening to such a ‘big name’ in film and documentary talk about breaking the rules and making your own was the verbal equivalent of a refreshing splash of cold water to the face. I find it easy to become rather un-inspired with the ins and outs of the industry, job roles, work experience etc. – so anything that re-sparks my enthusiasm and reminds me of the importance of passion is invaluable!

On the Sunday, we all pitched ideas again, this time in front of two industry professionals. I got to go first – a big relief for an over thinker such as myself! Overall, I was pleased with my delivery and the reception of my idea. It was great to hear that it was a currently relavent subject area and that it fit well with BBC THREE. Via feedback, on everyone’s as well as my own, I realised the importance of ‘why now?’ when developing an idea and remembering to make a point of this in your pitch.

Sheffield Doc/Fest is a brilliant experience. In honesty, I was slightly overwhelmed when realising just how many professionals (from film-makers to T.V. commissioners) it attracted, as I had only previously attended smaller, more casual film festivals. It was easy to feel unimportant amidst the crowds – so I would advise future attendees (and future me) to think about what they can talk about if the opportunity arises, be it a small film you’ve made or what your ‘U.S.P’ is.

Published: 24 July 2019

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