Sheffield DocFest’s managing director Annabel Grundy tells Natalie Li why the festival gives a voice to the unheard and remains a Yorkshire cultural calendar highlight
It’s no surprise that you’ll find Annabel Grundy in a cinema when she’s not working. “I have a worrying number of cinema memberships. If I’m ever feeling miserable it’s probably because I haven’t seen a film. I am a complete nerd; film is a brilliant and transformative art form that takes you out of yourself while still being one of the most accessible art forms. It has the power of mass appeal.”
The self-confessed “film nerd” has over 20 years of experience working with UK and international film organisations. She has produced large scale, public-facing festivals and film industry events in Sydney, London and Edinburgh, and has worked with, among others, the British Council, Riverside Studios and Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Film has been Annabel’s lifelong passion – she credits her mum for exposing her to a “cultural life”. Her appointment as managing director of Sheffield DocFest is a dream role for the Sheffield resident who spent most of her career working and living in London – moving back to the Norfolk Park area in 2016.
“My family have been here for 25 years, and it feels like coming home,” says Annabel. “Even though I didn’t grow up here I have spent every holiday here with family. As a delegate and a visitor to Sheffield DocFest I’ve chatted to local people and there is a sense of discovery and pride that this is happening in their hometown.”
Annabel took the helm in late 2022, leaving her role as project manager with the British Film Institute’s UK Global Screen Fund. She is now responsible for the charity’s partnerships and fundraising, production, and operations as well as audience development. The role is a new joint leadership position, and she works collaboratively with Raul Niño Zambrano, acting creative director.
Annabel is all too familiar with Sheffield DocFest, which she has visited for the last 15 years. “This is a space in which I feel comfortable so when the job came up, I literally had to go for it!” she exclaims. “It’s a festival that I love, and it’s intrinsically wrapped up in my professional development – I came here early in my career when I used to freelance, and it has a place in my own personal life.
“Sheffield has always felt like home,” Annabel continues, “it’s a beautiful place to live, it has everything – independent creative makers, a strong cultural and lively food scene on Kelham Island, and the nearby Peak District. The strength of community here is lovely and how quickly you feel part of the city and how you’re adopted, and how you adopt the city as part of your identity, is incredible. I see myself as a ‘Sheffielder’. I have the pride and protectiveness of the city,” smiles Annabel.
Sheffield DocFest is one of the city’s biggest cultural events and draws audiences from across the city and wider Yorkshire. This year the boundary-pushing festival celebrates 30 years of championing and presenting a breadth of documentary form across film, television, immersive technology, and art.
More than 30,000 visitors landed at Sheffield DocFest in 2022, but Annabel is expecting to top these numbers. “We’re expecting a bigger festival – the pre-sales and registrations are up from last year so that gives us lots of confidence. We are back at The Crucible, and we’re delighted to be in Tudor Square in the centre of Sheffield – lots of public facing work will encourage people to come along as it brings a real buzz to the city.
“Festivals are performing well post-pandemic because people want a form of escapism, the buzz and excitement of something new and unique,” she adds. “This festival ensures there is room for new voices and talent that don’t have these opportunities. We are outside of London and for the documentary industry to descend upon Sheffield for six days every year puts film onto people’s radars.
“We’re also committed to being a platform for international work and voices. In 2022 there was a focus on Ukraine, and we have an obligation to give voice to those with cultural limitations. It feels important for me to do that.”
Annabel is delighted that Paul Sng’s Tish will open this year’s festival on 14 June. It’s an intimate portrait of working-class British documentary photographer Tish Murtha, and her daughter’s fight to preserve her legacy. The voice of Tish, played by Maxine Peake, takes the audience into the real lives of extraordinary people.
Other highlights include live Q&As, screenings and talks from speakers such as Iranian film director and screenwriter, Rakshan Banietemad, this year’s guest of honour. Satirist and broadcaster Munya Chawawa will discuss his unique approach to integrating satire in documentary.
For audiences new and old, Annabel encourages visitors to engage with the whole programme. “Go to the exciting talk with the person you’ve heard of and pick something in the programme that you know nothing about. You might enter a world you haven’t discovered and many of our films have Q&As which delve deeper into the programme.
“The Alternate Realities programme is a must and open to the whole public,” Annabel says, “you’ll find anything from issue-driven work to playfully approached narratives and innovative use of technology. The festival pushes boundaries and tells relevant stories, embracing documentary in multiple forms.
“Cinema is a place where the audience meets culture,” Annabel ends. “You’re all going on the same journey of discovery which takes you out of yourself while remaining in communion with the audience at the same time.”
Sheffield DocFest runs from 14-19 June 2023. Find out more at sheffdocfest.com