Sheffield Highs and Lows

So just now I’m decompressing from Sheffield Docfest, where for the first time I took part in a live festival pitch, which I’m happy to say, we won! The Wellcome Trust broadcast development award is the biggest cash prize available at Sheffield so getting the award was a good sign of confidence in our complicated and (at the moment) confidential project.

The pitch itself took place in the Upper Chapel, taken over for the week by the festival, which made for an unusual venue. The panel sat in front of the altar (covered with a sheet) and the audience in pews. One of the other projects, “A History of the Female Orgasm” introduced some source material which might have surprised Sunday’s congregation.

It wasn’t the only competition taking place there. I went to the developing world pitch the day before where filmmakers were pitching stories about poverty to win money from UK taxpayer funds. When a panelist said that one of the projects didn’t feature enough poverty to qualify, an African lady in the audience, a mature student, was outraged at how blase the panel were being about the terrible stories under discussion.

I was sympathetic to the complainant’s concerns. The program has a lot of flaws, the main one being that simply documenting poverty doesn’t really benefit anyone. Even the pitcher who was proposing a film about a charity who needed publicity would have to acknowledge that were donations to increase as a result of the film, they would probably be drawn from fixed budgets resulting in no overall increase in spending.

Looking into why poverty exists in some parts of the world would be one of the few useful uses of media money, but the answers to this are often uncomfortable and complicated, and the chance of getting funding for films like that decreases yearly, viz. Adam Curtis.

One of the reasons why there was such a row at the Developing World pitch is that the panelists felt they were speaking in a private, industry environment, whereas the complaining woman felt that their unemotional remarks about the stories were a public indication of not caring. One of the interesting things about broadcasting is that, in a similar way to politics, the working environment is comprised mainly of people who have a public role at least some of the time with the duty to sensitivity that entails. A broadcaster can’t afford to be publicly flippant about any subject he is covering, but at the same time must have conversations with colleagues about sticky topics briefly and to the point.

Get the environment wrong, and you’re in trouble. The most popular solution is to swear near constantly when speaking off the record. This has two functions. Firstly it’s the equivalent of getting into civvies. You’re not wearing your vocal uniform and even if people wanted to quote you they would not always be able to print your actual words if the quote is full of swears.

Secondly, it has the effect of taking the listener very quickly into your confidence. You’re letting them know that you’re not giving the public viewpoint, and you’re crediting them with the maturity to speak on an ‘adult’ level.

It’s quite a successful system, although the chapel’s air was a lot bluer than I think a lot of people would have expected.

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