The 20th Sheffield Doc/Fest promises to be one of its biggest and most “mind-blowing” to date, festival director Heather Croall tells Michael Rosser.

It is less than a week before the opening night of the 20th Sheffield Doc/Fest (June 12-16) when director Heather Croall speaks to Screen and reveals that one of the centrepiece films has yet to be finished.

“Yes, they are cutting it a bit fine,” she says.

The film is The Big Melt and “they” are musician Jarvis Cocker and director Martin Wallace. Set to be screened on the opening night at the Sheffield Crucible, it will celebrate 100 years of the British steel industry, forged using BFI archive footage.

But it will be more than just a film. It will be a live experience – the sort that has helped put Doc/Fest firmly back on the festival map – with musicians providing the soundtrack.

“Some musicians will play with others for the first time on the morning of the event,” says Croall. “But we are working with perfectionists and I trust them. The film is actually very moving and Jarvis’ attitude comes through.”

The commission follows last year’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond, when the band British Sea Power composed the soundtrack to archive footage of the British coastline and performed it live at Doc/Fest.

“When I joined seven years ago, I introduced interactive elements like this and people were shocked,” recalls Croall. “Arts festivals had been working without boundaries for a long time but only now are film festivals stepping up to create events.”

Also featured on the opening night will be Nick Ryan’s mountaineering doc The Summit, which will be screened for an audience of 500 in a cave in the nearby Peak District, and Sundance hit Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, which will include “an exciting surprise” according to Croall.

Last year’s opener, Searching for Sugar Man, included a surprise appearance from the documentary’s enigmatic subject, Rodriguez – so take from that what you will.

The films joins a range of other documentaries to be screened including world premieres of Basically, John Moped; A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power & Jayson Blair at the New York Times; Here Was Cuba; and Mirage Men.

Other event highlights include an appearance from Ira Glass, the man behind radio documentary series, This American Life. Other speakers in attendance will include Michael Palin, Melvyn Bragg, Sue Perkins, BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow, Channel 4 chief creative officer Jay Hunt and Apocalypse Now editor Walter Murch.

Industry events

Alongside the films, spread across the five-day event, will be a range of industry events. Since Croall came on board in 2006, these events have helped swell delegate numbers from 500 to 3,000 while international buyer numbers have grown from less than a dozen to around 300.

An inaugural Crossover Market (formerly D2D Market) will see 25 digital projects matched with funders, mentors and digital expects.

The annual MeetMarket pitching forum, which has helped raise £27m for new projects since 2006, drew a record 614 applications this year. Of those, 63 project teams from 18 countries have been selected to hold meetings with international decision makers in documentary and digital funding.

Among the filmmakers taking part are Alex Gibney, Franny Armstrong, Victor Kossakovsky, Ben Lewis, Brian Hill, Joshua Oppenheimer, Marshall Curry and Johan Grimonprez, Jeannie Finlay and Phil Grabsky.

Croall says: “We see it as our duty to help filmmakers make new relationships to keep them alive in the industry for another year. We facilitate thousands of meetings in advance to create a boutique experience.

“People come to Sheffield to do business and we aim to give film-makers inspiration and a creative injection.”

Cementing postition

While the festival has grown at a significant rate in recent years, Croall recognises that this growth cannot continue and Doc/Fest must next focus on maintaining its position.

“After a crazy period of growth, we need to cement our position as one of the most important documentary festivals in the world,” she adds.

“Each year, when the world descends on Sheffield, we want to ensure we continue to deliver on quality.

“Some associate documentary festivals with All-Bran – it’s good for you but you don’t really enjoy it – but I think we have succeeded in not just making Doc/Fest more exciting but blowing people’s minds.”