Aboard the Liminal Express

I’m writing this post from the Cross Country railway service between Southampton and Sheffield. It’s a beautiful afternoon: the sky is a hazy blue and the ivy clad trees rush away on my right. There are not enough words to describe all the shades of green in this country. I’m on my way to the Sheffield Doc/Fest – one of the leading documentary conferences and film festivals in the world – “Cannes for documentary filmmakers” as Indiewire described it. This is where documentarians go to talk shop, market their wares, brush up on their skillz, debate ethics and legals, and pitch their new ideas to producers and commissioners. BBC, Getty, ITV, PBS, Vimeo, Indiegogo, Channel 5, National Geographic, VICE, Dogwoof, NHK, Al Jazeera, Discovery, Channel 4, Arte France, SBS, the Guardian – all the big boys come to the table in the hopes of hearing that perfect pitch, or nabbing that promising new talent. It’s not all business though, Sheffield Doc/Fest also has an attached public documentary film festival showcasing classic docos, BFI archival films and the latest premiers – many with Q&As with the films directors, producers and/or key participants. And parties. There are also the parties – where the real wheeling and dealing happens.

In short = heaven.

But hold on – aren’t I an archaeologist? Two days ago I was troweling chalk rubble off an bronze age hut at Cranborne Chase – and now I’m going to a documentary festival?

Am I lost?

Well, I am a little. My research is liminal: I have one foot in archaeology and one in documentary. One in an academic discipline, and one in an undisciplined industry (Is it an Art? Is it a Business? No! It’s a Documentary!). (And yes – I had to look up ‘liminal’ in the dictionary just now to make sure I wasn’t talking about some kind of flooring). It’s an uneasy place to be – although I know I’m hardly the first to take this ride. Angela Piccini (ermagahdsuchafan) in her experimental film Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie found herself in the same position a few years ago (I’ll revisit Guttersnipe in depth in a later post – it deserves full spiel). Early in her film Piccini narrates:

‘This is not a film. I wanted to explore how to practise an archaeology through a video practice but I am not a video practitioner. I work in a university drama department but they think I’m just an archaeologist. I work in a university archaeology department but they think I’m just a drama type. What I do once a week is research and teach archaeology for screen media, thinking beyond the standard broadcast expository documentary. I don’t know about available light and white balance, but I am there in the shadows, on those screens, here now.”
(Piccini, 2009)

Piccini – and many of those archaeologists who have also doubled as documentary presenters, writers, researchers, producers and directors – have found themselves too, at this threshold where I now stand. As archaeologists we learn to see the world in a certain way – in particular, I think, time and space look and feel very different from our perspective. But added to that, those of us who moonlight in “public archaeology” also have this instinctive drive to test our boundaries and share our perspective with an audience – and we can’t shake it. It’s an itch that must be scratched. And for some of us, we decide that film really is the perfect medium for expressing such a multi-sensorial inquiry as archaeology. But which team should we bat for? Can we really play for both? And how should we go about doing it?

I wonder how many archaeologists have also ventured into a place like Sheffield Doc/Fest, and engaged with documentary filmmaking from its beginning? Certainly the directors and producers of archaeology docos have openly discussed their work there, and scientists, economists and other academics have previously led panels discussing their experiences of documentary filmmaking, good and bad. Surely Neil Oliver has downed a few pints at the Scottish Delegation Drinks? And will I see the Time Team gang at the Channel 4 party? Maybe I should just attached a massive trowel balloon to myself with an arrow pointing down saying ‘Archaeologists: Assembly Point Here,’ and see who comes my way.

I love these long English evenings – the sky is soft now and streaked with clouds above a patchwork of vivid green meadows full of yellow wild flowers. Sheffield draws nearer and so too the promise of answers. Or just as likely, more questions. Stay tuned.

Piccini, A. 2009. Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie IN Holtorf, C. and A. Piccini (eds.) Contemporary Archaeologies, Excavating Now. Peter Lang: Frankfurt).

Piccini, A. 2010. Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie. Online at: https://vimeo.com/30077905

Sheffield Doc/Fest Online at: https://sheffdocfest.com/

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