2016 Film Reviews

Sheffield Doc/Fest Day Four: Sir David Attenborough Q and A


The weekend is over, and with the start of Monday, the citizens of Sheffield have gone back to work. But the intrepid hoard of delegates make their defiant presence conspicuously known. The week’s unyielding rain has not put a noticeable damper on festival activities, save for the uptick in umbrella usage, and, if anything, has provided all the more reason to be inside the multitude of parties, industry sessions and the “Alternate Realities” showcase.

Never underestimate the power of celebrity. When Sir David Attenborough announced that he would be finally be gracing the festival in its 23rd year, tickets quickly sold out, and us free-loading delegates made sure to pencil in a few hours of line-standing into our diaries. An hour before the talk, the queue stretched around the building and down onto the main road; passersby curious as to the commotion, and wondering if, perhaps, Apple had released a new product.

Sitting down with BBC One controller Charlotte Moore, Attenborough (a former controller himself) was delighted by the opportunity to “talk shop” with a colleague, and to share his love for television documentary with an adoring public. Having miraculously gotten a job at the BBC without having ever seen television (ensuring the audience, with a wink, that this is still how things are done), the legendary presenter went through his career, step-by-step, culminating in an exciting preview of an upcoming project. Moore seemed eager to talk to her predecessor and role model, highlighting breathtaking moments of television brilliance, and remembering the landmark programming schedule that Attenborough put together for the (at the time of his appointment) fledgling BBC Two.


Hearing a world renown documentarian narrating the story of his own life was a truly surreal experience, with clips of Attenborough narrating his adventures playing on a screen behind his silhouette. Attenborough then proceeded to talk about his own narration, a level of documentary through-the-rabbit-holing too delightful to put into words. In discussing his storied past, Sir David looked hopefully into the future, remarking on advancing technology and the relative ease with which the pioneers of today can pick up a camera and shoot. Basing his career around documenting the natural world, the boisterous 90-year-old presenter still shows an undeniable spark when it comes to how far recording technology has progressed, and he still marvels at the magnificence of the images his crew has been able to capture over the years, with specific reference to his recent BBC bioluminescence special, Life That Glows.

Although the act of sitting in a room with David Attenborough was enough of a treat to make the two-hour talk worthwhile, a brief clip from his upcoming Planet Earth 2 provided a visually stunning conclusion to the informative conversation. Without any narration, a flock of Starlings showed the audience just how much beauty exists in the world, even in things that most consider common. Swirling in an amorphous blob of fluttering life, the Starlings amassed above a pre-dusk Rome churned and roiled in a sky thick with birds. Close but never touching, Attenborough later explained how science still hasn’t a clue as to how these birds manage to stay in formation without crashing, and why this fleeting ballet appears to be only semi-coordinated.

The brief applause that complemented each of the many clips was finally unleashed in all of its glory via a standing ovation, as the gracious hosts hugged warmly and bid their audience and each other fond farewells. At a festival dedicated to the documentary, the opportunity to meet a true giant of the field was an unmissable, and indeed, unforgettable experience.

Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.