Interview - ShAFF Turns 18

An Interview With ShAFF Founder Matt Heason
ShAFF director Matt Heason laughs in the sun while talking to a ShAFF volunteer, they are both wearing ShAFF Tshirts
Matt Heason founded ShAFF back in 2005


To outdoorsy types in Sheffield, Sheffield Adventure Film Festival is something of an institution. For the past 18 years the festival has filled climbers, runners, cyclists and swimmers with inspiration for the lighter nights and warmer days to come. Starting out as a volunteer, and eventually joining Matt Heason as co director, Anna Paxton has been involved in the festival in some way for ten years now. As ShAFF turns 18 Anna spoke to Matt about the very beginnings of the festival and the future:

How did the festival come about?

I'd been up to Kendal Mountain Festival and enjoyed the films, so I got in touch with the directors asked how we could watch films like that in Sheffield. Those adventure film nights at the Showroom Cinema were really popular, and together we saw the opportunity for a festival here in Sheffield. Within two or three years we went from renting films from other festivals to getting submissions so that we were able to plough our own furrow. Now we receive hundreds of submissions each year from filmmakers around the world.

Over 18 years you must have watched close to 10,000 adventure films. How has adventure storytelling changed in that time?

Back in the day, part of the message was explaining what a film festival is. Now, some of the big production houses and distributors have cottoned onto the fact that the right story, told really well, can have a wider appeal. 10 years ago, if you said you were going to make a film about a cave rescue in Thailand (The Rescue) and it would make millions of pounds in box office revenue you'd have been laughed out of the room.

That's what I really try to get across, these stories are of interest to everybody although they might not know it. The majority of people in Sheffield aren't going to be climbers, runners, bikers or especially extreme outdoors people. You might assume you wouldn't like adventure films but trust me, tell me what your interests are and come to ShAFF. I can recommend a session that you’ll find amazing - it might even change your life!

Cinema is competing with a lot of online content these days. What does festival curation bring that watching online can't?

It's really hard to compete with a feature film because there's no curation involved, that's just down to marketing clout. The curation in a festival comes through the short-form films. That's why we watch films all year round and group them into themed sessions about an hour and a half long. Something like Adrenaline Films, which is one of our most popular sessions, includes up to 20 short films and there's definitely a flow. It's not something I've read about, it's an experiential thing that you learn along the way.

When you watch a film how do you know it's a good fit with ShAFF?

Right from the start we called it an adventure film festival not a mountain film festival, I felt that adventure was a much wider remit than mountain. We’re showing a film this year about two lads that stow away from Ireland to New York (Nothing To Declare), you wouldn’t put that in a mountain film festival but it is a true adventure. 

What do you see in the future for the festival?

ShAFF is unique in that that it's in the middle of a city. We screen a programme of films made by local filmmakers, featuring local athletes, and/or shot in Sheffield and the Peak District. Made In Sheffield has been a really strong category, in fact we've doubled up to two sessions for the first time this year, so it would be nice to think that ShAFF is instrumental in helping push forward that agenda and take it even further. 

Sheffield Hallam University support a day-long Film Focus session for filmmakers at ShAFF. If the film course could attract adventure filmmakers from around the country to come to Sheffield and submit their films to ShAFF that would be amazing. I’d like to think we’re part of that story, supporting and showcasing Sheffield-made talent.

Interview by Anna Paxton.

Not sure what to watch at ShAFF 2023? See Matt & Anna’s festival film picks HERE