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Reality Checks: Why Are Docs Still Second Class at Cannes?

Reality Checks: Why Are Docs Still Second Class at Cannes?

On Sunday night, Cannes-watchers eagerly received news of the festival’s big winners for its 68th edition. But when the official festival newsletter arrived by email with an announcement of the lucky films, there was one significant prize missing from the press release: Best Documentary. 
The winner of the festival’s inaugural L’Oeil d’Or for best nonfiction film, rather, was buried in the previous day’s news. Such is the Cannes Film Festival’s ambivalent relationship with the documentary form. 
What gives? “The festival is sending mixed messages,” said Toronto International Film Festival and DOC NYC programmer Thom Powers. “On the one hand, they announced a new award, with a jury led by Rithy Pan, but on the other hand, they’re not asking the jury to deliberate over a substantive number of films.”
Though a total of 14 films were in competition, the majority screened in the Cannes Classics section, strictly reserved for nonfiction movies about movies (i.e. see this year’s docs about Ingrid Bergman, Sidney Lumet, Steve McQueen, Hitchcock/Trauffaut, two regarding Orson Welles, and even one navel-gazing film about Cannes’ Palm d’Or prize itself.) The other half-dozen docs came from around the festival and its sidebars, such as this year’s L’Oeil d’Or winner, Marcia Tambutti Allende’s Directors Fortnight entry “Beyond My Grandfather Allende,” and critical favorite “Amy,” from Asif Kapadia. It also turns out that the Documentary Award is not even an official Cannes prize, but an independent initiative started by the French Civil Society of Multimedia Authors. 
For the documentary film industry, then, Cannes continues to be a double-edged sword: highly respected, renowned, and full of assertive theatrical buyers from around the world, but ultimately not as responsive to nonfiction as the world’s other major film festivals.

The Disconnect

“Cannes is a challenging market for docs,” said Ana Vicente, head of international sales for the UK doc company Dogwoof. “Theatrical buyers are busy trying to secure films in the official sections of Cannes, so it is a tough market to get them to consider a doc in spite of the growing interest for them among theatrical buyers.”

“It is a shame,” she added. “We rarely plan Cannes as a release platform for our docs as we do with Toronto, Sundance or Berlin due to the very few number of slots they allocate.” 
U.S.-based Submarine Entertainment executive Josh Braun said that a designated documentary section at the festival itself is the only way that docs will have a decent profile at Cannes. Until that happens, he said, “The value of Cannes specifically for docs will continue to be diminished.”
However, Braun and others have found Cannes’s parallel market (otherwise known as the Marché du Film) as a valuable place to pre-sell the highest profile docs, such as Submarine’s “Back in Time,” a film about the making of “Back to the Future,” which screened as a rough cut at a packed secret market screening, and Matt Tyrnauer’s upcoming documentary about the infamous “pimp to the stars,” which unveiled select scenes. Similarly, Dogwoof showed buyers footage of Werner Herzog’s hotly anticipated next nonfiction project about volcanoes.
Philippa Kowarsky, chief of doc sales company Cinephil, was representing one of this year’s movie-themed docs, Nancy Buirski’s “By Sidney Lumet,” so the company was also busy with interested buyers. “But,” Kowarsky told Indiewire, reflecting a dominant view by sales agents, “it is also true that there isn’t enough space for docs in Cannes, at the festival.” 
And its view of documentaries inevitably impacts the marketplace. “Business for docs is better in Berlin and Toronto and IDFA,” added Kowarsky.
As a result, you won’t see the usual non-fiction crowd on the Croisette. “Cannes is not something documentary filmmakers need to be overly preoccupied with,” said Powers. “It’s more the people selling films, which are operating on a certain large scale, that need to be there.”

A Promising Newcomer

Despite the Cannes Festival’s slow embrace of nonfiction, the Cannes Market is pushing hard to be inclusive of docs with its “Doc Corner,” which began in 2012. Established to be a place for the documentary film industry to meet, mingle and share available films for sale, the Doc Corner has also expanded to include networking events and industry talks. 
“I’d say the attendance is steady in comparison with past years, with perhaps moderate growth,” said Pierre-Alexis Chevit, Doc Corner Manager.
Many in the documentary community agreed that the Doc Corner is an essential meeting place for the documentary community.  
Stefan Kloos, head of Rise and Shine World Sales, one of the doc companies participating in the Doc Corner, said that he also managed to close a couple of deals during Cannes. “However,” he added, “we feel that the Doc Corner could still be given a much bigger focus and the Marche could push it much more towards the place where you find the best documentary representatives from which to acquire theatrical docs for the international market. The Doc Corner is a great start, but there is still room for improvement.”
Dogwoof’s Vicente singled out the Doc Brunch, in particular, as a must-attend event and “one of the best initiatives from Cannes to help facilitate networking opportunities among all those working with docs.”
But not only does the Doc Corner function as a crucial international crossroads for the doc industry, CPH:DOX festival director Tine Fischer explained that it serves an important “symbolic” function, “as an important inclusion of non-fiction in the world of international art-house [cinema],” she said. 

More Possible Solutions

Indeed, in Cannes, at the world’s most prestigious, venerable and hierarchical film festival, with its above ground and underground spaces and its color-coded ranking system for moviegoers, it’s more an outdated second-class status that is keeping nonfiction in the back corners of the festival. 

Fischer suggested that Cannes is already programming a small handful of remarkable films that integrate hybrid nonfiction practice — such as
Roberto Minervini’s ‘The Other Side” and Miguel Gomes’ “Arabian Nights” — so it wouldn’t be a stretch to intensify the programming focus on other filmmakers working in such nonfiction modes.
Documentary industry folks are also counting on the niche film business’ heightened attention to docs to boost the form’s place in Cannes. “I hope the increase in the market activity will push from underneath to help in the programming side,” said Powers. 
And if that doesn’t work, the TIFF programmer offered another idea. “Cannes also gets a lot of flack for not programing enough women directors,” he said, “so they could kill two birds with one stone with more docs, because there’s a lot of documentaries directed by women.” For now, hope lives on.

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