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Reality Checks: When Will Cannes Embrace Docs Like the World’s Other Major Film Festivals?

Reality Checks: When Will Cannes Embrace Docs Like the World's Other Major Film Festivals?

What will it take for the Cannes Film Festival to show more documentaries? 

In the last 58 years, Cannes has selected only three documentaries for its main competition: Jacques Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle’s “The Silent World” in 1956 and two films from Michael Moore (“Bowling for Columbine” and “Fahrenheit 9/11”). 

Rather, docs frequently pop up in the Special Screenings section. This year, they include Laurent Bécue-Renard’s “Of Men and War,” Steve James’s “Life Itself,” Hilla Medalia’s “The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films,” Gabe Polsky’s “Red Army,” Ossama Mohammed’s “Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait,” and Stéphanie Valloatto’s “Cartoonists – Foot Soldiers Of Democracy.”

And while filmmakers experimenting with docu-fiction hybrids like Jia Zhang-ke (“24 City”), Ulrich Seidl (“Import/Export”), Pedro Costa (“Colossal Youth”) and Lisandro Alonso (appearing this year in Certain Regard with “Jauja”) continue to crash Cannes’ vaunted barriers, the number isn’t commensurate with the form’s newfound presence in world filmmaking.

Doc filmmakers are happy to be hosted by Cannes, even if it’s not in Competition or Un Certain Regard. But in programming nonfiction films in this way, the festival continues to treat documentaries less as an art form and more as an addendum. 

Elsewhere, docs are among the hottest films on the festival circuit. From previous hits such as “The Act of Killing,” “Twenty Feet from Stardom” and “Searching for Sugar Man” to more recent entries like “Life Itself” and “The Overnighters,” they offer the same potential commercial and critical appeal as many of the year’s most talked about narrative films. 

But as much as nonfiction has quickly increased in stature recently at both film festivals and in the marketplace, the Cannes Film Festival has not kept pace. If the French event represents the most distinguished showcase on the planet for the most cutting-edge talents in international cinema, shouldn’t it be more receptive to the rising tide of documentary and hybrid nonfiction forms? 

“There are always a few strong docs at Cannes that can’t be overlooked,” said Thom Powers, festival programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and DOC NYC, “but the incredible flourishing of documentaries in the last 10 years has not been strongly represented at Cannes.”

Powers pointed to such previous Cannes doc highlights as the Danish war film “Armadillo,” which played and won Cannes’ Critics Week sidebar, or established auteurs such as Frederick Wiseman, who repeatedly shows up on the Croisette (including this year, with “National Gallery”), “but there is a missed opportunity for uncovering documentary talent,” noted Powers. 

“I’m more surprised that Directors Fortnight and Critics Week” — two festivals that run parallel with Cannes’ Official Selection — “which traditionally are more on the lookout for newer talent, don’t have more documentaries.”

There are areas on the Croisette where documentaries are gaining traction. The Cannes Marketplace has increased its attention to docs, for instance, with the creation of the Doc Corner and the Documentary Brunch. One of the hot commodities this year will be Amy Berg’s recently announced Janis Joplin documentary, to be produced by Alex Gibney.

But most documentary filmmakers don’t see the festival as receptive to their format as other venues.

Documentary producer and director Liz Garbus (“Love, Marilyn”) described Cannes as “like a tease.” 

“It’s not outside the realm of possibility that we would have gotten in,” she added, “but it would be foolish to plan a strategy around it. But you can always try, and then try for somewhere else.” 

Dan Cogan, executive director of Impact Partners, the doc funder and supporter, submitted “Sofia’s Last Ambulance,” which successfully premiered in Critics Week 2012. But Cogan said that being a Bulgarian film helped position it as a Cannes title. “If it were an American film,” he said, “it would have had a harder time.”

While Cannes observers stop short of calling for a Cannes Documentary section or Competition — analogous to Sundance or Toronto — there is a unanimous sense that Cannes should embrace “nonfiction auteur cinema” in the same way as it upholds auteur-driven fiction films. 

“I believe it would make sense and be a strong aesthetic and political statement to have a strengthened focus on the growing number of hybrid film practices in the intersection between fiction and non-fiction,” said Tine Fischer, festival director for Copenhagen’s long-running doc festival CPH:DOX. And like Powers, Fischer suggested Directors Fortnight, Un Certain Regard and Critics Week “would be perfect platforms for this kind of intensified focus.”

Doc boosters hold hope that Cannes will be more welcoming to docs in the future. In many ways, the festival’s attitude toward docs could fundamentally shift the way in which nonfiction is perceived in the world marketplace. Said Cogan, “Cannes is the last domino to fall for documentaries to be accepted as art.”

Earning Cannes’ approval would also mean a great deal to wider doc marketplace. Fischer points out that while “hybrid films are experiencing an artistic blossoming,” they are having “a very hard time when it comes to financing and distribution — very often due to the fact that they fall between categories and thus are harder to label in financing structures and later on in sales and broadcast.” 

Said Fischer, “It would send a strong signal if a festival like Cannes had a continuous focus on non-fiction and hybrid films naturally belonging to the tradition of auteur cinema.”

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