#tbt Documentaries and the Palme d’Or

By Pat Mullen

As the Cannes Film Festival is underway and we’re once again noting the absence of documentaries in the official competition, it’s worth remembering the few documentaries to break through the non-fiction bias at the Croisette. Only two documentaries have ever scooped the top prize of the Palme d’Or. The most recent winner was one of the most controversial Cannes champs ever, if not the most: Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

The film reported earned a 15-20 minute ovation, which, according to Entertainment Weekly reporting back in 2004, was then the most rapturous reception ever at the festival—accordingly to a stopwatch, anyhow—that led to a frenzy with Miramax and Disney since the distributor notoriously dumped the film pre-Palme in an effort to avoid association with an anti-Bush project. Fahrenheit 9/11 inspired ongoing speculation that its Cannes win was politically motivated. (Read this insightful piece at The AV Club, for example.)

The jury, led by Quentin Tarantino, even made a first for Cannes by holding a press conference to defend its decision. They argued that the film won on merit and not, as Tarantino said, “This politics crap.” Tarantino later defended the choice in a 2009 interview with the New York Times, saying, “As time has gone on, I’ve put that decision under a microscope and I still think we were right. That was a movie of the moment — “Fahrenheit 9/11” may not play the same way now as it did then, but back then it deserved everything it got.”

But must one divorce the politics crap from quality of a film?

Far less controversial was the first winner for documentary: Jacques Cousteau’s scuba diving doc Le monde du silence. Co-directed by Louis Malle, it was one of the few Palme d’Or winners to go on and claim an Academy Award. (It won Best Documentary Feature.) Silent World bested enduring favourites like Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. Cannes didn’t have to explain its actions then and the film endures as a hallmark of nature documentary filmmaking, but perhaps its the tone of the work (and the politics of the time) just as much as the cinematic merits that accounts for this lack of controversy.

Cousteau conveyed the experience of swimming underwater with an aqualung in his book The Silent World, writing, “I experimented with all possible maneuvers of the aqualung -loops, somersaults and barrel rolls. I stood upside down on one finger and burst out laughing, a shrill distorted laugh. Nothing I did altered the automatic rhythm of air. Delivered from gravity and buoyancy I flew around in space.” The film conveyed this for the jury, one suspects, and it continues to do so today.

Watch The Silent World in full here. (Embedding disable.)