Snowy February in Toronto, Sunnyside of the Doc Rendezvous: a pitching session between French and Canadian producers and broadcasters. I’m here as a double agent—autodidact on assignment. Inspired, I learn lots and am invited to attend the huge Marché at the end of June.
Marseilles, sweltering Mediterranean magnificence. Cashing in all my air miles, I’m ready to spread some POV positivity! High on a hill overlooking the Vieux Port is the Pharo, a chateau-style edifice that will contain the frenetic four-day event known simply as Sunnyside. I locate the Canadians and do some interviews. After a panel hosted by the OMDC (Ontario Media Development Corporation), I join a festive outdoor dinner with the gang. Things are looking good.
“You can talk to anyone; you’re press,” a producer told me. But here, access proves a challenge. Out on the terrace it must be 38 degrees. Nothing like sweat and sunblock mingling in a sea of unfamiliar faces. Then there’s the relentless wind – le mistral – reminding me of a magic realism story where a man loses his mind from the wind’s intensity. He ends up killing his wife.
Another image crystallizes: a Roman coliseum. Cool corporate gladiators in fine linen suits stride past the curved sand-colored stone steps, the one place to perch indoors. Eye contact is haphazard. I deflect subtly dismissive vibes. I’m not expecting hugs all around, but I can’t pretend I don’t feel anything. One buyer tells me I’m lucky not to be hounded by desperate producers all day long. Oh right, I’m not part of the transaction: hunt or be hunted.
Instead, I’m caught in a blind spot, feeling like I’m carrying the dispossessed, feminine self that was denied entry. Like a salmon struggling upstream, I’m swimming in the subjective experience while absorbing the objective one. Knowing I’m not the first person to feel utterly alone in a crowded room – one amongst 2000 – gives me the strength to persevere. A veteran French director is so charming and patient while I formulate questions and conjugate verbs that I glow with gratitude. But then I notice my brain starts acting up: neurons and neuroses cross signals. Is it the heat? The swirling noise? How did I miss that presentation? But a scheduled interview couldn’t be missed. “Oh well, that was your only chance.” Snub. Snob. Still standing tall, in pink and rhinestones, existential fear begins to play its shadowy tricks: am I some sort of masochist coming here alone? I go from feeling enlivened to overwhelmed, from phat to flat. Does my limp show?
The final to-do is an NFB-sponsored panel on life after broadcast (what about life after Sunnyside, is there a support group for first-timers?). A champagne press conference seals the deal. C’est fini. Down in the pit, the circus has left town. It’s eerie watching the workmen tear down the pavilions that only yesterday reined in such power. As they throw piles of glossy press kits into a huge bin, I wonder how many trees and great ideas lie abandoned within.
So with one of my new EDN (European Documentary Network) buddies, I stumble down the hill toward FID (Festival International de Documentaire). At last, I reach the metaphorical shore. But I don’t die. I’m reborn. Here is the gold I went through the fire and ice to find. I crossed thousands of miles and then just walked down the street to arrive at this oasis of creativity. Famished, I enter the red velvet womb of the Grand Salon and stuff myself for four days straight.
The festival envelops me and I no longer feel so alone. I know I’m in the right place because I regain my equilibrium. I expand rather than contract. Interviewing the Artistic Director, Jean-Pierre Rehm, is symbiosis incarnate. We agree documentary shouldn’t be confined to any one definition; it’s about hosting experiences. Truly, to be in such accord is manna for my splintered mind. Give me innovative, thought-provoking human stories over big budget docudramas on the extinction of dinosaurs any day. Films that dare to inspire, oui, merci!
In my darkest moments in sunny Marseilles, FID gave me back my faith. I know what I experienced at Sunnyside wasn’t personal; it was business. But it confirmed that I’m all about the personal—I need to be related, to foster and embody the personal. Art without heart leaves me cold. I’m on the right path after all; I was just traveling down the wrong road.