Verité, Sunnyside and Beyond

34 mins read

“Cinema is an invention without a future.” — Louis Lumière

“Documentary is a genre without a definition.” — Jean-Pierre Rehm

Non-fiction film reflects fragments of reality, prisms of the whole. A good documentary pushes boundaries and provokes thoughts, feelings and sometimes, action. A really good one inspires resilience. While Canada may lay claim to being the spiritual homeland of documentary, France is its philosophical fatherland. Weaned on postmodern theory about identity, representation and hyper-reality from the likes of Barthes, Baudrillard, Cixous, Deleuze, Derrida and Lacan, contemporary French documentary is spiked with a certain cinematic je ne sais quoi. Be it a documentary about a neighbourhood grocery store or an epic tale about human evolution, it’s an attitude, a way of seeing, with all that thought behind it. Questioning, positing, declaring. From the Lumière Brothers’ first film in 1895 and Georges Méliès’ first “reconstitution” seven years later to the revolutionary impact of the Nouvelle Vague and cinéma verité in the 1950s and 1960s, where would documentary be without France?

Creativity, passion and risk-taking characterize French documentary today. And like a modern-day charioteer, it’s confidently leading the genre toward new frontiers. Not surprisingly, France is the special Spotlight country at this year’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. According to Executive Director Chris McDonald, Hot Docs has “cultivated strong relationships with the key filmmakers, festivals, distributors and broadcasters, so France was a natural choice for us.” McDonald has programmed the survey with Managing Director Brett Hendrie, who adds that “France has an unparalleled reputation for innovative, cutting-edge documentary filmmaking. After all, it’s the birth place of cinéma vérité.”

Forever changing the way we make and experience film, cinéma verité actualized the spirit of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité on celluloid. But the French documentary movement has created more than one type of cinema; it has allowed auteurs to make important individual works of art in the non- fiction film form. Think of the haunting desolation of Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog) (1955) by Alain Resnais, Jean Rouch’s post-colonial critique Moi, un noir (I, a Black) (1957), Chris Marker’s textured social symbology in Sans soleil (1982) and Agnes Varda’s intimate and timely portrait, Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I) (2000).

French documentary features remain in the forefront today. Nicolas Philibert’s poignant tale of a one-classroom school in rural France, Etre et avoir (2002), paved the way nicely for other child- centric hits such as Spellbound (2002) and Mad Hot Ballroom (2005). Cut to this year’s Academy Award- winning surprise blockbuster, March of the Penguins. As the second largest grossing doc ever (after Fahrenheit 9/11, 2004), it took in more money than all the nominated docs combined. This is not an isolated phenomenon; it’s a benchmark moment within a larger paradigm shift.

The Hot Docs Spotlight opens with Glenn Gould Hereafter, an engrossing tribute to one of the world’s finest artists. The fact that the director, Bruno Monsaingeon, previously made Glenn Gould Plays Bach a year before Gould’s untimely death in 1982 underscores the respect permeating this current offering. It gently crescendos, showcasing Gould’s mental acuity and musical brilliance. Through the judicious use of archival material (Gould posing with his dog at the piano is priceless), the viewer is drawn into one man’s creative process. Picturesque Ontario landscapes, devoted admirers from Italy, Russia and Japan, and imaginative yet restrained narrative vignettes complete the experience. Another international co- production for Canada’s Rhombus Media, it was made with Idéale Audience, Arte, ARTV, Bravo!, CBC, and the BBC among others.

Alimentation générale (The General Store) celebrates the documentary filmmaker as artist. Made with a refined and compassionate eye for detail, Chantal Briet’s first feature provides a glimpse into the complexity of co- existence. Over a four-year period she captures the daily dealings at Ali’s grocery store, a community oasis where personal and social struggles unfold at the checkout counter. Set against the backdrop of a graffiti-camouflaged suburb of Paris with over 3000 residents and 25 nationalities, Alimentation générale becomes a microcosm of the diverse challenges facing France today.

Several docs take place far from the gaze of Marianne, the allegorical symbol of the French Republic. Disparate portraits of survival in Afghanistan, the Philippines and Iraq honor her revolutionary esprit of Liberty and Reason. “The subject matter in the films is all over the map—literally—with half of the films set outside the country,” says McDonald. “In spite of their diffuse themes, they all share a very cinematic quality.” Claude Mourieras’s Le Voyage de Femmes de Zartalé (The Zartalé Women’s Journey) follows Afghan women with tuberculosis on an emotional journey from their small village to the valley down below in search of medicine, triggering inevitable clashes and eventual change. Hors le murs (Out of Bounds), directed by Pierre Barougier and Alexandre Leborgne, stars Alejandro, the “mayor” of a century-old, open-air Philippine prison where the 2300 inmates live with their families, suspended between punishment and self- management. Yuri Maldavsky and Timothy Grucza spent several months living with a US platoon in one of the world’s most dangerous cities and then traveled home to Texas with some of the soldiers. The result is White Platoon, Baghdad 2004.

Reminiscent of the humanist style of an Allan King documentary, Papy-Mamie (Grandpa-Grandma) focuses on an elderly couple in Le Havre and their last days living together. As both director and grandson, Michaël Lheureux is a sympathetic witness to their mental and physical deterioration. Nothing is rushed. The heart-wrenching, endearingly tender moments between Papy, Mamie and the family arouse empathy, frustration, patience and love.

Meanwhile, away from the festival circuit exemplified by Hot Docs, France continues to raise the stakes. One evening in January 2005, nine million people tuned in to a public TV channel, France 3, to watch a documentary about the evolution of mankind. 35 million people saw Homo sapiens worldwide. Directed by Jacques Malaterre and co-produced by Frédéric Fougea of Boréales and Nicola Merola of Pixcom, this ambitious docudrama focuses on seven key turning points in the history of man. Audiences are clearly receptive to docs full of reenactments and lots of CGI (computer graphic imagery). With a budget of 4.5 Million Euros, funding from over 30 countries, teams of research scientists, hundreds of actors and shooting locations on three continents, Homo sapiens was made with Montreal-based Pixcom, Téle- Quebec, CBC and France 3. One tactic that’s quickly becoming the norm is a multi-format production strategy designed to reach the broadest audience possible: a feature-length TV doc, a 3×1-hour documentary series, a theatrical feature, books and merchandise. Homo sapiens is proof positive that primetime docs are hot and international co-production is flourishing.

The three faces of documentary—film festival art form, television broadcast and theatrical feature—are becoming increasingly blurry. The incontrovertible success of the primetime doc is due, in part, to its theatrical cohort. Conversely, the boon of theatrical documentaries worldwide owes a lot to the foundation television docs laid down. To ensure such creativity and commerce thrive, the French TV documentary industry organizes several market events throughout the year where producers, broadcasters and distributors keep abreast of current co-productions, the latest docs for sale, changing trends, new channels and new technology within the ever- growing market. Mipdoc in Cannes and Sunnyside of the Doc are de rigeur. In Mipdoc’s official magazine, Jacques Bensimon, Commissioner General of the NFB, states that, “People are caught between the harshness of television news and the universe of Hollywood make- believe. Documentary has come out of the closet and become mainstream, but television needs to be more gutsy and determined.”

This sentiment is not lost on Yves Jeanneau, who created Sunnyside of the Doc with Olivier Masson in 1989. What was originally a small gathering has evolved into a well-oiled, sophisticated affair buzzing with buying and selling among 2000 international professionals. Sunnyside’s objective is to make the circulation of documentary programmes easier, to encourage international co-production and to strengthen liaisons within the industry. After 16 years in Marseilles, Sunnyside begins its new tenure in La Rochelle, Brittany at the end of June. As Sunnyside’s General Commissioner, Jeanneau is also head of the doc unit at France 2, co-founder of Les Films d’Ici and the executive producer on 2002’s Oscar-winning Best Documentary, Un coupable idéal (Murder on a Sunday Morning). The NFB has been a longtime supporter of Sunnyside and its presence is prominent.

A couple of years ago, heeding a call for smaller-scale encounters, the Sunnyside of the Doc Rendezvous was born. In early 2005, the crème de la crème of the French and Canadian TV doc world convened in Toronto for a weekend of pitching, networking and creative exchange. “In France they have the audience numbers and that means they can get the advertising,” explains Michaelle McLean, Director of the Toronto Documentary Forum (TDF) at Hot Docs. “But they’re starting to look outward now because so much has changed in the marketplace in the last ten years.” One channel responding to these changes is France 5. With an annual documentary budget of 27 million Euros, which translates into 1000 broadcast hours, the channel attracts 500,000 viewers annually to their afternoon doc slot alone. Due to exploding budgets, ambitious projects and more sophisticated audiences, “it’s about trying to find a balance between the international market and financing and creativity,” explains Alexandre Michelin, Director of Programming. “Part of the French tradition is to protect the arts and culture. It’s part of the politics of the nation, our education system and it’s deeply in the French vision of the world. Everyone agrees that you have to protect it; but for the industry, if you want to be able to develop yourself, you have to compete.”

One of the first French producers to co-produce internationally is Stéphane Millière, President of Gédéon Programmes. Considered the gold standard of adventure, science and wildlife docs, Gédéon’s almost 500 productions have won over 200 awards from film festivals worldwide. “International co-production is an opportunity to unlock the spirit of working with other territories,” he explains. Millière also co-founded the distribution company, Terranoa, with Frédéric Fougea of Boréales and Stéphane Peyron of 95° West. “The way of telling stories has changed and non-fiction stories have become like fiction features— how they’re made, dramatization, special effects,” affirms Millière. “It’s no longer just ‘fly on the wall’ documentaries. There’s an increasingly popular trend of primetime documentaries.” Following the popular NFB-Gédéon series Arctic Mission is The White Planet, co-produced with Quebec-based Glacialis and the NFB. Other slated projects take an archeological approach like Toumaï and Jiroft, the Living Legend of Aratta, which was pitched in Toronto.

Big budget/big idea French docs were foremost at the Rendezvous: the Great Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, building the Eiffel Tower and Chernobyl, twenty years later. Canadian projects ranged from the Battle of Quebec in 1789, the global diamond trade, crooners and traveling to the North Pole. A doc on the nature of evil met with little interest: “I can’t understand. It’s not that I did not understand, it’s that I can’t,” stated one French commissioning editor. When in doubt, a creative approach works wonders and humor always helps. For The Art of Nude Modeling, Montreal-based producers Bernar Hébert and Renée-Claude Riendeau of Cine Qua Non Films entered the ballroom sporting nothing but hotel bathrobes and big smiles. They immediately had the attention of the room. “We wanted to do something fresh. There’s no reason during a pitching session that people should be bored. They should be entertained and have fun,” claims Hébert. Attending with the support of ARTV, their savvy strategy paid off. They secured a pre-sale with France 5, and by the time Sunnyside in Marseilles came around, Société Radio-Canada and Bravo! were on board. “If you want to work for television, you have to be flexible. We’re a small company, so we have to distinguish ourselves,” Riendeau explains. “It’s not as easy to do the auteur-style film.”

If reality TV were traced back to its origins, a renegade filmmaker would be trailing a coquettish waif along the Champs Elysées. “Today people have a better understanding of what’s real and what’s not real because of the reality television trend,” claims Michelin. “There’s a whole generation that’s been trained to read and understand images in a completely different way than the generation before, and it’s opening the door for new kinds of projects.” One such project is Les artisans du rebut global (renamed in France, Les artisans du futur), produced by Marc St-Onge of Blue Storm in Quebec. The series about building a home entirely out of recycled material was re-cut from 12 one-hour episodes into 5 one-hour segments for French broadcast. Thanks to positive viewer response, France 5 came on board as co-producers for a second round. Pitched at the Rendezvous, Les citadins de futur tracks a team renovating a condemned Montreal building, again using only recycled material. “The cultural differences between France and Quebec as well as differences in recycling protocol will make this co-production interesting,” notes Ann Julienne, Head of Acquisitions and International Co-Productions. The France 5 website received thousands of responses to fill two French spots on the Quebec crew.

It’s easy to feel inspired at Mipdoc: the Cannes boardwalk beckons and there’s a dizzying array of documentaries for sale. 369 international buyers viewed a total of 1,057 documentaries and Toronto-based Markham Street Films’ Penis Dementia: The Search for the Perfect Penis made the list of Top 30 programme choices. Shifting trends are afoot: surpassing current affairs, slick docudramas on history, science and nature are au courant. So are documentary features, whether in France or North America. At the ReelScreen Magazine and NFB-sponsored panel What’s Hot in Docs, Tom Perlmutter, the NFB’s Director General of English programs, remarked that “one of the most successful commercial documentaries that did over a million dollars in Canada was The Corporation. I don’t believe theatrical docs are a fad, they’ve become part of the cinematic palate of offerings out there and part of what audiences expect to be able to choose from.”

For the 2005 edition of Sunnyside, the OMDC (Ontario Media Development Corporation) sent a delegation of mid- career producers to sun-kissed Marseilles. Many of them were at the Rendezvous and/or had pitched at the TDF. Among those attending were Up Front Entertainment’s Barbara Barde, AmythOs Films’ Amit Breuer, Cave 7’s Jamie Kastner and Red Apple Entertainment’s Rachel Low. To help the producers gauge what’s happening at a particular channel, McLean set up group sessions with commissioning editors. “If there are meetings, negotiations and relationships that start at one place, you pick them up and the conversations continue. Four Wings and a Prayer grew out of a meeting at Sunnyside.”

Four Wings and a Prayer is a much-anticipated co-production between Primitive Entertainment and Films à Trois, with the participation of France 2, The Documentary Channel and the NFB. Directed by Nick de Pencier, the film tracks the fantastic voyage of the Monarch butterfly from Canada to Mexico. Shot on HD (High Definition) with the latest computer technology, it’s a “powerful mix of scientific marvel, awesome beauty, and epic struggle for survival.” During an OMDC-sponsored panel at Sunnyside, Primitive Entertainment producer Kristina McLauglin shared some of the challenges they’d faced: “We couldn’t ask the butterflies to wait; we had to get on the road and start shooting. It’s very important to clarify what your co-producers need to do in their own country in order to get the co-production going.” Also on the panel, Michael Allder of the CBC’s The Nature of Things referred to “the ecology of co-production.” Simply put, get to know the people, paperwork and protocol of your new co-production neighbourhood.

A prominent industry heavyweight is TV France International (TVFI), an association that houses 160 member companies representing top-notch producers, distributors and broadcasters. In just over ten years, TVFI has reinvigorated the French television market and doubled the export of French programming worldwide. TVF1 includes such notable members as Arte, Celluloid Dreams, Films à Trois, France Télévisions Distribution, Gédéon Programmes, Idéale Audience, Ile de France Film Commission, Les Films d’Ici, Marathon, Point du Jour and Terranoa. TVFI also organizes the national Rendezvous in St. Tropez every September. In the end, all these air miles ensure that higher quality programming cross-pollinates.

To truly grasp a channel’s commitment to its documentary unit, check out its promotional material. France Télévisions web pages are stylish, photo-rich and informative. All the top channels have something to peruse at Sunnyside, but France 2 outshines them all. A 40-minute DVD highlights recent acquisitions and current co-productions— in all, a sampling of 19 mini-movies. The production value is impressive: dramatic soundtrack, tracking and dolly shots of Yves Jeanneau as he imparts relevant co- production information in the Great Hall of Mirrors at Versailles (the upcoming star of a France 2/Les Film d’Ici co-pro, . Looking directly into the camera, he declares “France 2’s projects are varied but consistent in their quality.” One name, Jean-Michel Carré, pops up twice: a TV spot for Kursk (2005) and a one-minute teaser for the upcoming Le système Poutine (The Putin System).

Jean-Michel Carré is renowned for making socially conscious documentaries that “incite reflection and involve and implicate people.” Co-founder of Les Films Grain de Sable in 1974, he is a relative newcomer to international co-production. “In thirty years, I’ve made many films one might call, ‘Franco-Français,’” Carré explains. “I made many films on children and the French education system, several films on women in prison, on prostitution, on madness in France. Essentially, I had wanted to analyze French society and felt I didn’t need to go anywhere else. People didn’t know me that well internationally, but in France my films have had enormous audiences.”

After attending Hot Docs for the first time in 2004, things began to change for Carré and his partner, Jill Emery. “People could tell we were new to the international market and really helped us. It was an opportunity to find collaborators, producers, money, but also to meet interesting people and exchange ideas. If you want to make ambitious films, ones that may take up to three years, there’s just not enough money in France. There’s no other solution than co-production. Everyone wins. It will allow me to make a better film, to use exceptional archival material and have more editing time. I’ll be more at ease, even with the complications that come from working with several different countries. Co-production in Canada is great because there’s Quebec.” His latest doc, Le système Poutine, found co-producing partners at both the Rendezvous and the TDF. “Reciprocity is good,” he concludes. “Creation, intersections and relationships.”

Amit Breuer of AmythOs Films has a long relationship co-producing with France. Tel Aviv-born and Toronto-based since 2004, she was the first Israeli to attend Sunnyside in 1992. A year later, that led to Testimonies, her first co- production with France and with Serge Lalou of Les Films d’Ici. She has also made four films with Point du Jour, most recently the festival hit, Sentenced to Marriage (2004). “The whole world is looking for French co-producers. They have resources, are open to different content and are very respected,” she confirms. “It’s very administrative and there’s a lot of work to do, but they keep their directors and crews busy. And the French system allows experienced producers to take more risks.”

Breuer’s latest co-production with France is Middle East Blues, which is also a full-circle collaboration with Lalou. “Les Films d’Ici is one of the most successful, important companies; they produced Etre et Avoir. Serge was here in February for the Sunnyside encounter and told me about the project. Now that I’m here in Canada, but have my background in Israel, it was natural for us to join forces. I’m a veteran producer internationally, but I’m a new producer in Canada so I’m happy because I’m learning a lot. This is our first co-production since ’92 and I think we’re really happy about this collaboration. Michael Burns (of The Documentary Channel) was a key figure to make this match. Serge couldn’t find the funding for this particular film alone.” A co-production deal was signed in Marseilles; Breuer applied for an international treaty and a month later, shooting began.

The doc is already being dubbed the “Buena Vista of the Middle East” because “it’s our classical music. They’re these older, amazing musicians and it’s a disappearing tradition. Florence Strauss, the director, traveled from Egypt to Israel, Lebanon and Syria and met all these musicians. I’m Israeli, Serge is Jewish-North African and Florence comes from Jewish origins that were denied for most of her life, so it’s a personal story from an art origin. Music transcends borders and only Florence, who is French, can cross these borders; the musicians can’t do it.” Made with the support of Studio A at the ONF (the Francophone arm of the NFB) and with distribution by Paris-based Océan Films, Middle East Blues will be hitting all the major film fests this summer.

Acclaimed filmmaker Jean Eustache once proclaimed that cinema is the sole medium capable of documenting change. How would he have captured and encapsulated this “nouvelle vague de documentaire”? Such a question is best contemplated gazing through the lens of a film fest like the Festival International du Documentaire (FID). Tending to the art and soul of documentary every July, FID is a terrain rich with thoughtful provocations.

Created the same year as Sunnyside, FID is taking over Sunnyside’s old digs—the majestic Palais du Pharo, Napoleon III’s gift to Marseilles high atop the Vieux Port. Since 2001, Jean-Pierre Rehm has been the festival’s Executive Director. Prominent in the international art world, he is a respected curator, festival jury member and writer. “If documentary is supposed to be some kind of mirroring of the world— the world being so split, various, multiple —so should it also be that in its writing, shooting, in its skills and manners. Documentary is forgetting about hierarchy.”

As he sees it, the goal of FID is to create “some kind of living body: echoes that the audience can be a part of, a humming body of energy, whispering words.” Inhaling inspiration in the dark was a daily treat at FID. Claire Denis’s Vers Mathilde (Towards Mathilde) deciphers and magnifies the creative process of one of France’s foremost choreographers, Mathilde Monnier. Three completely different visions, Détour by Pierre Creton and Vincent Barré, Une fenêtre ouverte (An Open Window) by Khady Sylla and Estamira by Marcos Prado, all engage in what Rehm refers to as “le sport de l’âme” (“sport of the soul”): creative exertion and perceptual expansion for both the filmmaker and the viewer.

Exploring another country’s “point de vue” provides insight into its multi-layered identity. Hot Docs’ Spotlight on France generates new perspectives on cultural diversity, belief systems and aesthetic style, luring us closer to the actualité of what’s really present and true in our own lives, minds and hearts. Toward the end of Glenn Gould Hereafter, Monsaingeon describes what happens to people when they listen to Gould play: “We lose a part of our individuality to become part of a totality of experience…(It) leaves an extraordinary impression of an infinitely expanding universe.” Documentary also has that power to reveal something urgent, beautiful, profound. From Rehm’s vantage point, “We are, for the first time since perhaps ancient times, living now, not waiting for tomorrow. When we go and see fiction films, we have some sort of memory of a utopia, a nostalgia about home. But documentary is about right now. Your horizon is what you see.”

Previous Story

Reel Life: Marketing Outfoxed and The End of Suburbia

Next Story

Reel Books: The Art of the Documentary

Latest from Blog

0 $0.00